The sweat lodge (also called purification ceremony, sweat house, medicine lodge, medicine house, or simply sweat) is a ceremonial sauna and is an important way of life for some North American First Nations or Native American cultures. There are several styles of sweat lodges that include a domed or oblong hut similar to a wickiup, or even a simple hole dug into the ground and covered with planks or tree trunks. Stones are typically heated in an exterior fire and then placed in a central pit in the ground.

Use of Sweat Lodge in Different Cultures

Something similar to a sweat lodge can be found in different ancient cultures as a ritual for healing, cleansing, and reaching higher consciousness.

One of the early non-Indian occurrences can be found in the fifth century BC, when Scythians constructed pole and woolen cloth sweat baths.

Vapor baths were in use among the Celtic tribes, and the sweat-house was in general use in Ireland down to the 18th, and even survived into the 19th century. It was of beehive shape and was covered with clay. It was often used as a cure for rheumatism.

Native Americans in many regions employed the sweat lodge. For example, Chumash peoples of the central coast of California built sweat lodges in coastal areas in association with habitation sites.

Today Native Americans in many regions employ the sweat lodge.


Rituals and traditions vary from region to region and tribe to tribe. They often include prayers, drumming, and offerings to the spirit world. In some cultures a sweat lodge ceremony may be a part of another, longer ceremony such as a Sun Dance. Some common practices and key elements associated with sweat lodges include::


The most important part of sweat lodge etiquette is respecting the traditions of the lodge leader. Some lodges are done in complete silence, while others involve singing, chanting, drumming, or other sound. It is important to know what is allowed and expected before entering a lodge.

Traditional tribes hold a high value of respect to the lodge. In some cultures, objects, including clothing, without a ceremonial significance are discouraged from being brought into the lodge. Most traditional tribes place a high value on modesty as a respect to the lodge.

In clothed lodges, women are usually expected to wear skirts or short-sleeved dresses of a longer length. In many traditions, nudity is forbidden, as are mixed sex sweats. Many lodge leaders do not allow menstruating women. Perhaps the most important piece of etiquette is gratitude. It is important to be thankful to the people joining you in the lodge, and those helping to support the lodge.


Wearing metal jewelry can be dangerous as metal objects may become hot enough to burn the wearer. Contact lenses and synthetic clothing should not be worn in sweat lodges as the heat can cause the materials to melt and adhere to eyes, skin, or whatever they might be touching. Cotton clothing is recommended for lodges.

There have been reports of lodge-related deaths resulting from overexposure to heat, dehydration, smoke inhalation, or improper lodge construction leading to suffocation.

In October 2009, during a New Age retreat organized by James Arthur Ray, three people died and 21 more were sickened from an overcrowded and improperly set up sweat lodge containing some 60 people and located near Sedona, Arizona. Ray was arrested in connection with the deaths on February 3, 2010, and bond was set at $5 million.

Even people who are experienced with sweats, and attending a ceremony led by a properly-trained and authorized Native American ceremonial leader, could suddenly experience problems due to underlying health issues. It is recommended that a physician check people intending to have a sweat lodge experience, and that people only attend lodges with reputable people.

If rocks are used, it is important not to use river rocks, or other kinds of rocks with air pockets inside them. Rocks must be completely dry before heating. Rocks with air pockets or excessive moisture will likely crack and possibly explode in the fire or when hit by water. This can result in razor-sharp fragments and splinters striking participants with sufficient force to effect injury. Even rocks used before may absorb humidity or moisture leading to cracks or shattering.

There is also a risk posed by modern chemical pesticides, or inappropriate woods, herbs, or building materials being used in the lodge.


Lawsuit filed by the Lakota Nation

On November 2, 2009, the Lakota Nation filed a lawsuit against the United States, Arizona State, James Arthur Ray and Angel Valley Retreat Center site owners, to have Ray and the site owners arrested and punished under the Sioux Treaty of 1868 between the United States and the Lakota Nation, which states that if bad men among the whites or other people subject to the authority of the United States shall commit any wrong upon the person or the property of the Indians, the United States will proceed at once to cause the offender to be arrested and punished according to the laws of the United States, and also reimburse the injured person for the loss sustained.

The Lakota Nation holds that James Arthur Ray and the Angel Valley Retreat Center have violated the peace between the United States and the Lakota Nation and have caused the desecration of our Sacred Oinikiga (purification ceremony) by causing the death of Liz Neuman, Kirby Brown and James Shore. As well, the Lakota claim that James Arthur Ray and the Angel Valley Retreat Center fraudulently impersonated Indians and must be held responsible for causing the deaths and injuries, and for evidence destruction through dismantling of the sweat lodge. The lawsuit seeks to have the treaty enforced and does not seek monetary compensation.

Preceding the lawsuit, Native American experts on sweat lodges criticized the reported construction and conduct of the lodge as not meeting traditional ways ("bastardized", "mocked" and "desecrated"). Indian leaders expressed concerns and prayers for the dead and injured. The leaders said the ceremony is their way of life and not a religion, as white men see it. It is Native American property protected by U.S. law and United Nation declaration.

The ceremony should only be in sanctioned lodge carriers' hands from legitimate nations. Traditionally, a typical leader has 4 to 8 years of apprenticeship before being allowed to care for people in a lodge, and have been officially named as ceremonial leaders before the community.

Participants are instructed to call out whenever they feel uncomfortable, and the ceremony is usually stopped to help them. The lodge was said to be unusually built from non-breathable materials. Charging for the ceremony was said to be inappropriate. The number of participants was criticized as too high and the ceremony length was said to be too long. Respect to elders' oversight was said to be important for avoiding unfortunate events.

The tragedy was characterized as "plain carelessness", with a disregard for the participants' safety and outright negligence. The Native American community actively seeks to prevent abuses of their traditions. Organizers have been discussing ways to formalize guidance and oversight to authentic or independent lodge leaders.

Updated November 18, 2011

James Ray jailed for Arizona sweat lodge deaths   BBC - November 18, 2011
A self-help author is facing two years in prison for the deaths of three people at an Arizona "sweat lodge". James Ray was convicted in June of "negligent homicide" and will serve three sentences concurrently. The deaths occurred at the Angel Valley Retreat Center, 115 miles (180km) north of Phoenix, in October 2009. Ray said at the hearing he would have stopped the ceremony if he knew people were in distress. He accepted blame for causing pain to the victim's families.

Sweat Lodges Can Be Deadly - Not Cleansing   Live Science - February 8, 2010
The idea that the human body can sweat out toxins is widely believed, and is in fact the basis for some businesses. Hot springs, sweat lodges, and pricey spas around the world offer "sweat wraps" and other techniques claimed to detoxify and purify the body. Things don't always go as planned.

History of the Sweat Lodge

Use of the sweat lodge was chronicled by the earliest settlers in America. In 1665, David DeVries of New York observed Indians "entirely clean and more attractive than before" while sweat bathing.

Roger Williams of Rhode Island wrote in 1643: "They use sweating for two ends: first to cleanse their skin; secondly to purge their bodies, which doubtless is a great means of preserving them, especially from the French disease (probably influenza) which by sweating and some potions, they perfectly and speedily cure."

George Catlin wrote a lengthy description of the Mandan's sweat lodge in 1845, ending with the comment: "Such is the sudatory or vapour bath of the Mandans, and, as I before observed, it is resorted to both as an everyday luxury by those who have the time and energy to indulge in it; and also used by the sick as a remedy for nearly all the diseases which are known amongst them.

The most popular form of sweat bathing among North American Indians was the hot rock method and its variations. These were used exclusively by tribes in the central plains, the southwest, the Great Basin and the eastern woodlands.

Whether permanent, temporary or portable, they were smaller than other Indian structures, and usually domed and sometimes oblong. Nomadic tribes drove pliant boughs, such as willow, into the ground and arched them into a hemisphere, secured with withes. Stationary tribes used more substantial materials - logs and heavy bark. Temporary sweat lodges were covered with blankets or skins, while the permanent types were sealed with mud or sod.

In either case, a depression was dug near the door or in the center to cradle the rocks, which were heated outside and brought in on forked sticks. Steam was produced by sprinkling the rocks from a straw broom or a hollowed buffalo horn. Although simple to build, every detail was symbolic.

The Sioux, see the interior of the sweat lodge as representing the womb of Mother Earth, its darkness as human ignorance, the hot stones as the coming of life, and the hissing steam as the creative force of the universe being activated. The entrance faces east, source of life and power, dawn of wisdom, while the fire heating the rocks is the undying light of the world, eternity.

Sweat lodges were often connected with gods and creation. In the lore of the Wintu tribe of California it is said that Olelbis, the creator, built a great and awesome sweat house, its middle support being a huge white oak, with various kinds of oaks being side supports and flowering plants serving as binding and sides. Then, as the house began to grow wider and higher, it became wonderful in size and splendor.

Just as daylight was coming, the house was finished and ready. It stood in the morning dawn, a mountain of beautiful flowers and oak branches; all the colors of the world were on it, inside and out. The center tree had grown far above the top of the house, filled with acorns; a few of them had fallen on every side. This sweat house was placed there to last forever, the largest and most beautiful building in the world, above or below. Nothing like it will ever be built again.

Creating a Sweat Lodge

There are three basic forms of the sweat bath are indigenous to North America:

The "Inipi" or "Sweat Lodge" usually occurs before and after every other major rituals like the 'Sundance' and Vision Quest.

It is also a "stand alone" ritual meaning that it occurs whenever it is needed.

It is a form of healing.

It's origional purpose was to cleanse or purify individuals.

Mother sweat lodge essentially translates into returning to the womb.

This ceremony was given to the men by the women because women already had their 'moon time' each month and thus had the ability to cleanse themselves.

These days women sweat also, but according to the views of the elder running the ceremony they may have to sweat separately from the men.

The traditionals want men to sweat separately from the woman.

The reason for this is that there are separate views within the community.

Everything is done in the exact same way as in the old days.

Opening prayers are done outside the lodge and the the elder enters. In our case the lodge door faces East as this is where everything starts.

The elder enters and sits in the Western door.

The Woman enter next and move clockwise around the pit in the center of the lodge and sit in the North facing the South.

The men then enter and sit in the South facing the North. We sit on flat cedar bows that are cut fresh every week.

When the elder is ready - the grandfathers enter.

The first five stones must be brought in on the pitchfork one at a time. As each enters medicines are put on them like cedar, sage, sweetgrass, etc. each having a very different healing property.

The lodge begins to heat up and fill with beautiful smells.

The first grandfather that enters is placed in the center to represent the Creator.

The first stone is placed as the center stone.

The second is placed in the East and touches the center stone. The Eastern direction is the Eagle. The color is yellow and the season is Spring. The East is the spiritual direction and the Eagle is strong carrying our prayers to "Great Spirit."

The third rock is placed in the South folowing the same protocol. The season is summer. The color is Red. The spirit keeper is the Coyote or Wolf. The jumping mouse also sits in the south. This direction is the one of love, emotion, community and introspection.

The forth stone is placed in the West. The season is Fall. The color is Black.

The Medicine Bear sits here and represents both the phyiscal strength and healing. The bear brings the healing to the people and is very powerful. My Grandfather's totem is the "Grizzly Bear."

The fifth stone is placed in the North. The color is White. The season is winter. The Great White Buffalo sits here as does the Salmon. This is the direction of Wisdom and of sacrifice. This is where the elders sit. The buffalo and the salmon sacrificed themselves so the people could live and will always be greatly respected for that. In the end all we can offer that is truly ours is our flesh which is why we pierce at the sundance but that is an entirely different story.

After the first 5 rocks have entered the next 7 are brought to make a total of 12. The number 12 is very significant. There are 12 moons, 12 tail feathers on the eagle, 12 months and so on. Next the water bucket is brought in and passed to the elder.

The door is then closed and the prayers begin.

A pipe is passed around. The Pipe holder asks the Spirits to come and join in the smoking of the Pipe. Only men smoke the pipe. Instead, women are touched upon the brow, and this is how they send their messages to the creator. Medicine Women may smoke their own pipes and often have their own rituals that men cannot perform.

The two main parts of the pipe that hold special symbolic value as do the materials used in their construction, Pipe-stone (bowl) and the wooden portion of the Pipe (stem). The joining of the two is considered a metaphorical marriage of Mother Earth and the creatures that inhabit the Earth.

This is the main ideology behind the two materials joining and becoming one. The male portion is symbolized as the wood used in the stem. The wood symbolizes the connection between all the living things that inhabit the Earth. The wooden portion joins the stone portion similar to a male joining with the female.

The Pipes themselves are adorned with elaborately shaped bowls resembling the Pipe holders Totem and Spirit guides. They are painted with colors depicting special meanings and feathers, adding an animal presence. Beads are mainly used for decoration but the colors have symbolic value.

Each round twelve rock are added so by the end 48 have come in and two are left in the fire to represent Mother Earth and Father Sky. Each of the 4 round has a different meaning.

In the first round they honor and pray for the female aspect of life.

In the second round we honor the male aspect.

The third round is the healing round and the forth round is the one for ourselves.

At the end of each round the door is opened and the next set of 12 are brought in. There are songs, stories, teachings and prayers in each round as well as opening and closing songs.

When everything is over the people exit the lodge. It is very important to note that it is a great honor to be invited to a sweat and that this ceremony was given to the First Nations People.

Many Native People have now come to a point where thay are willing to included non-natives because the Creator sees no color.

The 4 directions are also the four faces of man ie: Yellow, red, Black and White.

If you are invited to a sweat it is important to know why you are personally going.

You need to take the Elder an offering as an act of repsect - Medicines, Tobacco, food, anything that has meaning and hand it to them while you are shaking their hand. The tobacco used in the Pipe is brought by the people who asked for the ceremony. It is their gift for the Spirits to come and guide the Medicine Man throughout the ceremony. Exactly four pinches of tobacco are used and must fill up the bowl at the end of the fourth pinch. These pinches of the tobacco are held out to the Four Directions to call forth the Spirits to accept the offering and hear their plea for guidance.

You tell them why you have come.

These Elders do this work without charging a fee.

No one will every turn away anyone who does not bring an offering.

If you go to a sweat go early and offer to help. Watch what is being done and do it.

The firekeeper will let you know if they don't want your help but most will be glad to see you maing an effort and completing the circle.

When you come out of the sweat drink lots of water and cool off in the river or ocean depending on where you are.

Direct Fire

The hot air bath of upper California depecited by Alexander Forbes in the early 1880s.

Alaskan Eskimos, some Pacific Coast tribes and the Pueblo Indians in the Southwest built lodges heated directly by fire. They were usually large enough to accomodate dozens of men. A small pilot fire was kept burning most of the day. After hours of talk, gossip and dancing the fire was fed to a noble size, the lodge became torrid and sweating began.

Although caustic smoke filled the air, these people made no effort to convert to the hot rock method, though they surely knew of this alternative. Without stoves or chimneys, a blazing central fire was the simplest way to convert a men's club into a sudatorium. When the smoke became unbearable, the men would simply lie flat on the floor and breathe fresher air.

The Eskimos used the kashim as their social and religious center. It was a rectangular wooden structure, large enough to house bachelors and male travelers and as a clubhouse for married men. They were dug partially underground, insulated with dirt or sod with a single tunnel entrance and a small hole in the roof for smoke to escape. This style plank house was found along the Pacific Coast as far south as northern California. Central Alaskan Eskimos, lacking timber, never built sweat lodges. Aleutian Eskimos never built the sweat lodge until it was introduced by Russian traders in the early 18th century.

The Sweat Lodge and Spirit

Since ancient times, people have understood that their spirits are nourished through religious ceremonies. Sacrifice, prayer and self-denial have long been rituals through which people have found peace of mind.

American Indians may experience visions or revelations from their Creator through dreams or by performing certain rituals. Just as Christians pray for guidance during church services, many Indians find that using a sweat lodge heightens their spiritual and religious awareness.

A sweat lodge, also known as a sauna, is heated by fire or by pouring water over hot stones. Heat and steam cleanse the body, and they can also purify the spirit or soul.

In addition to visiting a sweat lodge, some Indians meditate and fast in order to receive a vision to guide them. They may seek answers to a particular question, or look for broad answers which will help them live with dignity and honor on their journey through life.

Youth use the fasting and meditation ritual in order to understand how to be of service to their People when they enter the adult world. It helps prepare them for a time when they might have to go without food by helping them understand their own bodies and the value of sharing. Ojibwe children are encouraged to find their own understanding of life. They may go alone into the woods or wilderness and fast as a way to receive their own guardian spirit.

Meditation, fasting and cleansing can enhance the spiritual lives of all people, whether they are Indian or not.

Maidu's Story of Creation

The Maidu's Story of Creation begins with a sweat in the dance house. The Great Spirit made two dolls of clay and laid them on the floor. The Great Spirit then lay beside them and sweated so long that the dolls turned into living people.

Long ago, in the days of the Animal People, Sweat Lodge was a man. He foresaw the coming of Human Beings, the real inhabitants of the Earth. So one day he called all the Animal People together to give each one a name and to tell him his duties.

In the council, the Sweat Lodge stood up and made a speech. "We have lived on Earth for a long while, but we shall not be in our present condition much longer. A different People are coming to live here. We must part from each other and go to different places. Each of you must decide whether you wish to belong to the Animal beings that walk, fly or creep or those that swim. You may now make your choice."

Then Sweat Lodge turned to Elk. "You will first come this way, Elk. What do you wish to be?"

"I wish to be what I am ... an Elk."

"Let us see you run or gallop," said Sweat Lodge.

So Elk galloped off in a graceful manner, and returned.

"You are right," decided Sweat Lodge. "You are an Elk."

Elk galloped off, and the rest saw no more of him.

Sweat Lodge called Eagle and asked, "What do you wish to be, Eagle?"

"Just what I am ... an Eagle."

"Let us see you fly," replied Sweat Lodge.

Eagle flew, rising higher and higher with hardly a ripple on his outstretched wings.

Sweat Lodge called him back and said, "You are an Eagle. You will be king over all the Birds of the Air. You will soar in the Sky. You will live on the crags and peaks of the highest Mountains. Human Beings will admire you."

Eagle flew away happy. Everyone watched him disappear in the Sky.

"I wish to be like Eagle", Bluejay told Sweat Lodge.

Wanting to give everyone a chance, Sweat Lodge said again, "Then let us see you fly."

Bluejay tried to imitate the easy, graceful flight of Eagle, but failed to keep his balance and was soon flapping his wings.

Sweat Lodge called him back. "A Jay is a Jay. You will have to be content as you are."

When Bear came forward, Sweat Lodge said, "You will be known among Human Beings as a very fierce Animal. You will kill and eat People, and they will fear you."

Bear went off into the woods and has since been known as a fierce animal.

Then to all walking creatures, except Coyote, and to all flying creatures, to all Animals and Birds, all Snakes, Frogs, Turtles and Fish, Sweat Lodge gave names, and the creatures scattered.

After they were gone, Sweat Lodge called Coyote to him and said, "You have been wise and cunning. You have been a man to be feared. When this Earth becomes like the air, empty and void, your name shall last forever. The new Human Beings who come will hear your name and say, 'Yes, Coyote was great in his time.' Now, what do you wish to be?"

"I have long lived as a Coyote," he replied. "I want to be noble like Eagle or Elk or Cougar."

Sweat Lodge let him show what he could do. First, Coyote tried his best to fly like Eagle, but could only jump around, this way and that. Then he tried to imitate Elk in his graceful gallop. He succeeded for a short distance, but soon fell into his own gait. He stopped short and looked around.

"You look exactly like yourself, Coyote," laughed Sweat Lodge. "You will be a Coyote."

Poor Coyote ran off, howling, to some unknown place. Before he got out of sight he stopped, turned his head and stood-just like a coyote.

Sweat Lodge, left alone, spoke to himself: "All now are gone, and the new People will be coming soon. When they arrive they should find something to give them strength and power.

"I will place myself on the ground, for the use of Human Beings who are to come. Whoever visits me now and then, to him I will give power. He will become great in war and great in peace. He will have success in fishing and in hunting. To all who come to me for protection, I will give strength and power."

Sweat Lodge spoke with earnestness. Then he lay down on his hands and knees and waited for the first People. He has lain that way ever since and has given power to all who sought it from him.

The sweat bath often accompanied other rituals. The Utes of the Southwest, for example, preceded their peyote ceremony with a fast and a sweat to purify their body, while peyote released evil from their souls. Cherokee priests, custodians of sacred myths, were allowed to recite them only in the sanctum of the sweat lodge. Their knowledge was not for everyone to hear. They would meet at night in a sweat lodge and discuss the inner knowledge among themselves.

In one of the Omaha Indians' chants, the sweat lodge rock is called 'Grandsire'; or 'Aged One.'; The stones symbolized the state of being, immovable and steadfast, dwelling place of all. The Fox Indians believed the spirit Manitou dwelled in the stones of the sweat lodge.

An old Fox Indian told this, "Often one will cut one's self only through the skin. It is done to open up many passages for the Manitou to pass into the body. It comes from his abode in the stone, roused by the heat of the fire, and proceeds out of the stone when water is sprinkled on it. It comes out in the steam and enters the body wherever it finds entrance. It moves up and down, and all over and inside the body, driving out everything that inflicts pain. Before the Manitou returns to the stone, it imparts some of its nature to the body. That is why one feels so well after having been in the sweat lodge."

Preparation for the sweat bath and its indulgence followed traditional disciplines, often conducted by a medicine man. The Kiowa built their sweat lodge with a framework of twelve reeds, other tribes used more. The number of stones varied, but five or six were common. Some tribes cooled off in snow and sand (as the Navajos) while others plunged into lakes and streams.