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Articles    H4'ed 4/24/11

Sweat Lodge, Prayer, and Community

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"Long long ago the Muscogee Creek people lived in a dark misty fog and they were cold.   They felt along the walls of something damp and realized they were moving upwards.   Slowly they emerged from the Earth and the fog blinded them.   Unable to see and stricken with fear, the people and even the animals cried out until the wind blew away the fog so that they could see... In all four cardinal directions, the forces of fire confronted the people, and they had to make a decision.   From the south, a yellow fire faced the people, a black fire burned in the West, a white fire was aflame in the East, but the people chose the red fire from the North.   The fire of the North warmed the people and provided bright light over the world and enabled the plants to grow, so that the Muscogee Creeks learned to respect all of the elements for life".Should the people fail in their respect for nature and forget the ceremonials, the people would disappear from the land and it would fall beneath the waters of the ocean."

Muscogee Creek traditional story, 1922, from

Donald Fixico, p. 1-2

The American Indian Mind in a Linear World

This weekend I had the opportunity to lead an inipi, or sweat lodge ceremony, for a group of health care providers from the American Institute for Medical Education's annual February Creativity and Madness conference, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.   Given the subject matter of the conference, it's not surprising that more than half of these providers were in the mental health field.   After three hours of preparation on Sunday afternoon following the formal closing of the conference, we convened on a bright, blue, sunny, but windy Presidents' Day morning in the mountains outside of Santa Fe, at the Heyokah Center, a facility started by our recently departed friend, Julie Rivers, who also founded a not-for-profit organization called Supporting Women Across Nations (SWAN -- Julie's mascot animal) over 30 years ago.   SWAN and Heyokah continue thanks to Julie's sister, Donna.

SWAN began to support indigenous women around the world to overcome gender-related oppression and to be encouraged to bring forth their own cultural healing traditions that women have carried for centuries, sometimes in secret when governments have been particularly suppressive.

We were there on a similar mission -- to bring some of the wisdom of Native North American into the mainstream world of medicine and psychotherapy.   We were there to remind our attendees (10 people from a conference of over 200) about the importance of keeping the ceremonials, as emphasized above by the story told by Fixico.

The inipi, or sweat lodge ceremony has been well-described elsewhere, so I will be brief.   I understand its primary purposes to be prayer and community building.   Sweat lodges, with rare exceptions, provide a place and a context in which people pray.   I was taught to "think globally, but pray locally."   "Pray for things you can see come true in four days," was another teaching.   I learned to pray that sick people still be with us and even feel a bit better by the upcoming Full Moon.   In this way, we can see that prayers are answered and that awareness will build our faith so that progressively larger prayers can come true.

The notion of prayer and the importance of community are two concepts which have largely disappeared from contemporary health care.   Our goal in leading this ceremony was to show these practitioners that the values of prayer and community are important, and to experience how they can be built.

The sweat lodge is a low dome-like structure, covered with sheets and blankets and canvas tarps (once upon a time, covered with animal skins).   Bucko has described the many variations in just the Lakota Nations sweat lodges, but some basics persist, including heating rocks in a fire outside the lodge until they are sufficiently hot to bring into the lodge.   Water is poured upon the rocks to generate steam, and the people sit inside on the earth around the rocks.   Generally everywhere, four cycles of door closing to door opening exist.   The cycles are often called rounds. At some point a sacred pipe is smoked to signify prayers being answered, people sing, and people pray.   Ubiquitous is the sense of connectedness and belong that occurs through participation in the ceremony.

I wrote in Coyote Medicine about the style of sweat lodge I learned to lead.   It came through the Black Elk family lineage. In this style, we begin with a ritualistic filling of the pipe with tobacco after singing a traditional song.   Ceremony prepares the pipe to do its job of translating our human prayers into a form that can travel straight to the Creator.   Stones are brought into the lodge, sage is placed upon them, the first seven are placed in each direction and blessed by the pipe, the pipe is placed upon the altar, water is brought inside, the door is closed, and the round begins.   Water is poured upon the stones to create steam and four songs are sung.   This first round is for purification and release, dedicated to the West and the Sacred Beings who dwell there.   The door opens, people rest a bit, more stones enter, the door closes, a song is sung, and each person gets an opportunity to pray.   When we have gone around the circle and everyone has prayed, the door opens, medicine water is brought inside for people to drink, and the people rest again.   Then, more stones enter, the door closes, four more songs are sung, and the door opens again.   The second round is dedicated to the North and the beings who dwell there and the strength and endurance they bring us.   The third round is dedicated to the East and to receiving vision, guidance, and direction.   While the door is open between the third and fourth rounds, the pipe is brought inside for the most sacred part of the ceremony.   It is smoked as it passes around the circle. During the last round stones are brought inside, the door is closed, a song is sung, and each person gets an opportunity to pray, sing, talk, or even tell a joke.   This last round is more relaxed because the people have purified, prayed, been doctored by the medicine, received guidance and direction, and their prayers have been answered.   Then the ceremony ends with a final song and the people leave.

We conducted this ceremony.   The people began as relative strangers. As each person prayed, the intimacy in the dark deepened.   We felt each other's humanity.   We shared each other's pain.   We felt the common tragedies that underlie human life. By the fourth round, when people spoke again, the trust had deepened and more heart-felt prayers emerged, coupled with quiet testimonials to difficulties and tribulations, songs, and words of gratitude.   After our feast, we concluded the day with a talking circle in which people shared their experience one after the other, clockwise.   Uniformly at the end of the day, everyone recognized how important it was for people to have opportunities to be in ceremony together, to share their common humanity, to tell their difficult stories to an audience who cared, and to feel as if they belonged.   This is what the inipi ceremony provides and what modern people so desperately need.

Donald Fixico writes that "'Indian Thinking' is "seeing' things   from a perspective emphasizing that circles and cycles are central to the world and that all things are related within the universe."   This is what we are trying to teach experientially when we bring mainstream health care providers into the sweat lodge -- the power of circle and how to see our interconnectedness.   Many traditional indigenous people experience this directly in their daily lives.   Participation in the sweat lodge ceremony also teaches us about the indigenous experience of a metaphysical world.   The ceremony creates an opportunity to participate in that metaphysical world.   Contemporary health care has eliminated the metaphysical completely in favor of empirical evidence.   Ceremony allows us to see the connection between two or entities or beings, some of which are non-physical, and to see how ourselves in relationship to these entities and all others. Fixico (p. 3) says, "This holistic perception is the indigenous ethos of American Indians and how they understand their environment, the world, and the universe."   Native Americans who are knowledgeable of their culture see things in more than just a human-to human context or from within the constraints of materialism.

The sweat lodge is an educational laboratory in which anyone can learn this way of perceiving the world.   Participation in this world view is healing in and of itself, meaning that it leads toward a greater sense of wholeness, connectedness, and belonging.   Sometimes, this greater sense of harmony and balance leads to greater physical health, sometimes not, but the opposite seems much more often true, that isolation, alienation, fragmentation, and disharmony, lead to illness.   Achieving belonging and community is an antidote for so many of our modern ails -- stress disorders, back pain, arthritis, and more.   Bringing people together brings our bodies back together.   Within the circles of humanity, we need counselors and storytellers who encourage us to tell our own stories, who provide a role model for others to believe that things can be different.   We all originate from nations of storytellers and all of our houses were houses of prayer.

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Lewis Mehl-Madrona graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine and completed residencies in family medicine and in psychiatry at the University of Vermont. He is the author of Coyote Medicine, Coyote Healing, Coyote Wisdom, and (more...)
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