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Sweat Lodges

By Paula Bidwell

This is a talk about “Inipi” or Sweat Lodge Ceremony. In Native American traditional ways we learn by listening to our elders talk and tell stories. This article is meant to be just that. I will tell the story as my teachers did and then at a later time I will add more to the knowledge.

Imagine we are sitting around a fire maybe at Powwow or maybe Sun Dance, or even in our own backyard. The hour is late and everything around us is still and quiet except for the crackle of the wood burning. A voice begins to speak….

Did you know there are different types of Inipi (Sweat Lodge) ceremonies? Many think the Sweat Lodge is only for cleansing and purification. But, this is not true; there are many kinds of Inipi or Sweat Lodges.

There are Sweat Lodge ceremonies held when a relative has died. These help the deceased person cross over to the other realm. They are usually held for four nights. Night is the time for the spirits of the deceased or “Wanagi”. After the sun goes down, and especially between midnight and pre-dawn, they wake up and are moving around. The four days is the time when the newly deceased is able to communicate important messages and to say their goodbyes. These Sweat ceremonies are also for the mourners to end their official time of mourning. Which is usually 13 moons or approximately one year. The ceremony for the end of the time of mourning is called “Wasigala” and can be done without the Sweat Ceremony.

There are also Sweat Lodge ceremonies for the healing of illnesses. These are called “Doctoring Sweats”. These ceremonies may only have the patient and medicine person in the lodge. The rest of us would stay by the fire and pray or be busy in the house cooking. Or sometime there may be a few singers and other people close to the sick person inside the lodge.

Most of us have been to Sweat Lodges that contact the Tunkasilas or ancient beings for advice and guidance during difficult and perilous times. It is said that in the Sweat Lodge we meet the Tunkasila or elder spirits half way. These sweats are usually very hot. They make us so uncomfortable that we are forced to stay in a state of prayer, which is very far removed from our everyday busy worlds. This is how we meet the Tunkasilas half way. Some us don’t eat or drink so that we are even further removed from our material world. Many of us let our hair loose and unbraided or untied. This is another way to remove us from the material world. We are not concerned with how we look. That is why your elders may tell you not to wear jewelry, or make-up.

Then there are Sweat Lodges for activating, renewing or cleansing of sacred objects, medicines or canunpas (sacred pipes). In the case for cleansing, these are very serious ceremonies. It means that something has happened to the sacred object that has harmed or weakened it. The need to cleanse a sacred object is a very sad thing. Many tears are shed during these ceremonies. For the renewal of a sacred object or medicine is far less serious and is a little like breathing fresh air into it and letting the sun shine all over it. Activating a sacred object is another serious ceremony. It is necessary when a person takes the responsibility of carrying a canunpa (sacred pipe) for the people. This is best done where the Buffalo Calf Pipe resides in Green Grass, South Dakota. Although, I have heard of it done in other places when necessary. Activating other types of sacred objects or medicine can happen anywhere, but usually takes a Medicine person to conduct the ceremony.

Sun Dance Sweat Lodges are especially for the people preparing to Sun Dance they are held frequently during the time of preparation. Sweat ceremonies are also held during Sun Dance for the Dancers and for the people attending.

Hanbleceya, or as you may have heard it, “Vision Quest” Sweat Lodges are held during the one to four year preparations leading up to the Vision Quest. Also they are used just before the person goes on the hill for Hanbleceya (Vision Quest). And they are used immediately when the person comes down from the hill. As an important note, I have used the term “Vision Quest” only because it is so popular and understood by many. But you should know that in Lakota, “Vision Quest” is not the translation for Hanbleceya. The real translation is “Crying or Praying through the night”. Ceya means both crying and praying as they are considered the same thing.

Wopila (Gratitude) Sweat Lodges. These are usually held within a year of a healing or another blessing. A big feast is held afterward and gifts may be given.

These are the most common Sweat Lodge ceremonies, but I’m thinking maybe some of you are wondering how to become a Sweat Lodge leader? This is a natural question. I will tell you how it happened to me. It took many, many years of attending the Inipi with my elders; listening to their stories, taking their words to heart and paying attention when they wanted to teach me. As the years went by I was given a variety of “rights” such as making sacred canunpa bags and medicine pouches, making a ceremony fire, cooking sacred foods, fixing eagle feathers for naming ceremonies, rights to ceremony songs and many others. But before I received the rights to anything I was instructed in all the history, the details, the materials, the origins of the songs and anything else you can think pertaining to the particular skill.

When I was around 35 years old, I received a sacred canunpa from my grandparents and asked to carry it for the family and all our relatives. I accepted. Then when I was visiting an elder relative and attended her Sweat ceremony, at the start of the Sweat she announced to the attendees that I was her equal and that I would assist in conducting this ceremony. Later, I was asked to conduct a Sweat ceremony for some elder women. After the ceremony I was told that I would be conducting these ceremonies the rest of my life. And I have.

This may sound all very complicated and almost impossible to achieve. But, this is how it happened for me and is not necessarily the way it is for everyone. My training was very strict and very lengthy. I hope I have not discouraged anyone. I live off the reservation now and attend Sweat ceremonies that are conducted by someone who although, Indian, never lived with his people or received any traditional training. He received a vision and that is the way he conducts his ceremonies. I attend and respect his ceremonies. They are powerful and serve the true purpose of an Inipi or Sweat Lodge ceremony, even though he wasn’t traditionally trained as I was.

You are all my relatives.

This was written by Paula Bidwell. She has a website at http://www.nativetalismanart.com Not only does she explain things in a good way she is an Artist who makes some beautiful stuff. Take a minute and check out her website. I know she would appreciate it.