Mi'kmaq history and people: Sweats and the Sweat Lodge

Compiled by J Benwah

je'sn penwa
Thunder Cloud

Pjila'si (welcome). When we think of a sweats some often think of a sauna. There are many common elements to both including the cleansing element. The Sweat hut or lodge is an ancient aboriginal place of spiritual communication that is common to all Native Peoples in both North and South America. The word sweat lodge was probably a nickname given by the encroaching Europeans after their discovery of our lands. A Sweat Lodge is constructed out of willow or alder bushes because of the flexibility of these woods (sometimes they were covered by moose or deer skins). When constructing a Sweat Lodge, the entrance must always face east. It can accommodate from 4 - 12 persons seated in a sitting position around the central dugout or pit (the belly button of Mother Earth) where the pre-heated rocks (representing our grandfathers who are awakened) are put to generate heat and steam inside the lodge for the ceremony. People go for several 'rounds', which means that they exit and enter the Sweat Lodge several times throughout the ceremony. The ceremony itself is for spiritual cleansing and healing. Everyone who goes through a 'sweat' will have a different personal experience - or even no experience at all.

There are various local variations associated with sweat lodges. When you are called upon to go into the Sweat Lodge you will have some tobacco to offer the fire. At this time, you would say a prayer for someone or ask a question. You then would crawl into the lodge and take your place after stating who you are. Bringing personal sacred items is allowed but some rules apply. Items such as: Eagle feathers, whistles and medicine pouches are allowed and welcomed. You cannot bring anything that is not natural into the Sweat Lodge, such as: watches, ear rings, gold, silver (except for copper), eye glasses, false teeth and any female menstruating. Men enter a Sweat wearing regular clothing such as shorts. Women wear towel-like robes. Running a Sweat Lodge is an earned privileged. One must have great respect for our culture and must have 7 years of fasting to run a Sweat. Sweats can be requested at anytime, day or night.

Sweat Lodges are considered sacred and therefore a picture cannot be taken. A Sweat Lodge is a place where all people regardless of age can gather to pray. Prayers can be for anything that a person wishes to pray for. In most communities the tobacco pipe is used in the Sweat Lodge. They would pass it around and say “all my relations”. People who have used alcohol or illegal drugs in the past 4 days do not participate in our ceremonies out of respect for our ancestors and the ceremonies themselves. Not just for ceremonies but they are restricted from all social events such as a powwow. No one is allowed to be there if they are under the influence. Alcohol and drugs were never part of our culture or way of life.

In the traditional Native world the idea of "cleansing" or the spiritual healing is the focal point of interest where in the non-Native world the purpose may be more of physical purposes. The Sweat Lodge Ceremony is a ceremony that is very humble and starts with Mother Earth. The sweat lodge teaches us how to have respect for the women in our community and in the world. It teaches us respect, patience, endurance and speaking our minds freely. There is a revival of the use of the sweat lodge locally as we reintroduce our culture and traditions to our new generation. Welálin (thank you).

Compiled by Jasen S. Benwah

St. George's Bay, NL.

Wela'lin for the input from Paul Pike


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