In a recent issue of a spiritual magazine a reader put this question to a shaman; “In view of the many stories about people being injured or dying as a result of participating in a sweat lodge ceremony, do you think it is safe to participate?”
In the article that followed, the writer detailed his one and only experience in a sweat lodge describing all the participants as American Indian shamans. He went into great detail about his experience but never really answered the question. In previous months I have followed many comments both in print and on the internet around the tragic events of the summer of 2006. Still, no non-Indian with any amount of long term experience with this ceremony is willing to say the obvious. This ceremony is dangerous. It is also powerful. It is at least as dangerous as taking prescription antidepressants and as powerfully healing too. It has been recently demonstrated that in the hands of the ignorant, this ceremony can even be deadly.
I speak as a White woman who has participated in hundreds of Lakota sweat lodge ceremonies and poured nearly a hundred over the past twenty years. I am not a medicine woman or a shaman. I claim no native american heritage. I am just a human being. I learned this ceremony by attending them, helping to build lodges, run by Lakota men and women who had been doing it all their lives. I learned to sing songs and speak a little Lakota language so that I could say prayers in the same way. Since I also poured lodges in many other parts of the country, I did a fair amount of experimentation myself. This was necessary in places like Florida where saplings would pull out of the soft sand as soon as you started to bend them, many of the woods available for lodge fires were toxic and water logged river rocks exploded when water was poured on them. The Lakota sweat lodge originated in the high dry climate of the plains. The woods used were nearly smokeless and the dense volcanic rocks posed little danger of exploding in the lodge due to expanding air or water trapped inside. In an environment in which the ceremony originated, run by people of experience and sensitivity it is reasonably safe.
This ceremony combines the four elements of earth, air, fire and water in a particularly potent combination that taxes the body and focuses the mind. It has two purposes. The first is physical cleansing through sweat. The second is prayer. It is not a test, an initiation or a place to prove the limits of one’s physical endurance. If the lodge is too hot for the participants to pray, than , the purpose has been lost and it has then become a danger to everyone.
Just because a native person is conducting the ceremony does not guarantee anything. There are many Indian people who travel and pour lodges all over the country. If they are unfamiliar with the rocks they are using or the woods used in the fire, they too are just as subject to the properties of the unfamiliar materials. Even an experienced person can make a mistake often with the best intentions. Woods scavenged from pallets in an effort to conserve, or left over from construction sites is particularly dangerous. Wood that is treated for decking contains large amounts of arsenic, when this is burned the ashes turn in to a caustic compound that can be carried into the lodge on hot rocks and then become air borne in the steam when water is poured on the rocks. Pallet wood is made from exotics from all over the world, many of these do not make for healthy air when they are burned, and it is impossible to know what they are or where they came from.
The ceremonies are not just the product of a culture, they are the product of an environment. An argument can be made that when you take the ceremony out of its physical and cultural environment, it is no longer truly sacred. While the sweat lodge ceremony is done in some form by nearly every native culture in North America, there are places where it never arose. Surely this is because such a ceremony did not “fit” in the cultural needs, or physical environment of the community.
As with anything else, spiritual seekers need to do their homework and be responsible about their own safety. Ask questions about the person pouring the lodge. If they are charging money, be wary. If you go to a lodge and you feel uncomfortable with the person pouring it, offer to work the door. If you do go in and you reach your limits, ask them to let you out. If you get no cooperation, go out the side. A lodge is only made of saplings and tarps, you can just go crawl out. It isn’t polite, but it is a breach in etiquette that might save your life.
Whatever can curse, can cure…is an old saying of my Scottish grandmother. The Inipi caga has been a great boon and a comfort to me in the last twenty years. I have experienced physical, emotional and spiritual healing through the ceremony. It has taught me to respect the power of the natural environment and helped me to connect to it in an intimate way in every place that I have participated in it. It has humbled me too. I have incurred my fair share of burns, bruises and backaches. I have stacked cords of wood, carried hundreds of hot rocks on a pitchfork, and dropped more than a few between the fire and the lodge. This is a physical ceremony that needs both a strong intellect and a strong back. When done properly, every person present is an active participant. It creates an almost instant spiritual community that cleanses, heals and renews and empowers. For me and for many other people the risks are well worth the benefits.