The sweat lodge is a key healing and spiritual practice of most, if not all, Native American cultures. A variant of the sweat lodge is seen in those cultures from the artic to South America. It can be seen as a form of water therapy as it uses extreme heat and water to produce its effects. Specifically I will explain my personal journey and experience as a participant of a Mohawk sweat lodge. Each tribe has its own unique way of performing the sweat even if they all share the same base upon which to personalise it.
The Mohawk sweat lodge that I attended on Thanksgiving last October is an experience I will not soon forget. It was an interesting blend of people coming together to share in a sacred experience for the spiritual healing of a friend. My friend is Mohawk and he gathered his five closest friends to join him; all of us Caucasians, the shaman/medicine man, the shaman's wife (a medicine woman in here own right), the fire keeper and the woman in Hudson who graciously allowed us to use her land for this occasion. Names have purposely been omitted for the sake of anonymity as the type of sweat was one of personal healing and not a general sweat.
The figures in the sweat are the shaman who directs and explains the procedure of the sweat and conducts it. The next figure is the fire keeper who tends the fire on which the stones for the sweat are heated and transfers them with the help of a pitchfork which he hands to the person closest to the entrance of the lodge as he does not enter the lodge. The final figure is the person being healed, in this case my friend.
As this sweat was a personal healing we all had to be intimately involved in the preparations, we did not have to build the lodge only cover it with skins and tarps. The frame of the lodge had been built for a previous sweat. Before we could cover the lodge we had to lay down cedar on the floor of the lodge in an intricate manner based on the traditional beliefs of the Mohawk. This task is normally done by the women and those men who are attuned with their feminine energy, as such I was asked to join in this task. Laying down the cedar branches that have been cut into small pieces was a very calming exercise; it also provided me with a chance to learn about some herbal lore from the other women. They taught me a few things such as the properties of cedar and I taught them some of my herbal lore from my grandmother. I was later told that that was a sign of trust and that my willingness to share my own knowledge was a sign of friendship. In essence the laying of the cedar is a form of sewing circle, where women can trade secrets and feel a sense of camaraderie.
While the women lay the cedar, the men go find wood and kindling in the forest. Once these two tasks are finished the lodge can be covered. During this time the fire keeper starts the fire and heats the stones. As the fire heats the stones the last touches are given to the lodge to protect it and those who are to enter. This involved showing reverence to the spirits sacred to the particular shaman.
Then we enter the lightless lodge and begin the four rounds of the sweat. At the beginning of each round freshly heated stones are brought in thus the temperature keeps rising. As this sweat is for personal healing each round is tailored to my friend to help him with his particular issue, in this case a spiritual one. Sweats can also be performed for physical healing.
Throughout the entire sweat, tobacco plays a major role as an offering to the spirits. The shaman yells out "Tobacco" and the fire keeper, who never actually enters the lodge except when passing the pitchfork with the hot stones through the opening, then throws some into the fire.
I wish I could share more about this sacred experience within the sweat but they are all very personal in nature and keeping with the promise I made I can not say more. Knowing I would like to recount the process at some point I talked with the shamans present...
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