The Inipi or Sweat Lodge Ceremony

An Article From Wikipedia

The sweat lodge is a ceremonial sauna used by North American First Nations or Native American peoples. There are several styles of sweat lodge including a domed or oblong hut similar to a wickiup, a teepee, or even a simple hole dug into the ground and covered with planks or tree trunks. Stones are heated in an exterior fire and then placed in a pit in the middle of the floor. Often the stones are granite and they glow red in the dark lodge.

In the northern part of North America, the sweat lodge is a low dome-like structure built on earth (as opposed to grass or forest brush). Traditionally it is built with a frame of willow branches, which are long, thin and very flexible. Lodges range in sizes, with diameters from nearly 2 m (six feet) to well over 6 m (eighteen or ninteen feet). They range from 1-1.5 m (three to five feet) in height, as the participants sit or lay down during the ceremony.

The willow structure is then covered with either blankets, canvas, or sometimes, animal skins. Sometimes permanent walls of clay are built over the willow frame. The walls must be thick enough for the lodge to be completely dark inside and to keep in as much heat as possible. A shallow pit is dug in the earth in the center of the lodge where the hot stones from the fire pit will be placed.

During the ceremony, the participants encircle the stone pit inside the lodge. The medicine man, leader of the ceremony, or elder, perhaps better referred to as the pourer, receives the glowing hot stones from the firekeeper and places them in the pit. When enough stones have been placed in the lodge, the medicine man (pourer)closes the door and pours water on top of the stones to fill the lodge with steam. This happens usually four times, with periods of between ten minutes to hours spent sweating in the lodge.

In Ojibway or Anishinabae ceremonies, there are many songs sung with a drum and rattles, prayers given, and attempts to heal the sick. The lodge door is in the east, and there are rattles for each of the directions. A fire keeper or helper is outside to pass the stones, or grandfathers into the lodge, and puts prayer offerings of tobacco into the fire. Before the ceremony, there is a cedar strip or line along the ground that is not to be crossed. The little boy water drum is often used in the ceremonies, along with certain medicines that are burnt on the hot stones, otherwise known as grandfathers. As each one enters the lodge on hands and knees, they say their name in Ojibway, and crawl, like a baby, into the womb of the lodge. The women sit on one side, and the men sit on the other. The sweat lodge represents birth and being born out of the darkness, warmth, heat, wetness, and the small space in the womb. One also crawls out of the lodge. Everything is usually done in a clockwise direction in the lodge. One enters in a clockwise direction, passes rattles clockwise, prayers are given clockwise, and each one leaves clockwise. Most people get their traditional names during the ceremony, and offerings are given of tobacco, food, and other things. The little boy drum is ceremoniously prepared before each sweat lodge and tied in a certain way depending on the teaching given.


Rituals and traditions vary from region to region. They often include prayers, drumming, and offerings to the spirit world. What is done today is not exactly as what was done hundreds of years ago. Often easier methods and ways are discovered and used, such as using a lighter to start the fire, and using a truck to haul wood and rocks. Even the use of a pitch fork, shovel, and canvas would not be of the oldest traditions. These ceremonies can change over time as certain needs arise. Some common practices and key elements associated with sweat lodges include:


The door usually faces the fire, forming a duality between the lodge and the fire. This duality is, in many traditions, symbolic of the male-female or heaven-earth dualities. Directions usually have distinct symbolism in Native American ceremonies ( ). The lodge may be oriented within its environment for a specific purpose; for example, a lodge constructed near a lake could be run with the intention of connecting to the spirit of the lake. Placement and orientation of the lodge within its environment often facilitates the ceremony’s connection with the spirit world.


The lodge is generally built with great care and with respect to the environment and to the materials being used. Many traditions construct the lodge in complete silence, some have a drum playing while they build, other traditions have the builders fast during construction. Often, Tobacco is placed in each hole made into the Earth and prayed over before the willow pole is placed.


In traditional lodges, participants wear a simple brief garment or towel and nudity is frowned upon. In many traditional lodges, men wear shorts, while women wear tee-shirts or similar apparel, with an ankle-length skirt.


Tobacco, sweet grass, redcedar, and other plants are often used to make prayers, give thanks or make other offerings. They can be smoked in a stone pipe, sprinkled on the hot stones or offered to the fire. Prayer ties are also made in many traditions to set the intention of the lodge, show gratitude, purify one’s self before the lodge, summon support from the spirit world, and other such purposes.


In many traditions, one or more persons (sometimes called “dog soldiers”) will remain outside the sweat lodge to protect the ceremony, and assist the participants. Sometimes they will help tend the fire and place the hot stones, though usually this is done by a designated firekeeper. In another instance, a person that sits in the lodge, next to the door, is charged with protecting the ceremony, and maintaining lodge etiquette.


The most important part of sweat lodge etiquette is respecting the traditions of the lodge leader. Some lodges are done in complete silence, while others involve singing, chanting, wailing, drumming, or other sound. It is important you know what is allowed and expected before entering a lodge. Many traditional tribes place a high value on modesty in respect to the lodge. In clothed lodges, women are usually expected to wear skirts or short-sleeved dresses of a longer length. Traditions forbid nudity in mixed sex sweats. Many lodge leaders do not allow menstruating women (these women are often referred to as being on their moon-time) to participate in ceremonies. Some will run a separate lodge for menstruating women. Still others allow them into the lodge after they have completed a purifying ritual, such as making a belt of prayer ties . Perhaps the most important piece of etiquette is gratitude. It is important to be thankful to the people joining you in the lodge, and those helping to support the lodge.