Native American Bath Customs
THE POWER OF PLANTS
THE SWEAT LODGE
Native traditions teach that the plant kingdom is an essential helper to humans. Plants and botanicals are considered to have their own special energies and intelligence that, if used properly, can cure the stressed and sickly.
Ancient wisdom held that the Great Spirit endowed many plants with special powers (jojoba and desert broom to name a few), but that four plants in particular held a sacred place.
The big four, as it were, are tobacco, sage, sweetgrass, and cedar. Each was given special attributes: Sage is used to purify and remove negativity; cedar calls in good energy; sweetgrass represents Grandmother energy – comforting and soothing – with the woven tops of the plant representing her braided hair. Tobacco was valued for the calming effect it instilled during important council meetings and ceremonies, but was also believed to be a poison if abused. Sound familiar?
Usually, the spiritual qualities of these plants were released through smudging, or the ceremonial burning of specially wrapped bundles of the dried botanicals. Smudging has deep roots in Native America and provides purification, similar to incense in a temple or church.
Although Native American culture allows for many interpretations, smudging is usually begun while facing East, the direction of the rising sun and new beginnings. Held over a shell or small pot, the smoke from the smudgestick is then wafted over the individual or space being cleansed with the hand or a feather fan.
Starting at the feet, the smudge is worked upward, until with a flick of the hand – or fan – negative energy is swept away from the top of the head.
If one wants to forage for botanicals in native tradition, it is considered respectful before harvesting to ask the plant’s permission to use it, always leave a gift – like a son’s hair, and select only every third plant. The power of these plants can also be accessed using essential oils distilled from wild-crafted varieties.
WOMB OF MOTHER EARTH
Three basic forms of the sweat bath are indigenous to North America: the hot rock method, used by the Navajos and Sioux; the direct fire chamber, heated by blazing logs; and a more sophisticated type relying on a heating duct system believed to be of Mayan origin.
The most popular form of sweat bathing among North American Indians was the hot rock method and its variations. These were used exclusively by tribes in the central plains, the southwest, the Great Basin and the eastern woodlands.
Whether permanent, temporary or portable, they were smaller than other Indian structures, and usually domed and sometimes oblong. Nomadic tribes drove tree branches, such as willow, into the ground and arched them into a hemisphere, secured with leather. Stationary tribes used more substantial materials--logs and heavy bark. Temporary sweat lodges were covered with blankets or skins, while the permanent types were sealed with mud or sod.
In either case, a depression was dug near the door or in the center to cradle the rocks, which were heated outside and brought in on forked sticks. Steam was produced by sprinkling the rocks from a straw broom or a hollowed buffalo horn. Although simple to build, every detail was symbolic.
THE MODERN SWEAT
In recent years the myths and ancestral rites of the Indians, long suppressed or ignored, have captured the imagination of America. Sweat lodges are beginning to appear in suburban backyards and communal farms. The Sioux's willingness to allow non-Indians to participate in their sacred Sun Dance ceremony has made many of us aware of both the spiritual and medicinal benefits of the sweat lodge. It also encourages camaraderie in a community sharing and growing together.
Sweat lodges are easy to make. You can pray to your own gods and take herbs that heal. But without a medicine man or spiritual leader, it is not a true Indian sweat.
The Sioux, for example, see the interior of the sweat lodge as representing the womb of Mother Earth, its darkness as human ignorance, the hot stones as the coming of life, and the hissing steam as the creative force of the universe being activated. The entrance faces east, source of life and power, dawn of wisdom, while the fire heating the rocks is the undying light of the world, eternity.