TO SWEAT OR NOT TO SWEAT
by Billee Sharp
There was a plan afoot last week: there would be a sweat lodge at Tomales Bay if everything panned out. I dropped all other projects (including writing for AIOTB) and poured over bus schedules, planning the itinerary that would get me far west as early in the morning as possible. Despite the combined efforts of all involved, the sweat didn’t happen, things weren’t quite aligned. It takes a team of strong bodies, pre-planning, good weather and then some hard physical work to make a sweat lodge, it is quite an achievement. Even when a permanent sweat lodge is in place, there is still plenty of work to do, it is, necessarily, a communal effort.
Our group is stoic: the understanding is that we are lucky to have the possibility – access to the land, rocks, wood and water, the know-how and the community to do it.
The value of the sweat is palpable for us: we sweat for health, communal relations and for meditation. Many of our group have realized our most profound religious feelings inside the lodge and will happily endure logistic set-backs in the faith that at the right time, the sweat will happen once again.
We have our own sweat standards that extend from using traditional materials (willow or alder branches for the withes, only non-synthetic fabrics for the tenting) as well as certain protocols of our own invention. We are painfully aware that there are Indian practitioners who descry such ‘new age’ initiatives as ours. Still we make our true observances, prayers, thanks and apologies to the Ohlone tribes whose home this was, because we feel it, not as lip-service to curry favor with the traditionalists.
Last summer’s news that self-help guru James Arthur Ray had held a sweat lodge in Sedona, Arizona which had resulted in the death of three participants was devastating. Here was a clear tragedy: the misappropriation of a cultural rite which had been desecrated with the worst possible consequences. Indians commented immediately that just the fact that the participants had paid money for the experience negated the conditions necessary for a true sweat lodge. Soon after the event the Lakota Nation brought legal action to bear on Mr. Ray, The Angel Valley Retreat who had hosted his costly Vision Quest program and the State of Arizona, who were accused of condoning the abuse of Indian cultural property by non-Indians. The action cites the 1876 Treaty of Laramie, which does not actually protect the intellectual rights of native Americans. However the Lakotas made their point: you have our land and our water — don’t steal our culture!
It adds insult to injury over this issue of cultural theft that Indians themselves were forbade their sweat traditions when the practice was outlawed by the U.S. government in 1873. It was fifty long years before they were legally allowed to sweat lodge again. In the interim many Indians were fined and imprisoned for sweat lodging, despite the fact that the ban on traditional usage contravenes the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. No wonder traditionalists give the thumbs down to the new age practitioners!
Early European awareness of the sweat lodge was mixed, many of the first recorded observations of the natives’ sweat lodge tradition show that the therapeutic and health value of the practice was acknowledged. In the 1600s David DeVries wrote of the Mahican sweat traditions in the New Netherland territory: ‘(they) go and lie in it (the lodge) men and women, boys and girls, and come out perspiring, that every hair has a drop of sweat on it’ In 1845 George Catlin wrote that the sweat lodge was used by the natives “as an everyday luxury by those who have the time and energy to indulge in it”. Further, he noted, the sweat was used as a cure-all for most ailments, as well as holding a central role in socio-religious rituals. Even William Penn had a good sweat lodge story: he wrote of a medicine man who was sick with a fever and treated himself with a sweat and recovered quickly enough to cook dinner for his incredulous guest! The Europeans were a filthy bunch, they had a cultural aversion to cleanliness, people didn’t wash at all regularly and regarded the sweat lodge as barbaric. Some settlers got wise and took up the custom, Sagard disapprovingly notes that in New France (Quebec), French settlers joined in the sweat lodge with the “savages”.
The traditional sweat lodge varied by tribe and territory, some were mud-clad, others subterranean, rituals varied too but the practice was endemic. The indigenous people of central America also preserved the long sweat tradition, Maude Oakes, an anthropologist studying a highland Mayan village in Guetemala in 1973 noted that every home had its own stone and adobe sweat lodge in the yard and people sweat at least once a week.
I do have concerns about the cultural correctness of non-Indian sweat lodges but ultimately I believe that the positive benefits of the sweat lodge, physiological and spiritual, should not be denied to willing respectful non-Indian participants.
It is a distant reality but the historical record does supports the idea that sweating was enjoyed beyond the Americas by many of the world’s early cultures: There was an ancient sweat tradition in pre-Christian Europe: Finnish, Russian, Scythians and Greeks and Romans all practiced a steam therapy in tents, saunas, stone and other structures. Sweat traditions existed in African societies and in Japan. As recently as 1892 (!) Rev. D. B. Mulcahy found an active sweat-house in Ireland on a certain Widom M’Credy’s farm. Mulcahy wrote that it was a well-known cure for rheumatism and that on the farm the girls used the sweat “ to improve their complexion after making peat or pulling flax.”
It makes sense to me that other cultures used to sweat and it is reassuring that even though the European tribes long ago lost their ancient beliefs and connection to the earth, they had it once. The early Goddess-based religions of the European tribes understood the world in similar ways to the tribes of the Americas: they too saw themselves as custodians of the planet with a respect for the interconnectedness of all living things. This was the creed of the Druids, whose influence was felt for many centuries into the Christian period. The druids worshipped the trees, and as late as the thirteenth century secular English law held that to cut down an apple tree (one of the most sacred to the Druids) without permission was punishable by death.
European societies developed an intellectual distance between humankind and their perception of their environment. When they made contact with naturalistic cultures they had no capacity to understand their “primitive” apprehension of life on earth. It is only now in the West that we are becoming aware of how the world cannot take our systematic destruction of the forests, oceans and even our atmosphere!
Hopefully all is not entirely lost, even in the West visionaries surface. The brilliance of Buckminster Fuller’s perception of our human potentialities still gleams in his Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth published back in 1969.
Despite his erroneous belief that by the year 2000 nobody would be starving or living in poverty many of his optimistic ideas could still be brought to fruition. His plan to pay all unemployed citizens a living wage for their ideas on how to improve quality of life is one of my favorites. So what if only one in a million comes up with a worthwhile scheme, it would improve the prospects for the general good exponentially! If I was on Buckminster’s program instead of the EDD’s I would be hammering out a blueprint for inner city sweat lodges!
‘The Native American Sweat lodge: History and Legends’ by Jospeh Brubrack, The Crossing Press
‘Black Elk’s account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux ‘ by Joseph Epes Brown, University of Oklahoma Press
“Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth” Buckminster Fuller, Lars Muller Pub.