The North American Indian Sweat Lodge: Source of Healing

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Except on Indigenous Sweat Lodges:


Washington D.C  July 7th, 1884.

Lieut.- General P. H. Sheridan,


Sir,—I have the honor to submit herewith, in compliance with your instructions, a work upon

the Sign Language of the Indians living within the territory of the United States, with some

account of their tribal histories and race peculiarities.


This work is based upon my own observations, made among the Indians themselves during a period of more than six years, supplemented by a careful study of the principal authorities on Indian habits and customs.


                                                                                                Very respectfully,

                                                                                                                                Your obedient servant,

                                                                                                                                                           W. P. CLARK,

                                                                                                                                                   Captain Second Cavalry




The use of the sweat-bath by means of heated air and steam seems

common to all tribes, and with all it is used not only to cure physical disease,

but as a form of worship and supplication, 

Mr. Dunbar says of the Pawnees, that, “they had one hygienic

usage (as also many othe tribes) that no doubt did much to counteract

the prejudicial influences of their uncleanly mode of life.

In slight indisposition, and frequently in health, the vapor-bath was resorted to.

A small frame-work of withes, about six feet in diameter, and four in height,

was built. Several of these might at any time be seen in different directions in a village.

Whenever any one wished to enjoy a bath, several large heated stones were

placed in one oF these frames, and the frame-work covered heavily with blankets or

skins. The person then crept within, taking along a vessel full of

water. By sprinkling this slowly upon the stones the interior was

soon filled with dense steam, which might be enjoyed as long as de-

sired. The frequent use of these sudatories produced most beneficial

results in maintaining and stimulating the activity of the secretory



Sitting Bull, the Sioux chief, gave me a very elaborate description

in signs for the sweat-lodge, or sweat-house, as the interpreters usually

call it. He made signs for wickey-up, for the covering of same with

blankets and skins, heating the stones, pouring water on them, talk-

ing to them, making requests, hoping the Great Spirit would listen

and make them live long on the earth, give them plenty to eat, furn-

ish them all they wanted, give them success in war, and protect

them in peace.


The frame is usually made of green willows, about an inch and a

half in diameter at the large ends, which are stuck in the ground.

The smaller ends are then bent over and fastened, forming an ellip-

tical-shaped frame-work. The number of willows used varies greatly,

frequently being determined by a dream of the man who makes the



The Arapahoes use any number from fifteen to one hundred and

seven, and a special sweat-lodge is made just before the annual

Medicine-Dance. I had heard so much of this bath, had seen the

abandoned little frames at so many temporary Indian camps when

they were on the march, had seen the same kind of a little house

used by so many tribes who in all other customs varied so much, and

was able to find out so little in regard to it, that in August, 1881,

being at Fort Keogh and a Cheyenne camp near by, I concluded to

take one with the Indians. I spoke to the chief and made an appointment.

I had no interpreter, and could only talk with the indians in the sign

language, but at about two o’clock one afternoon I rode to the camp.

The tepees were located on the bank of the Yellowstone River in

the midst of some stately cottonwood-trees. The atmosphere was smoky,

 and a filmy veil of blue mantled the not distant Bad Land bluffs.


A lazy hush had settled on this straggling

little Indian village on this hazy day, which so gently heralded the near

approach of autumn. I arrived before the preparations were



made, and so had the benefit of witnessing all that was done.

The squaws turned out to cut some wood, and soon a pile was ready near,

the sweat-lodge, which in the mean time was coveredl first with some

untanned buffalo-skins, leaving only a small entrance, and then with

canvas and blankets. This lodge was made of twelve willows, four on each

side and two at each end, placed in the ground nearly in the shape of an ellipse,

then bent over and fastened, so that the frame was not quite four feet high.

The ground inside had been smoothed off and strewn with leaves and grass.

In the centre was a circular hole about eighteen inches in diameter and twelve deep;

this was carefully cleaned out so that only fresh dirt remained.

The squaws laid down a row of sticks a few feet outside the entrance to the lodge,

and then placed a row of small stones, about six inches in diameter,

on these sticks, then some more wood and then stones, till a crib

about two feet high and three feet wide and four long was made,

which was then set on fire.

            In the mean time I had gone into some tall weeds and thick busshes

near at hand, which formed a perfect screen, and arrayed myself, by means of a borrowed

strap,and towel, in a breech-cloth, and stepped forth dressed for the bath.


My appearance created some merriment on the part of the squaws.

The Chief brought his pipe, tobacco, medicine-rattle, and much of his war outfit,

which were first placed inside.


He with the little stick used for cleaning the Indian pipe,

drew the figure of a man without arms or legs in the dirt at the bottom

of the hole.A buffalo skull, white with age was placed justin front

of the little door. We had crowded in, and were seated tailor-fashion

on the ground. The chief filled his pipe, putting a little tobacco in

the hole, and mixing with the tobacco some sweet smelling dried grass.
He lighted the pipe and pointed the stem to the zenith, to the figure in the hole,

to the painted buffalo skull outside, and to the four winds,

at the same time muttering a prayer.

After taking a few puffs, or rather inhalations, he passed the pipe to me.
When we had finished smoking the stones had reached a red heat,

and about this time we were joined by five other Indians, so that we were pretty

closely packed in. The squaw passed in one of

the stones, using a forked stick, which was placed in the centre of the hole,

and upon it the chief dropped a few bits of the sweet smelling grass, which, as it burned,

gave out a pleasant fragrance. His rattle and other trappings were then handed outside.

One of the medicine bags esd plsced on the buffalo skull, and the rest were laid on the roof of our little house. The other stones were then handed in, and when carefully piled in the hole reached about a foot above the surface of the ground. The skins and canvas were then let down over the door, and we were suddenly in total darkness. The heat became intense. There was a report like a pistol shot, but from the sounds I knew the chief had taken some water in his mouth and spouted it out on the stones. Waves of hot air and steam passed over me, which seemed more like liquid fire than steam and air.

A hand touched my right arm and was moved down to my hand, and I then felt a wooden bowl of water handed me. I supposed it was intended that I should take a swallow, which I did, and passed it to the indian on my left. I was sitting upright and my head touched the roof of the little house. My hair was so hot that I could hardly touch my hand to it. I was becoming dazed and dizzy with the heat. The perspiration ran off my body in huge drops.
            I could not talk to the Indians, as I did not understand half a dozen words of their vocal language, an in the intense darkness signs could not be used. Of course, with a slight effort I could have raised some of the skins which formed the covering to the lodge, as they were only fastened to the ground by a few stones, but my pride would not let me do this. I felt that I was being physically and mentally cooked. The chief, who was also a medicine man, from time to time sang in a weird, chanting way. Suddenly the covering to the lodge was raised at the door and opposite it, and the sunshine blazed in, and the cool air swept gratefully over me. The copper colored forms of the indians were all bowed,

the heads near the ground at their bent knees.



This was not in worship, but merely to avoid the extreme heat of the top of the little lodge, it brought their heads nearer the hotstones, but still the heat was not nearly as intense as at the top. I also noticed that the hair of the Indians was wet. Instead of swallowing the water they had held it in their mouths for a moment, and then spouting it into the curved hands, had saturated their hair with it. I at once poured some water from the bowl on my head, thoroughly saturating my hair, and it seemed to clear my brain as from a hot mist. The covering of the lodge remained up some moment, and was then closed as before. This time

I held my head down, and my hair being wet, I experienced no uncomfortable sensations.

A mouthful of water only was blown upon the stones as before. Sometimes a little musk of something of the kind is held in the medicine mans mouth, so that a pungent odor is emitted as this water is blown upon the stones. The covering was raised and lowered four times, and then quite a quantity of water was poured on the stones, filling the little house full of hot steam. We all then went to the river and plunged in, and felt greatly refreshed. Had I understood the necessity of wetting my hair and keeping my head near the ground, I do not think I should have experienced any ill effects from the bath, as it was I was half ill for three or four days, and I attributed it to the overheating. I am accustomed to taking Turkish and Russian baths, and have been in a hot room for some time when thermometer indicated one hundred and seventy degrees, and gone from this through different stages to nearly ice water, but I have never experienced anything like the cooking I got in that Cheyenne sweat lodge, And I am confident it was their ordinary bath. Women and little children join the men in these baths.
The spring of the year, just as the snow is disappearing, seems to be a favourite time for the Cheyennes to indulge in this bath, and at this time they “make medicine” for a speedy disappearance of the snow, quick growth of the grass, and prompt fattening of all animals.

Saw an old man, seventy six years of age, walking around on snow perfectly naked,

except for his breech cloth, both before and after taking one of these baths.

When vision seeking, the dreamers do not, I believe, have the skins raised,

but try and secure supernatural knowledge by enduring the hot air and steam for

prolonged periods.

These baths are also taken by persons who are greatly angered or depressed

by the loss of friend or kin by death. I know a Sioux chief

whose little son, the pride and joy of his heart, was taken suddenly

sick and died. His sorrow and anger made him a dangerous creature

to meet. His friends put him in one of these baths and

washed his grief away.”

Briefly, then, as an Indian once said to me, the sweat-lodge is

made as a ‘medicine,’ to ask of the Great Spirit anything we want.

If one is sick or has anything the matter with them, they go in and

ask the the Great Spirit to heal them ; and all go to ask for assistance

and guidance.


1 afterwards learned that the figure in the bottom of the hole indicated

what was specially wished and prayed for, – a figure of a man

without limbs indicated a wish to kill an enemy; a pony-track, to

steal ponies. It is considered specially good luck for the medicine-man

to take the bath with others, and he is master of ceremonies.

As they lived mostly on buffalo, the head was placed in front of the

sweat-lodge that they might pray to it; might not forget to petition

the Great Mystery of the universe to perpetuate the buffalo

and have them always near their villages.