Sweat Lodges Part II: No, you can’t. Here’s why.

In cultural appropriation, Details, jezebel, sweat lodge by Adrienne K.17 Comments

AK note: This is Part II in discussing sweat lodges and non-Natives. For Part I and background,click here.

After that long lead in, lets break it down into some of the major issues at play here. I feel like I’m treading in a bit of dangerous water here, because admittedly sweats have not been a part of my spiritual tradition. If anyone has corrections or comments, please let me know, and know that it is not my intention to generalize, stereotype, or offend.

Sweat lodges are sacred. plain and simple. Not every tribe in the Americas has a tradition of sweat lodges, but many do. Each tribe has different origin stories surrounding the ceremonies and songs–hear that? songs, not chants!(one of my pet peeves)–that go along with them, so it is impossible for me to write a concise history. But realize that these ceremonies, when performed in their traditional cultural contexts, are religious practices. Equivalent to something, like, say, the act of receiving communion for Catholics (not an exact comparison, but work with me). Even non-Catholics respect the role of a priest and his position, and would never wander around selling “communion ceremonies” out of a backyard or garage, and moreover, people wouldn’t think that participating in one of these ceremonies was a replacement for the real thing.

Why, again, is it ok to appropriate sacred traditions from Native peoples?

There are many directions I could go with this discussion–the commodification of cultural practices (ie there are many “legit” Natives who sell their services as medicine men and women or lead sweats for money) , the fact that these men (and jezebel women) are participating in dangerous practices that when not understood or performed correctly can result in death and injury (see this case from Arizona last year where 4 people died in a sweat run by a white new-ager), or the fact that these non-Native “shamans” are making $500 an hour on an appropriated (well, stolen, really) practice while Natives live in some of the poorest communities in the US. All valid issues. But, for sake of space, I’ll focus on the Macho Man/oppressed women narrative.

Assumption One: Participating in a sweat is a way to “prove” your manliness, push yourself to the limit, put on a show of bravado

No. Again, I can’t speak for all tribes, but from my understanding, it is the exact opposite. A sweat is a time to be humble, not assert your strength. This description from a book written by a non-Native, called “The Lakota Ritual of the Sweat” (you can read part of it online here) shows just how unimportant machismo is to the process–though I hesitate to post it because I can’t vouch for the accuracy or if the community is ok with the publication:

(I hope I’m not violating like 1200 copyright laws with that). Note the lines “This was not an endurance contest”, “insisted he was not worthy”, “repeatedly stated that he was poor, humble, and nothing”. Does this sound like the description from Details? not so much.

Assumption Two: Not allowing women who are menstruating into the sweat is a sign of patriarchy and sexism and is rooted in a deep disrespect of women.

No. Again, it is completely the opposite. Barbara Omaha, White Earth Ojibwe, says of the practice:

During her Moon time, a woman is going through her own natural purification process. While her body is going through this natural purification, she is also recharging her own body’s powers and energies, so it is a cleansing and restorative time for her. Because a woman’s power is being renewed during this process, she must stay away from all sacred ceremonies…A woman’s power during her moon time is so strong that it can draw the power away from the sacred Sweat Lodge, Sundance, and Pipe ceremonies. Her power during this time can interfere with the power in the Sacred Pipe, Eagle Feathers, and the food offered for the feasts following ceremony.

Women cannot participate not because they are “unclean” or as a sign of male power, it is because women have so much inherent power that they can interfere with the ceremony. Omaha also notes:

Men do not have their own natural purification and renewal process, therefore they must come to the Sweat Lodge ceremony for purification.

So, Jezebel women, it’s not a sign of disrespect, it’s a sign of ultimate respect. That’s the case with many practices outsiders deem sexist towards women in Native communities–standing outside the drum circle, for example–come out of a place of a deep understanding of the power and role of women in our communities.

In sum, cultural sensitivity: ur doin it rong.

For a great documentary on the subject, check out “White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men”, which is actually on youtube, in three parts (but it appears part 3 is missing). Watch it. Inform yourself. Part 1 below:


Article on deaths in Arizona sweat lodges:  http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/religionandtheology/1906/new_age_tragedy_in_sedona:_non-indians_in_the_sweat_lodge__/

Earlier: http://nativeappropriations.blogspot.com/2010/04/sweat-lodges-bro-therapy-part-i-summary.html

Details article: http://www.details.com/style-advice/grooming-and-health/201005/sweat-lodges-enlightenment-health-detox?currentPage=1

Jezebel article: http://jezebel.com/5517139/sweat-lodges-the-therapy-of-choice-for-bros


  1. Rob

    Excellent points about the “macho man/oppressed women narrative.” James Ray was going for “macho” results when he made his sweat-lodge participants suffer and three of them died.

    For more on Ray’s story, see Sweat Lodges.

  2. Anonymous

    yes, but…”sweat lodges” are not a uniquely native american phenomenon. the earliest similar structures are believed to have been built by scythians from eurasia. it is also believed that participants smoked marijuana in them. you can read more about this in herodotus’ histories. won’t someone stop and think of the scythians?

  3. Terrie

    Anonymous. Steam houses are found throughout the world and have served many different roles throughout history. Purposes range from cultural to religious to “it feels nice.” But the people referenced in this article aren’t just using a stream room or steam house. They’re claiming it’s a sweat lodge and part of a sweat lodge tradition that they know nothing about.

  4. M

    Thank for you informative post (well really all of them are awesome and informative).

  5. Anonymous

    I enjoy your posts but drawing comparisons to the catholic church, as you have on multiple occasions, only weakens their strength. As a non-catholic I definitely do not respect the role of the priest or his position. In that particular example, holy communion, the real thing is fake anyway.

  6. Anonymous

    To Anonymous who said that comparisons to Catholicism weaken the arguments:

    You’re joking, right? You’re against mocking, misunderstanding, and appropriation of native cultures by non-natives but are happy to openly mock a contemporary world religion? Because you don’t belong to it?!

  7. Anonymous

    I was introduced to your blog through someone posting an article on Facebook, and I’m so appreciative to have found it! I’m a white woman who teaches about race (in the South, now, but I’m from South Dakota). I have strong emotional ties to the reservations in SD because I worked with high school students who lived on them (they were from multiple locations, that’s why I’m speaking generally), and I learned SO MUCH from them and the whole experience (which spanned several years and is therefore difficult to neatly summarize).

    It made me very passionate about teaching Native issues, particularly here where there is NO knowledge of the US history with and treatment of indigenous people. So now when I teach my southern students about that, the points you have made in your blog are precisely the things I want them to understand. Somewhere between the two sweat posts and the one on the hipster headdress, I kind of fell in love with you (though I don’t know your age, gender, or really anything about you except that you’re logical, funny, smart, and a great writer…). I will definitely be bringing these posts to my students to counter all the “but…” and “what about…” questions I get when I discuss Native issues.

    BTW, I was fortunate enough to participate in 2 sweats in my time in South Dakota and my sense is that you’ve accurately summarized the (Lakota) attitude toward them. Re: humility, I remember having a discussion with someone who told me you must never count the rocks in the pit because to do so encourages attitudes of pride or boastfulness, which is anathema to the whole purpose. And I am very grateful that when we were invited, the tribal leader who was teaching us what to expect and prepare for (this was an open opportunity to anyone working for our program), he took pains to explain why women who were menstruating were not allowed to participate, and that the prohibition was borne of honor and respect for women.

    Also, thank you for pointing out the ethnocentrism inherent in using the word chant instead of song. That was something I was guilty of and I’d never considered it. I am going to change my terminology accordingly.

  8. Lindsey

    No. Again, it is completely the opposite. Barbara Omaha, White Earth Ojibwe, says of the practice:
    During her Moon time, a woman is going through her own natural purification process. While her body is going through this natural purification, she is also recharging her own body’s powers and energies, so it is a cleansing and restorative time for her. Because a woman’s power is being renewed during this process, she must stay away from all sacred ceremonies…A woman’s power during her moon time is so strong that it can draw the power away from the sacred Sweat Lodge, Sundance, and Pipe ceremonies. Her power during this time can interfere with the power in the Sacred Pipe, Eagle Feathers, and the food offered for the feasts following ceremony.

    Exactly. Not many people understand this, but this is exactly right. It’s UNFORTUNATE that we women have lost TOUCH with this reality and instead seek not to be treated equally as, but to be the same as, men. We should know how much we are BLESSED to be women, and be given these gifts instead of throwing them away or treating them as garbage. So much is wasted during the menstrual time, and complained about. It really irritates me when I hear other women complaining. It just proves to me that there are few REAL women left out there.

  9. heather grey

    i really don’t think it’s productive to consider sweat lodges as exclusive cultural property that can only be misused by non-native people. while i dont think it should be peddled by charlatan suburban shamans with the native tradition as a selling point, i also dont think that people should be compelled to avoid a physical means to a personal religious experience, if they are earnest and without illusions about the potential perils.

    this isnt to say i havent seen some gruesome bastardizations, but it is to say that i dont think something so elemental and prone to spiritual connotation should be considered property of any one culture.

  10. Ruthie

    I just met a (white) guy who goes out to a reservation every other Thursday to participate in a sweat lodge. Hearing this, I immediately started wondering if this person had any understanding of cultural appropriation. He says that it is done by a native family, and they welcome anyone to join. I suppose that makes it much better than a bunch of white kids trying to run a sweat lodge, but being white myself, I’m happier just avoiding the whole affair. It seems like it’s treading on broken glass as it is.

    Not knowing much about sweat lodges except that they are a sacred tradition of the indigenous, I found your blog very helpful! So thanks for putting this information out there, for people like me seeking understanding to find. 🙂

  11. reptilegrrl

    Just a note as a woman and an Indian (Choctaw and Cherokee, and yes, white also) women having power is not the same as women having equality or respect. And, not all “power” is considered equally in a cultural context.

    Another thing to note is that during menstruation a woman’s body temp is slightly elevated and she may be experiencing some inflammation. Not an ideal time to participate in a sweat.

    Hi, I was linked to your blog today and I love it. I am so happy to see someone writintg on these issues, so well and intelligently. I am just swooning over your posts, thank you so much!

  12. zapparina

    I am not indigenous, however, I feel honoured to read your blog. This article in particular. I think cultural appropriation is so disrespectful and to use something so precious and sacred as some sort of businessman bonding bullcrap is disgusting.

    I’m from Australia and I have known some indigenous people who are happy to share some of their practices with non-indigenous people, providing you show the same respect for their tradition as they do. You can educate yourself, and participate in something sacred without being a douche.

    Even then there are some things that non-indigenous people cannot do. And why do we need to? The whole rest of the country is set up for our privilege, do we really need to bash our way into the last things indigenous people have left that is not for us?

    Seriously, this annoys me. As non-indigenous people have so much privilege, including the privilege to be ignorant of our privilege, why do we feel the need to muscle in to sacred spaces and ceremonies of the people whose land was taken, who were killed, who still suffer to this day from our need to take absolutely everything.

    You know what, sometimes we don’t get everything we want, maybe sacred cermonies of indigenous people should be one of the things we don’t get.

    Thank you for your wonderful article and blog.

  13. Bex vanKoot

    Thanks so much for this. I have yet to enter the sweat lodge, but have participated in a sweat once (when I was in my moon time) by preparing the medicine for the shaman while she facilitated her very first group sweat without the oversight of a community elder.

    I cannot claim any direct roots to North American native communities, but I respect the lodge as a sacred place and felt not “disrespected” because I had to stay outside the lodge, but HONOURED to have my place of power, offering my prayers and healing energies in the preparation of teas for drinking and steam.

    I’ve seen some scary “sweat lodges” in my time and I can confirm that it can be VERY dangerous entering a lodge that is not properly built (I’ve seen them made of tarpauline plastics, ripe with moulds and other toxins) and maintained with someone who does not understand the process.

    Be safe, sane and sacred, friends.

  14. Dapslock

    It’s 2010 and near 2011. How about we make up our own traditions. Since, here in American, we don’t have many besides the Superbowl and tailgating, why can’t we have some tradition that we can uniquely call our own?

  15. Standard Process

    I’m white myself, but have participated in an authentic native American sweat lodge (i live in Alaska and went through a substance abuse run for and by natives.
    Not that its particularly helpful as my memory is crap. But there’s a path that connects the heated stones to the actual sweat lodge. You are NOT allowed to cross or walk in this path it must remain unimpeded. It had something to do with the sun and if you disconnected the path into the sweat lodge it draws away the power from the sun and stones. And the moon power at its highest during a period will also interfere/overpower it.
    They did say its not about proving yourself etc. But the last round is called the warrior round, and is actually at least partially about proving your strength and worthiness– just proving ir to yourself though and coming out more whole. NOT demonstrating it for bragging or appreciation from others.

Leave a Comment