My Experience in an Inipi Native American Sweat Lodge Ceremony
When the White Buffalo Calf Woman showed herself to two native scouts on a hill top, the seven sacred councils of the Lakota nation were starving. These nomadic hunters found themselves without a herd and out of touch with the Creator.
Legend has it the two Lakota scouts came across a beautiful, celestial woman dressed in all white buffalo skin while seeking the herd, noticing immediately that she was wakan – holy. One of the men lusted after her but was immediately struck down for his impure thoughts, reduced to a pile of bones, while the other was told to go back to the tribe and prepare for her arrival.
When she came before the Lakota councils she brought the Chanupa, a sacred prayer pipe, and taught the seven sacred rites, including the vision quest, Sundance, and Inipi ceremony.
What Is a Sweat Lodge Ceremony?
For the Lakota people, the Inipi is sacred. It’s a ceremony of intentional discomfort to vicariously experience the suffering of others in the world and send them prayer with true intent. Most non-natives are more familiar with the term sweat lodge; a short, wigwam-shaped hut covered in buckskins or blankets, filled with blazing rocks that create a sauna-like atmosphere.
Recently, I participated in a traditional sweat lodge, or Inipi ceremony, run by a Lakota elder who carries the Chanupa, the sacred pipe, and whose grandfather fought in the battle of Little Bighorn. Long Soldier lives in Buena Vista, CO, where he regularly holds Inipi ceremonies, but today he came to the Sacred Earth Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to preserving indigenous culture and traditions, about an hour northwest of Colorado Springs.
My friend, Douglas, and I arrived just after noon and were greeted by Pati, an incredibly welcoming woman who runs the foundation. Pati is well-versed in indigenous culture and holds sweats of her own as well as a number of initiation ceremonies.
Pati exuded a deep, maternal warmth, making us feel as if we had known her our entire lives. She told us that everyone was very excited for Long Soldier to host the ceremony, but that it would probably be more difficult than those she conducts herself. We were a bit nervous, but the excitement and intrigue overpowered our anxiety.
Neither of us had ever participated in one of these ceremonies, and in retrospect, it might have been a good idea to do a couple entry-level sweats before jumping into a rigorous one with a native elder, but it was too late for that, and we were too gung-ho about the whole idea to even consider this. So, we made our way up to the sweat lodge to meet the rest of the group, who were discussing basic etiquette and rituals of the ceremony with Long Soldier.
We were cleansed in a smudging ceremony and told to keep a large fire stoked next to the lodge. Within the fire were the grandfather stones; over 40 volcanic rocks incrementally brought in the sweat lodge over the course of four grueling rounds.
The grandfather stones sat heating under this inferno for a few hours, until they were so hot it looked like they just cooled from magma. Whenever I placed logs on the fire it felt as if my eyebrows were singeing.
The sweat lodge is built from 16 saplings with a door facing east. The lodge and the ground it sits on represent the grandmother and divine femininity; the womb is the intended symbolism. The grandfather stones were the source of heat and with them is where one is to leave all their problems. The grandfather, known as Tunkashila, is represented above, synonymous with Wakan – the Great Creator or the Great Mystery.
The Lakota are a very spiritual, monotheistic people, who dedicate much of their lives to religious devotion. Some of the most legendary Native Americans were Lakota, including Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Long Soldier sported a jacket with that timeless portrait of Sitting Bull prominently displayed on his chest, his visage the definition of stoic. It was humbling to think that someone two degrees from this native legend was about to share this ceremony with us.
We chatted with Long Soldier about ceremonial protocol and he told us that traditionally women were not allowed in the sweat lodge if they were on their “moon,” or menstruating. This seemed to slightly irk one female member of the group, as she pressed Long Soldier why this was the case.
As it turns out, the reason has nothing to do with antiquated patriarchal customs, but rather because natives believe menstruation is a woman’s process of purification that recharges and repowers her body. This purification is a time of energy reinvigoration, and can also interfere with the power of the sweat lodge. Men don’t have this type of natural purification process, so sweat lodges were held for their purification.
We asked Long Soldier about other aspects of Native American culture and the different ceremonies he takes part in. He told us about the Sundance ceremony, an intense rite of passage, during which men journey to the top of a hill and deprive themselves of food and water for four days.
During the Sundance, two wooden dowels are pierced above the men’s pectoral muscles and then strung to a pole. Others have the skin on their back pierced and attached to a buffalo skull, which they drag around the pole until it rips out, or the men fall over in exhaustion. Long Soldier said he completed the latter ceremony, but only completed half of the former – he committed to four years of the Sundance, with two years of scars to prove it.
Long Soldier told us there were strict rules with the Sundance, Inipi, and any other Lakota rite. These ceremonies are incredibly sacred to his people and over the past several decades there have been a number of charlatans who attempt to profit from them. He reiterated several times that if one ever goes to a sweat lodge ceremony and someone asks for money, to run away. Profiting from a sweat lodge is sacrilegious to the Lakota.
Not too long ago, a few people died and many were injured in a bogus sweat lodge ceremony in Arizona. A new age group outside of Sedona was running a large “sweatbox” with 50 to 60 people inside – about five times the number of people normally welcomed into a lodge. The “ceremony” took place at a for-profit resort without native sanctioning or supervision. A clear example of what can go wrong when native culture is appropriated.
The Sweat Lodge Experience
Soon, it was time to enter the lodge and begin the ceremony. We lined up, with woman entering first, forming an outer circle. Men followed next, creating an inner circle closest to the pit where the grandfather stones were placed. Douglas and I sat furthest from the door and about a foot from the grandfather stones. We would later find out that this was one of the most difficult spots – perfect for our first sweat…
Typically, there are between 10 and 12 participants in the lodge, in an area roughly equivalent to that of a four-man tent. Because Long Soldier was hosting the ceremony, there was a large turnout that day, so we squeezed about 20 of us inside, but under his supervision we felt safe.
“You’re supposed to be uncomfortable, the ceremony is about suffering,” Long Soldier said.
And uncomfortable we were. We sat on the ground, some cross-legged, others with arms clutching knees to the chest. There was no space in between us, we were snugly situated as close as possible. If anyone still felt like strangers, we weren’t anymore.
Long Soldier took his place by the door, hanging a pair of eagle talons above his head. He passed around sage, sweetgrass, and copal for us to burn as the ceremony went on. The first round began with seven stones.
Before the door is closed, your body starts dripping with sweat and you realize this is going to be much hotter than a sauna. The last waft of fresh air fades as the entrance is closed off and all light is extinguished by blankets draped over the lodge.
It was hot and pitch black, but it felt good. Long Soldier began telling Native American stories and educated us on the basic symbolism and beliefs of the Lakota people. To the East is where the Sun comes, bringing light to all creation. To the west were the Thunder beings, who represent death and choose when it’s our time to leave the Earth.
He then began to sing in his native tongue while beating a drum. The songs were beautiful and relaxing.
Long Soldier poured water on the grandfather stones and immediately the lodge was engulfed in steam. I was a bit startled as I couldn’t see anything and my mouth instantly tasted like dirt brought up from the vapor. But it still felt good – now it was like a sauna.
Before we knew it, the first round was over and the entrance flap opened. This initial round probably lasted around 45 minutes, and at this point, I was relatively confident in my ability to endure the entire ceremony.
The air brought in through the flap felt incredible and a reprieve from the heat was welcomed, but after 15 minutes or so, 12 more rocks were brought in, intensifying the heat and starting our next round.
Halfway through the second round I began to feel dizzy and a little disoriented. Breathing became difficult, feeling like a weight had been placed on my chest. I tried to just focus on my breath, like I would when meditating, although the physical pain was distracting.
When I was younger I broke my back in an accident, so sitting in this position for extended periods is difficult, but I reminded myself that this was the entire point of the sweat. I needed to stick it out.
Long Soldier encouraged us to share what we were there to achieve, who we were suffering for, and the intentions we wanted to implement in our lives. This was when things began to get emotional.
I fought back tears from the combination of physical pain, palpable emotional energy in the lodge, and intense heat.
But then a cathartic wave of happiness swept over me and took my mind off the pain. It was an emotional rollercoaster, but I could feel the power of the Inipi. After each person shared their intention we would say “Mitakuye Oyasin,” meaning “all my relations,” or “all are related.”
My strength was fleeting though, and soon it became unbearable. When this second round ended, Douglas and I looked at each other and agreed we both would have trouble making it through a third round. At this point we had been in the lodge for well over two hours. We were told that after the third round, during which the Chanupa ceremony took place, we would be allowed to leave, but another round in there seemed like an eternity.
We exited the sweat lodge to our dismay, but in retrospect we were happy that we left when we did. Douglas suffered from some nerve damage in his neck and had lost feeling in his hands and feet. If we had more room to sit and stretch out, we might have made it, but our physical pains were hard to ignore.
After the ceremony, that continued for another hour and a half or more, we were relieved upon hearing this was the longest ceremony Pati had ever seen there. Our embarrassment for feeling that we were being disrespectful by not lasting through the Chanupa round was assuaged by the kindness of other participants.
One of our new friends, who exited the lodge when we did, said he had done 12 sweats prior and had never been unable to last the entire duration. Others told us we were sat in one of the more difficult positions, making us feel better about our early departure.
We shared a potluck dinner afterwards in Pati’s house and mingled for the next hour. I had a pounding headache and no matter how much water I drank, it wouldn’t go away. I felt physically and emotionally drained, and fell asleep as soon as I got home. But the next day I felt great, clearly detoxed.
I would do another sweat in the future, but this time I would prepare myself physically and mentally ahead of time, more than I had. There is a reason the Lakota take the Inipi ceremony so seriously, aside from the fact that it is a sacred aspect of their spirituality. It is a powerful tool for prayer, purification, and introspection that should be conducted with reverence for native culture and pure intentions.
For more information, you can visit the Sacred Earth Foundation’s website. Long Soldier conducts sweat ceremonies regularly in Buena Vista and occasionally in other towns throughout the state. He is a national treasure and his work preserving native culture is inspirational.