The Native American Sweat Lodge: History and Legends
By Joseph Bruchac

A Book Review by Larry P. Madden sweatlodge book cover

The “Native American Sweat Lodge: History and Legends” by Joseph Bruchac is a compilation of stories concerning sweat lodges. Touching on historical survey, parts of the lodge, creation, the lodge of testing, when the trickster enters the lodge, and the healing lodge, Bruchac covers a plethora of subjects with tales from the Micmac, Blackfeet, Huron, Dineh (Navajo), and eleven additional nations. Bruchac goes about exploring styles and customs with pertinent references to the sweat bath cultures around the world. In the Turtle Island, sweat lodges took many shapes and construction styles. From the woodlands, we are familiar with the Mesoamerican adobe structures with ovens and no use of water for steam. With the great variety of structures comes the same variability of stories, tales, and myths.

The chapter entitled, “Trickster Enters the Lodge,” offers a series of tales of deceit and conflict. The moral of each story in the end much like, “Aesop’s Fables,” presents a social or moral lesson good for all to hear. The section features a Passamaquoddy tale of, “The Wolverine and the Bear,” whose outcome speaks to the sin of vanity. As we have discussed in past articles, the Trickster is always the embodiment of a negative example. Governed by his/her/its appetite and selfishness, according to Bruchac, as dangerous as he is funny and able to convince himself of his own righteousness, the trickster doesn’t hold back even in the sweat lodge.

The lodge experience is unique and special, at least for the reviewer. It long has been a healing quotient, feared by the majority culture since their arrival. Its use among Indians was curtailed by the United States government during the reservation era and before. However, in the years since 1978 — when Natives were granted religious freedoms — the sweat lodge has reappeared on the native landscape. The Lakota style inipi and the generous sharing of knowledge by our plains relatives has been a major factor in its resurgence. The Ojibway as, “Keepers of the Faith,” have held unto and kept the traditions alive in the Anishinabe ways. If anything, the sweat lodge has rebounded to the point of plastic shaman finding ways to bilk large amounts of money from people for the experience, states Bruchac.

Whether one crawls out of the womb of Mother Earth, the belly of the Bear or the Turtle, the sweat lodge has long been a testing booth — a place of strength, courage, and endurance. Combined with the cleansing properties of not only physical, but mental and spiritual also, the lodge becomes a connection to ancestors, the cosmos, and the Great Spirit. Mr. Bruchac muses early on in his book about the Aztec’s future if the newcomers had been Finnish — as they also hold the sweat lodge in a sacred way. The respect for the sweat lodge and its powers caused Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d’Alene) to call out the unscrupulous uses of sweat lodges in a New York Times Book Review in 1992 titled “White Men Can’t Drum,” Alexie claimed, “The sweat lodge is my church.” With feelings like those shared by many, the lodge holds a special place in the hearts of Indians.

Bruchac claims neither to be medicine man nor expert, but his work is invaluable in a time when texting has replaced visiting for the younger generations. There will come a time when this knowledge will be needed, and stories to be shared are now waiting thanks to Bruchac. Read the book, ask an elder for a story and write it down.

Larry P. Madden (Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Wisconsin) was born and raised in the Sturgeon Bay area. A recent graduate of CMN, he enjoys the Powwow trail and strives to maintain balance on the red road.