Real Talk on A Non-Native Sweatlodge
This blog on a non-native sweatlodge was originally posted as a Facebook Post on The Medicine Circle Facebook Page
You feel drawn to the sweatlodge. Something in your soul is telling you this is something you need to do.
But the chances of being invited to a private Indigenous sweatlodge is nil, so you look online for someone whose offering it as a service and boom, you find a few.
Most of them are offered by non-natives, and some of them are in countries like Scotland, England and Germany.
Should you attend a non-native sweatlodge?
The Short Answer…
If the conductor has the Teachings, yes. If they don’t, no.
You see, it’s not about being Indigenous or not, it’s about having the Teachings and respecting them, as per the Nations that own this ceremony.
But now comes the next question. How do you KNOW someone has the Teachings? Ah, now things get a little interesting… Let’s begin.
I am often asked if I offer sweatlodges. My answer? Nope. I don’t do sweatlodges.
While I’ve participated in many sweatlodges, and sometimes was asked to help around the sweatlodge, I was not actually trained to conduct a sweatlodge, and therefore would never do it.
It’s like assuming that one can be a surgeon just because one has had surgery lots of times. Clearly it’s not the same, and like becoming a surgeon, the road to conducting a sweatlodge is a long road. One foray into the lodge does not a conductor make (no matter how inspired we feel.)
Research Your Lodge Conductor
When I was in the indigenous community, I was taught to be careful about whose sweatlodge I attended in terms of traditional indigenous healers.
I was advised to only do ceremony with the healers at Anishnawbe Health (AHT), because then I could be certain that the conductors/healers were well-vetted, and if I really felt the need to do ceremony outside of AHT, at the very least I should ask around about the conductor.
What was their story? Where or from whom did they get their teachings?
Toronto’s indigenous community is a small place, so most people know people who know people who are that conductor’s cousin.
The only time I asked about a doing sweatlodges with non-indigenous healers, I was met with a bewildered, “Why would a non-native be doing a sweatlodge?”
Hmmm. Good point.
About Non-Native Sweatlodges
A lot of people out there advertise sweatlodges on the internet. Usually if it’s being advertised, it’s for a fee.
Some of these conductors are fantastic, others are clueless, and here’s a few questions to ask so that you can discern one from the other.
(Disclosure: I am non-native and I charge a fee to facilitate spiritual healing work too. The difference? I don’t do indigenous ceremony, in fact, I don’t do community healing ceremonies of any kind, and if I did, I would not charge for them.)
Before I go on, let me tell you why I don’t do indigenous ceremony…
First off (and because it bears repeating), it’s not a matter of being or not being indigenous. I was adopted in, so the point is moot. But because I was adopted in and was given the Teachings, I also understand that it takes many years of teaching and practice to be able to do this kind of healing lodge.
Furthermore, I was taught that one is BORN with a ceremony; it’s not something where you wake up one day and think to yourself, “You know what I’d like to learn? Sweatlodge!” and promptly sign up for a discounted course on udemy. You are either born with it, or you’re not. If you are born with it, a trusted medicine person will let you know.
Of course, it begs the question of can a non-native be born with an indigenous ceremony?
I believe so. I’ve seen a few non-natives being taught the work by the elders, and their lodges are respected. So again, I don’t believe that ethnicity is the issue.
In fact, I had a healer offer to teach me sweatlodge, but I declined. Born with it or not, at the time, I wasn’t prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to learn it.
The sacrifice I was being asked to make? Give up all alcohol for one year before I could even begin to be taught, and then for the rest of my life (a sweatlodge conductor should be alcohol free.)
When I tell people this story, they often ask, ‘But isn’t that (non-drinking) just a cultural thing?’
The no-alcohol protocol is a spiritual teaching within the culture (not a knee-jerk reaction to issues in the community caused by alcohol, like so many non-natives believe), and since the sweat lodge is of that culture, I must respect that protocol – that teaching – or not engage in learning to conduct sweatlodge at all.
Because of this teaching, I have never seen an Indigenous sweatlodge conductor have a causal relationship with alcohol. I have seen conductors struggle, of course, everyone is human, but that is very different from a dismissive or casual attitude towards it.
So, a question to ask your sweatlodge conductor: DO YOU EVER DRINK ALCOHOL?
If the answer is ‘sometimes’, proceed with caution.
SweatLodges, Profit and Expenses
Next is the issue of fees. The teaching is that nobody should ever charge fees for a community ceremony.
This is a tough area, because conducting a sweatlodge takes resources.
Someone has to buy the wood and the tobacco. If the lodge is to be built, someone has to take the time out of their day job to collect the saplings, grandmothers and grandfathers (rocks that are used), cedar, Labrador tea leaves, purchase or borrow the blankets and tarps, set up the fire pit, get the permits if that’s necessary, etc.
The day of the lodge, someone needs to buy the food to feast afterwards and pay for gas for the conductor to get there!
In the Community, usually the person requesting the lodge will pay expenses, and the conductor is honoured for his or her time with a discretionary gift.
In the non-native world, this presents a conundrum.
I’m going to make the Pollyanna-ish assumption that the majority of non-natives conducting sweatlodge are NOT doing it for profit. (Yes, I know, but let a girl dream, eh?) But I’m also going to make a cynical assumption that the majority of non-natives attending a sweatlodge haven’t got the slightest idea of what goes into preparing a sweatlodge in terms of the logistics mentioned above.
When I was at AHT, the money problem was immediately solved because government funding paid for everything and participants only needed to bring a tobacco tie. At AHT, healers make healthy salaries (as they should) and conducting regular client sweats is part of the job description.
Government funding is a convenient way to circumvent the teaching of ‘you shouldn’t charge money for ceremonies’ but the reality is that, if government can’t help, somebody has to fund the ceremony, and a $5 per person donation is rarely enough.
So, we have an issue here. Relying on donations often puts the conductor out of pocket because uneducated participants don’t know how much things cost, but it’s highly taboo to charge a fee. Thus many non-natives do charge a fee. Heck, many Indigenous people charge (non-natives) a fee too. Like I said, it’s not a matter of being indigenous or not.
Therefore, the question to ask on the money front is: What is this fee going towards? OR, why are you charging a fee? Or for those who are bold, what we’re really asking here is: Are you making a profit from this ceremony?
Chakras and Sweatlodges
You don’t go into a sweatlodge to balance chakras.
Most traditionally taught medicine people in Canada are not taught about practices like, well, anything to do with chakras, because chakra teachings are from Asia and South Asia.
If you’re invited – or pay – to do a sweat, understand and respect the culture, and don’t feel shortchanged because the practice doesn’t align perfectly with other practices with which you engage.
If you see a non-native sweatlodge advertised and words like ‘chakras’ are used, tread cautiously. I attended sweats for years and with many conductors, and – not even once – did the words ‘chakras’, ‘energy’, ‘attachment’, or ‘level 5 demon’ come up. EVER.
No disrespect to these practices, (some of which I myself practice), but they are not indigenous to Canada, and are unlikely to be found in a ceremony conducted by someone who has northern Indigenous teachings. The words more commonly used? Spirits. Healing. Gratitude. Responsibility. Creator.
Do I believe in chakras? Well, I don’t not believe in them, but I trust the Spirits, so I assume if the Spirits feel my chakras need to be balanced in some way while I’m in a sweatlodge – or any other type of ceremony for that matter – they’ll do their thing.
The question to ask: Why are you talking about chakras in a sweatlodge?!
Ancient Celtic Sweatlodges
Ummmm….nope. We had sweat houses of sorts. But the Russians have banyas and the Fins have saunas. Is going to the banya or sauna a sacred spiritual ceremony? Not even close. Not any more sacred that hitting the sauna after the gym.
While we do know that insular celts had saunas, we have no idea if the practice was prevalent, spiritual, or simply a health thing. The jump from sauna to sweatlodge is a big jump indeed, and not one that I’d be willing to make given the lack of anthropological, historical and mythological evidence to support it.
If anyone is offering a ‘Celtic Sweatlodge’ tread VERY cautiously.
Always Respect the Lodge (Including a non-native sweatlodge)
If you do happen to come across a sweatlodge in a place where you wouldn’t expect to find one, like Europe, for example, and after doing your research, you’re comfortable that the conductor is reputable and was taught how to have a lodge in a good way with respect to that culture the owns the Sweatlodge ceremony, then I have a single piece of advice: Do what they say.
I was watching a comedy special on Netflix the other day, and the comedian talked about doing a non-native sweatlodge in Norfolk. He mentioned that the conductor asked that any women on their moontime (menstruating) sit outside the lodge.
This is a common practice, and the teachings as to why a woman on her moontime should sit outside the lodge (usually in a circle of cedar) are profoundly sacred. This is legit.
The story continued that one of the women on her moontime SNUCK into the lodge! I literally covered my face when I heard this. This is a horribly disrespectful and spiritually dangerous thing to do.
Anyhow, to make a bad story worse, the comedian said how the conductor berated the woman in a very misogynist way.
Hmmmm. The practice of having a woman on her time sit outside the lodge suggests the conductor does have the Teachings, but this teaching itself is the farthest thing from misogynist. In fact, it’s a beautiful and empowering teaching!
The best way to experience Indigenous Teachings is from Indigenous medicine people. Here’s a wonderful brochure on Moontime from Anishnawbe Health Toronto.
The only point I’ll add to what you read in that brochure is that when this teaching is not respected, it can endanger participants in the lodge.
The conductor has a responsibility not only to run the lodge, but also to share the teachings in such a way as to ensure the ceremony provides a safe place for the Spirits to heal the participants. Every action has a purpose (a teaching), and every time a teaching is not respected, a consequence.
So you see, it’s complicated. I’m not about to throw this healer under the bus, I don’t know how much of this story was real, or how this conductor got his or her teachings.
But the complexity of the situation does exemplify why a two-week course or waking up thinking you magically now can conduct a sweatlodge is not going to cut it. There is only one way to learn how to conduct a sweat lodge, and it takes YEARS.
Let’s Bring This Non-native Sweatlodge Post Home
So, my friends, if you are going to pay your dollars or pounds to take part in a sweatlodge, particularly a non-native sweatlodge, do your research before you entrust your spirituality to someone who thinks they know something they don’t.
And if the conductor’s teachings are legit, then respect those teachings. Do not put your teachings above theirs, or doubt the directions they are giving you. Do not, for the love of all things sacred, sneak into the lodge!!
Their lodge; their rules; there is a reason for everything, and if you don’t trust them or don’t feel like respecting them, then move along, there’s nothing for you to see here.