Grade Eleven Thematic Unit: Fasting and Sweat Lodge Ceremony Information


Fasting is a ceremony that has been practiced in many First Nation communities for thousands of years. In the past, the Elders of a community would provide the ceremonial setting and guide the faster in their quest to find their direction in life (RCMP, 2009). Today, with a revival of cultural traditions in Aboriginal communities, more Native Americans are returning to these past traditions and seeking answers through the ceremony of fasting (Anishnawbe Health Toronto).

Fasting is a common practice in many cultures and societies. It is the act of abstaining from all food and water (Lyon, 1996, p. 82). It is a way of depriving the body for the purpose of getting clarity of mind, getting an understanding of one’s path in life, or of seeking a vision. It is an attempt by an individual to face life directly and nakedly (Cohen, 2006, 104). Accordingly, fasting is not something that one chooses to do lightly, as it involves all aspects of one’s self: mental, physical, spiritual and emotional. It is a sacrifice of oneself for their own well-being and the well-being of one’s family and community (Anishnawbe Health Toronto).

Those who choose to fast, do so with a purpose in mind. There are many reasons to fast. For First Nation peoples, the reasons to engage in a fast may include the need to seek direction in their life, or to learn more about their Aboriginal culture and origins. Others may fast in order to receive their spirit name and sacred colours, which must be given to a person by an Elder or by the spirits. Healers may also fast in order to find and gain permission to use certain medicinal plants (Anishnawbe Health Toronto).

Whatever the reason for a fast, a person must prepare for the fast beforehand through prayer and tobacco. To prepare for a fast, one has to cleanse oneself from all pleasures and physical desires. One has to be clean externally as well as internally, meaning that one must be free of alcohol and drugs (Anishnawbe Health Toronto).

In many Native American cultures, tobacco is considered a sacred plant. Tobacco is used to bring one’s words closer to the Creator. If one abuses tobacco by, for example, smoking it without praying, then the tobacco beings will cause lung illnesses. When preparing for a fast, it is important to offer tobacco to the world and to the four elements: water, fire, wind and earth (Anishnawbe Health Toronto).

Fasts are conducted in many different ways and in many different places. Fasters may stay in a fasting lodge that they have constructed themselves of saplings and tarps, they may sit on a platform in a tree with a tarpaulin to keep them dry from rain, or they may stay in a fasting hut. Wherever they decide to fast, fasters will bring with them certain medicinal plants, such as tobacco, cedar, sage, and sweet grass and sacred items such as a drum, pipe, smudge bowl, feathers and ribbons of their colours (Anishnawbe Health Toronto).

The time for fasting in most Native American cultures is spring and fall. It is believed that fasting in the fall will take away negative energy within oneself, while fasting in the spring will replenish oneself with new energy. Fasting is, therefore, used to cleanse and heal a person (Anishnawbe Health Toronto).

Before one can fast, they must first give an offering. An offering may include the placement of a certain food item, cloth or ribbon in a tree or in the earth in honour of one’s deceased relatives. An offering may be made to request their guidance and protection during one’s spiritual journey. The most common type of offering is tobacco (Anishnawbe Health Toronto).

Very often, fasters will enter the Sweat Lodge before and after their fast. The duration of one’s fast is determined by one’s connection with the spirit world, which in turn is determined by one’s fast conductor, who is responsible for the fasters while they are gone on their fast. A fast conductor is trained in the teachings of the fast and has earned the right to take them out. While fasters are gone, often the fire keepers of the Sweat Lodge ceremony will keep the sacred fire ablaze at the base camp (Anishnawbe Health Toronto).

The participants of a fast will traditionally leave their home and go to their fasting site. Fasting sites are often encircled with small offerings of cedar and tobacco ties to the Creator. As the faster prepares the tobacco and wraps it in cloth, they will state why they chose to make these offerings. Some people will make up to 365 tobacco ties to represent each day of the year. However, the number of offerings is dependant upon the individual and perhaps their tribal affiliation (Anishnawbe Health Toronto).

During a fast, everything around a person becomes important, even the tiniest bugs around one’s fasting area. The faster feels a sense of oneness with the sky world, as the sacred light from the moon and the stars brightens the sky. A faster may gain an increased awareness of the beauty of the natural world, which is the Native American’s First Family. By depriving oneself of food and water, a faster may also obtain dreams and visions, which are all part of their journey of growth (Anishnawbe Health Toronto).

It is believed that fasting brings a person closer to the spirit world and that one’s spirit awakes when one is on a fast. The faster may feel that all their questions have been answered. Fasters may also call to the spirit world by singing traditional songs and using sacred medicines in their prayers (Anishnawbe Health Toronto).

At the end of the fast, one’s fasting conductor will retrieve the faster and will take them into a Sweat Lodge where they will have the opportunity to talk about their fasting experience. The fast may then be ended by drinking spring water or cedar water and berries. Moreover, in celebration of the completion of the fast and the experience of the spiritual journey, a Traditional Feast is often prepared (Anishnawbe Health Toronto).

Sweat Lodge

Sweat Lodge ceremonies are one of the most widespread traditions in First Nations communities throughout North America. The Sweat Lodge is a purification ritual that seeks to return its participants’ bodies and spirits to their purest form, as when they left their mothers’ wombs (Blackstock, 2001, p. 59).

There are two types of Sweat Lodges used by Native North Americans: direct heat and steam baths. Direct heat sweats can be found among Native communities in Alaska, California and the Plateau, while steam baths are found throughout the rest of the continent (Crawford and Kelley, 2005, p. 1069). In a steam bath, stones are heated up outside of the lodge in fire and then brought inside. The lodge is then sealed and water is poured on the stones, creating steam. By contrast, direct heat baths do not involve water at all, with participants being directly exposed to fire in the small confines of the lodge (Bruchac, 1993, p. 11).

Although the Sweat Lodge is comparable to European saunas, what distinguishes the Native American practice of the Sweat Lodge is its religious orientation. It is not associated with recreation, as with the European type of sweats, but rather prayer and preparation (Bruchac, 1993, p. 4-6).

The structure of the Sweat Lodge varies throughout North America. In the Northeast, the Sweat Lodge if formed by willow poles covered with birch bark or skins. In the Southeast, they are formed by earth mounds or are dug into the side of a hill, while in the North igloos serve as Sweat Lodges (Bruchac, 1993, p. 2). Despite differences in building material, Sweat Lodges are usually dome-shaped structures about five feet high that are encased to block out all light. Most Sweat Lodges can also only hold a maximum of eight people (RCMP)

Sweat Lodges have both spiritual and medicinal purposes. Medicinally, sweating is healing. It is a necessary bodily function that removes toxins from one’s body. Many viral agents and bacteria cannot survive at high temperatures necessary for one to sweat. Moreover, many important endocrine glands are stimulated by internal rises in body temperature, which flushes out impurities in the body. The act of pouring water over heated rocks itself is also healing, as it releases negative ions into the air which counter fatigue and tenseness (Bruchac, 1993, p. 10).

The Sweat Lodge ceremony is more importantly spiritual in nature. The ceremony, involves prayer, singing and sometimes the sharing of personal concerns. It is also conducted in complete darkness. By stuffing out visual stimuli, a Sweat Lodge participant is able to become more fully aware of the self, focusing on their own thinking, feelings, behaviour and spirit. Sweat Lodge ceremonies help restore the balance among the four sacred elements of human functioning: Water, Fire, Earth and Air (Waegemakers Schiff and Pelech, 2007, p. 73).

The performance of a Sweat Lodge ceremony is extremely detailed, with a protocol that must be followed every time. This protocol dictates everything from how to enter the lodge, the seating of different sexes, and how to bring the water and rocks into the lodge. However, despite the differences within protocols among First Nation communities, some basic ceremonial elements can be identified. First, when participants enter the lodge they usually sit around a circular hole in the floor where, in steam baths, the heated rocks are placed or, in a direct heat sweat, the fire is located (Waegemakers Schiff and Pelech, 2007, p. 76). This piece of ground located in the centre of the lodge is holy and has not been trampled by feet or been touched by waste materials. This consecrated ground is blessed by an Elder with tobacco and sweet grass (RCMP). Secondly, the Sweat Lodge ceremony usually begins with the cleansing of the lodge with burning sage and other herbal medicines, the placement of the stones and the lighting of the fire. Thirdly, once all the sweat’s participants enter the lodge, its entrance is sealed for the remainder of the ceremony. The ceremony is finished once the door of the lodge is reopened (Waegemakers Schiff and Pelech, 2007, p. 76).

The Sweat Lodge ceremony has two ceremonial roles: the Sweat Lodge leader and the Fire Keeper. The Sweat Lodge leader is the one who guides the ceremony and who is responsible for the safety of everyone in the lodge. The Fire Keeper is responsible for building the fire or heating the stones, depending on the type of sweat it is. Participants of a sweat also have responsibilities. As a participant, one must enter the Sweat Lodge with a clear mind and must not enter with a troubled heart (Bruchac, 1993, p. 6).

Before and after the Sweat Lodge ceremony, participants usually exchange gifts. These gifts are of appreciation for the participation of others in the ceremony. These gifts of thanks are sometimes given to people who have also helped the individual along their spiritual and physical journey in life (Anishnawbe Health Toronto).

Tobacco is often offered out of respect and duty to the conductor. In the Cree Sweat Lodge ceremony, one must find a Medicine Man in order to participate in a Sweat Lodge and offer them a pouch of tobacco. By offering tobacco, the individual is asking the Medicine Man to work on their behalf in the spiritual world (Gary Null, 1996). Cloth (Print) is also offered in some First Nations. Often the prints on the cloth are representational of the Medicine Wheel colours (Yellow, Red, Blue {Black}, White). However, these colours can differ from territory to territory (Anishnawbe Health Toronto).

The Sweat Lodge ceremony consists of four rounds. In each round, the participant will pray for someone different. The first round is dedicated to the cleansing of oneself. During this round, participants will rub their bodies with needles from fir bough. Following the end of this round, the door of the lodge will be opened and the participants will go into a nearby source of water and wash away the needles. In the second round, participants will pray for their families, while in the third and fourth rounds they will pray for their community and Mother Earth. Between each of these rounds, they will exit the lodge and go into the water and cleanse themselves (Blackstock, 2001, p. 59).

During the ceremony, participants will sing songs and are given the opportunity to leave something, such as thoughts or tobacco offerings, in the centre of the lodge. In the steam sweat, the rocks represent the participants’ relatives who have passed on. It is also believed that when one speaks of their pains, problems and disasters, one is supposed to leave these negative thoughts and energy in the middle of the Sweat Lodge so that one does not have to worry about the burden of carrying these problems any longer (Anishnawbe Health Toronto).

In some First Nation cultures, women are forbidden from entering into a Sweat Lodge Ceremony, as women are considered powerful beings because of their relationship with the moon. When a woman is on her moon time, which is what her menstruation period is called, it is believed that she is the most powerful. Women are instructed not to enter a Sweat Lodge until four full days after their moon time and not for four full days before their moon time. Sometimes married couples are instructed not to be intimate for up to four days prior to the ceremony. Much of the instruction is dependent upon the Sweat Lodge Conductor (Anishnawbe Health Toronto).