By S. Alexander Alich
Sweatlodge or Stone-people-lodge?
When the missionaries from Europe first arrived in the Americas they witnessed what they must have considered an unbelievable sight: naked, native people sweat bathing together in a small house or hut. This was at a time in European history when bathing was considered unhygienic and indigenous customs were highly suspect. Without a frame to understand what they were seeing, it was hard for anyone from the outside to imagine what this ceremony was about. From their misunderstanding of what they saw the term “sweatlodge” was born, a term that remains with us today.
If you ask some native people the name and meaning of this ceremony they will probably tell you something different. A “Stone-people-lodge” is ceremony in which we return to the womb of the earth and invite heated grandmother and grandfather stones to teach and share their stories with us. The heat of the lodge burns away impurities from our mind, heart, body and spirit. It is a time to pray together and to strengthen our connection to “Great Spirit” and all our relations. It offers us a chance for healing if we have the courage to release what no longer works in our life.
The sad thing that the word “sweatlodge” can leave us with is to think that this ceremony is only about sweating: how much you sweat and how hot the lodge was. While the heat is an important part of the ceremony – it is only one part.
The ceremony begins as soon as the need for it is identified and the date is planned. Half of the preparation is our own internal work: we must be in the right state of mind and heart to enter the lodge. The other half of the preparation is practical. There is the preparation of the land, the wood for the fire, the gathering of stones and the preparation of the lodge itself not to mention the cooking for the participants and the clean-up of the area after the ceremony is complete. All of this is considered part of the ceremony no matter if you are inside the lodge, at the fire or cooking. Each part of the preparation offers learning and reflection.
In many traditions the lodge structure, which looks like a basket turned upside down, represents the womb of the earth. The lodge is constructed out of young flexible trees which are woven together. When the lodge is prepared it is covered in blankets while the floor is covered is soft grass and sage. Lava stones are heated in a fire near the lodge in preparation for bringing their warmth into the lodge. We enter the darkened lodge naked and quiet. It is our chance to be in contact with spirit, to pray and to purify ourselves. It is one of the few ceremonies that I know of that we can purify our mind, body, heart and spirit. We may even come into contact with our soul or essence and find answers to questions that we could not understand before.
Preparing for your first lodge
The most important preparation you can do before a lodge is to clearly define your intention – you must ask, where am I now and what do I want? This gives each of us a direction to move in and a thread to follow. In the lodge we face ourselves and “Great Spirit” – no one else. The healing work is an internal process aided by Spirit. The form of this ceremony supports that work and holds us.
I have helped many people prepare for their first lodge and most have expressed concern about the heat of the lodge. I like people to be very clear with their intention for entering the lodge and remember the heat is there to assist them in release what needs to go.
While there is a great chance for healing in the Stone-people-lodge, there are times when it is not good to enter the lodge. These include anytime you are not in your own responsibility, when you are already in a strong healing process that the lodge might disturb or when you are not fully prepared to face the topic you are working with.
Working in Different traditions
As you meet lodge leaders from different traditions you will probably notice that each person works a bit differently. You may wonder which tradition is right or even think to yourself “but that’s not what I learned.” This is not a good way to approach this or any ceremony. There is a beauty in each of our gifts and our own relationship to spirit. The best way to approach this ceremony is with an open mind and heart and with respect for each other’s way.
S. Alexander Alich has worked in the field of shamanism since 1979. After completing 12 years of training with both traditional Native American and Western teachers he was asked to help bridge western and indigenous healing work. Alexander founded FoxFire Institute of Shamanic Studies in 1988 and teaches in the US and Germany. He has been leading the Stone-people-lodge ceremony since 1992.