Body and Soul
(page 4 of 5)
HEALING IN THE WOMB OF MOTHER EARTH
Therapy through Native Sweat Lodges
A damaged psyche may require more than a pharmacy to fully recover. In a return to traditional therapies, some Idahoans have sought the restorative effects of the Native American sweat lodge to deal with their emotional scars. From a Ketchum backyard to the Boise VA, an ancient ritual, that of intimate group sweats in the darkness of a confined space, has found new life in the Gem State.
The sweat lodge is distinct from a steam room or sauna—the intended purpose is more spiritual, the duration longer and the experience more exhausting. It is a hand-built dome construction only a few meters high, framed with saplings and covered, nowadays, with old blankets or quilts. Large stones, brought inside the lodge from a fire pit nearby, steam-heat the room when doused with water.
Sweating amongst North American tribes was practiced for three purposes: religious (purification and the propitiation of spirits), therapeutic (healing) and hygienic. Excluding the latter, today’s practitioners tend to sweat for those same reasons and continue to follow some form of ritual, depending on the tribal affiliation or leanings of those involved.
Ketchum resident Cam Cooper has no illusions about the nature of his sweats, despite having 25 years of experience. As he explained, “I bring what I can from what I was taught, because I’m borrowing the entire tradition of the sweat lodge.” Cooper, who hosts ceremonies in his backyard, honors the native practices by following a detailed ritual sequence, which he breaks up into four to five rounds over two hours. “Most of us will go into a sauna for 10-20 minutes; this is more intense than that,” he explained. “I ask people to push themselves, but to be responsible. Safety is primary.”
To begin each ceremony, which varies from all-male to coed, Cooper asks the circle a question: “Why are you here?” Although responses vary, the ensuing journey of solidarity and sacrifice is shared by all. For Cooper, sweating is a way of “suffering for the people. It is about undergoing discomfort in order to cleanse oneself for prayer, for blessing, for the healing of others.”
At the Boise VA, where healing is paramount, the sweat lodge ceremony has been implemented in conjunction with established therapies to treat mental disorders, such as PTSD and substance abuse. Cedric DeCory, part Sioux Indian and the VA’s administrative officer for behavioral health, has organized sweat lodge ceremonies at the center since 2001.
Part of the Native Services program, the ceremonies are conducted twice a month for 10-15 attendees, most of whom are recurring participants. As DeCory explained, “If someone is suffering from a sense of isolation, the sweat lodge provides community and brings in fellowship,” allowing attendees to feel more comfortable speaking. While the sweat lodge remains an alternative form of treatment, “the outcomes and rates of recidivism are comparable to other types of modalities,” praised DeCory.
As the U.S. expanded westward, many Native Americans dealt with the white settlers’ foibles through cleansing in the sweat lodge. Centuries later, our vices still intact, the sweat lodge continues to purify seekers of the New West, healing wounds through a sacred ceremony of surrender and support. - Alec Barfield