The sweat lodge ceremony is one of the most common ceremonies practiced by our people. Sweats may be conducted as a preliminary to other activities, such as a fast. Sweats may also be done for healing, for families, co-workers, individuals. The purpose behind all of these, however, is simple spiritual cleansing. The lodge is designed to provide a safe, sacred confidential place where the participants can concentrate on the spirits that are invited to the ceremony. These spirits are brought in with the 'grandfathers', which are the stones that are heated in the sacred fire. Splashing cedar water on the grandfathers creates steam, and we then have all four elements present in the lodge: earth below, air around, fire in the grandfathers and water in the steam.
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- Constructing a Sweat Lodge
A private place is preferred for a sweat lodge, to ensure that there will be no interruptions or distractions. A natural area is best, as it enhances the connection between the lodge and the Mother Earth our Earth Mother. A positive frame of mind should be maintained at all times while constructing the lodge.
The lodge is constructed of flexible saplings, and is made in a dome shape. For maximum flexibility, we collect the saplings right after a good rain. The lodge can be any size, however larger lodges are harder to heat thoroughly – ours will be about 4 meters in diameter.
The butts of the saplings are put in the ground, a whole is dug and tobacco its put into the whole and the saplings are bent towards each other from opposite sides of the structure. They are secured by weaving them into the structure, and by braiding the branches at the ends around the sapling opposite. If anything else is required, we use a natural material, such as spruce roots, cotton cloth.
In the center is a sacred pit, into which the grandfathers will be placed by the Firekeeper. The entrance is facing east, toward the sacred fire to create an umbilical cord from the Eastern Doorway to the sacred fire. The entire structure is covered with layers of heavy but breathable fabric, like military canvas ensuring that no light leaks into the lodge.
- The Sacred Fire
A few meters to the East, we make the sacred fire in which the grandfathers are heated. We first create a small platform of pieces of firewood, on which the grandfathers are carefully stacked in a pyramidal pile. Kindling and more firewood are then stacked around the grandfathers, building into a tepee shape that is sometimes called the Lodge of the Sacred Fire. An opening is left facing the Sweat Lodge, and is used for lighting the fire, after which it is quickly closed. Our prayers help to heat the grandfathers.
We collect the stones by presenting tobacco and asking which grandfathers would like to come and join us. We make our intentions known, then we pay attention: some stones will volunteer to be taken home, and others will not. The Grandfathers collected are between eight and fourteen inches in girth; larger ones hold heat longer.
- The Ceremony
There are many different sweat lodge ceremonies, each with somewhat different proceedings. In many cases the sweat will be done in four rounds, in other cases it is done as a single round. The number of grandfathers varies from one type to the next. In general, however, here's how it happens:
- The lodge is thoroughly smudged before use, and cedar may be placed on the floor. The pit is cleared of any grandfathers from the previous sweat.
- The first grandfather represents the Creator, and is brought into the lodge by itself. The Conductor then enters the lodge to greet and smudge the grandfather. Once the first grandfather has entered the lodge, an umbilical cord exists between the sacred fire and the lodge, along which spirits will enter the lodge; other than the Fire Keeper, nobody should ever cross this line. When told, the Fire Keeper then brings in the remaining grandfathers for the round, one at a time, placing them where the Conductor directs. The Conductor again welcomes and smudges each one.
- When all grandfathers have been brought in, the participants may enter the lodge which is Mother Earth’s Womb. Generally, men enter first, and move clockwise around the pit to their positions in the north. Women follow, and sit in the south. As each person enters, they “All my relations." or says their spirit name followed by their clan.
- When everyone has entered the Womb of Mother Earth, and the Cedar water container has been passed into the lodge, the Conductor will call for the door to be closed. This may be the task of a separate Door Keeper, but generally the Fire Keeper does this.
- Each round of the sweat is dedicated to one of the sacred directions, and the spirits and elements of that direction are honoured in a prayer by the Conductor. Each participant may then be offered a chance to pray or speak as well. The Conductor splashes Cedar water on the grandfathers to create steam and fill the lodge with heat; as we sweat, impurities are taken from our bodies. The Conductor is also responsible for controlling the energies within the lodge, and for keeping the participants safe while they are spiritually open and vulnerable. This can take quite a toll on the Conductor.
- When the round is complete, the Conductor will call for the door to open. Participants may be offered a chance to leave the lodge to stretch, and water may be passed around for a drink. Finally, when directed by the Conductor, the Fire Keeper will bring in the next round of grandfathers, and the process is repeated.
- Depending on the Conductor, the sweat may or may not be very hot. Since we frequently do sweats for beginners, we tend to keep ours moderate, allowing participants to concentrate on the spirits and the ceremony rather than on breathing and staying conscious. However, sometimes the spirits have other ideas!
- We also make it known that anyone can leave the lodge at any time, simply by asking for the door to be opened. Sometimes, people enter the lodge for the wrong reasons, and if the spirits want that person to leave, we will not keep him/her in. In other cases, the person may simply be claustrophobic. However, they can still be part of the sweat lodge by sitting outside the lodge and adding prayers and energy to the circle within.
- When the sweat is over, the participants emerge from the sweat lodge spiritually and physically cleansed. Many feel that they are being reborn as they emerge, since the lodge has a womb-like feeling. Generally everyone gathers for a small feast afterwards, so that the good feelings continue for a time, and a bond can be formed between the participants.
- The Aboriginal Healing Program
The Aboriginal Healing Program is a highly structured Accredited Leading Practice Indigenous Healing Program which provides a continuous intake process and does not believe in a waiting list for those that are either considering or are ready to begin their healing journeys. We raise awareness through individual/couples/family healing (counselling), group sessions, sharing/healing/talking circles, through the blending of Aboriginal Teachings with Western information, to help develop and create realistic goal setting to help provide balance and harmony with the medicine wheel, and to walk with the Seven Grandfather Teachings in order to help and provide options through a mutually agreed upon plan of care for those who want to create a lasting change through individual and spiritual growth. A variety of topics are explored during their time at the program including cultural ceremonies and activities while they are on their healing path. Program hours are from Monday through Friday 9:30 to 3:00 pm.
We offer two evening circles (groups), the first is The Aboriginal Continuing Care Circle every Wednesday evening from 6pm to 8pm and the second is The Aboriginal Family Support Circle every Thursday from 6:00 to 8:00pm. Elder Little Brown Bear (Ernest W. Matton), program facilitator, believes that being Aboriginal is a way of life, not a life style and the strong cultural foundation of this program provides a stable, safe confidential environment for which community members (clients) can explore current and past unresolved issues that need to be addressed to help them on their healing.
It’s a well-known fact that behaviors such as substance use/misuse/abuse, misplaced anger, Trauma, Mental well-being (health) gambling, eating disorders, unresolved conflicts, unhealthy boundaries/relationships, loss of language, loss of culture, lack of respectful communications, loss or lack of traditional practices, co-dependency, spiritual, sexual, physical, emotional abuse and other unhealthy ways of life may develop from unresolved issues or from the inter-generational impact as a result of residential/day schools.
If left unresolved or mismanaged, these unhealthy behaviors/issues, can result in continued negative consequences for the individual, family, community and nation. We believe that every person is a good person. More often than not, individuals with diagnosed or undiagnosed issues may experiment with substances such as street or prescription drugs, alcohol, food, gambling or sex in order to cope or to experience freedom from their emotional and/or spiritual pain. This may lead to unhealthy life styles or the development of difficulties with the justice system, school system and family system. Community members may develop signs of depression, anxiety, isolation, self-harm, social problems, relationship difficulties, unresolved anger, low self-esteem, poor life skills, coping strategies and problem solving.
The structured and the consistency in which the teachings are delivered throughout the program helps the community member (client) to address trauma, mental well-being (health), addictions, culture issues, the need to address and practice anger release, building healthy relationships, developing healthy boundaries, grief and loss, (including loss of culture, ceremonies, language), forgiveness, classification of drugs, short/long term effects, deactivation of cravings, coping skills, problem solving strategies and develop a mutually agreed upon plan of care.
In most cases it can also be noted that the community members (client) will often times not have been offered or not received any relevant cultural appropriate healing options towards their healing journey. As a result we will engage in assisting community member’s in completing an intake package to attend a healing lodge provided they would like to take such a path, therefore we would encourage that a more favorable healing (treatment) options will be considered rather than incarceration or further incarceration.
The community member needs to understand the level of commitment that is required in attending The Aboriginal Healing Program on a daily basis to making further changes in their life style and building on a new healthier way of life. My philosophy is quite simple and always has been: “People don’t care how much you know they want to know how much you care”.
If you have any questions please feel free to contact:
Elder Little Brown Bear
Ernest W Matton
Manager of Aboriginal Culture and The Aboriginal Healing Program for the Toronto East Health Network
Telephone: 416-923-0800 | Email: @email