View Full Version : Two Die in Sweat Lodge Incident...

October 12th, 2009, 08:30 AM
I was saddened to see on the national news today that two people who were participating in a sweat lodge ceremony died. I feel so bad for the victim's families because this is not supposed to happen. This is not to say that people don't die during sweat lodge ceremonies, but typically if it does happen it is because someone had an underlying medical condition that either they themselves didn't know about, or that they didn't realize could be a factor or did and because of this didn't inform the person running the sweat lodge ceremony. Here's the link from CBS news with the details for those interested: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/10/09/national/main5374516.shtml?tag=contentMain;contentBody

What I saw on the news and the way these people died is not how a sweat lodge is supposed to be run. I think it's important to bring this up since we're talking about writing realistic NA characters because the sweat lodge is an important part of NA culture for many people. Normally I would have saved this portion for the part going over NA spiritual traditions, but since this has happened I wanted to post about it.

There were things that the person running the sweat did incorrectly that makes myself and others in the NA community from what I've heard and read, convinced that the man running the sweat had either not been taught by NA's (crucial if you want to do it right), and as such had no business running one. First of all, this sweat lodge was huge, much larger than any sweat lodge I've ever seen or helped build and that's on and off the rez. Second, it is typical for no more than twelve people to be in a sweat lodge at a time, this guy had 64 people crammed into this sweat lodge. That is by far too many, and quite honestly I'm not surprised that 2 people died and 19 were taken to the hospital. It was a recipe for disaster in my opinion. This is the kind of thing that can happen when people who don't really know what they are doing, or think they do ie they read it somewhere in a book, or saw it on tv, or maybe they experienced it once or twice and thought they could improve upon what they experienced, or they were taught by someone else who didn't know what they were doing.

Now, I don't want anyone here who may be thinking, "Dang, if I'm asked to participate in a sweat, no way am I doing it, people die in those!" to feel that way. For the most part, as long as the person running the sweat knows what they are doing, experiencing the sweat lodge is safe. I encourage you to ask the person that invites you if you can just go and observe the first time without actually going into the lodge. This way you can see how things are being run ahead of time. Here's what to look for so that you can tell if what you're seeing is safe:

*The sweat is being run by someone who is NA, or has been taught by NA's, and has their permission to run sweats.
*There are other NA's attending the sweat. To me, if it's only Non-NA's, including the person running it, then I would begin asking questions, ie Who taught you? Once you have a name, ask around about this person in the NA community, find out what you can about them, and if they have permission to be running sweats.
*No more than 12 people go into the lodge at a time.
*What to expect is explained to you, as well as how to prepare. Just FYI, most of my Lakota relatives would tell you to fast prior to going into the sweat lodge, but if you've never experienced a sweat before, it's better to eat something light a few hours prior to the sweat, and to stay well hydrated.
*There is a door person. This is basically the go to person who tends the fire that the rocks are heated in, and who opens and closes the door at the person who is running the sweat's request. He or she also is there to assist the person running the sweat.
*The door is opened every so often to allow the steam to escape.
*You are told that if you need to leave during a round, you can. If you are told you can't leave until everyone else does then this is a sign that someone doesn't know what they are doing. A round is a period of time that everyone is in the lodge, there are usually 4 rounds generally speaking for a ceremony although this can vary, and they typically last an hour or so, but this also varies. People take breaks in between rounds by leaving the sweat lodge and drinking water, going to the bathroom or whatever.
*Plenty of drinking water is provided.
*A hose or other water source such as pond or lake is close by so you can rinse off between rounds if you want to.
*You are told not to wear any metal objects into the lodge. Metal gets very hot in the sweat lodge and it can burn your skin if you are wearing say a pair of jeans shorts for example.
*You are told to wear loose clothing, and to bring your own towel.

If any of these things are missing during your observance, then you should consider not participating for your own safety. Also, it's important to understand that if you have certain medical conditions, sweating may not be safe for you. It's best to consult your doctor before participating, and even if your doctor gives the okay, you should tell the person running the sweat so they know.

There are a lot of newagers and others out there who are intensely interested in NA traditions and ceremonies. Personally, if someone is sincere in wanting to learn, and to participate I don't have any problems with them participating, or if they are properly trained, and have permission, running their own sweats. My biggest problem is with people like the guy who was running the sweat mentioned in the news recently who was doing it for the money, not because he wanted to help people. He charged $9000 a person for this multi-day retreat, and according to one of the comments on the article I read from a disgruntled person who took the retreat in 2005, he had them fast with no food or water for 2 days before going into the sweat lodge. That may be why people died. You have to stay hydrated for sure, and as I said before, if you've never sweat before then eat lightly prior to the sweat. My husband's Nez Perce and this how he was taught, and I've seen from experience this is best if you've never sweat before.

Carolina Valdez
October 20th, 2009, 08:19 PM
This was helpful information, but people die in saunas, too. Sitting in a spa can cause death as well, especially for those drinking alcohol at the time or for those on blood pressure medication. These deaths are usually the result of a serious drop in blood pressure.

Carolina Valdez

Jeanne Barrack
October 21st, 2009, 02:52 PM
Hi Regina
Just wanted to stop by and read through your info.
Massive amount of information here. WOnderful stuff and glad it will remain to refer back to.
My husband and I lived in the Twin Cities area about 30 years ago and ran a children's bookstore. We stocked many books for children with NA themes, authors, etc. and back then we were honored to be one of the few indie stores recc'd by the Red School House for appropriate material.
One of the things that I can understand is how frustrating it must be to see traditions put out as the next big thing for people to do. You know, like a fad.
It seems apparent that the people running the lodge had little or no experience, training or true understanding of NA traditions.
It's really a shame when customs and traditions become trivialized and turned into a gimmick.
To some extent I feel that way about the touting of the Jewish Kabbalah as the cure all for understanding G-d and "teaching" it to anyone and everyone.
To come to Kabbalah without any knowledge of the Jewish religion and customs and without any previous learning is like exposing someone who has never learned to read English above a third grade level to Tolstoy in the original Russian.
I Would expect that only by truly educating yourself in the sweat lodge traditions and engaging in the various guidelines you suggest, can a person truly benefit.
When celebrities take up a new "gimmick" it can lead to a lot of misunderstanding and tragic instances.
When we attended a Powwow back then, I didn't want anyone to feel like they were on display. I didn't take many pictures because I felt to do so would be like saying, "Look, honey. See the nice Indians!"
Thanks so much for the information you're presenting

October 21st, 2009, 08:56 PM
Hi Carolina,

Yes, it's true that some people die in saunas, however, contrary to what many people think, a sweat lodge ceremony is not a sauna. The environment is completely different. For one thing it can actually be hotter, for another steam is released from the lodge between rounds, and the person running the sweat is responsible for the health of everyone involved, and everyone involved is monitored to be sure they are okay when the sweat is being run correctly. Typically in a sauna environment to my understanding there is not someone that stays inside with everyone and assures their health. It's just different, completely unlike going into a sauna room and sitting for however long and then going and rinsing off and you're done. Also, if the sweat is being run correctly, people who have been drinking alcohol would never be allowed near the lodge let alone inside. As to the drop in blood pressure, this may be true, although I've never known there to be a problem when the sweat was being properly run by an experienced person.

The point I'm trying to make is that you really cannot compare a sauna to a sweat lodge, while the news media is making a point of doing so because this is the closest thing in non-Indian culture to compare it to, they really are two completely different things, and completely different environments with different parameters.

Thanks for commenting though, every viewpoint is important, and having a dialogue is part of what I was hoping for with this workshop. :-)


October 21st, 2009, 09:00 PM
Hi Jeanne,

Yup, you nailed it totally here. Celebrities and others see NA traditions as a way to make a quick buck, and it trivializes those traditions when they do so. As I said before, I have no problem with non-Indians participating or even running sweat lodges, but the key here is that they are personally trained by an NA who has been doing it for years and that they have that person's permission to run their own sweats. Someone that has been taught correctly would never dream of charging money to participate as it goes against everything that NA's hold sacred.