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/...in;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.