First let me say, this is intended to only be a very basic general knowledge and certainly is not all inclusive and does not apply to every tribal tradition and way of practicing the sweat lodge ceremony. It is only a brief description of protocols that from my personal experience seem to be good rules of thumb when attending any Native American ceremony. When attending a ceremony with a particular ceremonial leader of a particular tribe or group, you should consult someone who knows that leader and ceremony for information on what is expected of those attending.
Sweat Lodge is a ceremony that has been used by many Native American Tribes and other indigenous people for centuries. Contrary to some people's beliefs, the sweat lodge is not just a sauna. It is a very sacred ceremony of spiritual and physical purification. The main focus is prayer. The sweat lodge is also used for many specific purposes. There are doctoring lodges, lodges to prepare people for other ceremonies and many other purposes. The sweat lodge most people are familiar with is commonly called prayer and purification sweat.
The first thing that is important to know is that every stage of the sweat lodge is part of the ceremony. The ceremony actually begins when it is determined that the ceremony will take place. Building the sacred fire, covering the lodge, and creating the altar are all part of the ceremony. Be respectful in behavior and speech during all stages of the ceremony.
Don't attend a sweat lodge if you are under the influence of any substance. The repercussions of this are too many, too varied and sometimes too severe to discuss here. You should simply do not do it. A general rule of thumb for substance users is; have at least 4 days clean/sober and have deep sincere intention of staying clean/sober prior to attending.
What I have been taught by the Elders is that one should never take without giving something back, whether you are taking from nature, receiving the gift of other's work, or asking from the spirits, therefore it is customary to gift a pouch of tobacco to the leader and the fire tenders. It is also good to gift them after the ceremony with goods, or a monetary donation. Value and cost are not important. If you are struggling financially and have no gifts to offer, that is okay too, but any small token of gratitude is good. It is important to know ahead of time whether a lodge leader is offended by a gift of money. By all means ask someone who knows the leader! I know of no traditional leader that will evercharge for a ceremony, however, many appreciate a gift of money while others feel that is too closely related to charging for the ceremony.
All the ceremonies I have ever attended have a feast afterward. Bring food for the table. Juice is also good. Maybe some paper plates and cups too. Whatever you can bring to contribute to the feast is good. Alcoholic beverages are not appropriate.
While waiting to go into the lodge, ask what you can do to help. And remember, all stages of preparation are part of the ceremony. Whatever you help with, do in a respectful and careful manner. It is good to watch those with experience to learn and follow their example. I have been taught to do things like the Creator and Spirit world are watching. (mainly because they are!)
Don't touch the belongings of others. There will be many sacred items present for the sweat lodge such as Sacred Pipe bundles, rattles, drums and many other items. Yes, they are very beautiful and seem to attract touch, however, do not touch. These items are the personal ceremonial and sacred items of the individuals present and it is considered serious disrespect and desecration to touch them unless invited to do so.
Sweat lodge is a place to humble your self before the Creator and Spirit world. Don't wear make-up. It won't stay on anyway, it will run down your face, into your eyes and irritate. It is also important to remove jewelry and any other tokens of vanity.
Don't pass between the sacred fire and the lodge structure. There are many reasons for this. It can disrupt the flow of spiritual energy, it can make you sick, and numerous other reasons. If you need to get to the other side walk all the way around.
Don't pass in front of elders. Now here's the tricky part. Elders aren't always elderly and sometimes they are even younger than you. The lodge leader is your elder, he/she sits ahead of you in ceremony, therefore is your elder. Little things count too, example, if an elder is approaching on the same path as you, step aside and stop until the elder has passed.
I won't speak specifically here concerning women's issues, however, if you are a female of child bearing age it is important for you to speak to an experienced woman about attending the sweat lodge ceremony prior to attending. She will know what to tell you.
When it is time to go into the lodge, the leader will usually speak and give direction. Listen and follow direction. If you don't understand, again, watch those with experience and follow their example. Go into the ceremony without expectations and with a humble heart and attitude. You will be blessed.
Once inside the lodge the heated Grandfather Stones will be brought in. Depending on the leader and the tradition followed, Pipes may be smoked, food may be passed, the leader may take time to speak and teach and like I said, go without expectations as every ceremony and every leader is different. Once the door is closed it will be pitch dark. The leader will pour water on the stones, steam will be produced and it will be very hot. Usually everyone will be asked to pray, songs may be sung, drums may be played or rattles may be used. Most sweat lodge ceremonies have 4 rounds, or, the door will be closed and opened 4 times. Again, this may vary with different tribes and leaders.
Safety Issues Surrounding the Sweat Lodge Ceremony
In light of the recent events in an Arizona (so-called) sweat lodge during which several people died and several others required medical attention, I want to speak now on safety issues surrounding the sweat lodge ceremony. Let me start by saying that I have been attending sweat lodge ceremonies for many years and have never been in a sweat lodge where someone needed medical attention or died. Of course, I've never attended a so-called sweat lodge with a self-help guru as leader either. I've only attended Native American traditional sweat lodges and have always been very safe there.
Know who you are sweating with. If you don't know the lodge leader personally, ask those who do about the leaders experience, training, history, background and reputation. If you don't feel you can trust them, find some place else to attend ceremony. Many times I will attend a sweat lodge as a helper only for the purpose of observing, getting to know the leader and getting a spiritual feel for the energy and the experience of the leader. It is very important that you trust your lodge leader as your physical and spiritual safety may be in their hands.
If a price is set and money is being charged for a sweat lodge this is a good indicator that you should not attend. The goal of such so-called sweat lodges is to make profit and you can bet they will pack in as many people as possible. Traditional ceremonial leaders will never set a price or charge for a ceremony and if there are too many people that need to pray, most of us will do two sweat lodges back to back to take care of all the people who need to pray instead of packing people in too tightly.
If you have medical conditions or physical limitations, make them known. Always discuss the sweat lodge ceremony with your physician prior to attending to gain understanding of how the heat and steam may affect your condition. An experienced sweat lodge leader will know how to help you with any safety concerns and will do so without hesitation.
Hydration is very important. Drink plenty of water prior to going into the sweat lodge. Many leaders will also have water passed to drink between the rounds when the door is open. An experienced leader will also allow you to go out between rounds if you need to or stay outside for the remainder of the ceremony if need be. Again, make your needs known. The sweat lodge is about prayer and if all you are praying for is to survive then the purpose has not been fulfilled. The sweat lodge is not an endurance contest or to show how "tough" you are. It is about prayer, purification, healing and humility.
Make sure to wear lightweight cotton clothing. Some synthetics can melt during the ceremony, so cotton is best. Be sure to ask beforehand what attire is appropriate for the sweat lodge you are attending. Bring in a towel. Remove all metal jewelry as it will heat up and can cause burns. Remove contact lenses and glasses, these too can melt and cause eye damage.
Many people will experience some distress during their first sweat lodge ceremony such as feelings of claustrophobia, difficulty breathing, and some begin to hyperventilate. Don't be embarrassed about this and certainly don't be afraid to say something. Sitting next to an experienced person can help as they will know skills to get you through it. Some good things to remember are; focus on your breathing, breathe in and out slowly and rhythmically, begin to focus on your prayers while breathing. It is much cooler next to the Earth, lie down if you need to. Everyone in the lodge is there to help each other and they will make room for you to lie down and help you through any struggle you may experience. If you can't get through your distress don't be afraid to ask for the door to be opened. An experienced leader will open the door right away.
The sweat lodge ceremony is a sacred ceremony and a very healing experience as well as an intense spiritual experience when done properly, according to tradition, and in a deeply respectful manner. The sweat lodge has helped thousands to heal, to overcome limitations, and to grow personally and spiritually, and should always be so.
If you choose to attend a sweat lodge ceremony I hope you find these things I've talked about helpful, and like I said in the beginning, this list is not all inclusive and does not necessarily apply to all tribal traditions or types of sweat lodge ceremonies. But it should be fairly close. Journey well.