The Lakota Ritual of the Sweat Lodge: History and Contemporary Practice

The Lakota Ritual of the Sweat Lodge: History and Contemporary Practice

The Lakota Ritual of the Sweat Lodge: History and Contemporary Practice

The Lakota Ritual of the Sweat Lodge: History and Contemporary Practice


For centuries, a persistent and important component of Lakota religious life has been the Inipi, the ritual of the sweat lodge. The sweat lodge has changed little in appearance since its first recorded description in the late seventeenth century. The ritual itself consists of songs, prayers, and other actions conducted in a tightly enclosed, dark, and extremely hot environment. Participants who "sweat" together experience moral strengthening, physical healing, and the renewal of social and cultural bonds. Today, the sweat lodge ritual continues to be a vital part of Lakota religion. It has also been open to use, often controversial, by non-Indians. The ritual has recently become popular among Lakotas recovering from alcohol and drug addiction.

This study is the first in-depth look at the history and significance of the Lakota sweat lodge. Bringing together data culled from historical sources and fieldwork on Pine Ridge Reservation, Raymond A. Bucko provides a detailed discussion of continuity and changes in the "sweat" ritual over time. He offers convincing explanations for the longevity of the ceremony and its continuing popularity.


This chapter and the next examine the ethnohistorical data concerning the sweat lodge as practiced among both the Dakotas and Lakotas. This examination is necessary for the assessment of change and continuity. Also, some of this material (for the Lakotas also rely on oral tradition) is used today as part of the dialectic that constitutes tradition; more and more Lakotas as well as others are examining these historical records.

First I review the early Dakota material and then provide early descriptions of the Lakota sweat lodge ceremony. the Dakotas, located to the east of the Lakotas, were described in texts earlier than the Lakotas were. the two groups are closely related both linguistically and culturally.

When considering the ethnohistorical material in chapters 1 and 2 as a totality, it is important to note the obvious: almost all of it exists in published texts, thus making it accessible to a broad reading public. Almost all of it, particularly the early material, was intended for an exclusively white audience. Even texts produced by Lakotas, with the exception of school texts, were produced for a largely white audience. the recorders of these texts, with rare exception, have been Western observers rather than Lakota practitioners. Most of the texts are mediated in the early period through interpreters and compilers; later, when English became more common, more “as told to” accounts appeared, though these too are mediated.

Texts represent one form of Lakota cultural representation. Albeit limited, they provide one basis for the historical reconstruction of Lakota practice.

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