Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

Crying for a Vision: The Native American Sweat Lodge Ceremony as Therapeutic Intervention

Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

Crying for a Vision: The Native American Sweat Lodge Ceremony as Therapeutic Intervention

Article excerpt

The most important thing to remember about ceremony is that it is a way for humans to give back to the Creation some of the energy that they are always receiving. The Earth Mother constantly gives us two-leggeds a surface on which to place our two feet; Father Sun warms us, and Grandmother Moon brings dreams. The element of Earth gives us a place to grow food and the ability to make homes and tools. The water keeps us alive. The fire warms our homes and cooks our food. The air gives us the sacred breath of life. Through ceremony, we learn how to give back.

--Sun Bear, Anishinaabe Nation, cited in McFadden, 1994, p. 30

There are many different ceremonies used across Native American nations for healing, giving thanks, celebrating, clearing the way, and blessing (Garrett & Garrett, 2003; Hirschfelder & de Montano, 1998; Oswalt, 2005). From a Native perspective, the main purpose of such healing ceremonies is to "keep oneself in good relations." This can mean honoring or healing a relation or connection with oneself, others (relationships; i.e., family, friends, community), the natural environment, or the spirit world. The underlying goal of these ceremonies, from a Native perspective, is almost always to offer thanks in order to create and maintain a strong sense of connection through harmony and balance of mind, body, and spirit with the natural environment.

Increasingly, culturally based interventions and techniques such as the sweat lodge ceremony or sweat therapy, based on Native traditions of healing, are being used in clinical, mental health, correctional, and substance abuse treatment centers serving both Native and non-Native clients (Cohen, 2003; Smith, 2005; Thomason, 2000). Sweat therapy is the combination of intense heat exposure with psychotherapy or counseling, ideally incorporating group process (Colmant, 2006). Although little empirical evidence exists demonstrating the effectiveness of sweat lodge ceremony or sweat therapy, because of its widespread and increasing use across settings, it is important to better understand the origin and current use of this culturally based intervention with Native and non-Native populations.

The purpose of this article is to explore the nature and purpose of the Native American sweat lodge ceremony and the practice of sweat therapy as a culturally based form of therapeutic healing that can be useful with Native and non-Native American clients. This will be done through exploration of the sweat lodge ceremony in terms of background, elements of Native American spirituality, an example of an origin story, cultural symbolism, an example of a sweat lodge ceremony prayer, description of one form of the actual ceremony, and discussion of the ceremony's contemporary use in Native communities and other therapeutic settings. In addition, we present current evidence of effectiveness along with an overview of therapeutic benefits, then discuss implications for integrating the sweat lodge ceremony or sweat therapy as a complementary approach to counseling.

Understanding the Native American Sweat Lodge

As a Native American tradition that has been practiced by many Native nations since ancient times, the sweat lodge ceremony honors the process of transformation and healing that is central to the modern-day practice of Native traditionalism across nations. Many Native American traditionalists believe that to ensure harmony, balance, and wellness, a person must participate in the ritualized cleansing of the mind, body, and spirit provided through the sweat lodge ceremony. This is a time for purifying oneself by joining with the powers of Mother Earth and those of the Universal Circle, for giving thanks, and for asking that oneself and others be blessed (Brown, 1972). As such, the sweat lodge ceremony is a widely accepted and practiced tradition that serves to purify those undergoing any sort of transformation or healing.

In contrast to a popular Western perspective on individualized transformation as a fairly solitary process of self-actualization, traditional Native peoples have always believed that healing and transformation should take place in the presence of a person's support network (i. …

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