Published December 5, 2018
Environmental activist Winona LaDuke’s newest venture is growing organic hemp on her horse-powered farm. Within a few years, her hemp will be sent to mills to create organic fabrics. This could not happen soon enough, because we need healthier substitutes for materials and fabrics. Especially those used to cover sweat lodges.
The benefits of the sweat lodge can be life-changing. They provide the sense of renewal in physical and spiritual energy that helps ease the stresses of everyday life and even PTSD. Unfortunately, we may not know the harm caused by the toxicity of modern materials used in our contemporary sweat lodges.
Drive around any Native American community today and you will see sweat lodges covered in old carpets, old canvas tents, old polyester blankets, old nylon, and plastic tarps. These materials are manufactured from a toxic soup of synthetic products made from petroleum and other chemicals.
As Native American communities move to revitalize and decolonize our gender roles, our food systems, our languages, our governmental systems — it is probably time to also revitalize and decolonize our systems of health and healing — such as our sweat lodges.
Historically, the Blackfoot and other tribes built sweat lodges out of willow branches, animal hides, sage or juniper and/or other elements of the natural world.
Long straight willow branches (Salix exigua) formed the framework of the sweat lodge. They were attached to the ground, bent into a semi-circle and interwoven into a domed frame. Often the willow leaves were left on the branches. The lodge was then covered with permeable breathable animal hides such as bison. The ground was usually covered with white sage (Artemisia ludoviciana) or juniper (Juniperus horizontalis) branches to sit on. In the center were placed hot stones and water was poured over them. Sometimes the water was infused with medicinal plants. The steam from the water combined with the medicinal plants of the structure provided a therapeutic medicinal steam for participants to breath. It was our original aromatherapy.
For those new to Native American systems of healing, a sweat lodge is similar to a steam room, which uses heated stones and steam from water within a small enclosed space as a method for cleansing and purifying the body.
However, after the demise of the bison in the 1880s, Indigenous religious practices were outlawed in both the U.S. and Canada. Nearly all ceremonial practices went underground for almost a century. In Canada, the bans against Indigenous religion stayed in place until 1951 with the amending of the Indian Act. And in the United States bans against Indigenous religion were finally removed with the creation of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978.
The Science of Toxicity
The research on what happens when synthetic materials are heated and then the fumes breathed in has not been conducted, such as what is occurring inside a sweat lodge. But research has been done on the health concerns of toxic chemicals added to synthetic materials.
Contamination can be found in the air we breathe, the water we drink or the cosmetics we put on our skin. Of the thousands of chemicals in manufactured materials, we will discuss a couple. To start, that “new” smell that many people love is only the off-gassing of phthalates or volatile organic compounds.
Phthalates are chemicals used to make plastic and vinyl flexible and soft. Phthalates are found in a wide variety of consumer products as wide-ranging as cosmetics, plastic toys, and shower curtains. Humans can ingest phthalates in three ways, by eating/drinking them (via water from a plastic bottle), by breathing them (via rooms with plastic mini-blinds) or through skin contact (via cosmetics).
Souta Calling Last
The U.S. National Institute of Health states that although phthalates have not been fully studied they are a health risk. One phthalate in particular, Di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), is known to cause cancer. And some phthalates can impact human reproduction or development.
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) is another to mention. They are flame-retardant chemicals added to a wide variety of consumer products, including carpeting, upholstery, textiles, and foam cushioning. Humans can consume PBDEs by eating/drinking them (via contaminated food or water), by breathing them (via contaminated air or dust) and through skin contact (via touching soil or products with PBDEs).
PBDEs are known to cause liver, thyroid, and neurodevelopmental dysfunction. PBDEs are also considered persistent organic pollutants or POPs, which are a group of toxic chemicals that can bioaccumulate in the fatty tissue of humans or animals and that are hard to break down in the environment.
Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier worked hard to help pass an international treaty in 2001 to protect humans, the animals we eat and the environment from POPs. The treaty originally included the 12 POPs called the “dirty dozen:” aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, dioxins, endrin, furans, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex, PCBs, and toxaphene. In 2017, another 16 additional chemicals were added to the treaty.
Today, we are ingesting these chemicals and more through the old blankets, tarps, and carpets covering our sweat lodges. And through the old carpets we use to sit on inside our sweat lodges.
These old coverings are often made from polyester or polyester blend fiber material that is chemically processed, bleached and synthetically dyed. Besides this, they can hold decades of mold, dust, and allergens. Some older materials are also made with chemicals that are now banned.
The steam produced in the sweat lodge covered with toxic materials puts those — hoping for healing — at greater risk for health problems that range from respiratory illnesses to cancer. Detoxification of the body is one thing that is not happening in synthetic material covered sweat lodges that are not permeable.
In the past, we did not know that these materials were toxic and we were being resourceful by reusing old materials. But now that there is scientific research and scholarship that shows that these materials are probably not healthy for ourselves, our families, or our communities.
Now that we know better, we can do better.
We should encourage our youth, families, and community to learn about our traditional plant knowledge, hunting and revitalizing the practice of making our own materials to build sweat lodges.
Tribal health and culture departments should also partner with families and communities to provide these healthier choices at no cost or low cost.
Alternatives also include using canvas coverings made from organic cotton or hemp from local sources. However, even organic materials may still be subjected to chemicals like stain repellents, flame retardants, and bleaching chemicals, so communities should be vigilant.
It is time to decolonize our sweat lodges.
Souta Calling Last, MIM (Blackfeet/Blood) holds a Bachelors in Environmental Studies-Water Resources and Master’s degree in Innovative Leadership & Change Management. She formed the national educational nonprofit called Indigenous Vision. As Executive Director, she guides a team who offer educational workshops in environmental and social issues, from which they have created a interactive map database. The organization offers workforce development training like Cultural Humility for creating a safe space for addressing inequality.
Rosalyn LaPier, (Blackfeet/Métis), Ph.D., is an award winning Indigenous writer and ethnobotanist. She studies the intersection of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) learned from elders and environmental history. She is anAssociate Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Montana and an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana and Métis.