The Lakota term for sweat lodge is Inípi which means “to live again.” Inípi is a purification rite and is necessary to help the vision quest seeker enter into a state of humility and undergo a kind of spiritual rebirth.
The sweat lodge is central to Inípi. Prayers offered there draw on all the powers of the universe — Earth, Water, Fire and Air. In the old days, Inípi was done before any significant undertaking to purify the body and gain strength and power.
The actual lodge is a dome constructed of 16 young willow trees placed in a circle, traditionally covered with hides so no light could penetrate inside. On the outside, the site’s formation comprises an earth mound just outside the door of the sweat lodge, facing east, and a fire pit containing stones. The fire represents the sun. Another mound partially encircling the fire pit represents the crescent moon. This is the outer world or cosmos; the inner world is the sweat lodge. It represents the womb of the universe from which souls are created anew.
Prayers are said at each stage of the construction of a sweat lodge. When it is completed, burning coal is brought in, and sweetgrass is burned by the leader of the Inípi to purify the lodge. The pipe is smoked and carried outside, where it is placed on the mound of earth.
The other participants enter the lodge, sitting in a circle on sacred sage, and the pipe is brought in and smoked. The heated rocks are placed on the central fireplace, and the pipe is returned to the earth mound. Then, the door is closed.
The door is thrown open four times during the ritual to represent the four ages described by the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Woman. The fourth time, participants leave the lodge, emerging from dark to light, representing the liberation from the physical universe. All that is impure is left in the sweat lodge.
The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux. Recorded and Edited by Joseph Epes Brown. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953.
Yuwipi: Vision and Experience in Oglala Ritual. William K. Powers. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.
The Lakota Ritual of the Sweat Lodge: History and Contemporary Practice. Raymond A. Bucko. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.
The Gift of the Sacred, Pipe Based on Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux, recorded and edited by Joseph Epes Brown. Edited and Illustrated by Vera Louise Drysdale.