October 12th, 2009
12:32 PM ET

'Sweatbox' borrows from long tradition that's difficult to emulate

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/US/10/10/native.sweat.lodge/art.sweatbox.knxv.jpg]

Emanuella Grinberg

The people who died Thursday at a spiritual resort in Arizona had spent time in a "sweatbox" similar to what Native Americans and other cultures have used for prayer and purification rituals throughout history.

And those who use them say they can be dangerous if care is not taken.

From Scandinavia to South America to Africa, people have come together in the sauna-like structures - typically heated by pouring water on hot lava rocks - for a variety of reasons, said Joseph Bruchac, writer and author of The Native American Sweat Lodge. He's part Abenaki, a tribe concentrated in the northeast United Staes, and part European.

"Each tribal nation has its own traditions, so one group might do it differently from another so you cannot generalize too much," said Bruchac, who runs an outdoor education center in Greenfield Center, New York.

In North America, most Native American tribes use the term "sweat lodge" to refer to a dome-shaped structure where the intimate ritual of the sweat takes place, said Bruchac, who has his own sweat lodge on his property in the foothills of the Adirondacks.

"Sweat lodges are typically used for a ritual preparation, like before a hunt, or nowadays, people might do it before a wedding or dance or some kind of community event as a way of putting yourself in balance," he said.

Bruchac noted that incidents like the one in Arizona tend to raise discussion in Native American communities over whether non-Natives should be allowed to adapt traditional ceremonies.

"It's a very meaningful ceremony. I can understand why people find it attractive," Bruchac said. "But I consider it sacrilegious and foolish to do someone else's rituals without proper guidance or practice, especially in sweat lodges where you're raising people's body temperatures. With that many people, oxygen is going to be depleted, and if you have heart problems or breathing problems, you could faint or die."

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