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What is a Medicine House?

Niki Acker
Updated May 17, 2024
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A medicine house is a ceremonial sauna used by some Native American and First Nations cultures. It may also be referred to as a sweat lodge, medicine lodge, sweat house, or sweat. There is typically a great deal of ritual surrounding the medicine house.

A medicine lodge may be a hut similar to a wigwam, or a covered hole in the ground. It is heated by stones taken from an external fire and placed in a central pit in the medicine house. There is typically a person either inside or outside the lodge in charge of protecting the ceremony and making sure etiquette is observed. This person may also be in charge of heating the stones, or there may be a second person charged with that task.

In many cultures, there are religious rituals involving the use of the medicine house, such as drumming, prayers, and offerings. In some cases, the medicine house is used as part of a larger ritual. In addition to religious rituals, there are traditions and rules of etiquette surrounding the use of the medicine lodge. Many cultures require that there be complete darkness inside the medicine lodge.

The construction of the medicine house often has associated rituals as well. For example, it may be built in silence or to the accompaniment of ceremonial drumming. The placement and orientation of the medicine lodge is often significant as well; the door typically faces the fire, and the cardinal directions have religious significance in most Native American cultures.

The most important rule of etiquette to follow when using a medicine house is to respect the traditions of the lodge leader. Gratitude to the leader, and other support people, and to others using the lodge, is also extremely important. Other rules may exist, depending upon the traditions of the tribe and of the lodge itself. For example, nudity or mixed sex uses of the medicine house may be forbidden, and menstruating women may not be allowed to enter. Modest dress, such as a long skirt for women, is often required as well.

Those participating in sweats typically wear simple clothes, such as shorts or a dress, in natural fibers. Cotton is ideal, and synthetic fabrics are dangerous to wear inside a sweat house, as they can melt and stick to the skin. Similarly, metal jewelery and contact lenses are not recommended for use in a medicine lodge.

There are risks inherent in using a medicine lodge, and consequently, most Native American traditions require people to be be properly trained before being allowed to operate a sweat house. To avoid problems such as improperly prepared rocks, which can explode, and poorly ventilated lodges, make sure only to use a sweat house under the supervision of a reputable lodge leader. It is also recommended to check with a physician before participating in a medicine lodge ritual.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Acker
By Niki Acker , Writer
"In addition to her role as a WiseGeek editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "

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Niki Acker

Niki Acker


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