Origin of the Sweat Lodge
Native American Lore
The Piegan tribe was southernmost at the headwaters of the Missouri River in Montana, a subtribe belonging to the Siksika Indians of North Saskatchewan in Canada. Piegans were of the Algonquian linguistic family, but warlike toward most of their neighbouring tribes, since they had horses for raiding and were supplied with guns and ammunition by their Canadian sources. Piegans also displayed hostility toward explorers and traders. Several smallpox epidemics decimated their population. Now they are gathered on reservations on both sides of the border.
A girl of great beauty, the Chief’s daughter, was worshipped by many young handsome men of the Piegan tribe. But she would not have any one of them for her husband.
One young tribesman was very poor and his face was marked with an ugly scar. Although he saw rich and handsome men of his tribe rejected by the Chief’s daughter, he decided to find out if she would have him for her husband. When she laughed at him for even asking, he ran away toward the south in shame.
After travelling several days, he dropped to the ground, weary and hungry, and fell asleep. From the heavens, Morning-Star looked down and pitied the young unfortunate youth, knowing his trouble.
To Sun and Moon, his parents, Morning-Star said, “There is a poor young man lying on the ground with no one to help him. I want to go after him for a companion.”
“Go and get him,” said his parents.
Morning-Star carried the young man, Scarface, into the sky. Sun said, “Do not bring him into my lodge yet, for he smells ill. Build four sweat lodges.”
When this was done, Sun led Scarface into the first sweat lodge. He asked Morning-Star to bring a hot coal on a forked stick. Sun then broke off a bit of sweet grass and placed it upon the hot coal. As the incense arose Sun began to sing, “Old Man is coming in with his body; it is sacred,” repeating it four times.
Sun passed his hands back and forth through the smoke and rubbed them over the face, left arm, and side of Scarface. Sun repeated the ceremony on the boy’s right side, purifying him and removing the odours of earthly people.
Sun took Scarface into the other three sweat lodges, performing the same healing ceremony. The body of Scarface changed color and he shone like a yellow light.
Using a soft feather, Sun brushed it over the youth’s face, magically wiping away the scar. With a final touch to the young man’s long, yellow hair, Sun caused him to look exactly like Morning-Star. The two young men were led by Sun into his own lodge and placed side by side in the position of honour.
“Old Woman,” called the father. “Which is your son?”
Moon pointed to Scarface, “That one is our son.”
“You do not know your own child,” answered Sun.
“He is not our son. We will call him Mistaken-for-Morning-Star,” as they all laughed heartily at the mistake.
The two boys were together constantly and became close companions. One day, they were on an adventure when Morning-Star pointed out some large birds with very long, sharp beaks.
“Foster-Brother, I warn you not to go near those dangerous creatures,” said Morning-Star. “They killed my other brothers with their beaks.”
Suddenly the birds chased the two boys. Morning-Star fled toward his home, but Foster-Brother stopped, picking up a club and one by one struck the birds dead.
Upon reaching home, Morning-Star excitedly reported to his father what had happened. Sun made a victory song honouring the young hero. In gratitude for saving Morning-Star’s life, Sun gave him the forked stick for lifting hot embers and a braid of sweet grass to make incense. These sacred elements necessary for making the sweat lodge ceremony were a gift of trust.
“And this my sweat lodge I give to you,” said the Sun. Mistaken- for-Morning-Star observed very carefully how it was constructed, in his mind preparing himself to one day returning to earth.
When Scarface did arrive at his tribal village, all of his people gathered to see the handsome young man in their midst. At first, they did not recognize him as Scarface.
“I have been in the sky,” he told them. “Behold me, Morning-Star looks just like this. The Sun gave me these things used in the sweat lodge healing ceremony. That is how I lost my ugly scar.”
Scarface explained how the forked stick and sweet grass were used. Then he set to work showing his people how to make the sweat lodge. This is how the first medicine sweat lodge was built upon earth by the Piegan tribe.
Now that Scarface was so very handsome and brought such a great blessing of healing to his tribe, the Chief’s beautiful daughter became his wife.
In remembrance of Sun’s gift to Scarface and his tribe, the Piegans always make the sweat lodge healing ceremony an important part of their annual Sun Dance Celebration.