Monday, August 8, 2016

1823: Native American sweat houses, an early panacea

Native Americans of both South and North America believed that sweating was one of the simplest and most effective means of treating diseases. The various people who lived among or studied native Americans observed their use of herbal remedies to cause a sweat, or sweat houses.

Virgil Vogel, in his 1970 book "American Indian Medicine," notes that the Aztecs used the sweat bath as a cure all for many ailments. There were various experts who noted the use of sweat baths among the natives of North America. He quotes Jean Bernard Bossu (1720-1792) who observed the Choctaws of Canada using "steam cabinets in which are boiled all sorts of medicinal and sweet-smelling herbs. The vapor filled with the essence and salts of these herbs enter the patient's body through his pores and his nose and restores his strength." (2, page 255)

John D. Hunter also describes sweating, and says it's a good asthma remedy. In fact, Hunter says that most of the medicines used to treat asthmaare meant to induce a profuse sweating, which is believed to cause healing. You may read of other remedies, and sweating is usually the desired result; rather, improved breathing through sweating. (1, page 410)

We must understand that sweating was not just used for asthma, it was sort of a panacea for many ailments. (2, page 256) It was a way of cleansing the body and the soul. Hunter describes this:
Nes-ni-ne-shu-ka-ah. — The salt water runs. Sweating. — Among all the various Indian nations with which I am acquainted, sweating constitutes one of their principal remedies, and amongst some of them * like bathing, it is practised for the pleasurable sensations which it produces. Various means are resorted to for the attainment of this object. Some effect it by drinking warm infusions; others assist these means by enwrapping themselves in blankets or skins, while a majority have separate apartments prepared for the purpose of procuring it by exposure to the steam of water. For this, a house sufficient in size to contain one, two, or more persons, is constructed of sticks or logs; commonly on the sloping side of a hill, and convenient to water. An excavation is next made in the earth-flooring, in which they place heated rocks. The bath thus prepared, the patient closes himself in, and pours water on the rocks till the apartment is filled with steam, and the intended effect produced. Herbs and roots of various kinds are placed on the rock, with a view that their virtues may unite and ascend with the vapour. During the process, the patient drinks freely of the infusion of dittany, mountain tea, or other herbs. He remains in as long as the heated rocks retain warmth sufficient to produce vapour. When he leaves it, he wraps himself in a buffalo robe or blanket, and immediately, if able, repairs to his house, and if not he is assisted and goes to bed. I have frequently known them to remain in until they became quite faint. When this bath is used as a luxury, they frequently, on leaving it, plunge into cold water; and I have never witnessed any dangerous or ill effects to arise from the practice. Some tribes resort to another expedient to induce sweating. They make a hole in the ground of a size and depth sufficient to contain the body of the person wishing to undergo the operation. They continue a fire in it till it becomes quite heated. The patient wrapped in his blanket or robe, stands over the excavation, water is poured in it, and the steam rises between his body and its envelop; while others again immerse themselves in the water.They also produce sweating by covering themselves in the hot sands of the barrens, and I believe with much advantage in some cases. (This may also be considered an early, or primitive, fumigation.) (1, page 423-44)
It was a soothing remedy and one that was easy to do. It was a remedy that was inculcated deep into folk medicine. I remember when I was a kid and having asthma trouble, my dad would sit with me in the bathroom with the hot water showering in the tub. My grandma would have me sit with my head
under a towel in the bathroom sink with the hot water on. Surely this provided a cool sensation, but it rarely if ever provided any breathing relief.

  1. Hunter, John D., "Memoirs of a captivity among the Indians of North America, from childhood to the age of fifteen: with anecdotes descriptive of their customs to which is added some accounts of the soil, climate and vegetable productions of the territory westward of teh Mississippi," 1823, London, Paternoster-Row
  2. Vogel, Virgil J. "American Indian Medicine," 1970, London, Oklahoma University Press
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