Our Stories

Black Bears and the Origin of Sweat Lodges

The sweat lodge was traditionally used by Innu to cure illnesses or physical pain. They compare it to a clinic or hospital. People would have a sweat lodge if they had the flu or sore knees. One elder described how he had been unable to eat or drink for three days. His father took him to a sweat lodge, and afterwards, he was cured.

Whenever hunters killed a black bear, they would hold a sweat lodge and invite the black bear. The Innu call a black bear “Grandmother” or “Grandfather” as a sign of respect. This makes the bear spirit happy, according to their beliefs. An elder sings and shakes a rattle inside the sweat lodge. He sings about his dreams of the black bear. At the end, everyone in the sweat lodge sings a song to the black bear, and some people dance. They stand in one place because the tent is small, rather than going in a circle.

An Innu legend about a black bear and a wolverine explains the beginning of the sweat lodge.

The bear lived on a hill. One day, it saw some berries in the distance and left the hill to go eat them. While it was eating berries, it ran into a wolverine. The wolverine wanted to trick the bear. It said, “There are even more berries over there,” as it pointed into the distance. The bear asked the wolverine how it could see so far. The wolverine replied, “I had a sweat lodge and put berries in my eyes.” The bear also wanted to be able to see berries so far away, so it asked the wolverine to make another sweat lodge. The wolverine set up the sweat lodge with a big flat stone in the middle to heat the tent. It also brought a big stone so that it could kill the bear. When the bear arrived, the wolverine put berries in its eyes so that the bear was blind. Then it killed the bear [Story told in Innu-Aimun by Sebastian Penunsi of Sheshashiu on Dec. 2, 2005 to Trudy Sable; translated by Francis Penashue].

Innu use bear fat as medicine.  Innu in Natuashish, one of the communities in Labrador, cook the bear fat, skim off the grease and then freeze it. Later, they mix it with red berries as medicine.

Today, some people have sweat lodges almost every day, but elders look at it as a way for healing people. The person who needs the sweat lodge builds it him or herself, or asks a friend to help. Men use the sweat lodge more than women. Women only go inside a sweat lodge if they have pain in their joints, like their knees or ankles.