Benton County Pioneer Life

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Pioneer life in the Benton Co. WA area

Indians Whooped/You Would Too

Tri-City Pioneer
Tri-City Herald, Sunday, 4 March 1962

The Indian sweat house was an ancient institution. Its design, location and usages were handed down from one generation to the next. Their location required that they be near deep water to afford quick immersion when needed. The construction of a sweat house necessitated quite a bit of labor and material. The first thing was the digging of a pit about 30 inches deep and approximately 30 inches long and 24 inches wide. This pit was partially filled with selected stones of about 20 pounds each. These stones were chosen with great care to secure rocks that would not split and fly when heated. Dry wood was placed over the stones. When it was not available, dry sage brush was used for fuel. Over this pit long willow poles were bent to form a circular frame. Somewhat similar to a prairie schooner's bow top, only circular in all dimensions.

The whole frame was held together by means of willow thongs which dried hard and held the frame together for many, many years. A small opening just large enough for the bather to crawl through was situated in the side of the frame opposite the narrow dimension of the pit. The bather assumed a squat position or crawled on hand and knees while in the sweat house.

In the real early days a couple of tanned buffalo hides were draped over the top of the willow frame in such a manner that the bather could regulate the draught of the fire and the heat of the air inside the sweat house.

In the later years when buffalo hides became scarce, Indian woolen blankets were substituted.

The first step in preparation of a sweat bath was lighting the fuel to heat the stones in the pit. Care was taken that this fire was controlled to a point that it would not burn the frame of the sweat house.

While the stone were heating, the bather busied himself (if it was in the winter time) by cutting a hold in the nearby ice. He tied a long Indian hair rope to the frame of the sweat house for a life line to guide himself to the hole in the ice and by which to pull himself back after immersion. Often he took the precaution of tieing the rope to his wrist.

When the fire had burned down and the rocks were very hot, the bather placed the buffalo hides or Indian blankets over the frame of the sweat house in a manner he could control the air. He took an Indian gourd bucket filled with cold water, also an Indian gourd dipper, crawled in the sweat house, adjusted its covering, then with the gourd dipper, sprinkled the hot stones causing steam to fill the sweat house.

When he had steamed and sweated sufficiently he crawled out of the sweat house dropped the covering over the door, tied the hair rope to his wrist, walked in his birthday suit to the hole in the ice and dove into the icy water emitting a war whoop longer than a Missouri wagon tongue. Coming up blowing water out of his mouth like a playful porpoise, he pulled himself back to the sweat house door and if felt the need of it, repeated the act until he was satisfied.

If there were other members of the tribe that wished to indulge, they did so. When all were through they put on their Indian britch clouts, leggins, shirts and moccasins, then wrapped themselves in their blankets, strolled forth leaving the squaws to clean out the pit when it cooled off sufficiently.

To this day many of these old sweat house frames can be found along the banks of the Columbia, Snake and Yakima Rivers-reminding the present day inhabitant of the possible origin of his modern day shower stall.

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