Grandfather’s Breath and Mother Earth’s Womb: Experiences from Lakotas’ Sweat Lodge

Intensive. Cleansing. Calming. Those are the words Panu Kontkanen, a  33-year-old student at Aalto University, uses to describe the Lakota tribe’s sweat lodge. He knows what he is talking about as two years ago he spent the summer with the Lakotas at Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.

The ARC Grant

The ARC grant was established in 2006 and every year the ARC grants a scholarship of 1,000 euros to a student whose Master’s Thesis studies a topic related to the United States. Students of Finnish nationality, enrolled at a Finnish university are eligible to apply. The application period runs from October to November.

Follow the ARC Grant page for the grant application announcements.

He is also writing his Master’s Thesis at Aalto University School of Art, Design, and Architecture with a title “From Sweat Lodge to Sauna” in which he compares the Lakota sweat lodge traditions to the Finnish sauna culture. Earlier this year Kontkanen was awarded the American Resource Center Grant for which the Fulbright Center’s Executive Director Terhi Mölsä was one of the jury members.

The sweat lodge tradition differs from Finnish sauna in many ways. For the Lakotas, the experience is a spiritual ritual which affects the participants profoundly. The ritual has a ceremonial leader who pours water on the hot rocks and leads the group in prayers and chants. The singing is accompanied by a group of drummers, and it induces in the participants an almost hypnotic state of mind.  All of this is happening in a dark, moist tent with temperatures rising up to 80-90 degrees Celsius. The tent itself is only 3-4 meters in diameter and fits up to 15 participants. “It is a wild experience,” Kontkanen says.

The Lakotas use the sweat lodge a few times per week to cleanse their heart, mind, body, and soul.  The bathers are supposed to stay in the lodge for the duration of the ritual, and follow the ceremonial leader’s guidance.

Connections are vital

All this sounds very exotic for a Finn who is accustomed to a slightly different sauna experience.  How did a blond Finnish man end up sweating in a lodge with a bunch of Native Americans?

“Ever since I learned to speak, I have been talking about American Indians,” Kontkanen tells about his fascination with the “noble red men.”  Behind the image of the mystic warrior of the North American Great Plains there are also rich and interesting cultures, which Kontkanen discovered after developing a personal interest towards Native Americans as a young boy.

“Personal connections are vital,” he says. Without befriending a Lakota man living in Finland he would probably never have been able to go living among the Lakotas in South Dakota.  His friendly personality helped to create connections with and win trust of the locals; he got to know his neighbors by helping them with their daily chores and projects.  The Pine Ridge reservation is one of the largest in the U.S. with a population of close to 30,000, although Kontkanen’s home village housed only 54 residents. Kontkanen describes his time in the reservation as simple rural life – quite similar to what he was accustomed to growing up in Juankoski, in Eastern Finland.

Every man’s sweat lodge

Panu Kontkanen is not only known for his expertise about Native Americans but he also has a diverse background in music, performing arts, design, and television work, among other things. A by-product of his journey with the Lakotas is a photo exhibition “The Rez”, a series of photographs about the Lakota people and their culture – a unique collection in Europe.   

In the future, Kontkanen hopes to be able to concentrate more on photography, with special focus on nature photography.  He plans to continue to photograph the Lakotas and build up his Lakota exhibition.

Wastelands Design Star

Nature is close to his heart, and his Master’s Thesis takes a strong stand for ecological and sustainability issues.  He is happiest when visiting his family’s 100-year-old farmhouse in Northern Karelia surrounded by woods and fields, where he enjoys fishing, hiking, and camping.

Happy campers may get to enjoy their own sweat lodge experience in the future as Panu Kontkanen is in the process of developing a portable sauna. A prototype is currently in the making.  He is also is wrapping up his Master’s Thesis and plans to submit it to his professor soon, bringing to an end the two-year-process.  

To get back to Grandfather’s breath and Mother Earth’s womb, what do you think they mean? Grandfather’s breath is the steam rising from the hot stones as you pour water on them, and Mother Earth’s womb is a symbol for sweating in the sweat lodge.

American Resource Center Awards Kontkanen

This year’s American Resource Center (ARC) grant was awarded to Panu Kontkanen in April by jury members Jeffrey Reneau (on the right), Counsellor of Press and Cultural Affairs from the American Embassy and Terhi Mölsä, Executive Director of the Fulbright Center.