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  • Sensoriality and Wendat SteamsThe Analysis of Fifteenth- to Seventeenth-Century Wendat Steam Lodge Rituals in Southern Ontario
  • Steven Dorland (bio)

Steam lodge rituals embody sensory-heightened and deeply spiritual events.1 Studies of Great Lakes and Great Plains practices have resulted in a greater understanding of the importance of steam ritual.2 However, intensive studies of precontact practices are lacking. Anthropologist Ivan Lopatin analyzed cross-cultural steam ritual activities but focused on the description and classification of broader sweat and steam activities.3 Due to the nature of Lopatin’s broad approach, he did not address ritual meaning and ritual experience. The analysis of Iroquoian steam lodges by archaeologist Robert MacDonald represents one of the first comprehensive studies of steam lodge structures that are located north of Mesoamerica.4 MacDonald provides a solid foundation for future inquiries by presenting the archaeological context of steam lodges, but past cultural processes have resulted in preservation issues and formation processes that limit the availability of material evidence that is needed to confront symbolic and ideational realms. Archaeologists require other avenues to address this lacuna and redirect focus to the experiential contexts of ritual practice.

I propose an alternate interpretation of fifteenth- to seventeenth-century southern Ontario Wendat steam rituals. Functionalist explanations that are contextualized in modernist ontological structures discount the plurality of steam ritual practices and do not consider experiential contexts.5 I argue that steam lodge rituals must be studied in a framework that is anchored in Wendat ontology and sensorial experiences to realize the lived experience of steams. Before applying such a framework, archaeologists need to address three critical points. First, Wendat ontology greatly influenced how Wendats interacted with material things. [End Page 1] Reducing Wendat beliefs to tenets of Cartesian thinking (subject/object, mind/body) distorts material interactions and material relationships that took place in Wendat communities. Wendat steam rituals encompassed more than an interconnection of subject/object relations within an enclosed structure. Participants acted as nodes in social networks that were manifested by spiritually charged living and nonliving things, material and immaterial forms of ancestral presence, and other natural and spiritual manifestations. Steam lodge experiences transcended the physical plane. Second, Wendat steam rituals were intense sensory-charged experiences. The sensory modalities of the Western sensorium provide a partial construction of the sensorial environment of steam rituals, but senses linked to pain, temporal awareness, and spatial awareness were also actively engaged. Third, Wendat steam rituals were mediated by both social memory and sensory memory. Knowledge structures and interactions influenced Wendat lifeways, but the continuing encounters with sensory fields played a major role. Redirecting research foci to confront experiential contexts of Wendat lifeways will result in a greater understanding of Great Lakes practices and beliefs.

To strengthen archaeological narratives of steam lodge rituals, this article proposes a multidisciplinary framework that integrates archaeological evidence with ethnohistorical accounts, oral traditions, anthropological case studies of North American indigenous groups, an interview with Elder Régent Sioui Garihoua (referred to as rs in this article), psychological literature, and neurosciences literature. Indigenous peoples recognize that steam lodges have both personal and broader cultural importance. The inclusion of multiple avenues of research maximizes understanding and produces rich and vivid interpretive frameworks. An overarching goal of this article is to conceptualize experiences of steam ritual sensory fields. The article does not reconstruct a universal spiritual and sensorial explanation of steam rituals but rather constructs an alternate narrative that embraces sensorial landscapes.

I refer to the writings of mid-seventeenth-century Recollect brother Gabriel Sagard and the mid-seventeenth-century Jesuit accounts of Father François du Peron, Father Jean de Brébeuf, Father Paul Le Jeune, Father François-Joseph Le Mercier, Father Jérôme Lalemant, and Father Paul Ragueneau.6 The accounts of Father Le Jeune refer to both Wendats and Montagnais, Innu-speaking trading partners of the St. Lawrence region. The Recollect and Jesuit accounts describe the lifeways and beliefs [End Page 2] of indigenous peoples and bolster French support for their conversion efforts. Overlapping descriptions of beliefs and practices further strengthen the analytical value of the written accounts.

There are two key points that need discussion when referring to Jesuit accounts. First, as...


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