First Nations people have long known about the healing powers of sweat lodges. Now, mainstream science is finally catching up. A pharmacologist at the University of Manitoba says researchers are taking a hard look at traditional First Nations medicine, including herbs and sweat lodges. Professor Wayne Lutt has found sweat lodges work through a process he calls “general adaptation syndrome,” in which “the sauna-like environment triggers pronounced physical reactions… The heat raises stress hormones to a level where the body’s natural defences are activated, boosting the power of the immune system.”

Cathy Bird, a public-health nurse from the Peguis First Nation in Manitoba, says illness is an emotional, spiritual and physical imbalance. Bird, who is also a student of herbal medicine, said the traditional healer is part doctor, part spiritual guide and part mediator with the energy that shapes the natural world. A healer must guide people through an intricate process, teaching them how to prepare themselves as well as the medicine. Sometimes that means taking part in spiritual ceremonies such as cleansing smudges, sweat lodges and fasting, said the nurse.