Commercialization of sweat-lodge ceremony appalls Native Americans
by Glen Creno - Oct. 22, 2009 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic .
The deaths of three people after a sweat-lodge ceremony near Sedona are bringing new attention to complaints that sacred Native American ceremonies are being commercialized and demeaned by the spiritual-growth movement.
As details emerge of what happened in the sweat lodge, Native Americans are criticizing everything from the number of people who were in the tentlike structure to the fact that people paid to be there.
"If you ask just about any Native American out there, they will be appalled by this," said Freddie Johnson, language and culture specialist at the Phoenix Indian Center. "It's disturbing to hear that there were three deaths from this so-called sweat lodge."
About 60 people were crowded into a makeshift sweat lodge in the incident earlier this month, authorities said, as part of a spiritual retreat led by self-improvement guru James Arthur Ray. Participants paid $9,000 or more for the series of exercises and seminars.
Johnson said no more than a dozen people, and probably many fewer, should be in a single sweat-lodge ceremony because the experience is supposed to encourage personal interaction.
He said the notion of charging for the experience would be similar to charging admission to a church. He said a donation of something like tobacco would be appropriate if made afterward.
The sweat lodge traditionally is a purification rite, in which hot stones inside a tent create heat and steam. It is intended to purify the body through sweating, as well as induce a spiritual experience.
The tradition is thousands of years old, with the earliest sweat lodges used by small groups of native people before embarking on a hunt or going to war, said Vernon Foster, an Arizona representative of the American Indian Movement.
"It was a very private ceremony that took place, and usually it was one of our monks, and maybe four or five of the warriors," he said.
"Going into the lodge allowed us not only to be intuitive thinkers but to make contact with the intuitive world, to communicate with unseen things."
Lodges are typically constructed with willow saplings and use lava stones heated in a fire.
The ceremony might be conducted by several leaders, with the largest structures providing room for 12 to 15 people, Foster said. The traditional sweat lodge is supposed to be round and emulate "Mother Earth," Foster said. "It's not supposed to look like a stadium," he added, in a reference to the size of structure used in the fatal event.
About 20 people were taken to area hospitals after Ray's Oct. 8 event. Paramedics sent to the Angel Valley Retreat Center found people sprawled on the ground. Investigators have not yet said what caused them to collapse.
The people in the sweat lodge had fasted for more than a day before the event. On the day of the event, they had breakfast and were told to drink lots of water before going into the dark, low, 415-square-foot enclosure in midafternoon, where they spent more than two hours.
Ray's group leased the rustic resort between Sedona and Cornville.
Ray's spokesman declined to comment on the criticism by Native Americans.
Investigators have said that a local group was hired to erect the sweat lodge, which was covered with blankets and tarps.
The sweat lodge was constructed in 2008, according to Amayra Hamilton, co-owner of Angel Valley.
"This structure has been used on several other occasions since it was erected, without ever having caused any problem or even coming close to being problematic," Hamilton said in an e-mailed statement.
The incident near Sedona unfairly calls legitimate sweat-lodge ceremonies into question, said Rick Black Elk, head of the eastern Texas chapter of the American Indian Movement.
He agreed with Johnson that probably fewer than 10 people should be in the ceremony at once.
Also, the traditional ceremony calls for breaks outside the lodge, where participants can cool off and drink water, Johnson said. Black Elk said people who feel ill are encouraged to lie down and get fresh air.
"That's BS that you have to sit in there for two hours and take it," he said.
Foster said ceremonies were typically designed to last 60 to 90 minutes.
"It's not something that was prolonged," he said. "You go in and you sang your songs and you said your words and you finished up. You didn't add to that. Sometimes at our ceremonies, we go in for what we call a wipe down. We go in and sweat and sing a song and you're finished."
Black Elk said Native Americans have become distressed by people who pretend to be shamans, or medicine men.
"They wear a little turquoise and call themselves Indians," he said. "They're wannabes."
Sedona's economy is tourism-based, and it has a significant component of New Age spiritualism, built in part on beliefs by some that its stunning rock formations contain special geomagnetic power.
The town has numerous self-proclaimed "healers" and people who offer, for a price, their own methods for spiritual achievement.
Sedona is "New Agey," but essentially harmless, said Mary Cravets, who runs a Sedona company that provides services for entrepreneurs and works on an Internet radio show. She said the sweat-lodge deaths broke with that.
"This was brought here by someone from out of Sedona," Cravets said. "It doesn't have anything to do with Sedona."
Republic reporter JJ Hensley contributed to this article.
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"Our sacred lands are all that remain keeping us connected to our place on Mother Earth, to our spirituality, our heritage and our lands; what’s left of them. If they take it all away, what will remain except a vague memory of a past so forgotten?" ......excerpt from One Nation, One Land, One People by Tamra Brennan, 2006