Commercialization of sweat-lodge ceremony appalls Native Americans

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. [Hired?! You don't out-source this; we build our own sweat lodges. If we intend to use it, WE build it. Building it is part of the ceremony!]  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.

Replies

StehtFest
StehtFest

Years ago I met some of these same types of people and I was very suspicious of them. What really bugged me were the eclectic types who didn\'t bother to understand the things they \"borrowed\" from various cultures and religions and then threw together into a strange hodpodge.

A friend of mine got caught up in a group that practiced their own version of sweat lodge ceremonies -- even though none of them had ever been to a real one. And I think they charged people money to attend.
APieceOfMyHeart
APieceOfMyHeart

That\'s just revolting, I enjoy the more \"off beat\" cultures, but this is just proof, as if we needed any more, that everything is now \"up for grabs\" to make commercial. If I really wanted to know what being in a sweat lodge is like, I wouldn\'t pay over $9,000 and sit with some supposed guru. This makes me sick. I\'d be interested to hear your take on this.
EmpoweredOKC
EmpoweredOKC

I told my friend James last night (at our sweatlodge ceremony) that he was obviously \"doing it wrong\" because none of us had died yet, and he wasn\'t making thousands of dollars to do it (sometimes the guy can\'t pay his water bill). So we were teasing him about running the Cheyenne-Arapaho sweats in \"Sedona Style\" from now on, and advertising on a website. :)
APieceOfMyHeart
APieceOfMyHeart

Opposite of the emotion? It\'s a DBT skill. Haha, he MUST be \"doing it wrong\" if he\'s not making money off it and no one has died yet.
finalytime
finalytime

Hey I just saw a clip of an interview James Ray did on Good Morning America 2 years ago where he clearly stated that \"everything that happens to us is a gift and our OWN responsibility. We need to stop blaming and TAKE that responsibility\', the reporter then said \"We tried to contact Mr Ray for this story and this was the response we got from his lawyers, \"Mr Ray was in no way responsible for the construction and maintenance of the sweatlodge in Sedona\'. This guy will be going down I think. So far he\'s canceled all his scheduled appearances for the rest of the year.
EmpoweredOKC
EmpoweredOKC

Sheesh. He figures that since he hired someone to build the lodge, he\'s \"in no way responsible for the construction and maintenance\" of it. I did notice, though, that in our sweat this week James prayed for all those who \"are using these ways inappropriately for personal gain,\" that they would be led to better understandings and lifestyles. I thought that was very big of him.

And then, of course, we teased him about not being enough of a celebrity to run our ceremonies! :D