New Age Tragedy in Sedona: Non-Indians in the Sweat Lodge

Last week in Sedona Arizona, during a “spiritual warrior” retreat led by New Age, self-help expert James Arthur Ray, two people died in a “sweat lodge ceremony” and more than twenty were sickened.

Within hours after the news broke, the Web was alive with comments from Indians and non-Indians about the tragedy.

Sifting through the reactions I found a few themes that stood out.

Stealing the Religion?

First of all, there’s the question of the relationship of Indian religion to American culture. Non-Indians have been making a lucrative business out of the appropriation of Native ceremonies for years. Ray’s weeklong event in Sedona cost each participant more than $9,000. A search of any number of Web sites advertising these “Indian ceremonies” will turn up sweat lodges that average over $100 per event, and four-day “vision quests” going for around five hundred dollars, “all meals included” and “Visa and MasterCard accepted.”

Indians all across the country are upset, saying white people stole the land, killed the buffalo, and now want to steal the religion. The trouble is that most indigenous people in the Americas identify as Christian. Even the Native American Church, that features peyote as a “sacrament,” is incorporated as a church and uses the Bible as part of the altar display.

The origin of the peyote church can be traced to the late 19th century, the same time as the Ghost Dance, and shares a foundation from Christian eschatology. One of the central myths of the Native American Church is how a twenty-foot-tall Jesus came to Earth and saw the treatment of Indian people and began to cry. Wherever the tears hit the ground peyote grew, and so the buttons of the hallucinogenic plant are called the “tears of Jesus,” and visions generated by eating these tears allow participants to “see what Jesus saw.”

Understand, this is not a criticism of my own people and our myriad of religious beliefs; it’s just that no one religion has the corner on the borrowing and incongruity of sacred stories. New Agers who use the sweat lodge are not so much “stealing Indian religion” as they are weaving a new religion out of strands of what they believe to be old religions.

Various forms of the sweat ceremony were used by Indians from Canada into southern Mexico. In the south they’re called temescals and resemble a wet sauna or steam room; tribes in the American Southwest have dry sweats that feature heated rocks but no water, or a fire built inside the sweat with a smoke hole in the center of the lodge. The version that Ray and his followers used in Sedona is considered Plains style, where rocks are heated to glowing in a fire outside and brought into the lodge a dozen or so at a time. Water is poured on the hot rocks and the amount of steam and heat is controlled by the person conducting the ritual.

How this ritual made its way into the New Age religious movement can be traced to events in the early 1970s when the American Indian Movement made headlines across the country with occupations in South Dakota, Arizona, and Wisconsin. Among the participants were many American Indian spiritual leaders who were knowledgeable in the use of the sweat as a healing ritual—and they shared the ceremony with Indians and non-Indian supporters from around the country. Like the dried head of a dandelion, the sweat lodge drifted here and there and landed far from where it started.

Ceremony, Ritual, But Not Yet a Religion

Both the sweat lodge and the Native American Church peyote ceremony started as healing rituals for one or a few participants, people suffering from some kind of spiritual or physical ailment. Both grew into pan-tribal ceremonies because of the longstanding oppression of tribal religions by the United States government. Within a few decades of its origins, the peyote church grew into what is essentially an Indian-style Christian denomination. In order for the sweat lodge to grow into a denomination of Pan-Indian religious practice, there are some serious issues that have to be resolved within the sweat lodge movement.

In the interest of disclosure, I should say that I have been attending and running sweat lodges for almost forty years. I have been in lodges built for 3-4 people and those built to hold 20-30 people, sweated with elders in their 80s and infants only a few months old. People have had to leave because it was too hot, or they had other concerns, and more times than I can count have had to hug the ground due to the intensity of the heat. There are sweat lodge leaders with whom I would never sweat again, and those whose ceremonies were incredible learning experiences. The madodoigan is an integral part of my family, my tribe, and I hope to hand it down to the generations coming behind. But it is a ceremony, not a religion—not yet.

When I moved to California in 1974 after the Wounded Knee occupation the year before, the sweat lodge was already starting to spread from those origins. But I could not find a place to sweat for the first few months. Eventually some Paiute friends built one in their yard in a Southern California urban area, and within a few months, dozens of Indians and non-Indians started to attend.

By 1980, there were sweat lodges all over California and a yearly Lakota Sun Dance was being held at DQ University, a now-closed American Indian college near Davis, California. For the past seven years, I have lived in the Indianapolis urban area, and although there is only one federally recognized tribe in Indiana based out of southern Michigan, there are more than a dozen sweat lodges in or within fifteen miles of the city. Only two are run by Indian people.

So the first question to ask is, who is the priesthood going to be for the sweat lodge movement? And how are they going to be chosen and trained?

Honoring the Feminine? Or Endurance Contest?

At the heart of the reaction of Indians to the tragedy in Sedona last week is that James Arthur Ray is not an Indian. Running a sweat lodge ceremony is not simply constructing a lodge, heating rocks, and pouring water. In my language, the rocks are mishomsinanek ewi nokmisek, “grandmas and grandpas,” and so they must be chosen carefully. The wrong stones can explode in the fire, or worse, in the lodge. They can give off toxic fumes or not heat properly. As one sweat leader many years ago taught me, “the stones choose you, not the other way around.”

Even the act of bringing the stones into the lodge is dangerous; super-heated rocks carried from an even hotter fire can roll off the shovel or pitchfork and land in someone’s lap—and that possibility is an active part of the discussion of the participants in the sweat lodge as the rocks are coming in the door.

The sweat lodge is considered the womb of the Mother Earth, a living being, so it must breathe in order for it to participate in the ceremony. News accounts out of Sedona indicate that Ray’s sweat lodge was covered in plastic sheeting. As I have tracked the news stories and anecdotes of sweat lodge deaths and near-disasters, every one of them was covered with plastic sheeting or plastic tarps.

Missed by many who use the lodge is its fundamental purpose of celebrating creation and the creator as emerging from the principle of the feminine.

In my tribe, women control the sweat lodge. While men may tend the fire, brings the rocks, or be the one who pours the water, the lodge is “owned” by the women. They decide when; usually on the full or new moons. They decide who attends, and where the lodge is to be built. Participants become brothers and sisters in the womb and emergence allows a new start purified of past events or illnesses, spiritual or physical.

The sweat lodge is used in Native American substance abuse treatment programs and has been an integral part of ceremonies of spiritual cleansing of returning veterans dating back to the time of wars with the United States. Many tribes believe that participation in wars and battles cause the dead the cling to the soul of the combatants and must be released to the next world through a process of cleansing that includes the sweat lodge and other related purification rituals.

Participants in the Sedona event were told that this was part of becoming a “spiritual warrior,” and it is clear from the news accounts and Ray’s own advertisements that this was not about celebrating the feminine or purification of the spirit—it was an endurance contest. People were encouraged to compete with one another for no other purpose than to return to the workaday world ready to do battle.

And finally, no one ever pays for a sweat lodge. Ever. Participants may bring food to share, or wood, or work for the building and maintenance of the sweat lodge, or even share gas money with those who struggle to make it to the ceremony—but no money. Anyone who charges any money for any sweat lodge is not doing it for family, tribe, or as a celebration of the feminine.

There was a never a child born, or a spirit reborn, who came into this world from the last with a dime in their pocket. It is common sense.