Native Americans push to clarify sweat lodge traditions

Indians can become whites because the requirements are not very vigorous, but can whites really become Indians?

The Daily Courier, Arizona/July 4, 2011

Diné (Navajo) medicine man Leland Grass was in the hallway of the courthouse, a striking figure with his long dark hair, cowboy hat, boots and jewelry. Grass had been attending the final days of James Arthur Ray's trial, sitting alone or with family in the days prior to Ray's conviction on three counts of negligent homicide.

Aware that many Native Americans, individually and through organizations, were incensed over his transformation and commercial use of their traditions and practices, particularly the tradition of the sweat lodge, Ray approached Grass humbly during a break and offered his hand. Grass shook it, nodded and the two spoke quietly for a time.

"He told me he learned his lesson," Grass said later. "I said 'no, you have a lot more to learn.'"

Three people - Kirby Brown, James Shore and Liz Neuman - died after Ray's October 2009 version of a sweat lodge ceremony at the Angel Valley Spiritual Retreat Center near Sedona. Ray, found guilty of negligent homicide this past month, now awaits sentencing, which could range from probation to nine years in prison. Grass was present for the verdict and said he agreed that jurors had made the right decision.

He was less enamored with the way Ray had "customized" Native American traditions such as the sweat lodge and the vision quest, and turned them into profit centers.

"He took the spirituality right out the door and put in his own perspective," said Grass, who as a medicine man has spent years learning how to properly conduct the ceremonies. "He wants to make a name for himself, that he has a better sweat lodge, that he is god."

Since Ray's trial began in March, Native Americans from around the country have come to watch the proceedings. Some have stayed for a matter of hours while others have attended virtually every court session.

Among the latter are Ivan Lewis and Cheryl Joaquin. Lewis is Pee-Posh (Maricopa) and a member of First Nation Eagle Feather Council, a group determined to preserve the traditional ways.

Eagle Feather Council, with members from several tribal nations, in November 2009 filed one of the first lawsuits against Ray after the Sedona tragedy, asking for $5 million that was to be distributed to the Native American Ceremonial Education Fund.

The suit, which also named Angel Valley Spiritual Retreat Center owners Michael and Amyra Hamilton, was dismissed in October 2010, but the commitment to preserving tradition remains.

"It's about the principle," Lewis said, "to stop others from thinking they could get away with it and build a bank account."

Charging people money to attend a sweat lodge, or other Native American ceremonies, is anathema to tribal members who adhere to traditional ways. And Lewis said, it's not just about the October 2009 tragedy and James Ray. It's about anyone, native or otherwise, misusing the ceremonies. In recent times, Lewis, Jaoquin and others have protested and hindered the activities of a white man in Scottsdale who was selling a synthesized version of tribal practices, as well as a Native American in Sedona who Lewis said was shamed to be discovered doing the same.

"That goes for our own people, too," Jaoquin said. "I guess some people do what they have to do to survive."

Leona Mahtushquah, a Kickapoo from Oklahoma, said she understands the root of the problem and how Ray's conduct has exacerbated it.

"The sacred ceremony has been with us for generations," she said. "Upon the arrival of currency, that's when greed and exploitation came in. Our sacred ways, by Mr. Ray's conduct, were brought into the limelight for all the world to see."

And that visibility, as claimed in the lawsuit, is far from complimentary.

"Because of each of the named Defendants," the suit reads, "the general public across America and Internationally now believe that the Native American 'Sweat Lodge' is a death trap. (The ceremonies and histories are)...our connection with our ancestors and past, and abuse and misuse of our ceremonies cannot be tolerated."

Joanne Spotted Bear of the Oglala-Lakota people attended the trial for just one day early in March, and she agreed with the sentiment of the suit.

"This is destroying our people," she said. "It makes it look like we go around killing people and selling our ways. We know the courts are taking care of us, but our perpetual ways are ending."

But solutions are difficult to come by.

Margaret Simonson, from the Diné Nation of Big Mountain, Arizona, thinks tribal councils and state government should come together to somehow enforce what traditional Native Americans believe is already the law.

"They need to start caring, the councils and the state of Arizona," Simonson said. "We cannot control it but it comes to us in a spiritual way. We have set laws that come down to us from the creator."

In 2010, then-State Senator Albert Hale (now a state representative) introduced a bill that would have required the Department of Health Services, in conjunction with the Arizona Commission of Indian Affairs, to create rules and regulations for "any individual or business that charges people to participate in ... traditional and authentic Native American practices." The bill, which would not have applied to practices conducted on tribal land, died in the rules committee after several traditional Native Americans convinced Hale to withdraw it.

No law can be a good law when it comes to governments trying to regulate traditional practices, Lewis said, noting that history holds plenty of examples of how governments start with a little authority and seek only to expand on it.

"We don't want any government entities to regulate our ceremonies," he said, adding that he too believes the correct laws are already in place.

The traditional laws, according to 95-year-old John Kateney, Simonson's grandfather, are very specific when it comes to occurrences in the sweat lodge. Simonson translated for Kateney, who speaks only in his Native language.

"James Ray, if he's running a sweat lodge, he's supposed to be the connection between the people and the creator. He's supposed to help people, not kill them," Kateney said.

"You have to respect the water or the water will kill you. You have to respect the rocks. If you don't have a positive mind, even the air will take your life."

That respect, Joaquin said, is critical to the hope that some justice can be had.

"The court asks us to have respect and we respect that," she said. "If common respect was followed in the ceremony, then this person would never have done this."

Sweats are performed for purification, Grass said, and not for the pursuit of altered states. It has been that way since the beginning, when sweat lodge was a human being and offered himself to the native people as an instrument for healing.

"You always have the knowledge that you have the way of doing things brought down from generation to generation," Grass said, adding that the object is never to overheat the participants.

"You tell your people, 'Just remember, if it gets really hot don't hesitate to go out.' If you don't know that, there's no way you can run a sweat lodge. Something bad might happen."

But the worst thing that Grass sees happening is the commercialization of native practices. Sweat lodges and vision quests are never to be for sale, only for sharing or for achieving.

"If you want to do something, you walk on your own to get it done, you don't just go out and buy it," he said. "With money, everybody and everything is common, mixed. It's the same to go to a sweat lodge as to Burger King."

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