Sweat lodge trial fuels Native American frustrations
Passed on through tribe elders, the ancient sweat lodge ceremony is still sacred to Native Americans.
March 2nd, 2011
09:19 AM ET

Sweat lodge trial fuels Native American frustrations

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN

Growing up on a reservation in lower Saskatchewan, Alvin Manitopyes learned early to respect the sweat lodge. He was 10 when he attended his first sweat ceremony, and for more than 15 years tribe elders instructed him in his people's ways.

He understands the spiritual mandate he was given as a healer to serve as an intermediary between people and the spirit world. He carries with him the ancient ceremonial songs, passed on through generations.

He knows how the natural elements - earth, fire, water and air - work together to cleanse people, inside and out, and create balance. At 55, he has spent more than 20 years conducting ceremonies in sweat lodges, where water is poured over hot lava rocks as part of a purifying ritual.

"If you have the right to do it, then the environment you're creating is a safe place," says Manitopyes, a public health consultant in Calgary, Alberta, who is Plains Cree and Anishnawbe. "But today we have all kinds of people who observe what's going on and think they can do it themselves. … And that's not a safe place to be."

No example of what worries him is clearer than the case of James Arthur Ray, a self-help guru who led a crowded sweat lodge ceremony that left three people dead. Ray faces manslaughter charges for the deaths allegedly tied to his October 2009 "Spiritual Warrior" retreat outside Sedona, Arizona. His trial began this month.

Ray pleaded not guilty to the charges and has been free on $525,000 bail. Prosecutors say the deaths resulted from Ray's recklessness, an overheated lodge and because he encouraged people to stay inside when they weren't feeling well. His defense team denies those allegations, and attorney Luis Li has called what transpired "a terrible accident, not a crime."

Accidents, in fact, have happened even in ceremonies overseen by tribes. The Seattle Times reported a year ago the death of a 29-year-old Puyallup tribe member in a Swinomish smokehouse ceremony on a reservation near La Conner, Washington. The cause of death, overheating, was ruled accidental by a county medical examiner, the paper reported. And no criminal charges were filed in that case because it was an accident, says Alix Foster, an attorney for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.

The Ray case highlights an outrage that's long existed for many Native Americans. They are tired of their traditions being co-opted by others and exploited for capital gain. They resent that a ceremony they view as sacred is now being tied to terms like "death trap." They don't want their ancient ways to be deemed fashionable or inspire impersonators.

In Ray's Spiritual Warrior retreat, participants in a "vision quest" fasted for a few days before Ray reportedly led more than 50 of them – at least 30 more than the number many Native Americans recommend – in a sweat ceremony meant to purify. Each participant paid about $10,000 to take part in the retreat.

After the disaster and criminal charges, representatives of various tribal nations stepped into the legal fray, filing a federal lawsuit last March against Ray and those who run the Angel Valley Retreat Center, where he had leased land for his program.

The plaintiffs, on behalf of their tribes, sought to end the "abuse and misuse" of their ceremonies and hoped to convince the court that their rituals were their property and should be protected under the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act. Just as a merchant can't claim earrings were made by Native Americans if they weren't, their ceremonies shouldn't be falsely advertised either, they argued.

That suit was dismissed in October. The court held that "the operation of a sweat lodge is plainly not art, craftwork or a handcraft." Services can't be protected like goods, the court ruled.

Amayra Hamilton, along with her husband, Michael, owns the Angel Valley Retreat Center, where the lodge was located. Their business has suffered greatly since the sweat lodge incident. The couple, in fact, has filed a business claim tort suit against Ray for running his retreat, on their property, in what their attorney Kelley Ruda calls "a ridiculous manner."

But a December 2009 letter to prosecutors from defense attorney Li said, “Mr. Ray and his team relied on Angel Valley to provide a safe environment, warned people of the risks, did not force people to participate, did not prevent them from leaving, and did everything they could to prepare for any problems and to assist when problems arose.”

Several civil personal injury/wrongful death suits are pending against Angel Valley, Ruda says, but they are on the verge of out-of-court settlement.

As for how tribe members reacted after the incident, Hamilton of Angel Valley says, “I feel how hurt they are. And I have an understanding of it.”

Just as many Native Americans feel stung by what Ray allegedly did, Hamilton says so does she.

"Our focus here is on transformation, growth, sensitivity and creating a safe space," she says. "When something like this happens, is it a violation? Yes, it is."

The takeaway lesson for the couple, Hamilton says, is to make sure programs on their property are aligned with their intentions.

"We were removed" from Ray's program, she says. "We are more critical of who we allow here to do their work."

James Arthur Ray’s sweat lodge ceremony in this structure left three dead and became a crime scene.

But even if she gets why Native Americans might be offended, Hamilton believes sweat lodges have a place and purpose beyond sanctioned tribal ceremonies. She says she and her husband suggested Ray split his retreat into two smaller groups and that the lodge had been used before Ray arrived, effectively and safely. Plus, the practice of doing sweats does not belong exclusively to anyone, she says; similar ceremonies happen worldwide.

That's a point echoed by Ruda, the attorney for the Hamiltons. She points to sweat structures and traditions dotting the globe: the Russian banya, the Finnish sauna, the Hindu fire lodge.

But Floyd "Looks for Buffalo" Hand, 71, doesn't care about the traditions of others. He's worried about the sweats that seem blatantly modeled after his people's practices.

A member of the Oglala Lakota Delegation of the Black Hills Sioux Nation, he was among the plaintiffs listed in the now-dismissed complaint against Ray. A grandson of Chief Red Cloud and a descendant of the Crazy Horse Band, he was reached at his home on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where he has lived his whole life.

"I sat back two weeks watching the news (about Ray's sweat lodge incident), waiting for another tribe or individual to say something because they violated the way of life of the Lakota people," he says. "It is a way of life, our language, our custom, our culture. It's the way we live."

Adding insult, he says, was how Ray benefited, "making over $500,000 off of our way of life," charging for what is sacred.

This disbelief and frustration spans generations.

Autumn Two Bulls, 29, also lives on Pine Ridge, and just thinking about the dream catchers that hang in trendy gift shops, the non-Native Americans who make money off her people's artifacts, makes her cry "rape."

"Haven't native people been through enough?" says Two Bulls, a writer who created Reservation H.E.L.P. (Helping Every Lakota Person), an organization to help impoverished families.

"It's a fad to be Indian today. … They envision us like a fantasy culture," but the harsh reality is one they helped create and won't face, she suggests.

She says this from her reservation, where there's 80 percent unemployment, suicide rates are reportedly 300 percent higher than the national average and alcoholism ravages her community. Two Bulls says she was 18 when her mother died in her arms from cirrhosis.

"In America, you are an individual. You can be whatever you want to be. When you're Lakota, we belong to each other. So when you take our way of life and put a price tag on it, you're asking for death, you're asking for something to happen to you."

It's not that she believes anyone deserved to die in Ray's sweat lodge; they were victims of his "wannabe" ways, of his playing with a tradition that wasn't his to claim, she says.

"But honestly, I think the spirits went and did something there," Two Bulls says. "He has taken the deaths of our ancestors, the slaughtering of our babies, and he sold it. And it came back on him and killed those people."

Less than a week after the Ray ceremony turned deadly, Valerie Taliman, a Navajo journalist and columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network, penned a scathing column with the title "Selling the Sacred."

She called out Ray for his actions, including that he fled Arizona after the ceremony.

"Who does that? Only a huckster posing as the real thing," she wrote.

Taliman, 53, also wrote about long-standing efforts by Native Americans to stop the "appropriation and exploitation of sacred ceremonies," pointing to a 1993 international gathering in South Dakota of 500 Lakota, Dakota and Nakota nation representatives. Together they "passed the 'Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality,' denouncing individuals involved in the New Age movement, shamanism, cultists, and neo-paganists and others who promote 'intolerable and obscene imitations of sacred Lakota rites,' " Taliman wrote.

Ray is a symbol, the latest and most horrifying example of what this trend purports, she says by phone. And the double standard in how he's been treated is glaring, she says.

"If an Indian man, a traditional person, killed people in a sweat lodge, he'd be in jail," she says, not free on bond. "And if I went out, and I impersonated a Catholic priest, and charged people to attend ceremonies, they'd arrest me."

Perhaps no one feels more troubled by what happened during Ray's retreat than David Singing Bear.

He was enlisted by the Angel Valley Retreat Center to advise on the construction of the sweat lodge Ray would use, a point the Hamiltons' attorney, Ruda, also highlights.

"To the extent that they (Native Americans) think it was a bunch of white people tying sticks together, that's not the case," Ruda says.

Singing Bear is a 60-year-old Eastern Band Cherokee who calls himself a wisdom keeper, ceremonial leader and healer. He says he spent 20 years learning from tribal elders on reservations across North America.

So when he was asked to offer advice in creating a sweat lodge outside Sedona, where he lives, it mattered to him that it was done right. He says he selected the blankets and canvas covering that would breathe and offered the space traditional blessings and prayers, at no charge. And he says he worried when he heard how large they said Ray wanted it to be.

He says he told higher-ups at Angel Valley that what Ray wanted was too big and that only trained facilitators should lead ceremonies. Hamilton says, "I do not know what he said at the time."

Singing Bear, who’s been named a witness in Ray’s criminal trial, says he doesn’t allow more than 20 people in a sweat because each person needs to be looked out for and protected. Others add that Native Americans would never pressure anyone to stay. The allegation that Ray did this, again, is one the defense team denies.

With or without him, Singing Bear says, that lodge was going to be built because it was what Ray wanted. And he says he had no reason to believe the structure he was consulted on and his nephew built, one meant to represent the nurturing "womb of Mother Earth," would go on to become a crime scene. Now, though, he'll stay away from these kinds of requests.

"They don't care about our ways. It's a dollar sign to them," he says. "I'll never mess with colonialists again."

- CNN Writer/Producer

Filed under: Courts • Culture wars • Interfaith issues • Sacred Spaces • Traditions

soundoff (616 Responses)
  1. Cynic@large

    Silly people who pay exorbitant amounts of money for foolish deserve to be taken advantage of, no tears on my part for the ones who died. Regarding the natives and their outrage, I'm so tired of their hypocrisy- "let me live like my ancestors free as the wind and not work involved blah blah blah" but "give me tons of money to have nuclear medicine and university scholarships and water and power blah blah blah". Make up your minds as to what you want to be and then be it.

    March 5, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  2. Fletch

    Got to love them injuns... it's ok to open/run the casinos which encourages/leads to economical problems along with social/mental & family problems. But step on their "sacred" practices and they cry foul...

    March 5, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
  3. Qularkono

    they can't do what we call our traditions .... they are ours ... so you all stay away

    March 5, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  4. V. Clausewitz

    And I can't believe they co-opted our casinos and are exploiting them for capital gain. The nerve.

    March 5, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
  5. Fast Fred

    Yeah........the Icelanders and the Swede's should sued for their use of their sauna's .

    March 5, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  6. Kamereon

    Way too many cults hurting people in AZ. Spiritual Warrior makes me think of that other abusive cult Warriorschool (also in AZ). The sun must be driving people mad down there...or maybe you're crazy for moving to a state that has 120 degree temperatures.

    March 5, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  7. Bob Schnebly


    So very many people feel disconnected, lost, with no steering wheel. That seems to me why people, some with great means others needed to borrow against their retirement to do something like this. It's so sad that so many lost souls would crawl through the sand to drink the "dirty water" that James A. Ray (nothing but a huckster) would supply. I don't claim to have any answers however, I KNOW people like James A. Ray are NOT "it" in any way, shape or form.

    We can look to God and whatever that means to each person and his or her upbringing and spiritual belief.

    Bob Schnebly

    March 5, 2011 at 7:35 am |
  8. Gabby

    I was wondering why in the world would anyone pay an absurd amount of money for such a ritual?!

    March 5, 2011 at 2:31 am |
    • Stacie

      Uh, because their own culture is spiritually dead and they've been taught that everything (including spirituality) is a commodity to be purchased?

      March 5, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • abenc

      Because some can afford it?

      March 14, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  9. karen

    David, I am praying for you. It is too bad things had to happen this way. I am sure of course if you had any idea you would have steered clear. I saw the woman talking on tv who wrote the book about that day and one thing I found good that she summed up is that it was NOT a sweat lodge. I forget what she called it, but it was NOT a sweat lodge. I am personally so upset that James took advantage of so many people in the name of the lodge and sacred ways. I have attended many lodges, I have brought in the rocks and even helped build one once ,and never ever felt unsafe inside, or afraid to leave (even tho I never have had to). I have seen where people have needed to get out and they were always supported and got involved with the other duties. I dont belong to any nation but I do take this very personal. The sweat is my most sacred place and this man has dirtied it in so many ways. Even though I dont know anyone involved, I personally feel violated. I agree with what someone said earlier about maybe the spirits were sending a message and I am so sorry that innocent people lost their lives, and that native way was disrespected. I agree that James had absolutely no right to capitalize and he was playing with fire. I never in my life heard of a money exchange for attending a lodge. Most of James's participants never heard of a sweat lodge, little lone ever attended one. I am about to say a very terrible thing and I know its wrong to say and I ask in advance for forgiveness but it makes me feel better to say "I hope they shave James' head, and bankrupt him, and then throw him in a hot plastic dome after 72 hrs with no food and water." Give him a "vision quest". Sorry I had to say it....

    March 4, 2011 at 10:59 pm |
  10. David Singingbear

    My name is Meheaveho Mohea'chan ( Bear Who Sings) I am Eastern Band Cherokee (Kitawaha) mothers linage my Father Irish I was raised as Ist nation learning the ways of spirit and elements from the ones before me ,In my interveiw there are some incorrect statements . I did not design the lodge, I was asked as and advisor, my advise was as follows the lodge is too large they intended to build there no way to facilate the needs of all in a lodge this large, alodge should have blankets and or canvas of cloth so it can breathe not plastic or rubber, and finally James Rae is not a qaulified trained facillatator trained in our ways and should be preforming these ceremonies.I did the prayers and blessings as anyone would do who cares for our spirits and relatives should do, I now have my own cross to bare and feel very bad for the families involved

    March 4, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
    • David Singingbear

      It should read Jamess Rae should not be prefoming these cermonies

      March 4, 2011 at 9:39 pm |
  11. Sarah

    Oh, and I also want to add, like Stephanie said there is more than one way to be "great." Just because white people tend to have more power and money than minorities (where I'm from anyway) does not mean that they are "great" and the others are "lesser." It only means they are great if what you value is consumerism, domination and influence. No amount of money or power can make you a decent (or even a happy) person.

    March 4, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
  12. Sarah

    I think that with everything people of European Decent have stolen from Native Americans, it is really low to steal their ceremonies as well. Performing the sacred ceremony of another ethnic group and CHARGING for it as if you are selling tickets to a show is wrong. Plain and simple. I do not know whether this guy should be charged with murder, but he was certainly negligent in providing for those peoples' safety. I have been to many church services over the years but the services have been free, and the retreats I have been on mostly only charge a small fee for the speakers and room and board. I think its terrible that the lawsuit about tribal rituals was thrown out- it seems so wrong. I have in the past heard about white people using Native American symbols and doing their rituals but never really thought about the other side of it- that we are stealing those rituals from a culture that we exploited and nearly destroyed. It makes me ashamed. I'm very sorry to those of you who are reading this who are Native American. I would never do a thing like this, and it makes me ashamed of my heritage.

    March 4, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
  13. Kris

    Ok...I am Native..it was mentioned that there are many ceremonies resembling Sweat Lodges around the world...and American Indians do not "own" this ...well now...there are many Churches around the world too...but I have never gone to a public place and said a Mass...performed a baptism or preached my way of life to anyone, much less for $10,000!!!! our Ceremonys are free...they are done by our Elders who know what they are doing and have been doing it for years!
    and as for you folks who say...:this is 2011, get over it"...it? would you tell Jewish folks to get over the holocaust? African Americans to "get over" slavery and the atrocities they suffered? i think not...so do not tell the First Peoples on this continent, to get over OUR holocaust! please...

    March 4, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • holly

      I don't actually tell people that, but I certainly think it especially when it doesn't effect a person directly. Unforgiveness rots the soul.

      March 5, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • holly

      Oh and I'm Cherokee....my great grandfather walked the trail of tears.

      March 5, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
  14. Dawn

    The Sweat Lodge is not for alot of people native or white or any colour. I'm Native and in my culture we are told at a young age NOT to go in a sweat lodge because it's not apart of our native ways. We all have different ways we go by, we all have different hunting, fishing, Languages, etc.....

    March 4, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  15. Moon_girl

    I meant to write sympathy ...We dont need anyones pity or sympathy all we wanted for centuries was just to live our lives. For those who love us thank you for the love and support.

    March 3, 2011 at 6:27 pm |

    pay me $10k and i'll make you experience sheepherding! I will then give you clans and a Dineh name in a sweat lodge, don't worry, there will be only be 100 of you folks.

    March 3, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
  17. respect

    the comment about this having happened before – you mention a single incident. how is that good journalism? and no background about it.
    This thing was a for-profit insult, it was not built properly, no one (esp newbies) should be encouraged to stay if they don't feel well – many many things wrong with this, it's not about the sweatlodge as this was not that, just a cultural ripoff moneymaker.

    March 3, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  18. local_yocal

    This is really pretty lame. Those hoity toity 'retreats' run by wealthy 'spiritualists' do nothing but exploit people seeking a different path, often at unbelievable prices. This is what happens when the blind lead the blind. It is sad that people died during this one, but it is not the first incident of its kind nor will it be the last. By the way Heather, you should go pick up a book on Federal Indian Law, you might actually learn that in terms of legal dealings between the US and Native American sovereign nations we are still, in fact, colonialists pushing treaties that lie, cheat, and steal from native communities. It is a Fact. I have spent years working with tribes in Idaho and I have seen it first hand more times than i like to admit. Colonialists is the right word to use and subjugation is the name of the game. Don't believe me? Look it up.

    March 3, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
  19. Heather

    Heh, "colonialists." It's 2011, get over it!

    March 3, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • girlmtnear

      ....and the colonization continues!!!! Ever wondered where that rage comes from? Take a critical look.

      March 4, 2011 at 2:13 am |
    • Stacie

      You have no idea what you are talking about. Native nations are STILL fighting with the US government to have valid contracts and treaties honored. Every time some state finds a mineral or wants to dump their nuclear waste somewhere, suddenly the treaties aren't valid. Pathetic. And now you people are killing each other trying to imitate sacred ritual for money. *huge eye roll*

      March 5, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
  20. truthful one

    I am...a pale face. My skin is as white as the sun rays from the sun. I have no culture because my blood is mixed by so many. I am proud of each drop.It makes me who I am. When I look back on my life, I see many bad, bad things taking place. Not experienced with life, I was horribly taken advantage of. I learned, adapted, and grew. It would have been much easier to make excuse that life has not been fair to me. I could have spent useless energy being angry because I had been horribly wronged. I chose not to. I have seen the path to distruction. I have seen dispair from those who lost themselves to hopelessness. Waiting, forever waiting for someone to come a long and make the wrong...right.
    Native's. You lost your land by showing your goodness and purity. Bad people came and exploited you. You are angry, you are defensive and you have a right to be. Everyone expects you to be. Many, many centuries later the world has changed so much. Natives have remained encapsulated in bitterness. It has eaten their very souls. How many years has the red man lain drunk? How many natives taken their lives. Countless. People are curious of your ways. More and more we see greed taking the land. More and more we see the future of our demise, all for a buck. You are not the only one's exploited. It is time to rise up. Put down your bottles, sweep away than anger and bitterness from your heart. See what it is that you have. Find a way to improve your people. While the rest of the word is poisoning the mother earth, give her back that in which she needs. Your time of self pity is over. It is time for your great people to rise up and teach the people how to live. Spread your traditions across your land. Embrace those, who want to learn. They do not look at giving you money as exploitation. It is a trade. Not for profit, but because they have nothing better to give. They are children seeking the way. Take your money and put it back to your tribe. Irrigate your land, craft your ways and trade it...for money. Get what you need. Take back your land, by sharing it and your ways. Release your bitterness and be the peace loving people you once were. Look at your husband with love, look at your wife with love, look at your children with love and do what you can to nurture that, spread that. Teach that to others. You will become the great mighty nation you once were. I would love to be alive to see it.

    March 3, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • Shining Night Star

      All the smooth words of a white person.....but some may trust others of us still have the memories of genocide fresh in our hearts and minds and the mistreatment of all of our people not just one tribe like Lakota, but Cherokee and Choctaw and Cree and all others who continually are discriminated against and are ignored and are a minority....all well and good for you to speak these words when you do not know of these people and their suffering everyday....Have a Blessed day

      March 3, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • Stephanie

      "Put down your bottles.." PUH-LEEZE. This isn't about Natives and how they are drunks. This is about the appropriation and misuse of our beliefs and customs for monetary gain. This is about getting justice for the 3 people who died because someone took advantage of their desire to be enlightened.

      This isn't about how we are are oppressed. Even though we are, and the results are that many of us have a hard time getting through life. However, the way that you are trying to potray Natives is RACIST and DISGUSTING. I am Native, and I'm not a drunk. I know hundreds and hundreds of Native people, from all over North America...and they aren't like that. How many do you know? I bet, none.

      How condescending of you to generalize us as being drunks. The only ones you see are drunks, but there are many, many of us who are NOT. How dare you? You are patronizing, condescending, and insulting. You don't know about us. "Self pity". Are you kidding me? What do you actually know?
      Nothing. Even the way you start off your smarmy, know-it-all comment is pretentious. "I am paleface'. Are you SERIOUS? ugh.

      Just because we are not the ones depicted in the news or seen lying in the street, doesn't mean we aren't there. The vast majority of Natives I know WORK, pay taxes, love their children, and are nice people. And I am pretty damn sure I know a lot more about my own people and more OF them than you do. Take your condescension and your racist views about who we are, and shove them somewhere the sun don't shine.

      March 3, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Stephanie

      Also, we still ARE the great and mighty NATIONS (plural, because we have many distinct tribes). We just don't need the white man's need to dominate other races and nature itself to be great.

      March 3, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • Smurfeater

      Native culture and religion are not open to all. It is not like Christianity or Islam. You are not welcome to engage in cultural appropriation on any level, regardless of how much you may want to.

      Natives do not care that you are interested in their ways. You are not welcome.

      March 5, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • Smurfeater

      Also... seriously? pale face? you've got to be kidding me...

      March 5, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • Rode with Custer

      Hey! You been drinking too much firewater, Tonto....get over it.......

      March 5, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • jaysunstar

      I think Stephanie is getting a little defensive.

      March 5, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • Matt

      I mean... the argument is rather invalid to say that they should be protected under law to not be exploited. Who's to say who is being legit and who isn't? What about EVERY other religion and how they are all exploited on a daily basis... No real place to draw a line, no real argument that wouldn't be shot down

      March 5, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
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