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. GetReal

    @joe – well said.

    March 5, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • joe

      Thanks GetReal! I look for other opinions on these sites but legitimate arguments few are far between.... Hope that's not indicative of our nation's overall intelligence. 😉

      March 5, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
  2. true-messenger


    March 5, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • brownguy

      He always comes too quickly.

      March 5, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
  3. Liberty Queen

    @UN-truemessenger: you are really annoying... post once and be done with your pedantic, paternalistic pratter... and cut the crap with the caps.

    March 5, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • true-messenger


      March 5, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
    • brownguy

      My joy turns to tears every time the beer runs out. (Sigh)

      March 5, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
  4. white cloud

    white people suck

    March 5, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
  5. Liberty Queen

    First of all, Native Americans do not own the sweat lodge ceremony and they certainly do not own Spirit. Secondly, Ancient aboriginal peoples in Europe, aka white people, have been practicing similar, if not the same, ceremonies... visions quest, fasting, sweat lodges, prayer, and so on... for thousands of years. James Ray is a money junkie who cares not for the people and has harmed the traditions of all people who engage in the practice of sweat lodge or any other ceremony that they may invent or inherit. Still, no one can own these ancient traditions.

    March 5, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
  6. joe

    I'm your typical white guy but grew up with a 1/2 native american role model who built a sweat lodge and invited me twice. It is not a place for people in weak health, something a true Native American would have known. I think having three die proves that copying people's traditions is not always a kids game and that caution and knowledge should be used. However, limiting its use to only Native Americans would be a loss for everyone- even Native Americans. My personal sweat lodge experience influenced a respect for nature that has followed me throughout my life, and enriched it. I don't see how any Native American could consider that a bad thing. I would think, if anything, it should be influenced. Dream Catchers are similar. I think of their true purpose when I see them, not a representation of European influenced commericalism.- how could mass acceptance of cultural traditions be a bad thing to an ethnicity who's losing their culture?

    March 5, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • GetReal

      Holy cow – a smart, thoughtful person on this message board!! (faints)

      March 5, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
  7. true-messenger


    March 5, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • T3chsupport


      March 5, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • brownguy

      You should check out my Almighty after watching p0rn.

      March 5, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
  8. true-messenger


    March 5, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  9. true-messenger


    March 5, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  10. Carol

    For over 6 years, I was a direct participant in environmentalists' efforts to prevent Native Americans from taking huge $$ to allow a horrendous toxic waste site to be built on their land... which also happened to be a crucial watershed for the area's river. We fought tooth and nail, and every one of the so-called honorable and spiritual Natives had pockets lined with dirty money, dollar signs gleaming in their eyes, and not one speck of concern about their "sacred" land. This article is a bunch of bally-hoo. Has the author of this drivel ever walked into a reservation casino?? Or read up on any of the hundreds of dirty deals made by tribal leaders who have carte blanche to dodge federal EPA laws since they abuse their right to be legally separate from the rest of us???

    March 5, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • joe

      I have a hard time making the connection between a few corrput NA's allowing pollution, and other NA's not wanting their cultural traditions ripped off. I think your argument is fallacious and stereotyping. You're ignoring the arguments of the NA's in this article because you've had a bad past experience with other ones in a fairly unrelated matter. You're saying that because the people you knew were corrupt, that these NA's argument is invalid and shouldn't even be considered because they must be corrupt also. That's stereotyping. Yes, many NA's are guilty of greed (like everyother ethinicity) but that isn't to say that they (or we) all are.

      March 5, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
  11. true-messenger


    March 5, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
    • brownguy

      Took an Almighty this morning, lost around 5 lbs.

      March 5, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  12. shawn

    Well I have to agree with this 100% . The new age groups have taken advantage and played Indian for so long it became a fad to be "one" with Indian culture. With some it became insulting . I have stood that and listen to folks tell how they have become honorary Shaman of certain tribes spouting names and teilling people they have a gift to heal and gave a sweat lodge. I have heard so many thiings that again it is INSULTING. as for the casino issue that some are bitter about . Not all tribes have that ability to be able to start up a cosino .. because if they did they would to allow their people xtra jobs and drug rehab centers ,clinics and to be honest they are owed this . This is their home and has been for many many years .IMO if some do not want to support the casinos than simply do not go but speaking out of church of things you have no real clue about is ridiculous imo of course

    March 5, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • Lee Oates

      Good summation. Indians (First Nations) seem to be a target for many to vent their anger and hatred on. Some seem to feel that while you can not socially vent on Blacks or Asian anymore, it somehow ok to put Indians down. My Native family and I feel extremly offended by the igorance and racism many here are expressing. [K'wihl H'auusqum Xsgaak].

      March 5, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
  13. John

    Does this mean I'm going to have to stop selling scalps at my stand on Route 66?

    March 5, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
    • joe

      haha.. Too funny. fyi, scalping was started by white people. We paid the Native American's for british/american scalps. Then they smartened up and realized all scalps look the same. Ooops...

      March 5, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
  14. Lee Oates

    I don't quite understand why is is bad for Indians to run casinos, but ok for whites. Given the high unemployment on reserves which are the results of years of discrimination, prejudice, and abuse by whites, I think its great that they have finally figured out some way that they can financially improve themselves. It is perfectly legitimate for us to be offended by the disrespect of some towards what Indians (First Nations People), hold in deep respect. But what can you expect from a people who have lost contact with the land and are destroying the very planet (mother earth) that is responsible for keeping them alive.

    March 5, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • joe

      Indian casinos dont have to pay tax. Normal casinos are taxed probably somewhere between 32-38%.

      March 5, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  15. nelson

    i agree and after the Indians close the casinos than the white people can leave america and give it back to them 😀

    March 5, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  16. T3chsupport

    Oh please. A weak people living a weak existence, still blaming people who died decades ago for what they did to other people who died decades ago. Making it an excuse to sit back on their tail, drink, and feel bad for themselves, when they're the only ones oppressing themselves. White people wish like hell that they had the opportunities that these babied tribes take for granted and throw away.

    March 5, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • Lee Oates

      You are an ignorant rascist redneck.

      March 5, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • Luigi Salami

      What are you, a raving Tea Party Bigot?

      March 5, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • T3chsupport

      No, actually I'm more of a liberal than anything. I'm also a quarter native American.
      Thanks for playing, though. You still haven't disproved my point.

      March 5, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
    • Conqui

      You will rot in the Hell described in the Christian Bible, you almost perfectly quote what Jesus said gets you there.

      March 5, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • T3chsupport

      'The bible' doesn't cut it. Show me where it's quoted, or go roll it up and smoke it.

      March 5, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • joe

      It takes time for a an ethnicity to completely change everything they've learned over the period of 12000-17000 years. You can't expect that to happen overnight and if you know anything about their/your history, it's not like it ended hundreds of years ago. It ended like 40 years ago.-arguably sooner, arguably later. What you expect of these/your people is unrealistic, uncompassionate, and not accepting of what it is to be human.

      March 5, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  17. yoyo

    phuken retards...get over it...sue them all

    March 5, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  18. sincamisa

    Exactly, the greedy white man is now exploited by the tax guzzling Indians, who take advantage of every thing white and give very little back. They are racists to boot and most tribe policies explicitly state race is a factor in hiring. I for one have quit going to any Indian establishment nor do i ever buy Indian products. Yes, hard I live among and between tribes.

    March 5, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
    • Conqui

      Let's see how you would react if someone came out of nowhere, chased you out of your homes and off your land, made you live in an area 1/1000 of what you had before, made it illegal for you to acquire food, housing, and savings for the future in any of the ways that you had done all your life. I am ashamed of the white hatred for those they haven't quite been able to eliminate all together, because it reminds them of the shame of their ancestors. This arrogance will land them in the Hell of their own religion.

      March 5, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • joe

      Do you know nothing of history? Maybe you shouldn't reply again until you do? I encourage you to go read up on the subject and then respond again. They deserve every friggin cent they get from the casino's and more. Also, they provide a service and should be compensated accordingly. Taxes that they don't have to pay go to helping the worst off minority in the Amrica's. -something our tax dollars would surely attempt to make up for in the absence of the tribal owned casinos. The casino's have allowed them to regain a tiny fraction of what we've stolen from them. -It is if anything, not enough. -please, I encourage you to "factually" prove me wrong.

      March 5, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
  19. JM

    They are tired of their traditions being co-opted and exploited for capital gain

    Perhaps they should have considered that when they co-opt and exploit land and fishing rights for commercial gain instead of the traditional uses.

    March 5, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • Carol

      You hit the nail right on the head. The author of this article is a fool to skip over the part where Native tribes take piles of money to carelessly dump various toxic waste all over their so-called sacred lands

      March 5, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
  20. robert stout

    I am tired of the redman coopting our paleface culture by opening casinos to profit from our traditions...

    March 5, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • Rick

      Hah! Well said.

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

      Indeed, very well said. The tone of this article indicates that the noble American Indians are still being victimized by the greedy white man. Until American Indian tribes start shutting down casinos, I really don't want to hear any more of that. In fact, I think I'm going to start my own sweatlodge ceremony and charge 5 bucks per head.

      March 5, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • Someone Somewhere

      *Awesome* LOL

      March 5, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • bob jones

      your a mainstream bigit

      March 5, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • Marcy

      Shouldn't you people be on AOL or watching Fox news?

      March 5, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • someoneelse

      Marcy and Bob Jones, hypocrisy is not only found on Fox News (though it is the greatest of all the networks for it). Even liberals are starting to get a little fed up with the PC culture and hypocrisy of everything non-white nowadays. I am fully liberal by the way (and Canadian).

      March 5, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • Yeah..

      Pointing our a minority groups hypocrisy is a sure sign that you a bigot.

      March 5, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Luigi Salami

      If you don't like it, white man, don't gamble there.

      March 5, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • Doug

      Last I checked, casinos weren't places of worship that attract people based on a false association with legitimate spiritual practices. You might as well whine about Native Americans who work at any job other than tomahawk making.

      March 5, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • brownguy

      White people s uck

      March 5, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • Matt Horns

      If I want to perform a Wiccan Healing Ceremony or a Christian Prayer Service at my retreat, do I need special permission from some kind of official religion certification board?,

      March 5, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
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