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. DisgruntledGrrl

    "even if she gets why Native Americans might be offended," no she won't. No if about it. Let's make it to where you need to get a certification from an American Indian to operate a sweat lodge. What's so bad about creating a new job inside of America?
    to do otherwise is like trying Fugu and thinking "Remove the poison sacks, right? No prob!"
    Everywhere else, you get into trouble pretending to a profession – why not here?

    March 2, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • MarkinFL

      They can restrict based on safety, but there cannot be any restriction based on ethnic history.

      March 2, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  2. James Morasco

    I am saddened by the responses I've read. There are many who are either in denial about history and/or are ignorant about the genecide that was begun over 500 years ago and continues today. To disrespect an individual let alone an entire group of people is evidence that the self centerdness that fueled the "founding" of this nation is alive and well in 2011. None of us can legitimately speak to this issue unless we have been the subject of mass extinction, experimentation, and exploitation that has defined the nature of "Native American" existance since the comming of the "white man".

    March 2, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • Guest

      Everyone, including the 'oppressed' Native Americans, need to get over the past. It is there fault as much as the rest of the countries (US & Canada) population that we all can not move forward.

      March 2, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  3. brian

    IIt's an assinine custom whether practiced by native americans or the white man...

    March 2, 2011 at 11:38 am |
  4. James

    Before the Native Americans get too upset and people get banned from using things that the Native Americans claim are there's only, we should be certain that the things being "protected" are of course solely and only used throughout the world by Native American cultures. If other cultures in the world have also used them and the use goes back deep into history, then the Native Americans can not claim any special right to the things be they objects, ceremonies or beliefs.

    March 2, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • MarkinFL

      Whether they "created" it or not, you cannot limit anyone's right to perform the same ceremonies. At best you might trademark the name or keep someone from claiming it is an actual sanctioned Native American ceremony.

      March 2, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  5. p m

    hmmmm i have an idea.... instead of putting him in jail, let's lock him in his sweat lodge for 10 days with no food or water for a vision on the hottest summer days. if his religion is right he will learn more than he can in jail. on second thought don't because im sure someone would follow him.

    March 2, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Unique

      hmm... the idea has merit.

      March 2, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
  6. Jennifer

    I'm really sick of watching American Indian culture and religious practices be exploited by people who don't care enough to do their best to learn and understand it – and I don't mean in an anthropological/Smithsonian way. The phony Native American affectations in Sedona, Arizona are about the worst I've ever seen. The landscape is beautiful, but the people are ridiculous.

    March 2, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • numbnut

      I agree.

      March 2, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  7. scranton

    So the Native Americans have the copyright on people sweating?

    March 2, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • Historian

      A++++++++++++++ scranton

      March 2, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
  8. wr

    I get the Indians's point. As a Jew, I'm appalled that Kabalah has become the Scientology of the 21st Century.

    March 2, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • Historian

      Now I guess your going to start whining!!!

      March 2, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
  9. Freedomwarrior

    Very well said notmoving.
    PJT – Proud Mi'kmaq First Nations, Nova Scotia Canada

    March 2, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  10. Rick McDaniel

    Sweat lodges are a part of Native American culture, as well as other cultures (by other names.)

    However these have risk involved, and it is unsafe to participate in such things, without close supervision, and careful controls.

    It is not something I would normally advise people to do, as it can be dangerous. Just because it is a part of Native culture, does not make it a safe practice.

    March 2, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  11. tired of idiots

    kritterkat, get educated please. your rant about us not paying taxes and receiving perks is incorrect and on top of that you sound like a racist idiot. Get over yourself and go back to your boring, uncultured life.

    March 2, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • Guest

      KitterKat is not being racist, she is being truthful. Numbers and statistics do not lie. I don't know if you are in the States, but in Canada, you don't pay taxes, you get a free education, you get your living paid for. If I had free education I would get 3 doctorates, Most natives do not even finish highschool. Stereotypes are there for a reason. All cultures have stereotypes and there is always an element of truth behind them

      March 2, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • Serious?

      Guest, actually get your facts right and do your research instead of going off your own stereotyps. The natives in Canada don't get tax free – – only on their own land. And not everyone gets free tuition...there are requirements. Each band (aka tribe) if they are treaty, decides who and how much they get...if any. Some don't give at all. So don't make assumptions you don't know about. It's people like you that suppress the native culture... why is it that the 'white' culture thinks everyone has to be like them...

      March 2, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • Guest

      I am from a part of Canada that has a lot of reservation and Native Population. I have many friends that are Native. They are all issued tax cards that they show when they go to any store, they give it to the clerk and ALL of the tax, 16% to be exact, is taken off of the price. They do not live on reservations, they only need to show they have %35 Native american heritage in their ancestry. I have seen this, I know it to be true. Lets not get started on the way the Natives treat their lands, they turn them into garbage dumps.

      March 2, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • blaah!

      Like Serious said! not all native people get tax free nor get free education, it all depends if their status. Even if your status, their is what you call full status 6(1) and half status 6(2). and if your 6(2) and marry a non-status your children are not considered status at all. So when you say all Aboriginals in Canada are getting free eduation is false. There is some discrimation and assimilattion happening in the Candian Legislation to the Aboriginals people

      March 2, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  12. freetime1

    "They are tired of their traditions being co-opted by others and exploited for capital gain." Unless they are the ones making the capital gains! What a joke!!!

    March 2, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • Lisa Over It


      March 2, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  13. v

    WALK IN BEAUTY My friends! DINE'

    March 2, 2011 at 11:25 am |
  14. old woman sitting

    Kitterkat & Reality have it exactly right. It's time the Native Americans got over themselves.

    March 2, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • Lisa Over It


      March 2, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  15. oldbear

    why is it that Native americans think they are the only ones who appreciate the earth and nature. Nordic countries used sweat lodges over a 1000 years before Columbus came to the Western Hemisphere. As for stealing, notice that the Native Casino's arent exactly giving it away.

    March 2, 2011 at 11:25 am |
  16. OldGoat

    Why does everyone refer to Indians as "Native Americans?" They aren't native to North America. They emigrated here, just like the rest of us.

    March 2, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • Fatimah

      They are not Indians. Indians
      are from India

      March 2, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • Cavalry Captain

      God Bless General Custer!!!

      March 2, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • kim

      you obviously have a lack of education and think your funny...

      March 2, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • ebullient

      @kim, and "think your funny" also shows YOUR lack of education....

      March 2, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  17. musicjaret

    Wow these comments are crazy, put down the bottle of bourbon? they get free college tuition? casinos make them money? have any of you ever been to a reservation? most of the people you see in the casinos loosing money are natives, yes they do get some money from the casinos , but most of the money just filters up to some rich folk. And this country had hundreds of tribes before europeans got here, and they did fight a lot, however it wasnt a conquest like Western war, but each tribe did have to fight to protect themselves and thier hunting grounds, but if it was about conquest then there would not have been so many tribes when we got here. And Americans have never apologized for the way we treated them , and Americans apparently still dont have any respect, compassion or sympathy for anything that isnt exactly what they are. Also i think that to dive into ANY spiritual practice requires true sacrifice, not just throwing a bunch of money, and the teacher wont be charging money. Money is usually the furthest thing from spiritual.

    March 2, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  18. Dan

    While this James Ray guy is an obvious charlatan who put profits over human safety, the complaint by the indians that their ways need legal protection from being adopted by others is out of line. Few people know this, but processes, like hardware products, can be patented. But even those patents have time limits (currently 25 years) before they are public domain. And can you imagine how much progress would be halted if people weren't allowed to take and try to improve on other people's ideas. I agree that safety rules should be in place and that nobody should be allowed to say their product or service is affililated with another party if that party doesn't consent to it. And I agree that products and processes should enjoy time limited legal protection (patents and copyrights) or permenant protection in the case of trademarks. But beyond that, other parties should have the right to adopt successful practices.

    March 2, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • dude

      This is different from a patent. You can have a sweat lodge, but you cannot call it a "Native American" ritual.

      I can create a painting, but I cannot say it is a Rembrandt. And he has been dead for over 25 years. For that matter, if I draw on the walls I cannot claim it was done by cave men.

      (GEICO has apparently paid royalties).

      March 2, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  19. dianne

    Regarding the 'Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality,' that denounced individuals involved in the New Age movement, shamanism, cultists, and neo-paganists and others who promote 'intolerable and obscene imitations of sacred Lakota rites' – sorry, but paganism has roots in Europe. Native Americans in this country are not the only people allowed to find their spirituality in connection with Mother Earth. Modern day Wicca is an earth centered, goddess centered, spiritual tradition with roots in the old country. No apologies are needed to Native Americans. With all due respect, you don't own it all.

    March 2, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • tim

      while i somewhat agree, look at that picture and tell me it doesn't scream native american.

      March 2, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • Epidi

      I am Pagan. I'm not Wiccan. Please don't slot Paganism into just the Wiccan category. I have been invited to a couple of sweat lodge ceremonies. They are an honor ot be a part of. However true it is that Native Americans have not monopolized the sweat in the course of history, overseeing a purification sweat is a big responsibility, and must be done according to the traditions of the tribe's/culture's traditions and beliefs. I have never been charged money to participate in a sweat ceremony and would not attend one that did. Charging money for a spiritual service is not a very spiritual thing to do. One may give gifts or offer donations to support riutal/ceremonial activities but charging an up front fee for a religious and purification process is repugnant to me. If you want a dreamcatcher – go to a PowWow and purchase one. Why perpetuate knock offs? You can be sure of getting true Native American made goods there and might learn something you didn't know about these wonderful people too. They are all over America and open to the public. They can serve as a fun and entertaining ambassadorship of the Native Americans to the rest of us. By the way, I am white and of European descent. Any Native Am blood that may have been in my family is so thinned out that I have no right to call myself one. But I am honored to call a few of them Friend.

      March 2, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • dude

      In have had he privilege to attend some Wiccan rituals. They are certainly not the only Pagans still practicing. I have know others as well. None every charged to attend or participate in anything. They also never labeled anything "Native American".

      If you go to a Finish sauna, it doesn't say "Native American" on it. I don't see a problem with others have sweat ceremonies, but this guy was clearly using the Native American angle for profit. If he had called it a "White guy with no spiritual training sweat ceremony for my person monetary gain" and conducted it in a lodge fashioned to look like a generic tract home, I don't think Native Americans would have been as offended.

      March 2, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  20. Religulous

    I can truly understand Native American frustrations with their spiritual practice being co-opted the way it has been. It's such an interesting phenomenon that Europeans seem to have co-opted every spiritual belief system or practice (i.e. yoga) they've encountered and have made it into some for-profit proposition. The Christian faith is the biggest example. The Christian faith was born out of an African spiritual paradigm, co-opted by the Hebrews while in Egypt as immigrants, and then hi-jacked by the Romans, specifically Ptolemy Soter I followed by the Council of Nicea (325 CE). Now the Catholic church is among the most politically and economically powerful organizations in the world. And I use the word "organization" purposely because it, the Catholic church, has nothing to do with spirituality. As a matter of fact, it can me reasonably argued that Western man has not created or developed a single religion since their existence since they have no understanding of spiritually. They've co-opted other non-western spiritual belief systems and rewrote history to claim it as their own but any measure of serious study will bring to light my assertion.

    Well... any how... I suppose history has proven that if you have anything of value even beliefs, don't let the Europeans learn about about it because if they can find a way to make money off of it, they will surely steal it. LOL.

    March 2, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • Victoria

      You're a self-confident fool. God help you.

      March 2, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • kritterkat

      Spouting this ignorance again? Have you ever heard of the Druids? How about the Nordic peoples? They had their own, unique religious beliefs. So, tell me again about how there are no native European religions...

      March 2, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • oldbear

      Your rant is a tribute to Afro-centric thinking and a testament to the lousy public school education most get. Spirituality and religion are endemic to ALL peoples of all continents. I grant you modern western civilization is crude, rapacious and somewhat slimy at times, but check out your "beloved" africa and the graft and corruption there and the aggressive Chinese move to grab up all they can in an ever expanding commercial empire, most of whose ideas and inventions they stole. There is plenty of greed and selfishness in ALL cultures and countries to go around. Do a little reading and thinking yourself before you seek to preach to the rest of the world.

      March 2, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • mrmefco

      Whatever. I blame your non-European ancestors for everything that is wrong with religion, politics, etc.

      March 2, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • haloguy628

      Looks like you took too many ethnic studies courses.

      March 2, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • txhumminbird

      I agree with most of what you say. However, I must respectfully disagree with your statement that western man has never created a religion and has never understood spiritualism. My ancestors were Druids.

      March 2, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • dude

      There were once many small mom and pop stores, but Walmart forced them out of business and funneled the profit to an elite few.
      I meant to say: There were once many small spiritual religions in Europe, but the Catholic Church forced them out of existence and funneled the profit to an elite few.

      It's the same thing. Of course, when you are allowed to torture and slaughter your rival's customers, I meant adherents, it's pretty easy to get people to change brands, I mean beliefs.

      Look at that beauty, how can I cash in?

      March 2, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • lamorpa

      Well said.

      March 2, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.