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. MAM

    I agree with LEB. Safety is the concern here. I am Native American and very proud of my heritage. I cannot help but feel like I need to defend myself with some of these ignorant comments. Please people don't put yourself in another persons shoes if you have not walked a mile in them! If everyone would just RESPECT one another beliefs and all, the world would be a much happier place!

    March 2, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
  2. Jesus

    I want a beer and I wanna something naked.

    March 2, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  3. Larry

    To Nena....Not HIS ignorance, although that's a good point, but his typical white man greed is the problem. The real ignorance is the whites who would pay $10K to this fool or anyone like him, but then again.....taking advantage of ignorance seems to be the American Way. Case point......the endless inane commercials on commercial TV. A sucker is born every minute. I have to agree, matter of fact I thought the same thing as a lot of people on the reflector.....would you pay a priest (as much as the Catholic church would like to take your money) to attend mass as a Lutheran or what ever you may be, so you could have the experience? Stupid white folks.......if anybody should be screwing white people it should be the Native Americans and I wouldn't blame them a bit. We haven't changed a bit either since trying to annihilate the Indians.....we still go around the world telling every body how they should believe in GOD and have a government like ours. Typical white man....my way is better, my way is the ONLY way.

    March 2, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Chuckie

      CASINOS... a long standing tradition of Indians.

      March 2, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  4. LEB

    The sweat lodge ritual shouldn't come under fire here, but rather the "guru's" reckless regard for safety. In any gym or spa in the US, you'll see a sign on the sauna and/or steam room advising users to exit immediately if they feel lightheaded or sick. This "guru" should have had a way to measure the temperature in the heat tent, and should NOT have discouraged those who felt ill from excusing themselves.

    March 2, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  5. Larry

    A note to MY6Cents.....The Native Americans can talk to their Creator for free too....it's the stupid idiot white folks that want to pay some charlatan $10K to be purified.

    March 2, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  6. LHC

    PBS did an American Experience series called "We Shall Remain" You can watch it for free on PBS and it's also available on Netflix. I recommend.

    To Mark, Humans moved into Europe between 12,000 and 40,000 years ago and into North America 15,000 to 30,000 years ago. The presence of Native Americans on the continent of North America is older than the pyramids, older than Christianity and Islam, older than then written word and older than the wheel. Their presence here was well established, this is their ancestral homeland. If a billion people from country X moved to the UK tomorrow, killed most of the people there and then put the rest of them in prisoner of war camps would it make sense for you to say "Europeans migrated from Africa at one point so they were just immigrants like the people from country X?"

    I feel like a lot of people get angry about this issue because of what people call "white guilt." I never really understood what that meant until I had rather candid conversations with some of my friends and family. As we can see from the visceral reactions many people have to this story, and many other stories in American history (and I'm sure around the world) where there were times of turmoil and groups of people were pitted against each other, many Native Americans very much identify with their ancestors. Many black people very much identify with their ancestors. And many white people very much identify with their ancestors. We feel compelled to be their voice, after all it is their blood, even today that runs through our veins. Who will tell their story if we will not?

    It brings to mind the song 'Cranberries" song Zombie.

    March 2, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • numbnut

      It's "Zombie", by the Cranberries.

      March 2, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • LHC

      Thanks how weird I didn't even notice I did that!

      March 2, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • kritterkat

      LHC – Just because Native Americans have been on this continent for 15,000-ish years, doesn't mean that their culture is 15,000 years old. For the first 10,000 years they were just spear-throwing nomads, like Europeans were. Their complex culture didn't come about until much later, and was still evolving and defining itself when the Europeans arrived. The meso-American natives, who's cultures were much much more advanced, only date their earliest sophisticated artifacts to around the beginning of our middle ages.

      March 2, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • LHC

      Krittercat- That really depends on what you perceive as being more "advanced" doesn't it?

      March 2, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  7. nena

    In my opinion, this is just another selfish, reckless person trying to make money off his ignorance and greed. Ray needs to pay a high price for causing dealth and pain to others. Greed only gets you what you deserve.

    March 2, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  8. OldGoat


    BTW, doing a search on Autumn Two Bulls, one of the people cited in the article, is illuminating. She appears to be some sort of Indian rabble-rouser. Her Facebook page is ridiculous.

    March 2, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • speaknup

      Why? Because she's speaking out and educating people through social media about the problems our people face daily. I can only assume that you are to much of an OldGoat to respect someone else's opinion if it is not in line with yours.

      March 2, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  9. ScottK

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

    Thats the truth about almost every religion on the planet.

    March 2, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  10. roma 250

    This is just like the "holy people" who create "churches" in their basement to supposedly "preach" the message of God when in reality, they do it to be beat the system and live tax free on their home

    March 2, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
  11. Tyhouston

    So, it's dangerous but we are suppose to just let it continue because it's someones heritage? right...

    No. Cannibalism, throwing virgins into volcanoes, eating your enemies heart are also "tribal" practices, as well as having child brides.

    Welcome to the modern times. You religious belief is dangers hence tone it down. Don't like it? Well you lost your war and lost control of the rules of the land and there is no -next- time. When invaders land, you ban together as soon as it happens, not let them slowly walk across you because you were to busy waring and hating the tribe next door.

    March 2, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      What are you talking about? No one is stopping the Indians/native Americans from performing their ceremonies.

      March 2, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Allie

      A sweat is not inherently dangerous AT ALL. People messing with stuff they're ignorant about? Yes, clearly dangerous. White people ought to leave this up to Natives; we've been doing it thousands of years, pretty sure Indians know what they're doing!

      March 2, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • ozzi

      Every tribe has a fire or sweat lodge tradition. The Scandinavians have sweat lodges too. So do the Russians and the Finns. The Irish and Romans had fire cermonies.

      March 2, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
  12. nico

    Haven't we screwed over Native Americans enough ?? No...we had to throw another disrespect into the fire

    March 2, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
  13. jack

    I go to the gym and after working out go in the dry sauna and sweat out my previous night's eats and drinks...no religion involved. Pretty scary but somewhat healthy. So if I keel over in my sauna can my wife sue the gym and get millions? A sweat lodge isn't something new guys most societies around the world from Turkey to Norway enjoy a good sweat. This guy just added a vision quest (which is a period of fasting) prior to going in the sweat lodge which I would not recommend. Americans are idiots. I don't have to pay $10,000 to go in a sauna.

    March 2, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • Brickell Princess

      If you believe that you can "sweat out the previous night's eats and drinks" then I have a sky resort that I would like to sell you. It is located in the heart of the Florida Everglades.

      March 2, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Nothing like a good case of dehydration to pretend you've lost weight!

      March 2, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  14. natives luv

    No matter what you say or what you think, we are native one thing that cannot be understood unless you are a skin. We understand your curious about our heritage, but it is a tradition we live everyday. Unlike some people in the world who have no culture. Just take one thing into consideration we deserve the right to carry who we are and as far as anyone else if you want to get typical about it your an immigrant yourself. What we have comes natural this is why you try so hard to understand it.!!!!!!What culture do you have besides to lie cheat and steal! Teach our young children your ugly ways!

    March 2, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      If someone copies (however badly) your ways, just see it for what it is. It does not diminish your culture unless you allow it too. There are a lot of clueless people in this country (native and non-native) who will search for easy "enlightenment" from all sorts of external sources. Nothing beats a good education and a big pile of "figure it out for yourself".

      March 2, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • kritterkat

      You live your culture everyday huh? I guess that must be why many Native American languages are on the verge of extinction. Your young are your responsibility. If they prefer our culture to yours that isn't our fault.

      March 2, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • Kristine

      James Arthur Ray did not have the highest intentions. If non-natives are "trying on" native traditions, perhaps one might see it as a compliment to the native people. A people that for thousands of years have lived by tradition, could maybe take this opportunity to truly teach others. Instead of being offended, why not teach?

      March 2, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • Kristine

      Why are there still reservations???

      March 2, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  15. Logic

    I see nothing wrong with performing this 'ritual', be you Native American or not. The guy in charge was determined to be reckless in the execution so he deserves to be prosecuted. If they can prove he is guilty, then he can fry for being reckless, not for performing a 'sacred' ritual.

    Some people may be disgusted by a non-Native American performing this ritual, but I think what is disgusting is he made a business out of it. His race/ethnicity does not matter in that case. Thing is, THAT is not against the law.

    March 2, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  16. steama

    Belief in religion often kill the stupid.

    March 2, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • evening star

      Stupidity kills people. So why are YOU still here?

      March 2, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • Qi

      That is known as the Darwin effect.......

      March 2, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  17. Cherokee Rose

    Because ones faith to you may not be spiritual, does not make the individual not spiritual. One cannot judge being on the outside looking in, nor base it on history. Every individual is spiritual and has their own spirit as well, if not true then everyone of us would be forgotten.

    March 2, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  18. my6cents

    Up to $10,000 to sweat? i can talk to and spend time with God for free!!!!!!!!!

    March 2, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • steama

      no you can't

      March 2, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • ozzi


      March 2, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  19. Paul Willson

    What Ray did allegedly is a violation of native spiritual pratices. He is a disgrace . If anyone went impersonating a clergyman well thats a violation of law. To steal 1 peoples tradition s for finacial gain is unforgiveable,.

    March 2, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      If you impersonated a clergyman of a specific faith for fraudulent gain, you might be prosecutable. But anyone can call themselves a spiritual leader or priest or reverend or high holy hootenanny with impunity. There are a few unenforced local laws around this country against such impersonations. But then you can pretty much find a law against everything if you look hard enough. Most of them aren't enforceable.

      March 2, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • KidCanada

      Well I hope you aren't Catholic, cause they stole everything!

      March 2, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  20. roseann

    The Native Americans deserve more respect here. Their religious ceremony may become stigmatized. They ought to have won something perhaps sueing on the grounds of defamation of their religion? I think the Jim Jones type retreat leader who, like Jones, used mind control & financially exploited his followers, who was sitting close to the tent opening telling people to stay even if they felt like they were dying, & who had too many participants at one time & no one checking people to make sure everyone was ok as was done in the Indian ceremony, gets far more than a slap on the wrist!

    March 2, 2011 at 12:47 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.