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. MJB

    These people asked Ray to let them out of the sweat lodge. He bereated them in many words to make them feel so little. He needs to be in jail permanently for murder. I'm from Ariz and knowall about this story.

    March 2, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
  2. pixie888

    Ken, if you are referring to me as a non-educated person, your are mistaken. It is my right as an American to do a "sweat" any way I choose. Many different Native peoples do sweats and the ceremonies have many likes and dissimilarities. The fact that one race of people wants to claim a certain practice as belonging to them is ridiculous. It is only tolerated because there aren't many Native Americans left. What about Natives exploiting "white" traditions....yes that is silly. And so is the accusation that whites are exploiting Native traditions. If you want to call it yours you better have invented it and you need a patent! So arrogant.

    March 2, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • Susan

      You will never be able to understand a minority's experience in America. I believe that these things as described here are extremely painful for Native Americans – you can't understand, nor can I fully – but I think you are the arrogant one if you don't see this.

      March 2, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  3. J. King

    It is very sad how people take things that do not belong to them and sell it. Then again, people need to do their own research before acting on something instead of looking for a quick fix. I wonder what types of people they were and their mission or purpose. Was it to find something greater than themselves to help them find a vision or forgiveness?
    It is also very sad how they were all easily manipulated to believe in something that does not belong to them. I am a Native American from Pine Ridge rez and I do find it offensive when people abuse our cultural way.
    I was also offended when I heard from another Native American that a woman down in Australia is posing as a tribal member stating she is a great grand daughter of Crazy Horse. Sad, when she is a German lady with no Lakota blood back ground..another person doing my people wrong. More than likely, she is living large.
    In my opinion, we (tribal Members) should start a website to exploit these fakes, so they can be put on blast for their trickster ways.
    Desperate poeple! you have your ways... leave ours alone. It will not work for you anyways.


    Grand daughter of the late Matthew King (Noble Redman)

    March 2, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • SurfDog7

      Hey, Any one at PineRidge. Do you know Loris Quinn? If Loris is still alive tell him to email me chauvet@comcast.net.

      March 2, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • Historian

      J King ,,, go worships your sacred rocks,,, the Lakota of today are drunks, women beaters and worse,,, quit whining,,, get a job,,, the great spirit is a fantasy. Quit living of the past!!! The mountain that is sacred to you,,, is a F en rock to me!!!!!

      March 2, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
  4. Ken

    To "pixie888". Yes, the seweats we do and the praying we do is ours. How does it become yours if you do not know how to do it or even why to do it? I agree there are many different types of sweats BUT the way we do ours is way different than the others I know of. Even if the other tyypes were done the same way, the cermemonial part of it wouldn't be the same...this is where the power of our sweats come. We do not just go in there and sweat....that sounds way too funny and obviously coming from a non-educated person.

    March 2, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • pixie888

      Ken, if you are referring to me as a non-educated person, your are mistaken. How I do it and why I do it is frankly none of your business. It is my right as an American to do a "sweat" any way I choose. Many different Native peoples do sweats and the ceremonies have many likes and dissimilarities. The fact that one race of people wants to claim a certain practice as belonging to them is ridiculous. It is only tolerated because there aren't many Native Americans left. What about Natives exploiting "white" traditions....yes that is silly. And so is the accusation that whites are exploiting Native traditions. If you want to call it yours you better have invented it and you need a patent! So arrogant.

      March 2, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • thequeenbee

      pixie: you show your ignorance in Spirituality every single time you mention a need for a "patent" for something spritual. A "patent" is a man made thing, invented by European culture to protect some from other's copying their ideas. It does and cannot apply to actions or inventions that predate the invention of patents. Google patents–based on what you claim, then nothing belongs to anyone until white Europeans invent a method that says it does? Yep. I can certainly SEE the Spirituality in that–as for your sweat–who cares why YOU do it? You are not of the people–you can have any reason you want–dress up in anything you want-claim anything you want, sing, dance, steal whatever you want–it does not change what you ARE–and yeah–the Spirits can see you and smell you and sense YOU and what you are and are NOT–an infinity off–and they don't need European permission or patents for that–either.

      March 2, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • Historian

      Ken,,, you would eat a buffalo turd if you were told it was sacred

      March 2, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • Ken

      "Historian" you are a fine example of your race. I don't know what race that is but it isn't of the NAtive American's beliefs. We do not make fun of or even try to understand other religions simply because we weren't brought up to talk bad about other people. And yes I would eat buffalo turd if that was part of our culture but it isn't. Besides aren't you on here during school hours, you should be in school or at your babysitters right now.

      March 2, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  5. Reality

    Simply another pagan ritual/item analogous to curses, spells, voodoo dolls, maypoles, black magic, covens, witches, the Triple Goddess and the Horned God.----–

    March 2, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  6. pixie888

    I do also want to add that Ray obviously neglected to take warnings from experienced people into consideration. It was his responsibility to provide a safe environment. He was paid handsomely to do so. He should be held accountable to some extent, but I don't believe jail time is is appropriate.

    March 2, 2011 at 2:56 pm |

    I hate to say it but yuppies paying 10,000 to sit in a sweaty plastic cover tent?

    March 2, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  8. Ken

    To "Chuckie and iekoop". Christians are all angels? Muslims are angels? Please do not blame all the aboriginal people for the mistakes of a very few. How many times do the agoriginal peoples' ceremonies make the news? Isn't the Pope on the news every other day apologizing for something their priests did? And "Chuckie" is it really that easy to take away our ceremonies? One known fact, taking away our religion and way of life has been tried and failed since the first ship landed on Turtle Island (North America). Man, I can't believe the bigots down south.

    March 2, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  9. pixie888

    What is ridiculous is how the Native Americans believe that a spiritual practice or a tradition is "THEIRS" ! Maybe someone of the same race invented it, maybe not. As mentioned in the article, sweat lodges in their various forms have been happening all over the world for thousands of years. The point is, that they believe that they have some claim on it, and that is ridiculous! Those spiritual practices and?or traditions that they claim as theirs are no more theirs than electricity or phones only belonging to a white man. They really believe that they are the only ones who can utilize these things. That is just preposterous. Just because one of your ancestors started doing something and the rest you continued to do it...that doesn't mean that it it "yours" unless you PERSONALLY invented it, and then only if you have a patent. So get over your selves.

    March 2, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  10. Carolyn

    Well said! I hope Ray and the likes of him stand accountable for their egos, greed and irresponsibility.

    March 2, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  11. nancy

    I understand to a degree Autumn Two Bulls' sorrow over artifact "copies" sold in trendy gift shops. Unfortunately, so many of our ancestor's items are sold in gift shops. There are celtic crosses, rune stones, russian nesting dolls and many, many more. Unfortunately, or not the general public are interested in decorating or having these items in their homes. Actually, a wise parent could use the item as a teaching tool to their children; and hopefully, a non-biased teaching.

    March 2, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Bill Mosby

      Russian nesting dolls (matryoshkas) aren't really authentic old Russian culture, although I have a couple of them I bought at the Ismailova Flea Market in Moscow and like them a lot. Matryoshkas as we know them date from the beginning of the 20th century and have mainly been made and sold as souvenirs. There was something of an older tradition of nesting eggs or other such toys, though, which was one of the inspirations for the development of matryoshkas.

      March 2, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  12. Bill Mosby

    Sounds like it's time for the owners of this intellectual property to get a business method patent on it.

    March 2, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
  13. GEL

    "They are tired of their traditions being co-opted by others and exploited for capital gain."

    Native Americans have co-opted and exploited for capital gain the "colonialist" traditions and way of life also. I'm sorry but no one has a patent on their "way of life".

    March 2, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • Historian

      A+++++++++++++ GEL

      March 2, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  14. pooh_just_is

    On one hand I agree that the lodge leader should know what he/she is doing. What I think is going on is that people experience a lodge with an experienced water pourer and may not be able to get the training to perform the lodge. Having to apprentice for 15 years and wait that long to get the "RIGHT" to do something requires alot of patience. I think we have too many people to heal and not enough lodge leaders. The sweat lodge can help alot of people and I hope that tribal leaders can see that they can help the world with their knowledge. I have been in the lodge many times, but getting the leaders to want to train me has been not that easy. Some say not you, your not one of us. Some say keep coming back. Mostly I felt shame that I did not fit because I am not Native American. However the lodge was my one and only spiritual experience. I know that it was that way and that the lodge keepers had anywhere from a few months to many years experience. The lodge keepers should help the world.

    March 2, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
  15. Lee Oates

    Having participated in numerous traditional sweats by first nations people across Canada over the years, I understand the need for legitimacy and training of the Medicine People who give them. These are important ceremonies with traditional people, and need to be respected as such. They are not a sweat room exercise at the local gym. Too many wanabee's see exploiting native traditions as a quick way to make a buck. [K'wihl H'auusqum Xsqaak]

    March 2, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
  16. iekoop

    Chuckie....agreed! Not only the casinos, but how about all the Indian smoke shops that are around for people to buy cheap smokes? The don't want "white" people impeding on their traditions, but they have no issues selling cheap smokes and making a profit off of that. What happened to living off of the land. I get that way back in the day a lot was taken from them and the government has made good on giving them back their land, but come on. People can't enjoy and celebrate their traditions by participating in a sweat lodge retreat? What this guy did was no question negligent, but it's a shame to think that any white people who just want to enjoy a little spirituality are in it for capital gain or to exploit their ancient traditions. I'm sick of people crying foul for stupid crap!

    March 2, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  17. nancy

    I am sorry to read posts from so many racist , ignorant people. There are so many posts that have nothing to do with the article !

    March 2, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
  18. banbablambba

    I find it hysterical that 50 idiots ponied up 10k to sweat in a tent with him...

    March 2, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  19. Jimbo

    Yah, this Ray guy is an idiot and was probably just trying to make a buck but the people who paid him are the bigger idiots. They went into this lodge on their own and could have left, was Ray holding a gun to their heads? Let Ray go, he is no different than a crew leader on a mountaineering trip that goes wrong and people die. As far as the Native Americans go, you can be upset and it's not cool that your traditions are being ripped off but unfortunately all we can say is we are sorry and it will continue to happen, just no other way to explain that.

    March 2, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • NewsOrGossip

      Let Ray Go? He's worse than a drunk driver who causes deaths. The fact is, you don't need to go through any of that to reach spiritual enlightenment, nor will you ever feel like you're going to die to reach spiritual enlightment. Spiritual Enlightenment does not = physical pain at all. He's a modern Jim Jones! Ray got sidetracked by his material gain, and lost his way, and led the blind. He's responsible, for the paid services that went wrong. The dead were following his instructions, and evidently went into cardiac arrest before they could get out. They were listenting to him, feeling the systems that he described that they would feel...but none of it has to do with spiritual cleansing. You can walk and properly deep breathe and replace negative thoughts with empowering ones and "spiritually cleanse yourself"; sit quietly and breathe while focusing on the word "love" and spiritually cleanse yourself. The exercises that make one "feel like you're dying but you're not going to do" is dangerous and negligent. He thought more highly of himself than he should've. Honestly, Spiritual Cleansing happens within one's self and you don't need anyone else to do it. Just go within and breathe, acknowledging Peace, Love, Harmony, Wisdom, Joy etc. I'm not happy that this happend to Ray, but just to let him go...is not right either.

      March 2, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  20. Chuckie

    "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."

    One word Ray... CASINOS !!!! You take our Casinos, we'll take your spiritual ways.

    March 2, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • jenzo putforth

      I think the key words that were spoken are..tribe elders instructed him in his people's ways that is what is missing with these fools who think they know or have been instructed him people's ways that are theirs.

      March 2, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • trunative

      Ignorance rules! Many of you non-native americans only sound bitter & angry. Try dealing with 331 years of it. Any intelligent person should be able to grasp this quote from Marcus Garvey: "A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots." Get it??

      March 2, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • thequeenbee

      Fortunately, casinos are a man made thing/tool and can be copied–but true Spirituality cannot be faked. You can copy any of the ways you think you know–but you can never take them–It is like beating a stick in the dirt or blowing on a stem of grass and thinking you are making the music of a band–the taking is only in your own minds–what is shameful is the ignorant and avarice in which the copying is done–but the results? The Spirit does not dwell in unclean houses–no matter how much they sweat.

      March 2, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
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