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. colleen

    God is free... Anyone listening to someone charging them 10k to give them a spiritual experience to bring them closer to God is a charlatan. Stupid is as stupid does. There is no indian vs non-indian issue here. Its stupid vs common sense. Stupid choices can result in death and that's what happened here.

    March 3, 2011 at 7:43 am |
  2. Jorge

    That's just like snake-oil, gypsy Anglos, they see a unique, dearly-held aspect of another society's culture or religion and either try to make a fast, dirty buck with it by pathetically knocking it off or try to defile it beyond rhyme or reason, then wonder why nobody else in the world takes them seriously anymore.

    March 3, 2011 at 7:42 am |
  3. leeklimes

    What goes around, comes around: We give the Indians whiskey and take their land. Now they give us casinos and take our money. Then we go broke, lose our houses and our land. Then the Indians just buy their land back. And the buffalo roam the prairies again.

    March 3, 2011 at 6:38 am |
    • 2Bulls

      LOL..... sure does .... hmmmmm sure does like i said you don't mess with something you have no clue about 🙂

      March 4, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
  4. TD7777

    Wow, I think that this should be a lower priority on the native american "complaint" list. Build some more casinos, that seems to be working out well.
    Perhaps one day, we wont have to hear the "victim" speeches anymore. They did this to us, they took that from us, they lied to us, and the ever popular "they made a sweat tent like us and we dont like that". Get over it.

    March 3, 2011 at 12:38 am |
    • Ogichidaakwe

      How about we stop "complaining" when we stop seeing the hangover effects of the attempted genocide and subsequent assimilation policies hurting our people. You sound like an ignorant member of the "have" society who's probably never even met a proud Indian person. I'm not saying that you are, but if ignorance wasn't a factor then I think you could've come up with a more original and compelling comment than "Stop complaining".

      March 3, 2011 at 1:28 am |
    • Newslover

      I just want to say that I think Ogichidaakwe has it all right...and I feel badly that we choose not to be aware of the atrociites that have taken against Native Americans these many years....it is a tragedy of huge proportions...I think it is time we, as a nation, start to own up to this tragedy as well as others.

      March 3, 2011 at 2:13 am |
    • Motay

      casino,casino,casino,"" ,"",""...broken record. find something new

      March 3, 2011 at 4:14 am |
    • Moon_girl

      Td7777 How about you get an education before you speak about something you know nothing of, If you dislike Native Americans so much then stay out our business keep your comments to yourself and live your pathetic excuse of a life that you have. Its boring really to see how small minded people comment about anything just to be heard is your life that lame?
      We Natives have everyright to be heard and complain yeah this land was tooken from us and we was left for suffering but hey we still here its 2011 and still alive breathing so deal with it u dont like us then kiss my ass cuz u wouldnt be alive if it werent for our ancestors who showed your ancestors how to live!! NATIVE PRIDE NATION WIDE.

      March 3, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
    • 2Bulls

      Im sorry your so ignorant and your life has been great, im sorry that your ancestors were filled with greed, It's sad to see you ignorance, and victim yes that you got right.... if you don't like us then you know how to get back over seas LOL

      March 4, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
  5. The Gimp

    Ah, yes the sweat lodge. This places right along side the ancient rituals of slot-jockeying, serving bad buffet food, and hosting washed up 80's bands at cheesy casinos.

    March 3, 2011 at 12:05 am |
    • durl

      Hey now, those washed up bands have feelings too! And the ritual of the half-off seafood buffet every friday with a side of compulsive gambling is an ancient tradition that goes back to the days of old.

      March 3, 2011 at 12:32 am |
    • Motay

      loyd and harry

      March 3, 2011 at 4:12 am |
  6. Reality

    Simply another religious ritual/item/symbol analogous to curses, spells, voodoo dolls, maypoles, black magic, covens, witches, the Triple Goddess, The Host, communion, crucifixes, saint medals, rosaries and the Horned God.

    March 2, 2011 at 11:48 pm |
    • zzzzzz


      March 2, 2011 at 11:50 pm |
  7. tioedong

    you know there are a lot of scams going on when you find an Objibwe dreamcatcher being sold as "native" handicrafts in a shop catering to tourists in the mountains of the Philippines.

    And there is a slight difference between saunas and sweat lodges. One is for health, the other a scam pretending to sell a higher consciousness.
    Since he charged so much, someone needs to sue him for practicing medicine without a license.

    March 2, 2011 at 11:47 pm |
  8. Joe Schmoe

    This article is ridiculous. If Indian people want to know who to blame for the world-wide phenomenon of non-Indians running ceremonies, they need only look in the mirror. For the right amount of money, you too can go to the South Dakota Indian reservations and sweat, sun dance, or go on the hill. For 5K, they'll even put a war bonnet on your head and make you a "traditional chief." (You have to supply the bonnet, of course.) And Floyd Hand should be the last one complaining. He's written one of the many ceremonial books for the eager non-Indian market:


    March 2, 2011 at 10:32 pm |
  9. petemoss

    Another scheister(common feature for fellas with three first names), stealing other stupid liberal wacko Indian wannabee's money and lives. The only trouble is he didn't kick the bucket. Rest assured he'll screw some more people given enough time.
    The attorneys defense " my client is a moron".

    March 2, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
  10. whatguy

    This is a sad state of affairs honestly when we profit off the exploitation of others. This man exploited the natives for their culture, and exploited the people who went there for their trust. He deserved and had the rights to neither.

    As a non-native american who was able to experience a sweat lodge as a learning experience when I was younger by some members of a local I know, I must say it is a great experience, a gift that I will always remember, but I would never want to go in one without someone who was taught about it as they are with me. You do react in different ways, and I will admit openly that had it not been for one of the members of the tribe telling me I should go out because I was getting too hot I may have had issues as they probably said it a little too late (I almost passed out when I stood up to go out, they helped me outside). The culture of the native americans is amazing and diverse, it is something we should respect not commercialize.

    March 2, 2011 at 8:59 pm |


    March 2, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
  12. frankie

    when i was at the college i took too much substances and thought i had sacred coyote dna but a heavy woman hurt my sciatic nerve,
    my vision of coyote powers was alas but a foolish illusion

    March 2, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
    • dude


      March 2, 2011 at 10:29 pm |
    • Motay


      March 3, 2011 at 4:10 am |


    March 2, 2011 at 8:34 pm |


      March 3, 2011 at 1:54 pm |

    Was ray particiipating in the activities as well ?And in what condition was he when these tragic events took place?

    March 2, 2011 at 8:02 pm |
  15. Jim P.

    "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."

    Can;t have it both ways: If it's a religion, you can't prevent others from doing it their way and or charging for it if they want. Any more than the Catholics can prevent Protestants from holding ceremonies that look similar *or for holding ceremonies that are wildly dissimilar).

    In a free country such as this, if someone wants to set up a church or "spirit lodge" or whatever and charge people money to partifcipate in something that looks like someone else's rituals, there's not a lot you can do about it.

    As long as there are suckers, someone will find a way to exploit them. And "religion" is a very easy place to find suckers of all sorts.

    March 2, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
    • Choctaw

      It's part of a profond Native American spiritually which is far greater and more powerful than any religion. I'm sure the people who participated were looking to get something tangible in a spiritual sense out of it. But it was run by a Plastic Shaman. (Fake or non Indian)

      March 2, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
    • Ogichidaakwe

      I agree. I don't see anything illegal about charging people for a sweat lodge (unless its run by an un-trained individual who knows nothing about heat injury prevention/warning signs). As a Native, I don't see why anyone would pay a non-Native $10000 for an imitation Native American ritual, but I guess there are a lot of white folks out there who don't have any other way to connect to their supposed Indian heritage or really do believe that a weekend sweat lodge retreat will miraculously heal their unspiritual lives. But because I make my money defending our nation's values, freedom of choice and capitalism being among them, I can't see why the money-making aspect of this is unlawful. Let the suckers be proud of their newly bought spirituality, and I will continue to respond to all the blonde haired blue eyed suburban raised "Indians" by virtue of a half Cherokee great-grandmother, "That's nice. That's real nice."

      March 3, 2011 at 1:19 am |
  16. Burbank

    Sedona is a very sacred place like a small red heart in the center of Arizona. People should not build houses there. When I found out they built a golf course there I was horrified. There is no limit to what people will destroy out of greed. Reminds me of that giant Sequoias with the center cut out so people can drive through it. Wrong! Wrong! Frighteningly, horribly wrong!

    March 2, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
    • Earnán

      Sedona is a pretty place full of very silly people.

      Very silly people like you.

      Might I suggest the "authentic sweat lodge cleansing experience" for 'ya?

      March 2, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
    • Motay

      sedona is fake town. eh, a little like flaggstaff and farmington. more faker though

      March 3, 2011 at 4:08 am |
  17. Shakopee

    I thank the white man everyday for my brand new house and Escalade.

    March 2, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
    • Choctaw

      All the nations deserve it. I Hope you are spreading that around in a good way... no drinking!

      March 2, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
    • Shakopee

      200 million dollars to charities in the past 10 years or so. Plus we helped build a stadium for the university of Minnesota. So I'd say we do our part in helping out.

      March 2, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
    • Choctaw

      I would say so... don't for get to buyback some land for the people!

      March 2, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
    • Shakopee

      of course, we're taking back America, one nickel at a time. lol

      March 2, 2011 at 9:41 pm |
  18. Sakura

    What a great idea! I am going to file a class action lawsuit against everyone who isn't Irish for co-opting my heritage and wearing green on St. Patrick's Day. I am tired of them capitalizing on the suffering of the Irish people.

    March 2, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
    • burns

      That's just the luck of the Irish.

      March 2, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • Flora

      The Irish are seriously hurting for money/land/jobs/housing/rights/people. Just about every Native American tribe on the continent is. As a matter of fact, if I'm not mistaken, didn't the Irish manage to take over most of New England by the turn of the century?

      March 2, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
    • Flora

      Sorry, I meant "The Irish are not..."

      March 2, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
    • Motay

      Go back to ireland and cry from there. your motherland i guess.

      March 3, 2011 at 4:05 am |
  19. adam

    Sweat lodges are nothing. I remember how mama and daddy used to make all eight of us kids get in the Studabaker in August and ride to our memaw's house in Mobile for the family reunion. Boy howdy, we was sweatin' like some Alabama cotton pickers....and stink too!

    March 2, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
    • burns

      I'm sorry man, but you couldn't have done a bette rjob making yourself sound like an in-bred hick. *Hint* Using "Boy howdy" and *Cotton Picker* in teh same sentence on the internet will make you look bad. In fact I think it only flies in the Klavern.

      March 2, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • adam

      Ahh....but not nearly as bad as neglecting to spell check!

      March 2, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
    • burns

      Boy Howdy + Cotton Picker > Teh,

      March 2, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
    • missiris

      LOL. That made my day just now 🙂

      March 2, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
    • jross

      LOL! The days of no air conditioning, no seat belts and no head count. Eight kids piled in the back of the station wagon after stopping at some roadside shack for ice cream and hollering "Yah!" when mom yelled "Everybody here?" Then Dad driving off leaving the youngest in the bathroom. A little off topic but hey, I can relate.

      March 2, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
  20. Armando Rodriguez

    this is another example of the people taking what is not theirs and exploiting for theirown greed. when the uros came they asked the native indigenous people what they called this land? they replied OURS

    March 2, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
    • burns

      then traded said land for beads.

      March 2, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
    • Barada

      @burns. I think they usually sold the land belonging to other bands and not their own. It would be like selling your neighbors house.

      March 2, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • Elexsor

      An activity can not be owned by anyone. Get a grip and stop being silly.

      March 2, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
    • Earnán

      And we took it, so it's OURS now.

      March 2, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • Rick W

      If there's a buck to be made; the republicans are behind it...

      March 2, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
    • Motay

      You all must be proud of your greed. No shame. So much for ethics and fairness. Logic is out the window.

      March 3, 2011 at 4:02 am |
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About this blog

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.