Since at least the ’60s, American Indian leaders have asked the rest of the country to refrain from stealing their ways of life, but their pleas have largely fallen on deaf ears. Well-meaning people — mostly liberals who’ve rejected the religions of their own cultures — continue to cherry-pick Native spirituality with results that range from humorous to absurd to insulting. And now a new adjective can be added to that list: deadly.
On Thursday, Oct. 8, a “sweat lodge” ceremony run by New Age guru James Arthur Ray ended with 19 people in the hospital and two people dead. A third died later.
Ray, who charged more than $9,000 per person for a “spirit warrior” retreat near Sedona, Ariz., promised those who attended that they would be pushed beyond their boundaries and emerge from the retreat with a new sense of themselves. For that much money, I guess you have to promise something, right?
The weekend included a “vision quest,” an idea ripped off from the Lakota hanblechya ceremony, and the “sweat lodge,” stolen from the Lakota inipi ceremony, both of which are considered sacred by Native people. They weren’t authentic hanblechya or inipi ceremonies, of course, because people had to pay to participate and because they weren’t run by Native elders.
Both the vision quest and sweat lodge ceremonies can be dangerous if run for the wrong reasons in the wrong way by the wrong people. The former involves putting someone on a mountain for four days of singing and prayer with no food or water. An inipi is a purification ceremony involving anywhere from an hour to several hours of praying and singing in the heat of the pitch-black sweat lodge.
Native spiritual leaders grow up observing and participating in the ceremonies of their people. They train for years before taking the mantle of leadership on themselves; as a result, they know how to run them safely and respectfully. Their focus is on service, not self.
Sadly, most media outlets know little about traditional Native ceremonies, and some of the coverage has been painfully ignorant. This week, CBS ran a morning news segment about the tragedy, ending with the question, “How dangerous are these ceremonies?” and telling viewers that Ray didn’t have a building permit for his sweat lodge structure.
As a result, many in the Indian community are wondering when Guru Ray’s bungling of his “sweat lodge” ceremony will result in additional obstacles and hassles — let’s call it “white tape” — for Indian people who want to pray in their traditional ways. Already, just holding an inipi comes with hassles enough.