It’s a terrible lesson the New Age community has been dealt. Whether that lesson has been learned remains to be seen.
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.
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.
Here in Boulder, Native people used to hold inipi ceremonies
on Valmont Butte. Then one night, a sweat lodge was broken up by law
enforcement officials, who got a complaint about the fire and didn’t
know that Indian people have used the Butte, which they consider
sacred, since before white folks came to this valley. Try to imagine
being forced out of your church or synagogue in the middle of prayer.
It was a desecration.
Once apologies were issued and it was established that Indians can, indeed, use Valmont Butte for sweat lodge
ceremonies, additional hassles arose. The spiritual leader who ran the
lodges was told he would have to get a permit for the fire before
planning a ceremony. As a result, Valmont Butte has fallen silent, and
songs are now sung elsewhere.
[ If people had the proper respect for Native culture, the three people who died in Sedona would still be alive. ]
Who wants to get a permit to be able to pray?
Indian spiritual leaders worry that local and state governments will
use the Sedona debacle as an excuse to regulate Native inipi ceremonies. Fire permits.
Building permits. Maximum occupancy regulations. Licensing. The potential list goes on.
people had the proper respect for Native culture, the three people who
died in Sedona would still be alive. And yet Ray and those like him —
men and women who pirate Native culture — probably don’t think of
themselves as being disrespectful. Something about the Native way of
life calls to them, and they respond, seeking connection. But too often
they respond in an egoistic way, demanding rather than humbly asking
and bypassing tradition in favor of shortcuts to personal fulfillment.
A dear friend of mine — a Native spiritual
leader — has had strangers show up at his door, checkbooks in hand,
wanting to know how they can arrange an Indian naming ceremony so that
they can finally get the Indian name they picked out for themselves
(inevitably something with “Wolf ” or “Eagle” in it). He’s had men and
women come to him uninvited, holding pipes they bought in tourist
shops, wanting to be made “pipe carriers.” He’s had people he doesn’t
know ask him how much he charges to run a vision quest ceremony.
If it weren’t so pathetic and insulting, it might be funny.
so long, the message from the Native world has been, “If you respect us
and want to know more about our way of life, approach us and ask in a
sad it will be if James Arthur Ray’s selfish actions, which have
already sown tragedy enough, bring trouble to the elders who have
safeguarded these ceremonies for centuries.