The Sedona, AZ Sweat Lodge Tragedy: Why It Shouldn’t Have Happened
Let me tell you a few stories:
When I was living in San Francisco in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, I didn’t limit myself to one quarter that was black-friendly, like Fillmore, Hunter’s Point or Lower Haight. I explored almost all of its neighborhoods and main drags, like Noe Valley–24th Street, The Mission–Mission and 16th, Potrero, Pacific Heights, The Marina, and Cow Hollow–Union Street.
One fine day in the Eighties, I happened on a shop on Union Street that had just opened which was packed to the rafters with masks and carved gods and goddesses and other icons from Africa, Asia, Melanesia and Micronesia. It looked really interesting on the outside, and people were going in and out. However, I wasn’t there for long, because I felt that I had to leave after less than five minutes. No, it wasn’t the manager/owner or the clutter. And I didn’t feel that it was the effect of electronic messages that security firms insert surreptitiously in music to keep customers from stealing. I’ve had that experience before. I do remember that there was no music in the place. Nor was it hot or stuffy in there, and I hadn’t eaten anything weird.
How can I explain it? I felt that I was extremely sensitive to the organic vibrations those masks and idols gave off. There was a sense of confusion, suppressed rage, and of dread in that shop. Many were beautiful, and with strong images, but some were quite ugly, and were less artistic than grotesque. I was talking to the manager when suddenly, it did not feel right for me to be there to be among these “ancestors” who were all mixed up, and crowding in on each other. They were unrecognized, unnameable, dishonored and in a place where they were to be sold as mere conversation pieces and as decorations. I felt that they were angry as hell. That’s why I had to get out of there quickly, and breathed fresh air just outside the door.
The manager, a white man, followed me out, seeing that I looked overwhelmed, asking whether I was okay, and I managed to mumble to him something of what I felt. He said proudly that he had collected these items along with a friend for a number of years, and that they were now selling them. He invited me to come back later when I felt better, but I never returned.
In contrast, I visited a shop in Noe Valley that once had a lot of vodun (voudou) flags. A voudou flag essentially is a banner with an emblem or vévé for the god, or a picture of the god. They are sewn with native threads, spangles, and sequins. This experience was different. I walked down the row of flags for sale, and none were crowded on each other; they were organized, separate and no masks were there except on the other side of the room. Then, the proprietor behind the desk specifically warned me about purchasing one with Baron Samedi (the god of death and the graveyard; the old Haitian dictator François Duvalier always dressed publicly as the god to strike fear in his constituents), unless I knew exactly what I was doing. I looked straight at him. I’m from New Orleans, I said. Which meant, I know what the voodou pantheon is. I wouldn’t want that, I agreed, giving a shiver to my shoulders. We agreed that something like Oshun or Erzulie would be best. Yeah, but there are so many people wanting to see his particular flag and wanting to buy it for their homes, he said. My mouth flew open.
Lastly, when I visited New Orleans in 1996, I spent days in the French Quarter. Naturally, I went to the Voodoo Museum and to Mam’zelle Marie Laveau‘s house on St. Ann Street. Among the usual tourist gew-gaws and real voudou products was the door to a room where there were altars dedicated to about six separate voudou gods. They were protected by a wire fence on both sides. You have to pay to enter this room, and you can close the door or leave it open. I decided to take my chances and close the door.
I could feel vibrations coming from these altars, very, very strong, but they were rather benign. I felt that the gods were indeed present there, and I inclined my head to each one in respect, after admiring and marking what was on their altars, until I got to the one dedicated to Baron Samedi, which was the last and nearest to the door. I stood there slowly feeling as if I were about to be pushed into a large, dark mouth where there was no light, and when I couldn’t stand it anymore, I swung open the door.
Some Native-, Asian- and Latino-American peoples as well as Africans and Haitians have warned against people collecting certain religious idols, masks, and flags without knowing exactly what they are and what they depict. They say that having such a item in one’s home could influence a room and the people in it. With the experiences I have had, I would have to take them at their words. The same can be said of religious rituals and rites that, cherry-picked and chosen by New Age practitioners, can be misused to the detriment of others. Rituals by themselves are not enough without the religions (and the cultural context) that created them, and the process by which they are understood, respected, and used correctly.
From Scandinavia to South America to Africa, people have come together in the sauna-like structures — typically heated by pouring water on hot lava rocks — for a variety of reasons, said Joseph Bruchac, writer and author of The Native American Sweat Lodge. He’s part Abenaki, a tribe concentrated in the northeast United States, and part European.
“Each tribal nation has its own traditions, so one group might do it differently from another so you cannot generalize too much,” said Bruchac, who runs an outdoor education center in Greenfield Center, New York.
In North America, most Native American tribes use the term “sweat lodge” to refer to a dome-shaped structure where the intimate ritual of the sweat takes place, said Bruchac, who has his own sweat lodge on his property in the foothills of the Adirondacks.
“Sweat lodges are typically used for a ritual preparation, like before a hunt, or nowadays, people might do it before a wedding or dance or some kind of community event as a way of putting yourself in balance,” he said.
Bruchac noted that incidents like the one in Arizona tend to raise discussion in Native American communities over whether non-Natives should be allowed to adapt traditional ceremonies.
“It’s a very meaningful ceremony. I can understand why people find it attractive,” Bruchac said. “But I consider it sacrilegious and foolish to do someone else’s rituals without proper guidance or practice, especially in sweat lodges where you’re raising people’s body temperatures. With that many people, oxygen is going to be depleted, and if you have heart problems or breathing problems, you could faint or die.”
I’ve participated in a sweat lodge. For a time in the late Eighties, I was into one aspect of Native American religion, but it was promulgated by a Lakota Sioux woman. I went to the meetings with a white woman who has continued in Native religion after I decided to return to Nichiren Buddhism. I photographed the building of the lodge until I was told not to, because it was not something to be shared with those outside of the group. The sweat lodge experience occurred in a state park.
And when the lodge was completed, covered in hides and blankets and evergreen branches, and when the stones were heated, and we were in various stages of undress, in shorts and in bathing suits, we went in small groups at a time. It wasn’t the 50-65 at one time that was said to have occurred at the James Arthur Ray-led group in Sedona, AZ. I’d say that there were about six to eight people at a time in the lodge. And I sat and withstood the steam and heat from the stones until it was time for me to go. Compared to say, a sauna, where pine tar and eucalyptus mixed with water can be thrown on onto the heat, no scents were allowed on the stones. And it wasn’t for two hours either. I was there for at least twenty minutes to half an hour. Everyone was like that. No one was forced to stay in longer than it was possible for them. People were quietly asked if they were okay during the sweat; they simply said yes or no, or nodded. I nodded. I did not speak until we were led in chants; my mind was focused, and I was at peace and in inner prayer. It had been a difficult day for me; my anger flared out on another black woman who was present with her daughter. I cannot understand why even now; but perhaps this was because about inner change for me and cleaning out anything about me that was impure, and any change is scary.
James Arthur Ray, a self-help expert from Carlsbad, Calif., led what was billed as five-day “spiritual warrior” experience at Angel Valley, which concluded with a tightly packed sweat lodge ceremony. Participants paid about $9,000 each for the weeklong retreat, which included seminars, a 36-hour fast and solo experiences in the forest.
The authorities say that at any one time 55 to 65 people were packed for a two-hour period into a 415-square foot structure that was 53 inches high at the center and 30 inches high on the perimeter. Mr. Ray’s employees built the wood-frame lodge, which was wrapped in blankets and plastic tarps. Hot rocks were brought into the lodge and doused with water. Mr. Ray, who conducted the ceremony, left the area on Thursday after declining to give a statement to the police.
Sheriff Steve Waugh of Yavapai County said a death investigation would continue for several weeks. Mr. Ray, the Angel Valley owners, Michael and Amayra Hamilton, and all the participants are part of the investigation, the sheriff said. The results from autopsies that were conducted Friday have not been released and results from toxicology tests are not expected for several weeks.
Our late teacher did not ask for money except for the campsite and the food. She was not some kind of exalted guru, she was a human being and an individual with failings. She could have been like some of these New Age people, giving her groups half-truth feel-good medicine instead of whole truths as she raked in money, but she was not like that. She was even criticized and ostracized by other Native people for teaching non-Indians “the way.” I still remember her generally as a warm, decent woman, and there are times that I chant daimoku for her and thank her for her teaching me about respect for Turtle Island, and for “the plant people and the animal people for giving up their lives that we can live.”
We all ate afterwards; we had eaten little or nothing all day long, and it was like a giving thanks dinner. I think that everyone was in appreciation of each other and their lives that evening. And when I went back to my tent to sleep, I know that I slept deeply and well as if had I sloughed off something…bad.
“It’s important to know who is responsible for your spiritual and physical safety in that lodge,” said Vernon Foster, a member of the Klamath-Modoc tribe who regularly leads ceremonial sweat lodge events in central Arizona.
Mr. Foster said native people would use only natural materials in the construction of a sweat lodge. “We would never use plastic to cover our lodges,” he said. “The lodge has to breathe, that steam has to go someplace.”
Sheriff’s office investigators are conducting tests to determine whether any toxins were released during the ceremony. The authorities said sandalwood “was thrown on the rocks to give the effect of incense.” A 2007 study by the National University of Singapore on the effects of smoke emitted by sandalwood incense published in the journal Science and Technology of Advanced Materials found that “continuous and prolonged exposure to incense smoke is of concern.”
This past weekend I watched the Concert for George again. The Concert for George is George Harrison’s memorial concert, which occurred a year to the day after the former Beatle made his transition, on November 29, 2002 at the Royal Albert Hall. George Harrison first embraced the music, and then Indian culture and Hinduism. He felt that you could not appreciate Indian music unless you came to appreciate the culture from which it sprang, and that meant the people as well. That’s why I admire George Harrison, not just for his music, but that he walked his talk; he did not pick and choose (or steal or romanticize) from Asian people.
In contrast, people in New Age religions embrace only one part of the totality of a culture or a people–like the buying masks and idols or a religion–without an understanding of what these items or these rituals really mean. Disrespect results, and then eventually, leaders can become authoritarian and cultish, people can get turned off and leave, or people can get hurt or worse, die. That’s the cruel lesson, I feel, that’s being learned regarding this tragedy. I can only hope that this time, that it’s heeded.
- CNN Post on James Arthur Ray Sweat Lodge Trial (indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com)
- Negligent Homicide: The Case of the Sweat Lodge Guru (time.com)
- James Arthur Ray Trial Sentencing (socyberty.com)
- A Modest Proposal on Hippie Sweat Lodges (indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com)
- James Ray Sweat Lodge Trial Begins (indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com)