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What Happens in the Sweat Lodge Stays in the Sweat Lodge

 by Keith Goetzman

Tags: Spirituality, American Indians, sweat lodge, ceremony, ritual, new age,

Sweat lodgeWhat does the American Indian community have to say about the deaths of three spiritual seekers at a sweat-lodge ceremony in Arizona? That’s a ridiculous question to ask, of course: There is no central “Indian community,” nor is there a great chief who speaks for everyone with indigenous blood. With that in mind, we hit the web to survey reactions to the tragedy from various voices across the native world. Here are some of them:

Lakota spiritual leader Chief Arvol Looking Horse in News from Indian Country:

My prayers go out for [the victims’] families and loved ones for their loss. . . . I would like to clarify that this lodge and many others, are not our ceremonial way of life, because of the way they are being conducted. . . . We deal with the pure sincere energy to create healing that comes from everyone in that circle of ceremony. The heart and mind must be connected. When you involve money, it changes the energy of healing.

Tim Giago in Native American Times:

I am not going to dance around the consequences of [lodge organizer] James Arthur Ray’s stupidity because he was blatantly using a religious ceremony of the Native Americans to enrich himself, and what is worse, he didn’t know any of the sacred rites that accompany the inipi nor did he know the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota language, an intricate part of the ceremony.

Many Lakota are concerned about the deaths attributable to a botched sweat lodge ceremony. They have a lot more than this to worry about.

I look around Indian Country and I see the devastation and degradation, the hopelessness, the alcoholism, the drug addiction, the lack of respect for the elders, the many suicides among the young, the criminal acts of the gangs that now roam our reservations . . . the domestic violence, the abuse of children and spouses, and the total renunciation of any spirituality, and I am deeply concerned. . . .

Arvol, why are the sacred rites you represent not being used to bring our own people back from the brink? Why aren’t they being used to bring back the good health our people once enjoyed?

Valerie Taliman in Indian Country Today:

Selling the sacred has been around for a long time, and Ray is just the latest to capitalize on it. Native healers and spiritual leaders have been speaking out for decades about the abuse of sacred ceremonies, and continue to oppose the appropriation and exploitation of sacred ceremonies.

Back in 1992, Indian author Sherman Alexie criticized the appropriation of native ceremonies by new-age white men in a witty, sharp-tongued New York Times Magazine essay, “White Men Can’t Drum.” Given this history, and Alexie’s general eagerness to make fun of white guys playing Indian, I wondered if Alexie had weighed in on the sweat-lodge hubbub—and while it doesn’t appear that he has, a 2000 interview with Iowa Review makes me think that he’ll probably go against his nature and hold his tongue on this one. It seems that some things are too sacred to share, even for Alexie:

You often say during readings and talks that you want to honor your culture's privacy, and yet your work is so public. It seems like you protect it and expose it at the same time. There’s a tension created.

Yes, of course there is. One of the ways I’ve dealt with it is that I don’t write about anything sacred. I don’t write about any ceremonies; I don’t use any Indian songs.

How do you draw the line as to what is off limits?

My tribe drew that line for me a long time ago. It’s not written down, but I know it. If you’re Catholic you wouldn’t tell anybody about the confessional. I feel a heavy personal responsibility, and I accept it, and I honor it. It’s part of the beauty of my culture. . . . I’ve censored myself. I’ve written things that I have since known to be wrong. . . . I’ve written about cultural events inappropriately.

How did you know?

The people involved told me. . . . There are Indian writers who write about things they aren’t supposed to. They know. They’ll pay for it. I’m a firm believer in what people call ‘karma.’ Even some of the writing I really admire, like Leslie Silko’s Ceremony, steps on all sorts of sacred toes. I wouldn’t go near that kind of writing. I’d be afraid of the repercussions. I write about a drunk in a bar, or a guy who plays basketball.

Sources: News from Indian Country, Native American Times, Indian Country Today, Iowa Review

Image by Smoobs, licensed under Creative Commons.