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 Tuesday.
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.”
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 createdReservation 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 design 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 design 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 designed 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.”