The Sweat Lodge Deaths – who is responsible?

There are now three confirmed deaths from the recent sweat lodge tragedy in Sedona. Many more people were injured during this western styled lodge. When I first read the reports a number of thoughts occurred very quickly: ‘how did such a thing happen?’ and ‘how to prevent it happening again?’ were the obvious ones.

I have been part of a several sweat lodges conducted by westerners and they were all conducted with safety, grace, precision and respect. I have been very lucky and blessed. There are also other western sweat lodges where the physical conditions are essentially a hot sauna, which should pose minimal risks for the sensible. No doubt the ’causes’ for the deaths will be revealed shortly. One of the deceased was a vetran of the sweat lodge so naivety and inexperience cannot be blamed.

However, let us be clear – sticking a group of people (who have often fasted beforehand) in a small confined space in extreme heat and with little ventilation is dangerous. Unless the leaders know what their doing. And to a very large extent sweat lodge members place their safety in the hands of their leaders. For example, the sweats I have been part off where conducted in a traditional manner. Stones were heated until extremely hot and then brought into the lodge. Now certain stones under extreme heat will release toxic gases. Unless the leader is aware of these sorts of things, tragedies are bound to happen.

In Sedona, the sweat leader was James Arthur Ray, one of the most visible New Age leaders in America. The week long retreat which culminated in the deadly Sweat Lodge cost the dead and injured folk $9000 USD each. Mr Ray apparently had around 60 people in the Lodge, an amount well in excess of the traditional numbers involved which peak at 20. The overloading of the Lodge may be one of the contributing factors. We must wait and see what the police and coroner uncover. Another issue, which according to the news reports was present in the Sedona event – sometimes modern lodges are covered in plastic tarpaulins, which are certainly not traditional and would present additional difficulties for the leaders to ensure safety is maintained.

To be perfectly frank, I find Mr Ray’s ‘spiritual’ philosophies like much of the New Age objectionable, shallow and nauseating. But that does not make him automatically culpable in these deaths, though he may be. However, his response to the deaths was to leave ship sharply, refuse to speak to the police, meditate for a day or two and continue working (and charging) as his work is “too important” for it to stop. He has chosen to “embrace the adversity” this tragedy has brought him. Maybe it’s just me, but I found his comments on the issue cold and lacking compassion. Read them for yourself here. He must of course be suffering great emotional distress as well, something I am trying to remember.

There are also reports of a conference call Mr Ray made to the survivors of the lodge (and I think we can call them that as 18 others were injured). During this call one of Mr Ray’s assistants made a typical unthinking, cold, New Age remark. The deceased she said, “left their bodies during the ceremony and had so much fun they chose not to come back, and that was their choice that they made”. I don’t think I can comment on this and stay calm, so I will leave it as it stands.

Many people are blaming this awful situation on the fact that it was lodge organised by a New Age westerner rather than as part of a traditional Native American spiritual undertaking. However, since the skills required to work the sweat lodge are not genetic, simply being a Native American does not guarantee a person knows how to run a sweat lodge safely and correctly. I was once at a Creation Spirituality dance ritual with a Caribbean gentleman. We were assigned the drums and he turned out to be even more jerky in his movements than I was. During a break he smiled, leaned over to me and ruefully exclaimed, “Man, I’m telling ya, it AIN’T in the blood.” Being in a culture where the sweat lodge is common would provide more opportunities to learn and be trained correctly, that is all. I am sure there are some lousy Native American sweat leaders, just as there are some wonderful western leaders.

The appropriation of the Sweat Lodge and other aspects of Native American tradition for New Age commercial gain is something else. Back in the early 90s I was editor of a Pagan newsletter, Green Spirit and was very happy to reproduce a statement deploring this trend by the American Indian Movement. Despite AIM’s campaign nothing seems to have changed. In fact, Western styled Sweats and other ‘Native American’ spiritualities are even more common, even more abused and used.

Whatever the ’causes’ of the deaths in Sedona, they would not have occured if western culture and western religion offered what these people were looking for. Very few people will pay $9000 and swallow unworkable New Age ideology on a whim. I am sure many of the participants have a deep, authentic need to experience the sacred and the eternal. A few may have been after the instant riches that Mr Ray implicitly promises in his work, but even that desire comes from spiritual misunderstanding and immaturity. Ultimately then, no matter what the coroner concludes, the fault for these deaths lies with our spiritually impoverished culture and religious institutions that force people to find sacred truth and beauty in dangerous places.

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3 comments

  1. GaryTell · February 17, 2010

    It’s hard to believe that Ray could keep these people in the sweat lodge against their will. I know if I was feeling ill, I would tend to my self. Then again, I wouldn’t be caught dead (no pun intended) at a $10k self-help seminar.

  2. Tom · May 27, 2011

    You comments are ignorant and offensive. To say that you are sure that there are “lousy” Native American sweat lodge leaders demonstrates the very worst of Western ethnocentrism. You very dishonestly distornt and misrepresent the statements of numerous respected Native American spiritual leaders in order stroke your own ego. No Native American leader EVER said that proper protocol for leading an Inipi ceremony required genetic attachement to some vague “Native American” race. In Lakota culture, there are very specific protocols required in order to be entitled to conduct an Inipi ceremony. You MUST be a part of the CULTURE. You MUST understand the required prayers and songs in the Lakota language. This relates to race only peripherally, but RACISTS whites with a sense of RACIST entitlement still insist on making this twisted and perverted argument. Your ridiculous post only demonstrates that outsiders to Lakota culture (Whites in particular) cannot understand what is being told to them by legitimate leaders and are only capable of twisting and perverting information. You demonstrate this yourself by twisting and perverting the very direct, very easy to understand statements of LEGITIMATE Lakota spiritual leaders. Even the smallest Lakota child knows that not just any Lakota is entitled to lead an Inipi ceremony. That same child knows why protocols must be folllowed. Cultural knowledge just happens to come within specific FAMILIES and therefore withing a specific ‘race.’ It’s not racist to tell a delusional fool that s/he is NOT part of your FAMILY. Whites insist on making idiotic arguments about cultural apporpriation and race like you have in order to “win the argument” more easily. This mentality of competativeness and one-up-man ship is EXACTLY what makes you and WHITES who think like you NOT ENTITLED to have anything to do with sacred Lakota ceremonies. It’s about CULTURE. I don’t know how to say it any more plainly so that it can get into your thick skulls. It’s not about race, it’s about CULTURE. It is idiotic to think that a white person can just adapt to a culture they have absolutely no legitimate knowledge of. Whites are seeking a romantic, yet racist, stereotype of a mystical Native experience that can fill the void where their souls should have been. This is a fool’s errand. If whites want to be spiritual, first they must start by being RADICALLY honest. Your post demonstrates how incapable of honesty you are. The type of idiotic arguments that paint Native people struggling to maintain the integrity of their CULTURE only demonstrate the racism that is in the minds of people like you who twist our spiritual leaders words and put forth such dishonest arguments. You have done harm to Native people by repeating the twisted lies of Whites while deliberately erasing the true words of our Lakota elders. Every blog post like yours only re-enforces how inappropriate it is for Whites to be messing with Native Spirituality at all. Over and over again you demonstrate your dishonesty and your willingness to twist everything in order to win the argument. When people die in sweat lodges, it is ALWAY because a dishonest, arrogant, entitled white person whose mind was twisted by his colonial indoctrination thought s/he was making some statement against imagined ‘racism’. It always happens when a morally superior white person thinks that s/he knows better than Lakota elders and has such a huge ego that s/he can ‘improve’ upon the relgion of people s/he sees as inferiors. There’s the racism — in the arrogant belief that whites can do everything better There’s the white supremacy. If any other people besides Native people had had their relgious practices perverted and distorted in the same way that New Agers have perverted and distorted the Inipi ceremony, there would be outrage from the so-called progressive community. No Native person ever claimed to “own” their spiritual practices. That came from White people who see the whole world in terms of who “owns” what. If you were an honest person, you would have written that LEGITIMATE Native American spiritual leaders have claimed the right to be guardians of the religious practices that developed over thousands of years in their cultures. They have also legitimately, under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (of which you seem totally ignorant) claimed that right to take measures to preserve to integrity of their religious practices and to chose NOT to be coerced or forced into ‘sharing’ those practices with outsiders. In other words they said NO to spiritual rape and you wasted a lot of time trying to convince yourself and other whites like you that when they said NO they really meant yes – since as objects and not human beings, they really shouldn’t have the right to say no to your spiritual desires. I am so tired of seeing the same DISHONEST arguments from ignorant Whites plastered all over the internet. You are complicit in cultural genocide. You are responsible for disheartening entire generations of Native youth who can no longer take pride in or hardly even recognize THEIR spiritual birthright because of the selfishness, colonialism and dishonesty of people like you. You would do better to keep quiet and listen to what LEGITIMATE Native elders have to say on the subject as you have demonstrated that you have no wisdom on the subject whatsoever.

  3. Peregrin · May 27, 2011

    Fuck, Tom, did you READ the post before spewing forth your screed. If you did, you would see we agree on most things.
    Try reading not hating. Thanks. 🙂

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