Prior to 1978, it was illegal to practice “ceremonial and traditional rites” in the United States, a country that had made the freedom of religion a major tenet of their existence. Many practices were driven under ground and to this day, there are still some that are hesitant to share their knowledge with others-especially outsiders.
I think this is compounded even more by those in the majority culture who co-opt Native American teachings and take them as their own. It has gotten so bad that some leading elders have banned non-Native Americans from attending ceremonies.
I don’t blame them for taking this approach. For 500 years we were told that it was illegal to practice our traditional ways. If that wasn’t bad enough, once it was legal, new agers stole and sold our traditions. Instead of seeking out their own teachings, they try and find something mystical in ours.
Worse yet, armed with a little knowledge, they appoint themselves as authorities on everything Indian. Some set up sweat lodges and refer to themselves as shamans. Sadly I have seen people offer to do ceremonies for a fee while advertising their services.
Most traditional people I know do not refer to themselves as shamans or medicine men, do not charge for ceremonies and will not advertise their services. Most our humble and downplay what they do. In addition, they do not push people to the extreme.
I have never been in a sweat lodge in which the facilitator wouldn’t let someone leave. In fact they often are watching out for those who are in there for the first time. They check on participants and ask how everyone is holding up. These ceremonies are not about endurance nor are they meant to invoke some esoteric experience in the participant. Instead, it is a place where you go pray for others.
Yes it can be renewing for the participant but the focus should be on the needs of others, not what you can get or gain from it. When I was deathly ill, my friend Skip and a group of friends gathered in the middle of winter at the lodge. They put aside their own comfort to pray for me, not unlike the Christian principle of fasting in which you neglect the physical needs of the body in order seek God. It wasn’t about them or what they could get from the experience.
I have often joked that we could put out a shingle and make a lot of money pedaling ceremonies to new agers willing to pay big money to participate in a “traditional Native American ceremony”. We could issue membership cards and sell plastic rattles, beads and other paraphernalia. But I could never do that because it is simply wrong.
In 2009, the eyes of the world were turned to Sedona, AZ as word spread that three people had died and many more injured in a sweat lodge ceremony gone bad. James Arthur Ray, a new age guru and self help author had charged participants $10,000 to push themselves to the limit. The capstone was this “sweat lodge” ceremony in which he ignored the pleas of help from those concerned about the erratic breathing of several participants. Others were dragged out vomiting and continued his two hour ceremony even while others tended to the sick.
After looking at the pictures of the sweat lodge and watching the video accounts, there was so much wrong with what took place-from charging participants to the type of covering used on this “lodge”. Mr. Ray had no authority to conduct these ceremonies nor does it appear the training to do so.
Last week, justice was served when Ray was convicted of three counts of negligent homicide. Unfortunately there will still be plastic shaman out there who will continue to pedal their wares to unsuspecting and gullible people seeking a real experience but instead finding themselves led down the road to perdition.