Speak Your Piece: Selling Indian Spirituality

New Age shamanism leads to three deaths in Arizona. But distortion of Native American spiritual practices is not "new."

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The recent tragic deaths of two people inside a sweat lodge at Angel Valley near Sedona, Arizona, (a third participant died on Saturday) compelled me finally to write something about an issue that has long haunted me: the expropriation of American Indian culture and ritual by New Age entrepreneurs.

This is a touchy subject for a lot of people.  I am putting myself out there for some major blowback, mostly from New Age folks who make a living by marketing enlightenment to those who may be desperately seeking some sort of meaningful spiritual experience in this often spiritually bereft place called 21st century America.

The Angel Valley incident is not the first of its kind. Two people also perished in a presciently named “death sweat” in remote El Dorado County, California, in 2002. A New Age shaman promising a vision quest that would result in a spiritual rebirth performed the “death sweat.”  Dr. Alton Carroll of San Antonio College and the moderator of the website “Newagefraud.org” reports that at least seven others have died in so-called ceremonial sweat lodges since 1993.

A number of tribes use the sweat lodge; similar to a sauna, it takes place in a small, handmade space covered with cloth and/or hides.  Usually only natural materials are used. Water is poured over heated rocks placed in the center of the lodge, which produces steam and is intended to cleanse and purify the body, heart and mind.  I have been told that  leading a lodge, either for ceremony or therapy, is a big responsibility.

I’ve been Indian for a long time, 52 years this month, and have had opportunity to reflect on the waxing and waning mainstream interest in all things American Indian. As a young firebrand, I felt rage over what I saw as the final theft, the final humiliation at the hands of the colonizer: the commodification of our ceremonies.  Seeing our culture turned into simply one more in the list of American consumer items that could be conveniently found in the grocery aisle was just too much for me.  For years, I shut down over the issue, and, like many Indians, have simply looked away.

I confess that sometimes I have even denied my heritage when asked for the 1000th time if I am American Indian.  After so many years, I can easily tell by looking at people’s facial expressions what an affirmative answer will elicit from the well meaning non-Indian.  It usually goes something like this: “Oh, my great-great grandmother was Cherokee! How do I get in touch with my heritage and how do I get money?” or “There is a family rumor that we have Indian heritage and I feel Indian in my heart because I love nature and recycle,” or “I’ve read books all about Indian spirituality and go to a shaman. Won’t you come to our powwow and do a ritual for us?”

At the last request I have answered, “Que? No hablo English.”

As I have aged (and hopefully matured a bit), I feel less anger and much more sadness for those who pursue a spiritual quick fix through pseudo Indian ceremonies.

Reading about the folks who most recently passed in the sweat lodge held by James Arthur Ray, self-help expert, produced a tremendous ache in my heart.

This proliferation of “spiritual helpers,”  new age shamans, etc., reflects how truly desperate people are for real, authentic spiritual experience.  Clearly, mainstream religions just aren’t providing what people want.  Many seem to find earth based American Indian religious practices more personally accessible.

A terse online search for “shaman,” or ”American Indian spirituality” produces thousands of hits for sites where you can order “power stones” conduct “soul retrieval” and find your “power animal” for a fee. 

A Blackfeet sweat lodge on the open Montana plain, c. 1900

Although technology has connected us to the world from our living rooms and offices, it seems to have isolated us from what we crave: human connection. Technology fueled by American consumerism gives folks the illusion that they should be able to order up that human connection and spirituality with a click of the mouse. We want our spirituality now, we want it quick, we want it risk free and clean, and we don’t want to miss any time from work, i.e. earning money.

I took a look at Mr. Ray’s website where he promises that you can “accomplish anything and everything that you want to do,” (if you follow his program); I also noted his book, “Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life You Want.”  Ray’s five-day “spiritual warrior” experience, clearly modeled on some American Indian ceremonies, includes seminars, a 36-hour fast, solo time in the forest and sweat lodge, all for a fee of $9000.00.

I gotta admit, the part that says, “accomplish anything and everything you want to do” is dang compelling.

I recall a recent experience at one of our ceremonies in which it was suggested we sit on the ground.  In the spirit of wanting to get it right and be as all-fired spiritual as possible, I sat on that ground way past the point of comfort for my aging legs.  Wordlessly, two young men, helpers in the ceremony, quickly moved to my sides, gently raised me under the arms and placed a chair under my big ol’ butt. This was done without fanfare, but I was seriously humbled.  I have seen such things over and over in Indian ceremonies and gatherings.  Conducting ceremony is a tremendous responsibility for our spiritual leaders who are entrusted with the well being of all present.  This responsibility is undertaken with the utmost seriousness. I cannot imagine a leader leaving a ceremony where someone was injured, as when James Ray left the scene in Arizona when two of his “ spiritual warriors” died.

Ray resurfaced a few days later at a huge conference he was conducting in California. He has extended condolences to the families of those who died and has vowed to carry out his own investigation, but his decision to leave the scene and conduct another huge money-making conference speaks volumes about his motivations that are clearly far more mercantile than spiritual.

For me, Ray’s sweat lodge personifies the get-spiritual-quick commodification of Indian ceremonies. The lodge was way too big and contained too many people to keep track of, and it was covered with plastic, which, as you know, doesn’t breathe. I’ll bet it got hot and steamy very quickly. Typically no more than 10-12 people go into a sweat lodge at once, and they are always encouraged to leave if they feel weak or uncomfortable.

The Native American sweat lodge ceremony has become part of New Age spirituality.

I understand people’s hunger for ritual and life-changing experience that will elevate their hearts and minds. However, cherry-picking only the ritual aspect out of American Indian ceremonies that are so based in individual tribal communities makes those rites sterile. They are robbed of their true meaning and, worse, they are dishonored and cheapened.

The blog by Lorayne Martinez, Don’t Pay to Pray reports that New Age shamans or organizations that demand fees for pseudo American Indian ritual or ceremony “pull on peoples needs for spiritual connectedness, healing and power.”  She also reminds us “Praying or remembering our essence is as natural to us as breathing.”  There is no need to pay someone to lead us to this, only willingness.

I will end by sharing Alton Carroll’s request posted on his website. “Please remember the victims of the New Age commodification of our culture in your prayers this week. They were all human beings and none of them deserved to die this way.”

 

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