Monday, January 4, 2010

Sonoma, AZ - Sweat Lodge - James Arthur Ray

New shoots sprang up in the meadow the first day I entered the sweat lodge. The evening was crisp, hawks hung on the breeze, and the fire crackled. A peace I'd not known previously settled upon me as I waited, watching. The elder prepared the prayer ties, arranged objects on the alter, and filled the pipe with a mixture of sage and tobacco.

Later, having crawled inside the dome-shaped lodge, supported by willow branches and covered with tarps and blankets, I sat in a community circle. Warmth filled the lodge as glowing stones were brought in one by one and placed in the center. After the first seven stones entered and prayers were said, the elder offered an explanation.

"This is the safest place on Earth," he began.

"It's a return to the womb of the mother," he continued.

We enter the sweat lodge as a purification ceremony. It is where we pray to be reconstructed, made anew. It is where we acknowledge the gifts of our ancestors, pray for help and health, both for ourselves and our loved ones. It is a place of healing, where medicine envelops and toxins are purged.

Sitting on the earth, feeling the fire from the stones, seared by the steam that arose each time the elder poured water, longing for the coolness of the night air outside, I felt the sacrificial nature of this ceremony. Choosing to sit in this place to pray reminded me of the essential elements of life: fire, water, air, earth, interconnection, and humility.

In this place we pray for the creepy crawlies, the four leggeds, the winged ones, as well as our two-legged brethren. The full circle of life is honored in this place. We sit in the lodge so that when we re-emerge we are better able to offer ourselves to our community.

Exiting the lodge for that first time, crawling out with an acknowledgment of "all my relations", a centered, although exhausted, gratefulness overwhelmed me. The moon shone above and we dressed slowly, silently, each incorporating the medicine offered in that symbolic womb.

The sweat lodge has become a sanctuary for me, one that I've returned to on a monthly basis for the last 14 years. It's my home, it's a church, and it's sacred.

And, my practice has been a source of tension for me. As a white woman trying to be diligent about disrupting racism and dismantling privilege, I have recognized the need to interrogate my participation.

"I was invited in", I'd say, thinking about my elder, trained in the Lakota tradition. I'd recall his words, "You are doing what your ancestors should have done when they first arrived on this land." "You're praying to make the way clearer for us all as we move forward."

Any yet, I'd hear people talk about "cultural appropriation" and what it meant that white people participated in traditions not their own.

Yes, it's true. I found solace in the sweat lodge in ways not found through my American customs.
Yes, it's true. My various European ethnic heritages did not provide me with a tradition that resonates with me and offers me this level of community.

"But, I'm not trying to be what I'm not," I'd console myself, knowing that I don't try to claim that the fullness of my life represents Native American religious practices.

For years, I wondered, I struggled, I sat, I sweated, and I admitted what felt like a contradiction. I am committed to this practice, and in doing so I've adopted another's cultural practice as my own. Is this cultural appropriation? Is it wrong what I'm doing?

To some, they do see my participation as problematic. For others, my level of respect and devotion satisfies. From my elder's point of view, this practice is for everyone, regardless of cultural origin. But, not all people of Native American descent share his perspective.

For me, I remained both devoted to the practice and simultaneously a bit self-critical.

I then read the newspaper in October 2009.

Sonoma, Arizona. A white man named James Arthur Ray charges people upwards of $9,000 to participate in a week long initiation journey that utilizes various spiritual practices and trials to help the individuals find their warrior within...or something like that.

The culminating experience is a community sweat lodge. People died.

That lodge was not the safest place on Earth. Instead, it was rendered deadly.

The ego and hubris of a white man turned a sacred ceremony into a money-making venture.

A purification ceremony within mother's womb was turned into a trial to be overcome.

A sanctuary space for prayer was turned into a prison from which people begged for release.

We spoke about the tragedy the following week in our lodge. We prayed for the victims. We prayed for those responsible. And, we prayed that there would not be a reaction against those who participate regularly in this ancient ceremony.

For that is also one of the dangers. Cultural appropriation often distorts the beauty of the original form.

Worse, blind appropriation and defensive egos shield people from recognizing the harm they perpetuate on others. Within weeks of the deaths, the white man was busy offering workshops and lectures, telling audiences that he prays for the families of those who died. At not time does he publicly recognize the role he played, his lack of humility and use of privilege to take and modify what he had no right to desecrate.

Weeks later, I sit, I consider, I write...

Must I still question myself regarding how my life might involve cultural appropriation?

Yes, of course. It's a healthy question to ask, repeatedly.

But, can I speak out, as a white woman, against a white man, charging him with an offensive and deadly form of cultural appropriation even though I am not part of the culture from which the practice was taken?

Yes, of course. It's my duty.


  1. Dear Shelly,
    Hello, there, Shelly! Happy New Year 2010, and a very, happy new decade! I am so glad that you shared of your deeply moving spiritual experience and practice of being involved in and deeply committed to your sweat lodge prayer and the blessings you receive from this community and connection. I do not think your involvement is problematic at all, not in the least. I have even talked to my dearest white sisterfriends who also involve themselves in Native American spiritual practices, prayers, and exercises, and/or who have some Native American ancestry, and I have been a support to them, validating them when they feel that some people of color frown upon them for practicing these spiritual blessings and engagement, and/or for claiming some of their Native American ancestry. I do not find this problematic at all what you are doing, Shelly, and I support you and other white sisterfriends and other white folks who connect in this deep way. It is so heartbreaking to me to see how white folks like yourself and the others who sincerely have a deep connection and commitment to these practices are frowned upon and not trusted for their sincerity and genuine appreciation, which I do not think is appropriation. I am appalled by James Arthur Ray, and I have to like you do as well question his motives. I, too, have some Native American ancestry as a black/African-American woman whose paternal great-grandfather was a Blackfeet Native American, and my paternal great-grandmother who was partnered with him was a black/African-American woman.
    Shelly, I can't wait until the 2nd Edition of Witnessing Whiteness comes out, I plan to buy it immediately when it does come out, in fact, I am filled with eager anticipation for it to come out so that I can buy it right away! Thank-you so kindly and so dearly for your speaking out the way you do, and for your advocacy, Shelly! Thenk-you so, so much for all of your hard work also! Have a nice day! Blessings so much to you always, Shelly!
    Sincerely always,
    Sherry Gordon

  2. Sorry Sherry but just because your great-grandfather was an American Indian that doesn't mean that you are part of their culture.

  3. It just seems so cut and dry simple. I can't believe people can be so dumb that they cannot see it.

    The defense attorney asks the jury: Would you go into a hot sweat lodge if you felt you could not handle it? No, right? Would you, your honor? No, right? Would it matter if everyone else was going in and not suffering any adverse reactions? No, it wouldn't matter at all. Even if your own mother was encouraging you to go in you wouldn't go if you felt you could not handle it, right? Of course not...unless you were trying to prove how tough you were. If you were trying to prove how tough you were and went into a hot sweat lodge over and over and over, ignoring your body screaming that it was actually dying, you would have no one to blame but yourself for whatever would happen as a result. ESPECIALLY, after you signed a liability waiver stating that you promised to take full responsibility for taking part in the scheduled activities of the workshop.

    You must remember that MOST OF THE PEOPLE who participated in the sweat lodge workshop DID NOT suffer adverse reactions to the event. What does that say about those who did suffer adversely? Well, it obviously says they should not have gone back in after the breaks between each 10-15 minute round. They have no one to blame but themselves for going back into the sweat lodge when they knew they could not handle it, period!

    These are responsible adults we are speaking of who REALLY wanted to be at that workshop to the point of spending over $9,000.00 in order to attend. It was THEIR responsibility to research into what they could expect at that workshop and judge whether or not they could handle it. It was NOT James Arthur Ray's responsibility to know what each person could or could not physically handle. YOU know your body better than anyone else. It is YOUR responsibility to protect your life, not anyone else's

  4. Signed Waiver? That's just too funny!! How many times did I sign a waiver to participate in my way of life? Some talk about culture appropiation, what does that even mean, does it mean its alright to sweat with me because you "understand" my culture. On the one hand, I would support other cultures to partake in such behavior, to experience a ceremony, for their journey, for their path, not because they can take it. On the other hand, the elders much know that these people are not like us and there are dangers that should have been explained to them. No waiver needed because it is a life changing journey. You know your own limits, and if you don't, this is not "survivor", this is real as it gets. People just don't get it, and that's so sad! peace.

  5. Anonymous, what do you mean why you say "just because your grandfather was an American Indian, doesn't mean you are apart of the culture?" What qualifies one to be? Do they have to be 100% American Indian? What if they were adopted by Natives their whole life, that's the only culture they know, and yet they are white? Why do you get to say who can be apart of the culture and who cannot? Just wondering...