Many First Nations people, especially us traditional folks, are up in arms over the misappropriation of our traditional ceremonies in the wake of the deaths of two people in a non-native sweat lodge at an Arizona resort last week.

As many as 65 people fasted for more than a day, and entered the sweat lodge for spiritual cleansing. Nothing really out of the ordinary, other than the fact that the healing was supervised and conducted by a non-native man, James Ray, who was charging $9,000-$10,000 a head.

Sadly, James Shore of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Kirby Brown of Westtown, New York lost their lives, while 19 others fell ill from new age healing gone horribly wrong.

The biggest tragedy here, aside from the needless loss of human life, is the misappropriation of faith.

First things first, this is an indigenous ceremony. It should not be in the hands of anyone other than sanctioned Lodge carriers from those legitimate nations who use this ceremony. I don’t meant to sounds like I’m quoting legislation, but this is a no-brainer.

Secondly, no one, including First Nations people, should be collecting a fee or earning a living for conducting ceremonies. Reimbursing their expenses and their time and dedication is one thing. Exchanging money or charging a fee diminishes the sanctity of the ceremony from a Spiritual point-of-view.

But there is little wonder why our Sweat Lodge ceremony is so attractive to Indian enthusiasts, new-agers and practioners of alternative healing. For many non-natives, the sweat lodge offers a mysterious comfort – using the heat and benefits of a sauna combined with a pre-historic ritual.

Oh, and don’t forget the chanting. Ask. Believe. Receive. Get in touch with your primordial Spirit… have an out of body experience… be one with Mother Earth… find your Spirit animal and all that.

However, the sweat lodge is more than just hocus pocus.

For the Anishinaabe, the sweat lodge is a healing of the mind, body and spirit through cleansing. It is as much about the Spirit as is about the body.

For many non-natives that take part in the ceremony, and I’ve seen this myself, the Spirit is often overlooked.

The calling of the Spirit, acknowledgement of the Spirit, the working of the Spirit and the feeding of the Spirit are all important components of any ceremony, including the Sweat Lodge ceremony.

The Spirits that partake in the sweat lodge ceremony include:

… All those that sit in the Four Directions;
… those witnessing from the Spirit World via the Western Doorway;
… the Spirits in each of the heated rocks (the Grandfathers);
… Mother Earth – whose womb we are inhabiting;
… the Spirit of the Lodge itself, Mide Oshkawbewis;
… the Little Boy who resides in the water drum that is passed around the Lodge;
… the Spirit in the pipe and so on.

Outside of the Lodge, there is the Spirit of the fire, the Firekeeper and helpers, and the trickster Spirit must always be kept in mind.

Don’t forget that each and every one of us that participates in the ceremony has a Spirit. We are all called, acknowledged, do our work and are fed in the Lodge as well.

For the conductor, it’s a lot to be aware of.

For James Ray, who ran this ceremony – that is a lot to overlook and not understand.

Among my chief concern are all the fingers pointing, quite unfairly, at the ceremony itself and the legitimate conductors of the many nations that make use of the sweat lodge. There will be many that say that any ceremony of this kind is unsafe and it’s just a matter of time that something like this happens.

Sure, I’ve seen people fall sick during the course of a sweat. However, in each of these instances it was mere happenstance. More often than not, these individuals were physically ill prior to the ceremony and they were likely seeking healing during advanced stages of a chronic disease.

Although I have never heard of such a thing happening, I would even concede the possibility that someone in our history may have died during the course of a sweat lodge ceremony.

However, in the entire history of the Anishinaabe sweat lodge I have never heard of this kind of massive event where sickness and death were the ultimate result of the ceremony.

This tragedy amounts to plain carelessness. This is total disregard to the safety of the participants. I’ll even venture to say, that this is out and out negligence by the “proprietors” of the program.

These people put a lot of trust in Mr. Ray. Fasting and sweating are practices that should not be underestimated. They trusted him for not only guidance, but for their personal safety.

The most important thing for any sweat lodge conductor is the personal safety of all those participating in the ceremony.

Unfortunately, they also entrusted him with their faith. They all felt that something good may come out of this retreat and they would feel better. Man, were they wrong.



This kind of misappropriation of trust and misguided faith is not just limited to non-natives either.

In the fall of 2001, Jane Maiangowi, 71 of Wikwemikong died during a ceremony conducted by two Ecuadorian healers. During the course of a three-day ceremony sanctioned by the local health authority, the two men took Ms. Maiangowi off her diabetic medication without medical supervision. She, along with about 50 other participants, drank a mixture of a hallucinogen and nicotine. Sadly, the elder could not take the mass induced vomiting that ensued and dies soon after.

Again, there wasn’t the full understanding of the ceremony nor proper regard or understanding of the physical and spiritual effects of the medicine that was given.