January 17, 2017

Legislating the sweat lodge ceremony is not the solution

In recent months, waves of criticism about the sweat lodge disaster that occurred in Sedona, AZ moved Native communities to suggest new regulations in an attempt to protect their ceremonies. In October, two participants died from injuries sustained during a sweat lodge led by a non-Indian who was encouraging self growth.

The Native people should have distanced themselves from this event. There is no relationship between what was done in Sedona and a Traditional Native Sweat Lodge Ceremony. Placing the Sedona led sweat lodge in the same category as a traditional Native sweat lodge ceremony is like comparing apples and oranges. Though they both are fruit, they come from different trees entirely.

Disasters such as the Sedona incident happen when untrained people try to unleash the sacred elements.  Fires get out of control and people are overwhelmed by heat especially when untrained people are leading the ceremony. In an attempt to recreate what this non-Native man may have seen others do successfully, ended in disaster and at the expense of the innocent. In this case, Native people were not involved; hence, this was not a Native event at all.

Currently, legislation is being discussed by Native politicians regarding the operation of Sweat Lodges off Indian reservations. The legislation will be directed at controlling Non-Indians but sadly, will also impact urban Natives, college Natives and those Natives not enrolled in a federally recognized Tribe that live off the reservations. In the end, all will suffer from this type of legal control and short sightedness.

Unfortunately, the distribution of sacred items to the Tribes is nothing new. The government currently regulates the Peyote religion, practiced by Native people for the past one hundred years. The government also controls the distribution of buffalo meat and items used for sacred ceremony by the Tribes following the bison slaughters near Yellowstone Park. Some Natives say, “Everything else in our lives is regulated by the government, why not regulate the Sweat Lodge ceremony too?”  The idea of regulating sacred items being used by non-Indians is currently a popular concept in Indian country. However, these regulations will include a cross section of Native people living off the reservation. To me, governmental regulation is not the freedom of religion that everyone enjoys in the United States. Non-Native religions have the freedom to practice their beliefs openly while Native people apparently do not.

Are we going to allow a thoughtless, enterprising, Non–Indian entrepreneur murder the Native American right of religious freedom or are we going to be traditionally driven? We should not be connected to the wrong cause but rather free to believe in our Tribal customs.