Lawmaker: Restrict profit from tribal ceremonies
By JONATHAN J. COOPER and FELICIA FONSECA
The Associated PressTuesday, January 19, 2010
PHOENIX – An Arizona lawmaker introduced a bill Tuesday to regulate the use of traditional Native American practices after three people died last year in a northern Arizona sweat lodge ceremony.The measure from Sen. Albert Hale, D-St. Michaels, seeks to sanction the use of Native American ceremonies off tribal land for profit without permission.Self-help guru James Arthur Ray charged people more than $9,000 each to attend his five-day “Spiritual Warrior” retreat near Sedona that culminated in a sweat lodge ceremony on Oct. 8. Participants said they trusted that Ray, who touted training under a Native American shaman, knew what he was doing.Three people died and 18 others were hospitalized after becoming overwhelmed in the 415 square-foot sweat lodge that was covered with tarps and blankets. The deaths and illnesses sparked outrage among American Indians, who drew distinctions between what Ray did and what would be considered a traditional Native American sweat lodge.Hale, a member and former president of the Navajo tribe, said the bill is partly an effort to protect people from false advertising.”This process has been a perversion of our traditional ways,” he said. “The dominant society has taken all that we have: Our land, our water, our language, and now they’re trying to take our way of life.”The Yavapai County sheriff’s office has focused a homicide investigation on Ray, who has made millions of dollars by convincing people his words will lead them to spiritual and financial wealth. Ray has hired an investigative team to find out what happened, and his lawyer said the deaths were the result of a tragic accident, not criminal negligence.Hale’s proposed restrictions would not apply to ceremonies taking place on tribal land or with the authorization of a tribal government.It’s unclear exactly how the law would be enforced. The bill leaves those details up to the Arizona Department of Health Services and the Arizona Commission of Indian Affairs, but Hale said a violation would likely be a civil offense similar to a traffic ticket.
Carl Artman, an Indian law professor at Arizona State University, said the bill opens the door for protections similar to those for Native American arts and artifacts. Any regulations should be a balance between a tribe’s culture, spirituality and history, and an individual’s First Amendment rights, he said.”If passed, it will be how the regulations are written that we’ll see if it has staying power and benefits for the tribes,” he said. If nothing else, Artman said the bill would force a discussion on the issue.
Sweat lodges are commonly used by Native American tribes to cleanse the body and prepare for hunts, ceremonies and other events. They typically hold no more than a dozen people, compared with more than 50 people inside the one led by Ray. The ceremony involves stones heated up outside the lodge, brought inside and placed in a pit. The door is closed, and water is poured on the stones, producing heat aimed at releasing toxins in the body. In traditional ceremonies, the person who pours the water is said to have an innate sense about the conditions of others inside the sweat lodge, many times recognizing problems before they physically are presented.”We need to be respected,” Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. said. “Our ways cannot be abused.”