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Activist Communique: DIY sweat lodge?

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The sweat lodge -- traditionally called a Purification Lodge -- is a ceremony I humbly don't feel I could do justice to trying to describe in layman terms, so let me use the basic explanation provided by Anishnawbe Health of Toronto.

“The Sweat Lodge has been called ‘the most powerful structure in the world.’ It is a place specially constructed to conduct ceremony. Sweats vary from purification and cleansing to healing sweats. It is said that the Sweat Lodge during ceremony ‘responds’ to what the participants need.”

As Cree Elder, Vern Harper, explains, “If we’re going to use the white man’s language, use the right language so the proper name for a sweat lodge is a purification ceremony.”

If you'd like more information, I suggest you contact someone within the First Nations community who can speak appropriately on the issue or call your local Native Friendship Centre for more information. I am not from this territory, I am from the Arctic.

I can also strongly discourage you from believing everything you read on the Internet regarding this purification ceremony, because unfortunately there are some people out there who are just kinda making up the ceremony as they go along to fit their own needs without the required historical and cultural context and specific protocols. So I do suggest checking the source first if you are curious -- because it’s OK to be curious.

For example, let me submit this Do It Yourself Sweat Lodge video titled: “The Jazzfarm Rainbow Sweat Lodge Build” as an example of a questionable video. While the music in the video may be cute, the fluffy bunny of this ceremony is evident -- as are the basic breeches in protocol like, for example, filming the Sacred Fire.

Or check out this DIY sweat lodge video that provides a virtual step-by-step guide to imitating (not practicing) this purification ceremony. The men in How to Build a Sweat Lodge in your Garden have taken the purification lodge completely out of its ceremonial context, only vaguely referencing a link to First Nation culture, and then they begin hacking at the ground as if this would be something fun to try on the weekend.

Sadly, there are many examples of DIY purification lodges on YouTube, so I could have picked any one but the point remains the same.

Think seriously about it for a second, how would someone who is Catholic feel if a group of non-Catholics decided to make up their own ceremonies for mass, sang Kumbaya as their only religious song, and charged participants per communion wafer?

And I know I don’t have to remind anyone of the three deaths that occurred at Plastic Shaman, James Arthur Ray’s, sweat lodge, as warning against culturally appropriation and playing with ancient traditions that you don’t understand.

Thus we saw the idiocy of trying to jam too many people into a First Nations "traditional" sweat lodge in the Sedona heat with Ray bullying them to stay inside the lodge, causing the death of three participants on Oct. 8, 2009. Ray was later found guilty of negligent homicide in the deaths of James Shore, Kirby Brown and Liz Neuman.

Each participant had paid a reported $10,000 to participate in the “Spiritual Warrior” retreat. I honestly don't know how spirituality and wealth can be mashed together, as new-agers often mash up different cultures, religions and concepts of spirituality into a mush palpable to the eager but often timid white tongue.

But I don't believe it's very spiritual to take advantage of -- to the tune of $10,000 each -- people who are perhaps so spiritually bankrupted from capitalism themselves that they think they can throw more money at the problem and buy salvation through appropriating another’s culture.

My basic point here is that if you’re going to call your lodge a sweat lodge or a purification lodge, you are specifically linking what you’re doing to a specific First Nation traditional -- so that means you can’t just make it up as you go along or pretend that if you have seen one sweat lodge on YouTube, then you have seen them all. This is not only unethical but dangerous.

Permit me to caution here that there is no such thing as pan-Indian culture. What I mean  is that it is unfair and uneducated to believe that First Nation beliefs are in some way homogenous and thus identical regardless of where on Turtle Island/North American they are from.

As ridiculous as it would be to consider European cultural beliefs as pan-European -- as if you could consider the culture of Norway to be the same as the culture of Malta -- it is equally ridiculous to consider the cultural beliefs of the people of the West Coast as identical to that of the Plains or within the Eastern Woodland territories.

First Nations, Metis and Inuit cultural beliefs are specific and contextualized regarding the territory that certain Nation (or band) is from and also intrinsically related to the history, topography and ecological landscape.

It would be confusing and disorientating to remove an Eastern Woodlands traditional ceremony and try and perform it in the Mohave Desert.

This said, a New Age belief in Core Shamanism has arisen which does exactly that.

"Core shamanism does not hold a fixed belief system, but instead focuses on the practice of shamanic journeying and may on an individual basis integrate indigenous shamanism, the teachings of Carlos Castaneda and other spiritualities."  [Please note here that Carlos Castaneda is a known spiritual fraud.] This type of thinking was developed by Michael Harner.

Critics Daniel C. Noel and Robert J. Wallis see Harner's teachings as based on cultural appropriation and a misrepresentation of the various cultures he claims to have been inspired by.

This belief in Core Shamanism has in part given way to the rise of the Plastic Shaman, “individuals who are attempting to pass themselves off as shamans, holy people, or other traditional spiritual leaders, but who have no genuine connection to the traditions or cultures they claim to represent.”

According to G. Hobson, the danger here is that, those who participate in ceremonies led by the untrained may be exposing themselves to various psychological, spiritual and even physical risks. The methods used by a fraudulent teacher may have been invented outright or recklessly adapted from a variety of other cultures and taught without reference to a real tradition. In almost all "plastic shaman" cases a fraud is employing these partial or fraudulent "healing" or "spiritual" methods without a traditional community of legitimate elders to provide checks and balances on their behaviour. In the absence of the precautions such traditional communities normally have in place in regard to sacred ceremonies, and without traditional guidelines for ethical behaviour, abuse can flourish.

Core Shamanism also leads to the blurring of specific cultural contexts inherent within and specific to each First Nation tradition, under the false belief of pan-Indianism, and culturally appropriates from various cultures into the hands of the mainstream.

It strips each nation of its unique cultural beliefs, acting as if those specific cultural traditions, Sacred Songs and prayers spoken in one own’s Indigenous language have no bearing on the impact of the ceremony, the familiarity of the ancestors and the capriciousness of Spirit.

Instead of authentic traditional healing or ceremony, what the mainstream gets is a murky spiritual soup, weakened by the lack of authority and traditional knowledge.

In an attempt to protect First Nation spirituality from this kind of cultural exploitation, the Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality was drafted and passed on June 10, 1993 at the Lakota Summit V; an international gathering of U.S. and Canadian Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Nations.

Among other things, the declaration stated:

"WHEREAS for too long we have suffered the unspeakable indignity of having our most precious Lakota ceremonies and spiritual practices desecrated, mocked and abused by non-Indian "wannabes," hucksters, cultists, commercial profiteers and self-styled "New Age shamans" and their followers; and

WHEREAS this exponential exploitation of our Lakota spiritual traditions requires that we take immediate action to defend our most precious Lakota spirituality from further contamination, desecration and abuse;"

The Lakota, Dakota and Nakota nations then resolved to fight back against the exploitation of their spirituality, resolving to, for example:

"1. We hereby and henceforth declare war against all persons who persist in exploiting, abusing and misrepresenting the sacred traditions and spiritual practices of our Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people.

2. We call upon all our Lakota, Dakota and Nakota brothers and sisters from reservations, reserves, and traditional communities in the United States and Canada to actively and vocally oppose this alarming take-over and systematic destruction of our sacred traditions."

The Lakota Declaration is not without its critics, some of whom rage against the statement with vitriol.

I would like to present this counter declaration in full -- written by Karl Vincent Langstramm ([email protected]) back in 2005 -- to give you the full breadth of the reactionary anger. The evidence here speaks for itself, which is why I want to present it completely.

Not that Mr. Langstramm considers himself a new age huckster or whatever he says in his intro, but he does strongly end his critique with a warning to those who signed on to the declaration, “If you think that proposed [Purification] lodge of mine on my own property is exploiting Lakota Spirituality and you want war with me than I can defend myself just as well, violently if necessary.”

At any rate, his response speaks for itself.

That said, regarding a purification lodge in reference to the declaration, Langstramm writes,


The person "running the sweat lodge" is just a facilitator and host that arranges an itinery for a consensus of participants to safely worship or derive health benefits of participating respectfully.

Everyone is equal at the lodge, especially sweating in the dark.

There is no elite heirarchy of sundancers nor vision questers, nor "medicine men", nor elders, nor pipe carriers, nor shamans there. There is no special reverence to someone with self inflicted mutilation scars.

No one waits for a so called "medicine man" or spiritual leader's permission to take a drink of water.

No one passes a communal ladel around with a communal bucket to drink water out of risking contagious germs.

Everyone is free to bring their own Nalgene or other water bottles full of their beverage of choice, except intoxicants, with all the ice they want to put in it, if they so desire. Drink freely whenever you are thirsty. No one should control when you feel the need to be re-hydrated.

Women are welcome on their moon (menstral cycle) as long as they are clean and wear sanitary napkins that won't cause them to bleed in the lodge. I'm not a medical Doctor just an amateur one client gynecologist at best, but some women have suggested there are health risks of excessive bleeding from the heat while on their periods. The women would decide what is appropriate for them.

If there's some health risk like that, I guess I'd put it in the liability waiver notice for them to choose what they do at their own risk.

Likewise, men's testicles could melt off and cook all the sperm away so we end up shooting blanks for months and years, putting us in pain. Who knows what prolonged risks could happen to us guys too?

In either case, there's been women and men surviving in hot climates since for a very long time. Some people are more adaptible than others.

If someone feels comfortable being naked in a sweat lodge, its entirely your choice.

Pets, such as dogs and cats, are generally not welcome, but if its a clean well trained intelligent animal who won't urinate or defecate or have flatulnece in the lodge, what's the big deal? I mean seriously considering that a lot of human farting and human sweating, especially from those who had recent fire water relapse, is going to make the place stink a lot worse than an animal ever could.

Some have suggested there are health risks to the pets and that could be a liability waiver at the owner's own risk too advising them to consult a Veterinarian. That has to do with science and the habits of each individual animal, not because the animal is a curse to spirituality.

Actually, pet monkeys from tropical jungles might benefit from sweating the most.

Metal forceps are used to carry in the stones if there are no antlers available.

Any kind of metal jewelry is welcome for anyone who thinks they need it, though if it gets too hot, metal conducts heat. That has to do with science and not some spiritual concept about metal interfering with prayers.

It's all right to go ahead and walk clockwise or counter clockwise around the lodge or in front of the alter carefree as long as it doesn't interfere with anyone.

Anyone can throw water on the stones at any time provided they are considerate enough to ask if others find the ceremony getting too hot or too cold for some.

Sometimes a little pachouli and other incense is burned in addition to sage, sweet grass, and cedar.

There is no obligation to smoke a pipe nor is there any special merit if you think a pipe is sacred or not. You don't even have to touch a pipe. It's entirely your choice if you do or don't smoke. Besides, tobacco does nothing good for the human body anyways.

If it gets too hot, politely and respectfully ask to leave and let everyone know you are leaving.

There'd be some kind of cedar boards or foundation like in a sauna so that no one has to crawl around in the mud and filthy mildewy old carpets."

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