American Indian knowledge and rituals: The Sedona Sweatlodge Tragedy

By Rick Whaley
Special to News From Indian Country 12-09

The Wisconsin American Indian Studies list-serve has been abuzz over the Sedona, Arizona, sweat-lodge tragedy that has recently claimed its third victim.  Aghast would be the kindest word for the opinions about how that sweat was conducted (size; for money; by whom). 

One question and one caution I recall from Native spiritual elders in my upper Great Lakes region. The question: Do ceremonies even have power away from the language and cultural context where they have been developed and used for centuries? Some ceremonies are even very specific to a land-place or waters edge, and have no power elsewhere.

Their warning: Suppose there was some spiritual access gained by someone, not Indian, who had attended a ceremony or workshop, and repeated it for others. Suppose during that reenactment, some other powerful spiritual aspect or a negative spiritual force was unleashed (something not covered in the workshop): things could become very dangerous spiritually. How would ritual leaders know how to handle such, if they weren’t in an ongoing, mentored relationship with experienced shamans/spiritual ritualists in that originating culture?

As an activist-ally of the Anishinabe people since the 1980s, and in recent years working with Ben Yahola (Muscogee), Dona Yahola (Anishinabe, Oneida), and the Sacred Sites Run, I’ve had the honor of being invited to numerous Indian ceremonies over the years. In my experience, the groundrules are pretty obvious about what knowledge is OK to pass along: Yes to political/sovereignty implications of Indian culture and environmentalism.  No to sacred knowledge reserved for ceremonies and no to repetition of any kind of spiritual ceremony. 

For retelling Indian prophecies and stories, get the permission of the storyteller who told them and give credit when repeating them. For such prophecies and stories that are published, just give credit or citation.

Except for the ritual of laying tobacco before praying in this bioregion, as First People have done for centuries and still do and welcome from others, I only participate in those rituals and ceremonies when invited by Indian people who honor my political work and friendships with them, and who lead those ceremonies. 

So I weigh in with other bioregionalists in being extremely uncomfortable in any situation where non-Indian people do their version of American Indian rituals, use objects sacred primarily to Native people, or otherwise present themselves as Indian.  Whatever the spiritual centering and connection those ceremonies might bring to participants, it is very damaging politically to ally’s work with Native people to pretend to be culturally and spiritually Indian.

At the Turtle Island Bioregional Congress (TIBC) in British Columbia in 1988, Dennis Jennings (Quapaw; Sauk and Mesquakie), then with the International Indian Treaty Council, had this counsel for bioregionalists’ questions of him during the “Racism and the Land” workshop (led by Margo Adair of Tools for Change).

What to do with New Age (for lack of a better term) allies who come into Indian communities for issue-organizing? 

Dennis’s answer was, if they’re willing to take on the work and risks of doing something about the racism and poverty Indian people face, then welcome them in.  But the next step is to teach about cultural appropriateness.   


When we face very differing political opinions within an Indian community, how do we know which people to take leadership from, to side with? He said the best indicator is to trust elders, often the poorest, who are the spiritual people who are relating to activists within and without the community. He also suggested bioregionalists be cautious about renaming bioregional places in our modern terms when there are probably Indian names for those places that are still in use or recoverable.

Other situations are instructive as well.  At the Maine TIBC in 1990, there was a hostile reaction among bioregionalists (Indian and non-Indian) when a turtle shell, a sacred object in many cultures, showed up to be sold.

Though non-Indian people are sometimes gifted pipes, with instructions,  many traditional Indian people are not OK with this practice. Also to come up at the bioregional, Green gatherings and at  spiritual workshops is the question of which drum, among numerous drums, should go first. 

The protocol I know from Wisconsin is that the first drum to go among Indian drums would be that of the oldest culture in the region (Menominee here).  And the Indian drum would go first before other cultural drums at an event. 

African World Fest at the lakefront in Milwaukee, for example, opens each year with a North American Indian ceremony, as the Africanists honor the indigenous first peoples of this region.

It’s said that all people, far back enough in time, had a sacred drum. I often recommend Starhawk’s example of recovering European women’s drums and rituals. (Though the late folksinger Tommy Makem once said the Irish drum, the bodhran, was not ceremonial, but that the drum heartbeat was carried in Irish poetry and song.) I’m not a drummer, so I will leave it to others to speak about the stories, lessons, and other protocols of ceremonial drumming.

Quite a few bioregionalists attended the 1994 conference in Ireland, Toward Earth Community: Ecology, Native Wisdom and Spirituality. Millilani Trask (Native Hawaiian) and Winona LaDuke (White Earth Anishinabe) urged people to “learn to pray in the language of your ancestors.”   

It has served me well both spiritually and in ally’s work to know prayers in Gaelic and to begin to learn the old Irish stories, earth traditions and warnings, much of which parallel Indian legacies and teachings. 

To give just one example among many: each spring on St. Brigit’s Day, the fields and fishing waters were divided up among the villagers (John Gleeson, UWM Celtic Studies). Today, the serious decline of ocean fisheries could use a similar, sustaining tradition to ensure the survival of ocean species as well.

Many of the impulses of New Agers seem genuine to me, especially given the disenfranchisements of the Christian traditions many of us grew up in: disenfranchisement of women, the earth, peace, etc. 

But the Nuage (as they say on the WI Indian listserve) approach is often a short-cut to the longer work of learning language, building political relationships, discovering earth wisdom stories, and uncovering rituals (old and new) for the places we’re defending, often with others better prepared and better grounded than ourselves.

Rick Whaley,

Milwaukee 3-Rivers, Wisconsin

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