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A Modest Proposal on Hippie Sweat Lodges

A humorous column by Gyasi Ross about the Native American sweat lodge tradition
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(The following is a satire inspired by Jonathan Swift, with apologies to April.)

Scorching hot hippies. Patchouli oil steaming from the bodies.

It seems that lots of Indians are very upset about James Arthur Ray and the actions that led to the manslaughter charges against him. They don’t like his “Spiritual Warrior” training and think that it’s offensive (and presumably dangerous too).

Lot of talk about “cultural appropriation” and whatnot. Heavy stuff. Especially when the appropriation led to the death of three people; those deaths were mainly due to James Arthur Ray having really no clue how to perform a sweat lodge in an appropriate manner. After all, cultural appropriation is a big deal to Native people. I mean, if we do not have our spiritual ceremonies and cultural practices, what do we have?

Still, there’s another contingent of Indian people who say, “You know what? Dang, I wish more crazy western people would host these lethal sweat lodges. On second thought, is it possible that we went about things the wrong way when we found these hairy, pale people? Maybe when they got off those big boats, and we realized that they weren’t quite as goofy and harmless as we originally thought, maybe we shouldn’t have shot arrows and counted coup. Perhaps we should have considered just partially teaching them some of our religious ceremonies and let them knock themselves off. Maybe we shoulda taught them the wrong way to do our ceremonies, like James Arthur Ray did!”

It was effective for him, no?

Those folks might say, “I mean, three fewer western folks hippie-dancing at pow-wows? Hell, that doesn’t sound like much. Three million fewer western folks? NOW we’re cooking with fire! We might get someplace now.”

Those same people, if they were inclined to think capitalistically as well as militarily, could conclude that, “Well perhaps we should think about producing lots of sweat lodges for the purpose of, um, giving westerners the spiritual enlightenment they crave so much. And…if it so happens that sweat lodges take some wayward pilgrims to see their God sooner rather than later…well, sometimes that’s the cost of spiritual fulfillment.”

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It’s a novel business idea. For several reasons, observe:

Reason #1: There’s a certain sub-culture of people who like to act like Indians. I’m sure that there are many reasons for this. Personally, if I were a white person, I’d stay as far away from people of color as I could! But I digress.

Still, there are probably many reasons why some of them like to hang out with Native people; call it white guilt, or a need to get scholarships for college, or an excuse for living in a trailer, or a chance to explain away a lack of professional success despite 500 years of western hegemony. No matter the logic, however, this business idea—mass-produced faulty sweat lodges—would scratch that new-agey itch.

Reason #2—In recent years, assisted suicides have become a hot topic in the United States. Evidently, there are a bunch of folks whose kids don’t really wanna take care of them as they get older (I love you mom!!), so the parents figure “What’s the point?” Follow me here: Ignorant people stupidly doing sweats with no knowledge of how, can help take care of those suicidal folks. A lot of people—whether it’s because they have some serious, painful and chronic illness or because they’re simply old and really aren’t having sex the same way that they used to (and that must really suck)—think that their particular state should allow them to off themselves. Here’s a compromise, wink wink: “State, you don’t have to let us ‘kill’ ourselves. Just let us make our own sweat lodges, complete with plastic tarp over the top. In exchange, you won’t have to provide so much medical care for my liver spots.” Deal? Deal.

Reason #3—The whole United States is in a recession and, well dangit, Skins are just broke these days!!! We need jobs. Consider this proposition the “Indian Stimulus Bill”—creating jobs in Indian Country! We’ll get a bunch of Indians like me—lazy Indians who don’t really know a whole bunch about traditional things—to build the sweat lodges pretty badly. We could be picked up for day labor from the local Town Pump, our own little Native version of “Home Depot” for Mexicans, where we go out to make $20 a day. (Of course we wouldn’t want to hire any real traditional folks because, well remember, the object is to have these things go terribly awry.)

Anyway, I’m not saying that westerners stealing our ceremonies isn’t a bad thing. Obviously it is a horrible, disrespectful and frankly stupid thing—clearly dangerous for the folks that do it. What I am saying, however, is that every white cloud has a brown lining and maybe we can ascertain something positive out of it! I think that this modest proposal might help achieve a few goals at once: eliminate a few hippie dancers from your local pow-wow, possibly make a few folks happy as they go to see their Creator and maybe put a few dollars in the hands of some hard-working Skins.

Gyasi Ross (

Gyasi Ross comes from the Blackfeet Nation and his family also comes from the Suquamish Nation. His Blackfoot name is “Oonikoomsika.” He is a proud father, a lawyer and a writer; he is the author of the series “The Thing About Skins” in the former Indian Country Today. He is also co-owner of Red Vinyl Records working with inspiring Native talent, and his book, “Don’t Know Much About Indians (But I Wrote a Book About Us Anyway)” will be out in August. Go to to preorder.