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Arizona sweat lodge deaths said to desecrate Lakota tradition

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PRESCOTT, Ariz. – A Sioux Nation treaty council delegation is demanding that those responsible for sweat lodge deaths at Sedona, Ariz. be held accountable and prosecuted under provisions of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 because the event and its aftermath violated both the treaty and the Lakota ceremonial way of life.

“The Lakota follow traditional laws, in accordance to ancient oral history,” states a petition filed in federal District Court in Prescott by the Oglala Lakota Delegation of the Black Hills Sioux Nation Treaty Council, including delegate Floyd Hand and Ivan H. Lewis, Pima/Maricopa/Yavapai. “In adherence to these laws, oral teachings and ancient ceremonies are not abused or misused.”

The Inikaga, or purification lodge, is one of seven sacred rites “brought to the Lakota by the White Buffalo Calf Woman according to ancient oral history,” the court filing states.

Multiple non-Native people died after participating in a lodge conducted by James Arthur Ray, a self-help guru, at Angel Valley Retreat Center in early October. The deaths are under investigation.

The suit contends that the center “is culpable for allowing individuals like Ray to rent their property which offers a sweat lodge for paying participants,” according to a prepared release that alleges Ray and the center “committed fraud by impersonating Native Americans and must be held responsible for causing the deaths of the victims and serious injuries to the survivors.”

The Inikaga and other traditional rituals constitute “a way of life, not a religion,” Hand said.

“Ray is a spiritual vampire who will use whatever means necessary to turn a profit. He and others like him that profit from our culture must be held accountable for their continual fraud and desecration.

“This ceremony comes from the Lakota. We maintain our cultural identity today and people like Ray are trying to mock it as a means to acquire material possessions. They cannot hide behind the Religious Freedom Act. This is not a religion,” Hand said in the release.

Asserting that “Ray and the Angel Valley folks are a dime a dozen in Yavapai territory,” Lewis said the group “claims that they will authenticate and qualify individuals, including non-Indians, to conduct our ceremonies. Our people know who is a real healer and who isn’t. Yes, everyone is entitled to pray, but our ceremonies belong to us in our Native tongue.”

The lawsuit was filed “because (the sweat lodge) was a desecration of Oglala ways,” it was explained.

Hand said by phone Nov. 24 that he had gone to the Sedona locale to check into everything he could about the lodge but has not talked to those who participated in the event at which the deaths occurred.

Hand cited a provision of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty that promises to arrest and punish “bad men among the whites” or others subject to U.S. laws if they “commit any wrong” to Native people or property, and said Ray and the center violated the treaty-established peace between the U.S. and Lakota Nation.

The petition contends that Ray and the center violated laws stating that community recognition as Indian is not sufficient; rather “the person must be considered a member of a federally recognized tribe.”

In addition, those who dismantled the lodge “caused the destruction of crucial evidence in this crime scene” and should be “charged with the destruction of evidence,” the petition states.

The filing cites provisions of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples concerning the full ownership and protection of cultural resources, enforcement of treaties, and the submission of unresolved conflicts to international bodies. The U.S. has not ratified the Declaration.

The Lakota abide by the Treaty of 1868 and retain their rights as a sovereign nation parallel to those of the U.S. Hand said, reiterating that treaties are “the supreme law of the land” by which judges are bound.

Arizona judges should remand the case to the federal district prosecutor for action, according to the petition which does not seek monetary damages.