PLUMMER, Idaho – The deaths of three people in Arizona in early October at a “Spirit Warrior” program has led to the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council taking a stand in opposition to such programs. These three were part of a group of about 65 people who paid up to $9,000 each to take part in a ceremony in a crudely constructed sweat lodge conducted by self-help expert James Arthur Ray.
The resolution, passed in late October by the tribal council, “condemns the purveyors of these new age programs that exploit Native American religious traditions without any knowledge, experience or understanding of the meaning or significance of these traditions and market Native American ceremonies and traditions for their own personal gain.”
The resolution expresses condolences to the families of the three people who died in this “tragic incident” and “hopes that this senseless tragedy will promote a better understanding of Native American history and foster respect and deference to Native American ceremonies and spiritual traditions.”
Tribal Council Vice Chairman Ernie Stensgar said he was “appalled to read about the deaths that happened. I was taught as a child by my grand uncle that the sweat lodge is very sacred. There is tradition and protocol that goes along with the sweat. Every part, from building the fire to building the sweat house to how you sit and pray there, is sacred.
“As I read that story I thought about my grand uncle who was a medicine man and some of the other people that taught us the way of the sweat. Those people would turn over in their graves if they heard that the sweat lodge ceremony was being exploited and being commercialized. That’s what offended me and a lot of people here on the reservation – that people would try to make money off that ceremony that has been so helpful to so many people.”
That is precisely the reason the tribal council passed the resolution condemning exploitation of traditional sacred ceremonies.
“I think across the country Native Americans are very appalled by what they read,” Stensgar said. “Everything we read, we felt like the Coeur d’Alene Tribe should speak out and say something about it to the public. I thought the council should speak out through a resolution which we would send to the Northwest Affiliated Tribes and maybe they would forward it on to the National Congress. … condemning these types of activities by non-Natives or even Natives who would commercialize and try to exploit sacred ceremonies of tribes.”
There are quite a few sweat lodges on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation as there are on reservations throughout the country. People are taught from the time they are children about the significance of the sweat. It is so much a part of the culture that at least some federal prisons allow sweat lodges for Native American inmates. The Veterans Administration complex in Spokane has a sweat lodge for healing.
Glen Lambert has a sweat lodge in his backyard. Glen’s dad was enrolled on the Colville Reservation and his wife is Coeur d’Alene. He is a Vietnam veteran and finds peace and sanity from those memories comes from using the sweat. “I can come here. I can relax. I can cleanse myself and feel good. You feel better every time you come out of there for some reason. I guess it’s being close to the Creator.”
Lambert allows anyone who wants to use the sweat. “If they ask and come in a good way and pray and feel better, anyone can come.” And he laughs as he says there is no charge, although if someone wants to bring a little bag of tobacco or something to use during ceremonies, that’s fine.
Stensgar recalls as a youngster how his grand uncle and others would never speak English in the sweat. “We’ve lost our language, but a lot of people remember the songs.
“Today our youngsters have reached out into that ceremony. It’s probably one of the traditions they really look forward to that helps them during hard times,” he commented, particularly in regard to drugs and alcohol. “It’s not only very sacred, it’s very private in their prayers. The songs they probably sing in there have been handed down from generations. Those songs are sacred.”
Stensgar would encourage people throughout Indian country to speak out against anyone exploiting traditional ceremonies and to really make it known wherever it might be occurring.