Native Americans: Convicted Self-Help Guru's Use of Sweat Lodges Abuse of Tradition

Members of the Native American community want to make sure people understand that the death of three people during a sweat lodge ceremony two years ago led by self-help guru James Arthur Ray was an abuse of their culture and traditions.

Ray was sentenced last week to two years in prison on three counts of negligent homicide. While he faced trial and conviction, several American Indians sat through nearly the entire court hearings, according to The Associated Press. The sweat lodge ceremony is considered a sacred tradition of Native Americans. Members of the community want to prevent its commercialization which they deem unholy.

During a “Spiritual Warrior” retreat near Sedona, Ariz. on Oct. 8, 2009, Ray led a sweat lodge ceremony in which the three people died as a result, and 18 others were hospitalized with varying medical conditions. The motivational speaker and author of Harmonic Wealth stated during the conviction hearing that he would not conduct the ceremony again.

"He desecrated our ceremony, he abused it," Lewis said Wednesday. "He used it in any way that he could just to get his money. He was told before not to do that, and he's paying for it now."

American Indians have used sweat lodges to cleanse the body as preparation for several events, including hunting and spiritual ceremonies. While, the lodges are normally designed for small groups of a dozen people or less, Ray’s ceremony in which the fatalities occurred had 50 people inside.

The sweat lodge ceremony can act much like a ceremonial sauna and is practiced by Native American cultures with reverence. The structure of a sweat lodge can be a domed or an oblong hut, similar to a wickiup. Stones are typically heated in a fire outside the structure and then placed in a central pit in the ground.

During the trial, prosecutors rarely used the term “sweat lodge,” and instead referred to Ray's event as a "heat endurance challenge," according to AP.

"We have experienced hundreds of years of generational transgressions against our way of life and the value of human life for the purpose of power and greed," Cheryl Joaquin, of the Gila River Indian Community, wrote as Ray was being sentenced. "Today we pray and envision a time of unity for all mankind, with a humble understanding of love, peace and harmony."

A civil complaint filed by Lewis alleging that Ray violated the Indian Arts and Crafts Act by operating the sweat lodge was dismissed by a federal judge. The judge ruled that the act applies to goods, not services, according to the AP story.

CP was unable Friday to reach Bill Bielecki, an attorney representing the Black Hills Sioux Nation Treaty Council on South Dakota's Pine Ridge reservation. Bielecki previously told AP he is hoping a civil trial on the case would encourage non-Native Americans to realize the importance of safety when conducting sweat lodge ceremonies.

"They're going to look at the facts," said Bielecki, who also was party to the lawsuit, "You don't use a large sweat lodge, you make sure people can leave and you don't coerce the occupants into staying beyond their limits or capabilities. If you do that, then you avoid gross negligence."

The families of the victims were reported to have connected with members of the American Indian community, who had reached out to them during the trial, according to AP. One of the victim’s mothers expressed sorrow "that their sacred traditions were defiled in this event."

The practice of sweat lodges or similar practices dates back to the fifth century BC, and done by Scythians in a vast area of ancient Asia and Russia, according to historians. Celtic tribes were also known to use vapor baths beginning in the 18th century.

At some point during the exploration of America, Native Americans were introduced by Europeans to the practice. American Indian spiritual elements were then added.