Not Sweating the Past

Written by Jim Fickess Category: Valley News Issue: April 2012

Three years have passed since the 2009 tragedy that claimed the lives of three enlightenment-seeking sweat lodge participants. The architect of the tragedy, self-help guru James Arthur Ray, is serving a two-year prison term. Yet the sweat lodge stigma remains: that of an exotic, unpredictable ritual that will just as likely send you to the ER as neutralize your inner demons. Naturally, Native American practitioners in the Valley tell a different story. They characterize the Ray incident as a case of deadly ignorance, and continue to defend the traditional ritual as a way of balancing body and soul.

For 40 years, Native American Connections (NAC) has been conducting weekly sweats in the backyard of a residential substance abuse treatment facility in Downtown Phoenix. “The sweat lodge was founded as part of our recovery center,” says Diana Yazzie Devine, President/CEO of NAC. “It’s part of our integrated model that ties housing, jobs and recovery together.”

Contrary to the romantic imagining of a sweat lodge, these ceremonies happen not on a painted desert flat, but in the shadow of a 10-story apartment complex. “Such urban programs are rare, but we’re grandfathered in,” says Richard Moreno, NAC’s director of behavioral health. “We have a good relationship with Phoenix Fire. They know we are responsible and operate safely.”

The Valley sweat lodges follow traditional practices and have hosted more than 30,000 participants (mostly recovering alcoholics and drug addicts) with just two minor health-related incidents, according to agency officials. Native American Connections conducts three “learning and purifying” sweat lodges a week – two at its residential facility on Third Avenue (one on Sundays for clients only; the other open to the community on Tuesdays) and one at its Guiding Star women’s residential center in east Phoenix.

On a Tuesday evening at the Third Avenue facility, a pair of fire-tenders gets the stacked pine logs blazing as the sun sets behind the Downtown skyline. The rocks that will be used for the ceremony – known as “grandfathers” – sit atop the fire. Preparations for the ceremony started in the morning when treatment facility residents set up the canvas and cloth tent-like lodge, which is about 15 feet in circumference and 5 feet high.

“We meditate – purify our minds and spirits,” explains Shane, a 35-year-old Diné (Navajo) facility resident. “I was raised in this tradition. My grandfather took me since I was 3 and taught me. This is part of our life since the beginning of time. This is a way I can get back in touch with my spirit, become pure and one with God.”

A large, diverse crowd has turned out for this week’s community sweat. Instead of the usual 15 participants, there are about 25, including recovery clients and both Indian and non-Indian nonmembers. Traditionally sweat lodges are segregated by sex, but not this one; the gender mix is a sign of urbanization, Moreno says. The men wear shorts and are bare-chested while the women wear long sleeves and skirts.

Each ceremony consists of four sessions, or “flaps,” that can run from one minute to a quarter of an hour. Each flap represents a different geographic direction and stage of life: East – birth; South – youth; West – adulthood; and North – elders. Each flap can focus on one of those life stages, although the content of the worship depends on the ceremony leader and the attendees.

“What is said here, stays here, like an AA meeting,” Shane says.

The participants settle in around a fire pit; most sit cross-legged on blankets that offer minimal padding from the hard earth. The first load of the heated rocks are piled in the center of the tent. Tonight’s leader is a Navajo who lives in the West Valley and is an alumnus of the recovery program. He emphasizes that if anyone is starting to be overcome by the heat, they need to call out immediately.

Then come the prayers, the wet sage switch and the intense, skin-flushing steam, which regulars tell me represents the breath of the creator, cleansing those who breathe it in. Moreno says that the sensation of scalding heat is something of a thermal illusion, as the temperature only reaches 98 to 100 degrees.

Soon the first session is over and the main flap is opened for ventilation. A few people exit for the cool outdoor air. Amidst informal conversation, the leader repeats his safety precautions as water is passed around. This ceremony continues with three more flaps, with more people exiting the lodge at each break, and progressively fewer returning. After the four flaps, the participants line up and greet and bless each other in an affirmation ceremony.

There are several key procedural differences between the NAC urban sweats and the disastrous ceremony conducted by Ray three years ago. For one, the canvas and cloth tent lets heat dissipate, whereas the plastic tent used by Ray acted as a deadly insulant. The NAC ceremonies are also much less crowded; reports indicate that Ray packed more than 60 people into his tent. He also discouraged participants from leaving, even when they felt ill. There is no such browbeating at the NAC sweats.

Moreover, the motivations are different. Ray charged $10,000 a head for his “Spiritual Warrior” retreat. The NAC sweats, on the other hand, are altruistic – part of a “continuum of care” for addicts that generally runs a couple of years.

“It can be like a church, synagogue or lodge,” Moreno says. “We have some alumni who have come back for as long as 20 years. And alumni and community members help with the program.” Native American Connections’ two-year program has about a 60-65 percent success rate, compared to national figures of about 40 percent, according to Moreno.

The Sedona tragedy made non-Native practitioners more vigilant, as evidenced by the many New Age and medical websites that now carry warnings about such potential sweat lodge dangers as dehydration and heat stroke, but it was also a wake up call for many tribal communities.

“People, even from tribes like mine who don’t practice sweat lodge, were incredulous,” Lance Polingyouma, a Hopi cultural interpreter, says. “Then, the feeling became more indignant as it became more clear Sedona was more about profit than conscious raising or healing.”

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James Arthur Ray is currently in Arizona State Prison Lewis serving a two-year sentence for three counts of negligent homicide. He petitioned for indigent status in December, the same month his Beverly Hills-area home sold for $3.02 million. Ray’s website “is currently being updated,” but you can view clips from shows such as Oprah, where he gets warm receptions as he preaches his “Harmonic Wealth.”