A Personal Reflection of Sweat Lodges, Spiritual Economies, and Cultural Ownership

By James Dennis LoRusso 

Allow me to begin this article with a caveat: some will likely find what follows controversial, but I must caution the reader to understand this piece not as a refined argument but rather as a meditation on an important subject that, I believe, we should consider when thinking through issues of cultural appropriation.  Since the fall of 2009, I have followed closely the aftermath of the deaths of three participants in a so-called sweat lodge ceremony near Sedona, AZ.  On October 9, 2009, James Arthur Ray, self-described spiritual leader known for his appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show and in the film about the new age book, The Secret, led a sizeable group through the traditional Native American ceremony as part of a broader “Spiritual Warrior” retreat, for which each patron paid close to $10,000.  During the procedure, three members of the group met their untimely demise as a result of the physical stresses of the sweat lodge.  

Immediately, of course, numerous voices from a number of interests spoke out against the various elements that made such a tragedy possible.  The town of Sedona formally distanced itself from Ray and sought to reassure the public that while such events cannot be allowed to occur, spiritual retreats would nonetheless remain a vital and thriving part of the local economy.  

The Native American communities equally expressed serious outrage of the way in which their own traditions had been misappropriated for profit.  In fact, members of the Lakota nation filed a lawsuit against several parties, including the United States, the state of Arizona, and Ray himself. 

According to one spokesperson for the suit, Longblackcat, “We Lakota people continue to fight for our way of life.  The Sweatlodge—we call it Oinikaga or Inipi—is a purification ceremony—to make life.  Our sacred way of life was desecrated by a non-native man.  This is our property, and there are laws in the United States and in the United Nations that state that these customs are ours and that they are to be protected.”(1)  

While Ray is held out as an example regarding the dangers of profiteering from spiritual and religious practices, I believe that these events and concerns raised, provide us with a unique opportunity to ask much more provocative and challenging questions about our basic understanding of religion and culture.                                                           

First, there is the city of Sedona, which admits a vested interest in branding itself as place where individuals might come to attend spiritual centers and workshops of all kinds.  “Sedona’s world-wide reputation as a spiritual mecca and global power spot,” reads the official tourism website for the city, “has drawn some of our planet’s most amazing healers, intuitives, artists, and spiritual guides.” (2) The area, the website continues, exhibits a “unique energy” that amplifies its “tangible regenerative and inspirational effects.”  

Given that in the United States, the First Amendment of the Constitution prohibits the government from either endorsing a religion or restricting its free exercise, if Sedona officials formally promote themselves as a center for religious and spiritual practices, is this a violation of the strict separation of church and state?  Some might point out that because Sedona does not actively support one specific religion over others in favor of a generic spirituality, it is not a transgression of the Bill of Rights.  

Leonard Levy, in his book The Establishment Clause, argues that, in fact, the framers after lengthy debate intended the First Amendment to counter such a position. (3) The Establishment clause eliminates any kind of public support for religion.  If Levy is correct, are cities like Sedona, then, in violation of the Constitution?  Moreover, if so, should Sedona be held equally accountable for the tragedy for its complicity in endorsing such activities?  

I suspect some might find my position a bit on the extreme, considering that Sedona’s interest in spirituality is limited to the economic.  What about this assumption that religion and spirituality as a product can be supported by the state, because such aid is not done for any religious purpose?  After all, this is precisely the logic that the state of Kentucky has used to justify its subsidy of a biblically themed amusement park. (4) 

Although an appeal to the economy often serves as a trump card over other factors, it is not a free pass to advocate for religion.  By this reasoning, the state should be able to publically support any religion that proves profitable for any sector of the economy, public or private.  Thus, if declaring Christianity as the official religion of the United States could bring us out of a recession, should we, as rational citizens, be prepared to do so? 

Besides church-state questions, a more ominous dilemma lurks over the sweat lodge deaths and the ensuing Lakota legal action.  This second question, which I expect to generate at least some criticism, involves one question: Can a religious or cultural practice be owned?  I do respect and support the efforts of the Lakota to maintain the integrity of their traditions, but the nature of this lawsuit reveals some issues that remain unexplored thus far.  

Akin to the contemporary struggle to protect Yoga as a Hindu practice, this lawsuit seeks to redescribe religious elements as objects that belong to a particular people, as private property.  Indeed, in the quote above, Longblackcat explicitly refers to the sweat lodge tradition as the “property” of native peoples.  Although this claim appears benign—meant to protect indigenous cultures from Euro-American capitalist interests—it simultaneously rests on the assumption of religion as a legitimate form of private property.  In this way, the Lakota suit employs the conceptual language of the free market in order to resist its encroachment onto native terrain.  

While I do not have a thorough and coherent response to these questions, I do think that they are areas of contradiction that deserve further examination if we, as human beings concerned with respecting the variety of religious traditions and cultural practice that season the spectrum of human life, desire to avoid the kind of cultural imperialisms that could lead to the loss of more human life in the future. 


  1. Longblackcat, quoted in “Lakota Nation files lawsuit against parties in sweatlodge incident,” by Nina Rehfeld, Sedona.biz, 12 Nov 2009, at http://www.sedona.biz/lakota-tribe-files-lawsuit-sweat-lodge-incident-sedona111209a.php, accessed 20 Feb 2010.
  2. http://www.visitsedona.com/article/151.
  3. http://www.amazon.com/Establishment-Clause-Religion-First-Amendment/dp/080782156X
  4. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/06/us/06ark.html

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