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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  1. TQuid says:

    Any claim to sweat lodges in law would be an intellectual property claim. Unless they’re a rather recent invention, culturally speaking, they’d be well beyond the limits of the most generous copyright or trademark protection. I suppose possibly the UN may have defined religious properties in some new way and that the USA is a signatory. But it seems unlikely in the extreme.

    Violations of the Establishment Clause are an interesting idea for this kind of civic marketing.

  2. Tom says:

    Like most White people, you completely misunderstand the issues. You’re ignorant statement, “Can a religious or cultural practice be owned.” is the same tedious, whoary staw man argument that Native people have to deal with when a dishonest, spiritually bankrupt White person, cannot come to terms with his/her undeserved, unearned White skin privilege. The tone of your post is typical of the post-Colonial mentality: supercilious, arrogant, pious and self important. Before you mindlessly parrot the same tiresome arguments of Manifest Destiny of the Native soul, you should try to read the many, many SERIOUS works of Native scholars on the topic of cultural genocide and spiritual rape. Until you put down your defensiveness and your obnoxious colonial entitlement, you will just be another boring, self-important White trying desperately to justify your racist, colonial desires. Native people will ignore you, because we simply don’t have the time or energy to keep arguing with the same tired old rationalizations and justifications and you will never grow as a human being. It’s obvious that you have never had any exposure with Native scholars on the complicated subject of cultural appropriation as you are acting like a spoiled child, desperately trying to exhaust your elders into giving you what you want. You are, more than the average person, in danger of following a plastic shaman exactly like James Ray, perhaps to your physical death, but definitely to your spiritual death. The least you could do is to use some imagination in concocting your excuses for engaging in 21st century minstrelsy.

  3. JDLoRusso says:

    Tom, thank you for your comment, but I’m not precisely sure what I have written with which you disagree. The main thrust of your comment is simply a character assassination rather than any substantial response to my questions. Moreover, these are questions that I’ve posed, not answers… They are questions that I don’t think people have asked here, and, indeed, I think shed new light on these issues. You are correct that I am not an expert in Native American issues, but I am concerned with topics of cultural appropriation as well as the commodification of spiritual practices, something that certainly remains relevant to the sweat lodge deaths. Let me be clear, I am fully supportive of Native American communities to protect the integrity of their cultural traditions from the ongoing legacy of exploitation at the hands of the United States. My question about cultural ownership merely sought to problematize the ease with which capitalist societies such as the United States treat intangibles like beliefs, practices, and ideas as forms of property; it is precisely on such grounds that individuals like James Ray are able to justify seeking profit by abstracting Native cultural traditions and transforming them into “spiritual” products. I welcome your comments around these issues, but I must say that your remarks seem to imply that I am not authorized to speak about these issues because of my own privileged background, a claim which cannot account for any specific information other than unverified assumptions about my identity. While I do not deny a certain biased vantage point based on my social and cultural location, it does not render it a form of cultural violence. We each offer unique perspectives on these issues and I simply advocate more careful exploration of the issues at stake