Johnny Flynn: A new sweat lodge movement
"Various forms of the sweat ceremony were used by Indians from Canada into southern Mexico. In the south they’re called temescals and resemble a wet sauna or steam room; tribes in the American Southwest have dry sweats that feature heated rocks but no water, or a fire built inside the sweat with a smoke hole in the center of the lodge. The version that Ray and his followers used in Sedona is considered Plains style, where rocks are heated to glowing in a fire outside and brought into the lodge a dozen or so at a time. Water is poured on the hot rocks and the amount of steam and heat is controlled by the person conducting the ritual.

How this ritual made its way into the New Age religious movement can be traced to events in the early 1970s when the American Indian Movement made headlines across the country with occupations in South Dakota, Arizona, and Wisconsin. Among the participants were many American Indian spiritual leaders who were knowledgeable in the use of the sweat as a healing ritual—and they shared the ceremony with Indians and non-Indian supporters from around the country. Like the dried head of a dandelion, the sweat lodge drifted here and there and landed far from where it started.

Both the sweat lodge and the Native American Church peyote ceremony started as healing rituals for one or a few participants, people suffering from some kind of spiritual or physical ailment. Both grew into pan-tribal ceremonies because of the longstanding oppression of tribal religions by the United States government. Within a few decades of its origins, the peyote church grew into what is essentially an Indian-style Christian denomination. In order for the sweat lodge to grow into a denomination of Pan-Indian religious practice, there are some serious issues that have to be resolved within the sweat lodge movement.

In the interest of disclosure, I should say that I have been attending and running sweat lodges for almost forty years. I have been in lodges built for 3-4 people and those built to hold 20-30 people, sweated with elders in their 80s and infants only a few months old. People have had to leave because it was too hot, or they had other concerns, and more times than I can count have had to hug the ground due to the intensity of the heat. There are sweat lodge leaders with whom I would never sweat again, and those whose ceremonies were incredible learning experiences. The madodoigan is an integral part of my family, my tribe, and I hope to hand it down to the generations coming behind. But it is a ceremony, not a religion—not yet."

Get the Story:
Johnny P. Flynn: New Age Tragedy in Sedona: Non-Indians in the Sweat Lodge (Religion Dispatches 10/12)

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Two dead after 'sweat' incident in Arizona (10/9)