Melvin Martin: Social dysfunction in 'sweat lodge'
Much has been said, written and blogged already (ad nauseum I might add) concerning the deaths of three people connected to a non-Indian conducted sweat lodge "ceremony" (if one can truly call it that) recently at Angel Valley, a New Age spiritual mecca some six miles south of Sedona, Arizona.

The bulk of the outrage from the Indian community has been over the widespread and blatant co-opting of Indian spirituality via monetary transactions by non-Indian "shamans," "medicine men" (and women, too, as I have known several over the years), and assorted charlatans of every conceivable stripe.

Whatever legal consequences and repercussions will result from this horrendous nationally and internationally reported debacle are anyone's guess at this particular point in time. I feel somehow that those responsible will get off relatively easy insofar as any criminal punishment is concerned as they obviously possess the monetary resources to do so. Any court activity involving the accused will probably be delayed for a considerable amount of time as this would be a sort of perverse "best practices" methodology designed to de-energize the significance of the tragedy, especially for what will be a jury consisting of a locally biased and culturally ignorant peer group.

That the participants of this "ceremony" were charged in excess of $9,000 for the retreat speaks volumes, to me at least, as to the appallingly sick side of American culture -- and that there were so many people who voluntarily paid for such a service is equally disturbing.

In America, there is this overwhelming need to acquire things, be they material and non-material, as quickly as possible no matter what the cost in terms of dollars (and blood). That the Sedona sweat lodge participants shelled out so much money with the shadowy objective of almost instantly achieving what basically amounts to a sense of enhanced spirituality comes as no real surprise to me. Why could they not take the time to seek out actual Indian people to "sweat" with, rather than to leap lemming-like into some phony's quasi-religious top hat? I have known numerous non-Indians over the years who have sought out and cultivated true and lasting alliances with real Indians who performed (real) traditional sweats (per all of the appropriate protocols). That these special alliances may have taken years to develop says it all: that in essence, the practice of Indian spiritual ways is a long-term and cumulatively oriented "process," if you will, that simply cannot be charged to one's Visa.

Secondly, as an Indian person who has functioned almost all of his life well within the realm of the off-reservation world (meaning that I've been "the only Indian" in so many situations involving employment, education and just life in general in these United States) -- I can honestly state that most non-Indians, primarily whites, do not want to associate with Indians at all. In those areas of the U.S. where there are significant numbers of Indian people, e.g., South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, et al, a lot of whites do not like to physically touch us in the act of handing us our change at the check-out stand or to even shake hands with us. Out of all of the minority groups of color in this country, we are treated as India's untouchables in so many circumstances.

The so-called "dominant culture" is greatly conflicted vis 'a vis the American Indian so much so that they occupy a brutally nightmarish, cultural dead zone; they either hate us (with the worst of that hatred to be found in Rapid City, Bemidji and Farmington as previously noted) or they patronize us ('a la legions of New Age devotees), with a pathetic absence of any sort of humane middle ground. A certain distance and even greater disconnect characterizes the contemporary status quo between white and tribal America that has manifested all sorts of social dysfunction, the Sedona incident being perhaps the latest and best example.

Within the Indian community, the cleverly designated "Indian Country," next to an understandable sentiment of once again having that which is exclusively ours taken from us and horribly misused, I believe that most of us view the deaths attributed to Sedona with a strong sense of sympathy for the victims. These poor people were only seekers seeking something that they felt could enrich their lives and ultimately make them better human beings as the overall purpose of practicing Indian spirituality is to bring these changes about. En masse, this group of New Agers were sadly aping a concept or a system of concepts that they sincerely accepted in their hearts and minds as a much "better way" than what they had been indoctrinated with.

Like all of the enthusiastic individuals who have climbed or attempted to climb Mt. Everest over the decades, the Sedona retreat participants risked life and limb to attain temporal as well as spiritual transcendence, and like so many of the Everest explorers -- some of them perished in that quest.

Melvin Martin is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. He can be contacted at

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