With everyone in withdrawal from the rites of the season, I can’t help thinking about how much the rituals of my own heritage have changed.
My goodness, they’re popular! Up until the 1950s, it was illegal for native people to practise any of our ceremonies, whether Sun Dance, potlatch or sweat lodge. Bingo excluded, of course.
Nowadays, those same sacraments are wildly attractive to the dominant culture. And while I have no objection to this, it’s not always a good thing. Three months ago, in a terrible sweat lodge tragedy in Sedona, Arizona, two participants died and 21 others were taken to hospital with symptoms ranging from dehydration to respiratory and kidney failure.
The circumstances of the Sedona sweat were a lot different from the ones I’m used to.
Some years back, I directed a documentary about Algonquin elder William Commanda and the Circle of All Nations, a gathering of folks from around the world in Kitigan Zibi (formerly known as Maniwaki), Quebec.
During a long summer weekend, over 2,000 followers would camp at his front door for a series of workshops, lectures and seminars on subjects ranging from the teachings of the wampum belt to the running of sweat lodges. It was an interesting place to be.
Three-quarters of the people there were non-native – not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld would say. Knowledge and spirituality need no status card. Some of my best friends are white and looking for direction some of my best friends are also native and looking for direction.
Here’s a tip if you’re considering joining an aboriginal ceremony: don’t pay for it. If the person running it presents you with a bill or tries to tell you the path to spiritual strength requires a credit card, chances are it’s not for you.
The person presiding over the Sedona tragedy, James Arthur Ray, charged followers $9,695 a pop to sit in a round structure and sweat their brains out, part of a five-day “Spiritual Warrior” event.
After getting his 64 guests to sign a liability release, Ray promised that the retreat would absolutely “change their lives.” I’m afraid it did.
Of the spiritual teachers I know, 99 per cent of them don’t charge. It defeats the purpose, and most native people know that. It’s mentioned extensively in the operator’s manual we get with our status card.
Alvin Manitopyes, a Cree healer who commented on the tragedy, told Indian Country, “Our elders conduct sweat lodge ceremonies out of love for their people to help them in their healing and spiritual growth. When someone attaches a price tag, the sacredness is gone.”
Then again, $9,000 a customer is an awful lot of money. That gives me an idea. For a substantially smaller sum, just come over to my place. We can sit around in towels and I’ll jack up the thermostat and read aloud from Tom King or Tomson Highway. And we can sing a few Kashtin or Buffy Sainte-Marie tunes.
Then we can dine on some traditional native foods like baloney and Kraft Dinner.