Tribal push to regulate Native ceremonies


When I first saw the headlines coming out of Arizona regarding a push to regulate tribal ceremonies, I couldn't help but think tribal sovereignty might be in danger.

But then I learned that the effort is coming from tribal leaders themselves in response to the three Sedona, AZ deaths and 19 illnesses that took place as a result of a non-Indian sweat lodge in October.

The horror-inducing mock Native American ceremony was led by spiritual guru James Ray, who's being investigated for his role in the situation. His lawyers have said his actions weren't criminal.

Tribal citizens have long said that Native-based sacred rituals shouldn't be propagated by new-age spiritualists who really don't have a solid foundation in what they are trying to do.

But the new push for regulation is the first time I've heard in recent years that an Indian leader has drafted legislation to specifically accomplish that goal.

Arizona state Sen. Albert Hale, D-St. Michael, recently filed a bill that would regulate the use of traditional Native American rituals, such as sweat lodge ceremonies, off of tribal lands.

His legislation calls for the Arizona Department of Health Services to adopt rules to regulate the practices in consultation with the Arizona Commission on Indian Affairs.

With the Sedona deaths fresh on many legislators' minds – and Ray continuing to court controversy  – the bill may have a chance.

Hale, a former Navajo Nation president, has said that from what he's learned about the Sedona sweat, it was carried out improperly, not in accordance with traditional Native practices.

The tribal and state politician has noted that Ray's sweat lodge included dozens of participants in a plastic-covered tent while hot rocks were brought in for two hours. Traditional sweat lodges usually involve around eight people who enter and exit the structure several times during the course of a ceremony.

In addition to being a safety mechanism, Hale has said his bill is a way to protect Native American rituals from being co-opted by others.

"The dominant society has taken all that we have: our land, our water, our language," Hale was quoted as saying. "And now they are trying to take our way of life. I think it has to stop."

Joe Shirley Jr., president of the Navajo Nation, has said he supports the bill, and believes that regulating ceremonies would serve to respect his tribe's sacred customs.