By YVONNE GONZALEZ
Cronkite News Service
PHOENIX — Regulating off-reservation ceremonies that businesses advertise as traditional Native American would help prevent tragedies such as last year’s deaths at a Sedona retreat, a state lawmaker said Tuesday.
Sen. Albert Hale, D-St. Michaels, a member of the Navajo Nation, said the deaths of three people in a sweat lodge ceremony organized by self-help guru James Ray illustrate the need to make sure such rituals are conducted safely.
“That is not a traditional ceremony,” he said during a news conference to announce legislation calling for regulations. “He put these people’s lives in danger.”
Hale noted that Ray’s sweat lodge had 60 patrons in a plastic-covered room while hot rocks were brought in for two hours, while a traditional sweat lodge ceremony involves around eight people who enter and exit the structure several times.
State Sen. Albert Hale, D-St. Michaels, speaks after a news conference at which he proposed regulating so-called Native American ceremonies held off reservations. Hale said fatalities at a sweat lodge ceremony in Sedona last year illustrate the need to certify that such ceremonies are safe.
(Photo: Cronkite News Service: Ryan Van Velzer)
Authorities have investigated Ray since the October deaths, but he hasn’t been charged. Ray has denied any wrongdoing.
Hale authored SB 1164, which he said would ensure that the public isn’t misled into spending thousands of dollars on ceremonies falsely advertised as Native American.
The legislation proposes that the Arizona Department of Health Services and the Arizona Commission of Indian Affairs create regulations for businesses and individuals that charge people to participate in such ceremonies.
Asked whether the measure would hurt businesses that offer so-called Native American ceremonies off reservations, Hale said it make those businesses more credible, especially in light of the Sedona tragedy.
Rep. Tom Chabin, D-Flagstaff, said regulations would “distinguish what is native and what is trying to capitalize off the brand of the Native American traditions.”
Rep. Christopher Deschene, D-St. Michaels, a member of the Navajo Nation, said that Navajo songs and prayers revitalize and rejuvenate.
“But if abused, the same power can also destroy, as evidenced by the loss of three lives,” Deschene said. “This bill seeks to find balance with that.”
Joe Shirley Jr., president of the Navajo Nation, said regulating ceremonies would respect his people’s sacred ways.
“For outsiders to come in and try to duplicate and try and do what we do on native lands, it’s not right,” Shirley said.
Hale said the legislation also would be a way to protect Native American rituals from being co-opted by outsiders.
“The dominant society has taken all that we have: our land, our water, our language,” Hale said. “And now they are trying to take our way of life. I think it has to stop.”