Thursday, November 26, 2009

Pine Ridge man sues Arizona retreat center over sweat lodge practices

A Pine Ridge man who represents the Black Hills Sioux Nation Treaty Council has sued an Arizona retreat center where three people died in a sweat lodge tragedy for desecration of a sacred Lakota ceremony.

Floyd Hand Jr., who serves as an Oglala delegate on the treaty council, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Arizona earlier this month against James Arthur Ray and the Angel Valley Retreat Center.

Hand contends the "inikaga" ritual, commonly referred to as a sweat lodge, was desecrated by Ray when three people died and 18 others were hospitalized after a sweat lodge ceremony Oct. 8 that was part of Spiritual Warriors program that they paid about $9,000 to attend. The retreat center is legally responsible for allowing individuals like Ray to rent their property, which offers a sweat lodge for paying participants, Hand said. The lawsuit also alleges fraud on the part of Ray and the center for the "impersonating Native Americans" and for dismantling the sweat lodge immediately after the tragedy.

"Ray is a spiritual vampire who will use whatever means necessary to turn a profit. He and others like him that profit from our culture must be held accountable for their continual fraud and desecration," Hand said. "This ceremony comes from the Lakota. We maintain our cultural identity today and people like Ray are trying to mock it as a means to acquire material possessions. They cannot hide behind the Religious Freedom At. This is not a religion."

Hand contends that the sweat lodge and other ancient Lakota rituals are a way of life, not a religion. The other plaintiff in the lawsuit is Ivan H. Lewis, a member of the Pima/Maricopa/Yavapai tribes.

Lewis said he wanted to emphasize that he and Hand are not associated with the Council of Indigenous Traditional Healers, an Arizona group that seeks to reclaim traditional Native American ceremonies.

"This group claims that they will authenticate and qualify individuals, including non-Indians, to conduct our ceremonies. Our people know who is a real healer and who isn't," Hand said in a news release. "Yes, everyone is entitled to pray, but our ceremonies belong with us in our native tongue."

Also named as defendants in the suit are the U.S. government, U.S. Attorney Eric Holder, the state of Arizona, Gov. Jan Brewer and state Attorney General Terry Goddard for failure to uphold the "bad men" clause of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. Article 1 states, "if bad men among the whites or other people subject to the authority of the United States shall commit any wrong upon the person or the property of the Indians, the United States will ... proceed at once to cause the offender to be arrested and punished according to the laws of the United States and also reimburse the injured person for the loss sustained..."

No criminal charges have been filed, but an investigation is ongoing. At least two other civil lawsuits seeking damages have been filed by victims or their families. Hand's lawsuit says they do not seek monetary gain but rather the prosecution of Ray and the retreat center so "the Lakota Nation may live in peace and maintain the Treaty of 1868 in its entirety."

Hand said a judge has been assigned to the case.

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