The Quaker sweat lodge: a response

The Quaker sweat lodge has been a very powerful and transformative experience for many young Friends. Indeed, there are a significant number of young adults who credit this workshop as their first personal encounter with God or the Living Spirit, and others for whom this workshop was the catalyst for their adult commitment to Quakerism. Among Friends, there are far too few experiences and opportunities for our young people to have deeply transformative spiritual experiences. This workshop has been filling that void for many years. This is what is at stake.

Yet, what is the cost? Cultural appropriation is the process of a dominant group taking—with or without permission—some aspect of a non-dominant group’s culture or practice and modifying it to fit the dominant group’s needs. Our country is filled with examples of cultural appropriation—everything from the music of Elvis and Madonna to foundational elements of our Constitution, to the very land I am sitting on as I write this. The Quaker sweat lodge fits this definition: a Friend was trained and granted permission by a medicine man to offer the sweat lodge, and the Friend changed aspects of the traditional sweat lodge to fit Quaker practices. For example, traditionally, men and women do not participate in sweats together nor do women participate while menstruating. This gender and sex division is counter to the Quaker understanding of equality and so men and women (menstruating or not) participate together in the Quaker sweat lodge.

"Permission" is a term I have heard a number of Friends use when describing the evolution of the Quaker sweat lodge. However, when a sacred ceremony is shared by a number of different groups, there is no clear authority of "ownership," nor the right to gift the use of it. A number of native people I have spoken with have been clear that, within their respective traditions, an individual does not have the authority to gift tribal property—tangible or cultural.

Members of the Mashpee Wampanoag and other native nations have been clear that for non-native peoples to appropriate sacred ceremonies is deeply damaging and wounding. It is one more step in a centuries-long process of non-native peoples taking what they want from native peoples, irrespective of the costs—to either party—of that taking. The sweat lodge is a ceremony central to the spiritual practices of a large number of native nations and tribes. There are some native people who are eager to share this and other ceremonies with non-native peoples. There are many native peoples who do not believe sacred ceremonies should be performed or "sold" to non-native peoples. Our job as Friends is not to inflame this issue, but to listen for the Truth being spoken to us and to respond in a way that brings us all closer to God.

While I have been taught prayers in Hebrew by Jewish friends when invited to pray with them, I would never dream of presiding over a bat mitzvah or Yom Kippur service with our young Friends. To do so would be deeply disrespectful of Judaism and would leave the young Friends with an ungrounded, shallow, and faulty notion of Judaism, irrespective of how we experienced those services. When I modify and use another’s practice to meet my spiritual need, both the tradition I am borrowing from and I am hurt. The tradition I am borrowing from is disrespected by my hubris that I can "know" or "do" a part of a rich spiritual tradition through one small, inaccurately practiced facet. I am hurt by the denial that my spiritual need can be filled from within my own tradition, by the spiritual cost of not fully respecting another’s religion, and the missed opportunity for an even deeper experience.

I greatly enjoy my yoga class at the Y—I feel grounded and fully in my body when I finish it. Yet when I compare my understanding and experience of yoga with my Indian friends’, the gulf of what I am missing becomes clear and I can hear the sadness or frustration in my friends’ voices of all that has been lost and passed over. This doesn’t detract from how my body feels after doing yoga, but it does change how I understand what I am (and am not) doing. My friends haven’t asked that I stop doing yoga, only that I remember what I am doing is exercise and that yoga is a much deeper and richer discipline that goes far beyond a good workout at the Y.

There is a difference between appropriation and universalism. Appropriation takes without acknowledging the costs to both parties, and sometimes with the intention of respecting and honoring another culture or tradition. Appropriation is so much a part of our culture in the United States that it often passes for good diversity work. Universalism, on the other hand, is the belief that God can speak to us and is present in all the peoples of the world. Universalism, therefore, requires real understanding and respectful learning about the diversity of the human spiritual experience, within the context of the world, and an obligation to ensure the cultural health, autonomy, and survival of all peoples. To respectfully learn about another’s culture or tradition, I need be fully grounded in my own cultural/ spiritual experience, and in my culture’s contextualized relationship with that other culture.

So while the outward-looking Quaker in me hears the demand for justice restored to our collective relationship with native peoples, the inward-looking Quaker within me begs to know: Is our own Religious Society so spiritually bankrupt that we must go outside our own traditions to provide spiritual nurture for our young people? I am terrified that one of the most powerful spiritual, transformative, and Quaker-confirming experiences that our young people name does not come from Quakerism. We have such a rich, vibrant, and Spirit-filled history and faith; why are we not sharing it—with joy, passion, challenge, reverence—with our children?

We, as a Religious Society, have three large charges laid before us in this situation. One is to examine, in the words of one young Friend, "what it is that we are not providing our young people with." We must begin to share our spiritual lives more deeply and honestly with our young people; we must provide them with Quaker opportunities to experience the Living Spirit as a personally transformative power.

We must also examine how our expressions of universalism can, if we are not careful, lead us into damaging practices of cultural appropriation. How do we seek that of God in all people while respecting and honoring that of God in all peoples?

Finally, we must work to restore our collective relationship with native peoples and all peoples. We live in a country built on a foundation of racism that has hurt all of us. We must begin the difficult and life-sustaining work of regaining our true human and spiritual connections to each other—restoring to the glory of creation all that has been hurt, damaged, and broken.

This commentary is far too short to fully address all the details of the history of the Quaker sweat lodge, of the concerns of the Mashpee Wampanoag, of the subtleties of cultural appropriation and influences cultures have on each other, and of the broader debates and socio-historical contexts around all these issues. Please, talk about this, ask about it, and learn more about it.

Lisa Graustein
Dorchester, Mass.