The Friends General Conference sweat lodge and related issues: a statement

The Indian Committee of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting welcomes the extended dialogue concerning the Quaker sweat lodges at Friends General Conference (FGC) Gathering. The discussion reflects extensive searching and examination among many Friends; it is also an important dialogue to which we feel compelled to contribute. We are putting forward our collective perspective in the spirit exhibited thus far, acknowledging the differences of opinion on the issue as well as the related difficulties and the profound challenges that have emerged about our understandings and practices as Friends.

We speak with appropriate humility, responsive to our committee’s longstanding charge to promote understandings of and support for Native Americans. We are also fully mindful that there is wisdom and spiritual integrity by all participants in this conversation.

Sweat lodge cancellation

We state clearly and emphatically that we support the decision of the FGC to cancel the sweat lodge at the Gathering in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 2004 in the face of sharp criticism from the Mashpee Wampanoags. Given the strong negative reaction from Native people in the region to the sweat lodge and the lack of prior consultation and discussion between Friends and the Wampanoags and others about it, we agree that the short term response to cancel the sweat lodge was the proper decision, painful though it was. We regret that the Indian Committee had not engaged much earlier in a full dialogue with the leadership of FGC and other concerned Friends about the sweat lodge. For that omission we take our due share of the responsibility. Perhaps with earlier dialogue many of the concerns might have been anticipated and given more time to be aired and seasoned, though full resolution would have remained difficult if not elusive.

The concerns that have arisen are certainly not new ones. The experience and understandings of the Indian Committee over the years underscore the most obvious and grievous concerns. The taking of Native lives, lands, and resources by non-Native people is a salient and constant theme of the historical record in this country and beyond. The takings, often done without acknowledgment and usually without adequate redress or compensation, have also been more than the physical and the material. They include the direct loss of nations, cultures, spirituality, and sovereignty. The recital here is a familiar one. But this record and the resistance to it form the backdrop for the sweat lodge controversy, particularly for us.

For non-Native peoples sensitive to this history of overt pillage and plunder and anxious to move to a better relationship with Native peoples, there are cautions to be observed. Insensitivity and a residual sense of entitlement have too often subverted non-Native efforts to rectify these long-standing grievances. Such insensitivities are frequently characterized by inadequate and often unilateral and presumptive communications where personal sympathy is not accompanied by mutuality, knowledge, and real partnership. We on the Indian Committee have experienced our share of such incomplete and unsatisfactory encounters. They usually occur on terrains that inevitably include dimensions of race, culture, and nationhood as well as those of gender and class. We can’t argue for our superiority on this front, we only claim whatever wisdom comes from the pain of having stumbled there before. Hence our strong feeling that before FGC entertains again the possibility of a sweat lodge or a similar Native based activity under its aegis there must be extensive consultations with local Native peoples before it should proceed.

The desire by non-Indians to incorporate, synthesize, and universalize Native religious practices such as the sweat lodge is understandable. The beauty and power of those practices make them alluring and inspiring. Such practices clearly resonate with many non-Indian people who desire spiritual authenticity and depth. The extent to which many young Friends have responded positively to the Quaker sweat lodge at the FGC Gatherings speaks profoundly, we feel, to this point.

But as noted by others in this dialogue, Native ceremonies and practices are rooted organically in the experiences and histories of specific Native communities with particular strictures about their implementation. These ceremonies and practices don’t travel lightly when they travel at all beyond those communities. Our strong negative reaction to having non-Native use of these practices reflects not only our committee’s mandate and experiences, but, more importantly, those of many Indian tribes and nations. We certainly appreciate the sensitivity and care that Friends involved in the sweat lodge ceremony have sought in implementing it. But our hesitation remains and we do feel that it concurs with the weight of general sentiment from Native peoples, including those from other areas of this country as well as indigenous peoples from the rest of the world, on this issue.

Related issues

But mere negation by the prevention of a ceremony is an inadequate response in the dialogue here. It is obvious that this discussion reveals broader issues for this spiritual community.

Among those issues we would note the following:

The need to deepen the understanding of the historic Friends relationship to Native American communities and its applications to the present;

  • The need to strengthen the range and quality of communications with Native peoples;
  • The need to reconsider the role of the sacred in cultures other than our own;
  • The need to communicate and work more effectively with Quaker youth to understand their spiritual needs;
  • The need to explore ways, ceremonial and otherwise, including drawing from our own historic precedents and traditions, which can enhance our own spiritual practices.

We are grateful for this extended discussion that focused on the Quaker sweat lodge ceremony at the FGC Gatherings. It has become something larger. We hope that the dialogue can be continued in some structured way with the various stakeholders including Native Americans and Quaker youth participating. We would be happy to assist in such a process.

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