I have just come back from a “Meeting for Listening for Sweat Lodge Concerns,” described as “an opportunity for persons to express their feelings in a worshipful manner about the cancellation of the FGC Gathering sweat lodge workshop this year.” Non-Quakers reading this blog might be surprised to hear that Friends General Conference holds sweat lodges, but it has and they’ve been increasingly controversial. This year’s workshop was cancelled after FGC received a very strongly worded complaint from the Wampanoag Native American tribe. Today’s meeting intended to listen to the feelings and concerns of all FGC Friends involved and was clerked by the very-able Arthur Larrabee. There was powerful ministry, some predictable “ministry” and one stunning message from a white Friend who dismissed the very existance of racism in the world (it’s just a illusion, the people responsible for it are those who perceive it).
I’ve had my own run-in’s with the sweat lodge, most unforgettably when I was the co-planning clerk of the 2002 Adult Young Friends program at FGC (a few of us thought it was inappropriate to transfer a portion of the rather small AYF budget to the sweat lodge workshop, a request made with the argument that so many high-school and twenty-something Friends were attending it). But I find myself increasingly unconcerned about the lodge. It’s clear to me now that it part of another tradition than I am. It is not the kind of Quaker I am. The question remaining is whether an organization that will sponsor it is a different tradition.
How did Liberal Friends get to the place where most our our younger members consider the sweat lodge ceremony to be the high point of their Quaker experience? The sweat lodge has given a generation of younger Friends an opportunity to commune with the divine in a way that their meetings do not. It has given them mentorship and leadership experiences which they do not receive from the older Friends establishment. It has given them a sense of identity and purpose which they don’t get from their meeting “community.”
I don’t care about banning the workshop. That doesn’t address the real problems. I want to get to the point where younger Friends look at the sweat and wonder why they’d want to spend a week with some white Quaker guy who wonders aloud in public whether he’s “a Quaker or an Indian” (could we have a third choice?). I’ve always thought this was just rather embarrassing. I want the sweat lodge to wither away in recognition of it’s inherent ridiculousness. I want younger Friends to get a taste of the divine love and charity that Friends have found for 350 years. We’re simply cooler than the sweat lodge.
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And what really is the sweat lodge all about? I don’t really buy the cultural appropriation critique (the official party line for canceling it argues that it’s racist). Read founder George Price’s Friends Journal
article on the sweat lodge and you’ll see that he’s part of a long-standing tradition. For two hundred years, Native Americans have been used as mythic cover for thinly disguised European-American philosophies. The Boston protesters who staged the famous tea party all dressed up as Indians, playing out an emerging mythology of the American rebels as spiritual heirs to Indians (long driven out of the Boston area by that time). In 1826, James Fenimore Cooper turned that myth into one of the first pieces of classic American literature with a story about the “Last” of the Mohicans. At the turn of the twentieth century, the new boy scout movement claimed that their fitness and socialization system was really a re-application of Native American training and initiation rites. Quakers got into the game too: the South Jersey and Bucks County summer camps they founded in the nineteen-teens were full of Native American motifs, with cabins and lakes named after different tribes and the children encouraged to play along.
Set in this context, George Price is clearly just the latest white guy to claim that only the spirit of purer Native Americans will save us from our Old World European stodginess. Yes, it’s appropriation I guess, but it’s so transparent and classically American that our favorite song “Yankee Doodle” is a British wartime send-up of the impulse. We’ve been sticking feathers in our caps since forever.
In the Friends Journal article, it’s clear the Quaker sweat lodge owes more to the European psychotherapy of Karl Jung than Chief Ockanickon. It’s all about “liminality” and initiation into mythic archetypes, featuring cribbed language from Victor Turner, the anthropologist who was very popular circa 1974. Price is clear but never explicit about his work: his sweat lodge is Jungian psychology overlaid onto the outward form of a Native American sweatlodge. In retrospect it’s no surprise that a birthright Philadelphia Friend in a tired yearly meeting would try to combine trendy European pop psychology with Quaker summer camp theming. What is a surprise (or should be a surprise) is that Friends would sponsor and publish articles about a “Quaker Sweat Lodges” without challenging the author to spell out the Quaker contribution to a programmed ritual conducted in a consecrated teepee steeplehouse.
(Push the influences a little more, and you’ll find that Victor Turner’s anthropological findings among obscure African tribes arguably owes as much to his Catholicism than it does the facts on the ground. More than one Quaker wit has compared the sweat lodge to Catholic mass; well: Turner’s your missing philosophical link.)
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Yesterday I had some good conversation about generational issues in Quakerism. I’m certainly not the only thirty-something that feels invisible in the bulldozer of baby boomer assumptions about our spirituality. I’m also not the only one getting to the point where we’re just going to be Quaker despite the Quaker institutions and culture. I think the question we’re all grappling with now is how we relate to the institutions that ignore us and dismiss our cries of alarm for what we Friends have become.