Bans douse Indian fire ceremonies
by John Aguilar ("Rocky Mountain News," July 5, 2006)
Colorado, USA - For nearly a decade, Bobbie Gleason has hosted American Indian sweat lodge ceremonies at her home in Gilpin County - heating rocks with fire and purifying the spirits who gather.
"I've been doing this for eight years and I've never had a problem," said Gleason, who comes from Northern Cree heritage.
But that came to a halt late last month when Gilpin County officials declined to exempt from their fire ban Gleason's planned sweat lodge ceremonies, in which stones are heated over an open fire, brought inside a covered dome and doused with water to generate steam.
In a June 27 letter to Gleason, County Manager Roger Baker wrote that county commissioners "have no intention of interfering with anyone's religious practices" but that public safety concerns take precedence.
Commissioner Al Price said that allowing ceremonial fires in the bone-dry county would open the floodgates for other people seeking a way around the ban, raising the risk of a wildfire.
"It was all or nothing," Price said. "You allow them to do this and you're going to have to allow campfires and voodoo ceremonies. Where do you stop?"
Ray Rubio, who lives a short distance up Colorado 119 from Gleason and hosts his own ceremonies, resents Price's choice of words, saying that they show "disdain and scorn" for American Indian religious customs.
The 52-year-old Southern Paiute tribal member said it was fire-based ceremonies - such as vision quests, sweat lodges and sun dances - that enabled him to overcome his addiction to alcohol and pursue a law career.
"This is our method of prayer," Rubio said. "It's a social gathering; it's a spiritual gathering; it's an act of worship.
"It saved my life."
All across Colorado, Indians who rely on fire to express their faith are coming up against challenges similar to those posed in Gilpin County, as the open fire ban on state lands enters its second month and fire restrictions continue to ripple across individual counties.
Even the Southern Ute Indian Reservation, one of only two reservations in the state, requires that special notification be given before a ceremonial fire can be lit.
During this sun dance season, many Indians are finding that the only way to freely exercise their religion in a state starved for moisture is to negotiate a fire ban exemption with local officials, find a substitute for fire or move their ceremonies to far corners of the state.
'Permit to pray'
Robert Cross, a Lakota Sioux spiritual leader from Littleton, said that after years of being "hassled" on the Front Range, he decided to relocate his ceremonies to a secluded spot near the Nebraska border in the Pawnee National Grassland.
"Almost every year, I have to go to some official or government and get a permit to pray," he said. "I'm tired of it."
Cross, 52, is in the fourth year of a five-year special-use permit on the Pawnee, where he conducts vision quests and sun dances for those seeking spiritual purification.
But while Cross is not subject to the statewide fire ban when he's on federal land, he still conducts healing ceremonies at an active sweat lodge site on Valmont Butte in Boulder.
And he keenly remembers New Year's Eve of 2004, when police raided a ceremony there.
Although Boulder officials later apologized for extinguishing his fire, blaming it on a misunderstanding, the incident left a foul taste in Cross' mouth.
"You have a church on every corner of the block, but you don't have cops going into churches and telling them to stop what they're doing," he said standing atop the butte. "But as soon as I light a fire, they were up here like we were doing the worst thing in the world."
Cross said he and other spiritual leaders respect the power of fire and take precautions - such as cutting back vegetation, clearing brush, appointing fire watchers and having plenty of water on hand - before ever striking a match.
"These ceremonies have been going on for untold thousands of generations," he said, sweeping his hand across the land below him.
"These ceremonies have always been here."
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said the county tries to accommodate Cross and others who want to use fire for religious purposes, even during the ongoing countywide fire ban.
"We don't have problems with sweat lodge fires starting fires, we have problems with knuckleheads drinking in the woods and having campfires," he said.
In a recent e-mail, Pelle directed his deputies to work with a man who wants to hold a large fire-based "eastern religion ceremony" in the county, asking them to "help him comply (with the fire ban) and go ahead with the ceremony."
"We're trying to balance religious freedom with public safety needs," Pelle said.
Rubio believes that kind of balancing act is sorely lacking in Gilpin County.
He said that while the county shut down his and Gleason's sweat lodges, it didn't say a thing about Black Hawk's massive fireworks show Tuesday night.
"If you stand this extravaganza against our little burn, it's exponentially a bigger risk to do what they're doing over what we're doing," Rubio said.
He said Gleason's ceremony would have involved heating about 30 rocks in contrast to the gambling town's plan to shoot hundreds of rockets into the air.
"If it's really a public safety issue, then why don't they raise an objection with the city of Black Hawk?" Rubio asked.
County Manager Baker said the county has no jurisdiction over the Black Hawk fireworks display, so the argument is moot.
He said the commissioners simply saw no "compelling reason" last week to exempt Gleason from the open fire ban.
"The decision was to ban open fires, not their fire in particular," he said.
In his letter to Gleason, Baker suggested she find "alternative methods for heating the stones" in order to conduct her ceremonies.
But for many American Indians, fire itself is so integral to the ceremony that heating rocks by any other means - with a propane stove, for example - would eviscerate the ritual's true meaning.
"In order for the Creator to answer our prayers, our ceremonies have to be done a certain way, and fire is at the center of that," said Lee Plenty Wolf, a Broomfield-based Lakota Sioux spiritual leader.
"We need that fire to pray for rain and that there won't be any wildfires," he said. "In the worst circumstances, that's when you really need prayer."
At the same time, Plenty Wolf and others recognize there are limits to fire-dependent ceremonies, in both time and place.
"It's common sense that on some days it's too dry and windy and you can't fire it up," Plenty Wolf said.
He said he's not out to pick fights with authorities, but rather tries to always get their permission before sparking up.
Which is exactly how the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs, chaired by Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, thinks a balance between religious freedom and public safety can best be achieved.
Ernest House Jr., executive secretary of the commission and a member of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe in southwest Colorado, said his agency is preparing to send a letter to county officials across the state asking them to be mindful of American Indian religious practices when imposing fire bans and restrictions.
That letter may come too late to satisfy Gleason, who had to cancel her sweat lodge ceremony Saturday, even after she tried to mitigate the wildfire risk by cutting down trees on her property and bolstering the corrugated tin fence that surrounds her fire pit.
"I don't understand why we're not allowed to pray," she said.
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