I'm not sure what I want to say about this, but it's been rolling around in my brain for a while now
I took the quaker sweatlodge workshop at Gathering, I think the last year it was offered (in Johnstown) - primarily because I had already classified it at inappropriate poser-ism and cultural appropriation, and I always like to challenge my prejudices if a (relatively painless!) method occurs to me.
My experience was mixed. Actually participating in the process allayed some of my fears, and confirmed others. I ended up feeling like we could do this respectfully, and in a way I personally would feel comfortable with, but it would take some work, and some changes. I can't remember if I made any effort to brings these up. I can be pretty shy, and also need to sit with things for a long time, so probalby not.
The next year, I didn't attend gathering, but heard about the uproar shortly after it ended. As a former pariticipant in the workshop, I received a group email from one of the organizers, basically just upset about what had happened. I responded with some discussion of the concerns that I had had, and a suggestion that we set up some sort of list for interested parties to discuss the concerns and benefits around the sweatlodge, but never received a response.
So, in case anyone cares, here's my best attempt at a "rundown" of my experience:
*I have a new committment to takign only workshops that are offered outdoors. This was one. My spirituality is very earth-based, and feels stifled in the physical environment of a classroom. this is one of the few workshops that was offered mostly out of doors.
*We did a lot of trust-building exercises and games during the week. I felt that these were essential to the later experience of actually doing the sweatlodge at the end of the week.
*Building the sweatlodge together was a great experience. Few workshops seems to offer the option of working on something tangible - doing work together. This process had some significant spiritual power for me.
*The sweatlodge itself is an amazing experience (as many can and have attest(ed)) - At the time I remember being amazed at how it seemed to physically facillitate the experience that we hope for in meeting for worship - a shared, (literally)"covered" worship experience - breathing together, sharing air, extremely physically present.
*Cultural appropriation is still the "biggie" for me. It was emphasized that this was a quaker and not an indian sweat, and that many and varied ethnic traditions have used "sweats" (the finiish sauna, an extinct celtic practice, etc) - and yet, we spoke prayers in native languages, not in finnish, we build a physical structure based on an indian structure, not finnish.... This is one area where I see great potential for change that could seriously change the basis for this concern.
*I did feel many times like as a group we were having fun "playing indian", which really bothers me. I have to say, I wonder if a finnish-style sweat (or a truly re-styled, european-based one) would hold nearly the same appeal, I believe it would for me, but I do wonder....
*It feels to me that there is a lack of discussion and a glut of defensiveness about this. I was saddened in the workshops itself that we took no time to discuss the nature of cultural appropriation, why it might be a concern, and how we as a group were led in light of this concern. I am even more concerned at how much protestation there has been about it not being racist (solely from whitefolk, I might add)
*It's my personal belief that when dealing with oppression, the voice of one member of the "oppressed" group outweighs EVERYONE in the oppressor group, at least initially. I believe that we are obligated to labor with any concern raised by a first nations person about whether we do the sweat - even if some other first nations folsk say they don't care, or even commend us, even if we don't see what they mean (there's a shock) I am saddened by how quickly communication on this issue seems to have shut down, though apparently letters to friends journal have been flying lately.
*I found it troubling that so many people participated in the sweat without taking the workshop (not that they could have) - As I said above, the trust-building, and the small bit of education that did happen during the week felt essential to me, it felt abrupt and inappropriate to hold that "worship" with folks who hadn't been through them. (and, the fact that it is, in essence, a "high demand" commodity, certainly doens't make me feel any better about that!)
*I have heard the concern raised that it is not a traditional quaker practice. I initially heard this as saying it was therefore inappropriate, which I disagree with, because singing and dancing, two things in which many quakers, including myself find spiritually enlivening, were traditionally banned as quaker practice.
But, I do believe that the question of "how can we meet the need that this apparently meets, in another way, in a patently "quaker" way?" is a good one. I don't have any answers to that, but it's a good question.