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American Indian group plans to protest ceremony

By Rachael Myer
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
November 5, 1999
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A UA student and other American Indian Movement supporters from Phoenix said an unqualified former UA professor is killing a sacred, religious ceremony by charging money for people to attend.

Members of AIM plan to protest at Lewis Mehl-Madrona's workshop this weekend and the purification ceremony, called a sweat lodge, to deter him from practicing the religious act.

"He is not welcome to charge money for it," said Alice Huffman, a University of Arizona American Indian literature graduate student. "Money, in terms of ceremony, kills the ceremony."

Mehl-Madrona, a former research assistant medical professor, is charging $250 for a workshop about Native American healing tomorrow and Sunday. He planned to hold a sweat lodge afterward, but said last night that he may cancel the ceremony because he doesn't want to offend the 'Creator' with any possible violence.

"I didn't know I was so important to be so protestable," said Mehl-Madrona, who received his doctoral degree in medicine from Stanford University.

During the last week, life-threatening e-mails have been sent to him, threatening to dismantle the sweat lodge if he holds the ceremony. He said he does not know who threatened his life.

"The whole point was to pray together," said Mehl-Madrona, adding that he and the other participants may now attend a Catholic Mass instead.

He said he is not charging for the sweat lodge and the cost is only for the workshop. He added that about 20 of the 50 people have received a reduced or free rate.

Randy Huffman, an AIM supporter who plans to attend the protest with his wife, said he doesn't believe the $250 is only for the workshop.

"He is twisting his words," Huffman said.

Tina Talkington, an Arizona State University first-year law student, said Mehl-Madrona would never have thought to charge money if he were a "true" spiritual leader.

"If they're charging you, there is something fishy going on," said Talkington, who added she plans to attend the protest if she can recover from the flu.

She said to lead a sweat, a person must have certain qualifications, including knowledge of certain songs and prayers.

"He is participating in cultural death," Talkington said. "I have no idea what gives him the right to practice our medicine."

But Mehl-Madrona, who is part Cherokee and Lakota, said he has trained with American Indian medicine men for years.

"I don't claim to be a medicine man by any means," he said. "I do what was taught to me, but I don't claim to be an expert."

But Mehl-Madrona said he doesn't hold these workshops and sweats to make a living. American Indian medicine men have traditionally received a form of payment - such as tobacco, food or cash - for their work, he said.

Kathy Morning Star, a member of the Arizona chapter of AIM, said when unqualified people incorrectly practice American Indian religious ceremonies, others continue the practice, degrading its spirituality.

"This is another form of genocide toward our people," said Morning Star, who won't be able to attend the protest because she is out of state.

Randy Huffman said unqualified leaders practice American Indian ceremonies too often.

"It happens more frequently than people know about it," he said.

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