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Spiritual Sweat | Esselen Nation Accuses Esalen Institute of Playing Indians
December 18, 2014
Hummux Anax is pretty sure he got burned because the sweat lodge ceremony started in the north.
“A lot of people think that’s not right – the sun rises in the east,” he says. “We sang a song that should have invoked the water spirits, but it invoked the fire spirits.”
He stepped out of the dark, steaming sweat lodge and tripped over the altar, a mound of earth arranged with feathers, jewelry and a forked stick representing male and female.
Someone had placed the altar too close to the lodge door, Hummux says. He fell in the ceremonial campfire and “turtled out” on its concrete base, flames licking his pale skin.
It was bad. He slathered on some aloe and left the Esalen Institute, heading up Highway 1 to the Community Hospital of Monterey Peninsula. The burns crossed his back and both wrists in a dragging pattern. The healing involved months of excruciating debridements, as medics stripped off the dead skin.
Hummux Anax means fire hawk. It is his Esselen Indian name. He says it’s his legal name, too: just “hummux,” on his Social Security card and everything. His birth name is very Anglo, as boring as Bill Perkins, and he asks me not to use it.
Hummux got his Esselen name from Tommy Little Bear Nason, an Esselen descendant whose family has lived for generations in the Carmel Valley foothills his ancestors called Xasáuan. Nason has also been a spiritual adviser to Esalen Institute for more than 30 years.
According to Hummux, Nason gave Esselen names to him and about 90 other non-Indians after leading them on vision quests in the wilderness. Nason “adopted” 14, the most committed, into the Esselen Tribe he created in the early 1990s. He calls himself the tribe’s spiritual leader.
Hummux is one of those adoptees. Three more are Mac Murphy, son of Esalen Institute co-founder Michael Murphy, who became Shekes Anax; Rudy Proctor, a retired credit union manager, who’s called Wingte Tihikpas; and actor Woody Harrelson. Proctor says singer Joan Baez, who’s been part of Esalen’s inner circle since the ’60s, is in the tribe, too, but the musician’s publicist won’t confirm it.
Nason authorized Hummux, Proctor and a couple others to lead sweat lodge ceremonies at Esalen, the New Age retreat center jutting over the Pacific Ocean in south Big Sur. The ritual is heavily based in Native American traditions, including what Murphy describes as “inter-tribal” songs and prayers – including Esselen, Lakota and Cherokee.
Participants heat stones in a campfire, then move them inside the lodge, drop them into a central hole and pour water on top, creating hot steam in which they bake, drip, sing and pray before re-emerging into the outer world. Some of the lodge leaders have described the ceremony as sacred and secret, but it follows a general formula that comes up in a Google search of “sweat lodge.”
The Esalen ceremonies got especially popular after the lodge was moved to its current location above Hot Springs Creek in 2003. One organizer estimated 2,000 people took part between 2007-2011.
“Then we got tired of it,” Hummux says, “and it went to hell.”
No doubt countless people felt cleansed, even transformed, in the Esalen sweat lodge. Participants have described how the ceremony connects them with Mother Earth and with all of humanity in a profound experience of oneness.
But it was as if some destructive force was activated around the time Hummux got burned. It radiated out to divide the larger Esalen community. It infuriated the chair of the Ohlone/Costanoan Esselen Nation, destroying the tenuous peace between her tribal group and the retreat center. It drove a wedge deeper between the nearly 700-member Esselen Nation and Nason’s Esselen Tribe, which he says includes 68 members of his extended family.
The tension drills down to the question of cultural appropriation, when appreciation for traditions that aren’t one’s own becomes something more offensive. People have different interpretations of where exactly that line lies, and when the Esalen sweat lodge crossed it – if it ever did.
This isn’t just an issue between Esalen Institute’s mostly white, well-off clientele and the Esselen Indian descendants. Legally, the question of who can claim Esselen heritage affects construction projects across Monterey County. From a larger social perspective, it’s a portrait in contrasts. As Native American communities across the American West struggle with issues like radiation poisoning, widespread poverty and high suicide rates, a New Age utopia in Big Sur markets itself under an American Indian name.
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The June 2014 workshop “Summer Solstice Tribal Journey and SpiritDance Retreat” invited prospective students – in Esalen parlance, seminarians – to “dance, sweat, sing, pray, meditate, and relax together as one global tribe.”
It cost $405-$1,750 for the weekend, depending on whether participants slept on the floor of common spaces or opted for plusher accommodations.
Proctor, one of the workshop leaders, is described as a “tribal elder” with a theological background in “Native American, Judaism, Christianity, Gnosticism, Buddhism and mystic traditions.”
Proctor isn’t claiming to be Esselen. He’s not promising an authentic Native American experience. But some critics within the Esalen community still accuse him of being a “plastic shaman” or engaging in “spiritual colonialism.”
These phrases come from discourses bigger than Big Sur. They come from Native American groups actively fighting the New Age romanticization of their culture; and from scholars like San Jose State ethno-historian Alan Leventhal, who shoots a quick opinion by email:
“Tribal knowledge and participation has to be earned by both tribal members and outsiders; otherwise it constitutes colonial theft of tribal traditions.”
Critics pressured Proctor and his adopted siblings to stop calling themselves part of the Esselen Tribe. He re-branded their identity as a less formal offshoot: the Ekae Tribe, inspired by the Esselen word ike, which he says roughly translates to, “It’s all good.”
Except it wasn’t.
Instead of quelling the criticism, Proctor’s launch of a website – http://ekaetribe.org – inflamed some Esalen folks, who felt there was egregious cultural appropriation going on. Around 2012, Proctor took it down.
“It was so misunderstood,” he says. “We had people writing to us, saying, ‘How dare you call it a tribe?’ I said, ‘Wait a minute, do you know what the definition of a tribe is? People who do things together.’”
When the Esselen Nation confronted him, he stopped even calling it a tribe. “It’s a fraternity,” he says. “We’re just brothers and sisters who say ike to each other.”
On May 11, 2012, Proctor wrote a long email to Esselen Nation Chairwoman Louise Ramirez. “I am called Wingte Tighaaro Tihikpas by many. The name given to me by my parents is Rudolphe Keith Proctor Jr., the name given to me by my ancestors is Yonagooska Aniwahi Clark Keith. I am three bloods – Tslagi-yi, African and Anglo,” Proctor’s email began. “I am not a medicine man or a shaman. I am an elder.”
Some excerpts from what follows: “When we go to this site we ask permission of your ancestors to sing the songs,” he writes. “We introduce our ancestors to your ancestors for healing. The site by itself is where your ancestors put their garbage and it could be called holy and sacred by some and I respect that opinion. To me it is a 6,000-year-old Esselen ancestor site where human beings come today to pray and sing and talk to God, Great Spirit. Yes it is truly sacred… We are not playing Indian and such a thought should bring shame to the bearer…
“Yes we pray on your ancestral land, yes we are learning your language. I failed to ask you (Esselen Nation) permission to do so, please forgive me I meant no disrespect. Permission was granted to me by your relative, Little Bear. Was he out of line?”
Four days later, Ramirez shot back, pointedly addressing her response to Rudolphe K. Proctor Jr.
“Colonialism is the process whereby the dominant society unilaterally takes what it wants from conquered indigenous peoples,” she begins. “Such is the case of your request and justification for taking our traditions and claiming to embrace them and teach them.”
The letter goes on to berate Proctor, dismiss Little Bear’s authority and staunchly oppose the ceremonies. Ramirez concludes:
“No doubt you will justify in your mind that what you do is enlightened and therefore beneficial to all, and you will proceed as a member of the dominant colonial society to not respect our position, but instead just take what does not belong to you and your group and claim it as your own. If you continue to do this and think this way, then you are truly blind, and spiritually dirty and bankrupted. Aho!”
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Further complicating the issue: There might be bones.
The Esselen Indians lived in southern Monterey County, including Big Sur, for thousands of years, numbering about 1,200 at the time of first European contact in the 1600s, according to Gary Breschini of Salinas firm Archaeological Consulting. Radiocarbon dating puts Esselen people on the Esalen Institute property up to 5,500 years ago.
“Esalen is so sacred,” Nason says. “It’s at the very Western edge of the universe.”
The Esalen sweat lodge perches above the bank of Hot Springs Creek. Esalen staff moved it there from another location in 2003. It doesn’t look like much – just a humble stick frame next to a concrete fire pit. (Participants cover the frame with thick fabric or skins for the ceremony.)
What’s in the soil beneath the lodge is a matter of speculation. Esalen crews didn’t do any digging to build it. But most agree the lodge is on top of, or close to, a midden deposit: a place where Indians discarded their empty abalone, mussel and limpet shells. It’s also fairly close to a known Esselen burial ground, which Ramirez prefers we don’t identify precisely, as the sites can attract vandalism.
According to Breschini, the two midden deposits at Esalen cover up to 10 percent of the property. Whenever Esalen Institute undertakes construction on or near a cultural site, he says, an onsite archaeologist monitors the digging. For the past 20 years, that’s been Breschini.
Before that, in the absence of strict regulations, Esalen workers likely dug up any number of prehistoric bones and artifacts. (Folks active in Esalen’s online community share rumors of human bones found in several spots throughout the property.) “They were probably just reburied somewhere else,” Breschini says.
Under today’s state laws, if human remains are discovered on a construction site, the property owner must stop work and notify the county coroner. If the remains are determined to be likely Native American, the coroner notifies the Native American Heritage Commission, the state agency entrusted with protecting Indian cultural sites. The commission then appoints the “most likely descendant” to recommend how to handle the remains.
Breschini says no bones have been uncovered at Esalen in his time there. “We’re trying to limit the amount of digging they do anywhere near the two known [cultural] sites,” he says.
That doesn’t stop the rumors. In 2012, Hummux says, he saw a backhoe digging through a midden to build a handicap parking space near the sweat lodge. After he notified the county, Breschini was called in to monitor the grading. He says he found only minimal impacts – certainly no human remains.
But the incident shows just how intensely some Esalen insiders were opposing the sweat lodge by that point. Hummux felt Proctor had taken over the ceremony and was turning it into a spectacle, “taking liberties with the medicine.” Nason, meanwhile, had booted Hummux out of the Esselen Tribe he’d once adopted him into, saying he’d taken his authority too far.
Hummux began to see the whole sweat ceremony as tainted, tracing back to the lodge’s relocation above Hot Springs Creek.
Even Breschini had misgivings about the new placement. In a 2003 letter to consultant Bud Carney, he advises against the new spot, warning new charcoal from the ceremonial fires could compromise prehistoric deposits.
To prevent more damage, he writes, the lodge should be removed and the area returned to lawn. Instead, an Esalen crew covered the fire pit with concrete.
That didn’t jibe with Nason. “We want direct contact with the dirt, with Mother Earth,” he says.
As Ramirez sees it, the sweat lodge’s location within an archaeological site – whether it sits on top of her ancestors’ bones, or close to them – is a direct affront to the Esselen Nation. She says she can’t force Esalen Institute remove the sweat lodge, stop doing quasi-Indian ceremonies or quit using her people’s language.
But she can be a bureaucratic pain in its ass.
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Rudy Proctor says his mom was a white Englishwoman and his dad a Jamaican-Cherokee military man. Proctor lived many of his younger years in Germany, where he studied world religions. Back in the U.S., he moved to Carmel Valley and became a manager of Monterey Credit Union.
Nason adopted him into the Esselen Tribe in the 1980s. Together they formed a now-defunct nonprofit, Window to the West, to help people recover from substance abuse in the wilderness. Another group they helped form, the Four Winds Council, represents a quartet of local spiritual institutions – the Esselen Tribe, Tassajara Zen Center, New Camoldoli Hermitage and Esalen Institute – and foments strategies to protect the wild.
For most of the past decade, Proctor says, he’s led two or three sweat lodges per month at Esalen, though he’s dialed back this year due to health problems.
Proctor is paid $95 per head for weekend workshops, $208 for week-long ones. When he comes down just to lead a sweat lodge, he’s reimbursed about $100 for his travel and the firewood. He lectures his seminarians on Esselen folklore along with Christian, Jewish and Gnostic teachings, focusing on common denominators.
“A lot of young people are looking for something, and they’re finding it in the old wisdom,” he says.
Students who did a certain number of sweat lodge ceremonies were eligible to do a vision quest in the wilderness, Proctor says. The group would trek into the mountains, make a center camp, and then Proctor would place each student alone inside a circle. They’d sit there for four days, as still as possible, equipped with only water and a tent.
“Strange things happen, because animals are not used to human beings being still,” Proctor says. “The buzzards want to know if you’re dead. And then you’ve got to deal with your mind. Who am I? I’m 4 million years of ancestry.”
Students who did four vision quests, one in each cardinal direction, were adopted into the Esselen Tribe – at least while Nason was involved.
It’s not unusual for Native Americans to adopt non-Indians they love, Nason says. But the adopting grated on Ramirez, who worries about New Agers co-opting her tribe’s heritage. “It doesn’t make them Esselen,” she says.
In some respects, the debate over the Esalen sweat lodge comes down to who has the authority to sanction it. Ramirez says it should be her, the chairwoman of the Esselen Nation.
But Esalen Institute leaders point to Tom Little Bear Nason. He’s the one who still lives on Esselen land. It was his father Fred, Nason says, who shattered the official belief the Esselen people were extinct. Esalen Institute leaders often say Little Bear sanctioned their sweat lodge.
What they didn’t know until now: Nason no longer gives the lodge his blessing.
He says he hasn’t led an Esalen sweat lodge, or a vision quest for Esalen seminarians, in many years. (He still leads lodges on his own land and vision quests for his own tribe, he adds.) The last time he ran a lodge at Esalen Institute – more than a decade ago, he says – he got spiritually sick, which made him physically sick and landed him in the emergency room.
“I don’t believe they’ve run the sweat lodge appropriately or traditionally, and I want no part of it,” he says. “I do not give them spiritual authorization to do ceremonies at that sweat lodge. It is at an inappropriate location on a sacred site.”
It’s not that Nason has a problem with non-Indians doing sweats. There are ways to go about it properly, he says, either by stripping out the Native American spirituality to make it a secular thing, like a sauna, or by accepting an invitation from an actual Indian elder and following that tribe’s traditional protocol.
“It shouldn’t be, ‘Oh man, I really want to do a sweat lodge, it’s tomorrow night,” he says. “We’ve been educating [Esalen Institute] to try to slow that down. Because that was rampant.”
A number of other things about the lodge bother him: Its alleged past use as a funding mechanism. The current location near the ancestral burial site. The non-traditional practice of bringing women and men into the lodge naked together. The rapid clip of development on the archaeologically sensitive property.
Nason says he’s never vocalized these concerns publicly before. “They’re going to get very upset with me when I say that,” he says, “but that’s the hard truth.”
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Mac Murphy, the Esalen co-founder’s son and a member of Proctor’s tribe, says Little Bear has been a mentor. When I relay Nason’s current stance, he sputters.
“That’s such bullshit,” he says. “I’m sorry, I’ve been dealing with these politics inter-tribally – with Rudy, with Louise, with Little Bear. He supports us.”
When he speaks in the Esselen language, Murphy says, he does so in reverence to the Indians who once lived on his family’s property. “It helps me connect with the land,” he says. “I have never experienced a ceremony that culturally appropriates Native Americans or pretends to be them.”
Esalen Institute President Gordon Wheeler says the sweat lodge is only made available to people taking certain workshops or month-long internships, and ceremonies are led by a half-dozen people specifically approved by the Esalen leadership.
This is a place that specializes in spiritual cocktails, mixing Tantra and Buddhism and yoga and something called “ecstatic dance.” Crossing cultural boundaries, splicing Eastern religions with Western mentalities, exploring the mind and spirit – these things are Esalen Institute’s M.O., and Wheeler says his board is committed to doing it respectfully and transparently.
“We’re the people who brought Boris Yeltsin to the West,” he says. “We believe there’s a higher intentionality that can unite people, and we reach for that.”
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Ramirez hasn’t spoken with anyone affiliated with the Esalen Institute since their 50th anniversary celebration in 2012, when her communications with the center’s administration broke down.
She says she declined an invitation to give a formal blessing, but Wheeler thought she was coming. He publicly introduced her at the Joan Baez concert on Esalen’s main lawn. That’s when he realized, with some embarrassment, she wasn’t there.
Both Ramirez and Wheeler say they’ve unsuccessfully attempted to contact the other since. Maybe the glitch was as innocent as a wrong email address, but damage was done.
“They wanted the acknowledgement of our tribe but really do not care about my people,” Ramirez emails me. “There is nothing I can do.”
Maybe not in connection with the sweat lodge. But there are a few things Ramirez can do to make her objections known. Earlier this month, she wrote a letter to Monterey County planners and the Native American Heritage Commission, protesting a proposed addition to one of Esalen’s lodges. That project, she writes, is within feet of a relocated midden and within a half-mile of a known burial site. She asks that her organization, Esselen Nation, be consulted every step of the way, from project notices to handling of artifacts.
A truce is possible, Ramirez says, but the path to reconciliation starts by moving the sweat lodge and ending Proctor’s ceremonies. “Nobody’s going to make him change who he is until Esalen Institute stops making money off of him,” she says.
Peace with Little Bear Nason seems closer at hand. “I don’t hate Tommy,” she says. “I think they’re using him, too.”
She has invited Nason to join the Esselen Nation. Nason says he might consider it, if it didn’t threaten his family’s trust allotment in Ventana Wilderness.
Regardless, he says, he now supports Esselen Nation’s bid for federal recognition: “I just don’t want to fight.”
To all the non-Esselens reading this, Ramirez offers one simple phrase from the Esselen language. Words refuting the historians who called her people extinct. Words challenging the federal government to recognize her tribe. Words rejecting heat-induced hallucinations of mystical Indian approval.
“Let ka lai,” she says.
“We are here.”