Keeping the culture alive in urban setting
OAKLAND — A small group of American Indians seeking to conduct a sweat lodge fire within the city limits of Oakland, California were met with resistance this past Sunday by the Oakland Fire Department.
Fires are built to heat the rocks used during sweat lodges, a traditional American Indian ceremony, used as a means for purification and prayer
Previous to the Sunday incident, the Seven Generations Consulting, owned and operated by Patricia St. Onge (Mohawk) received a Cease and Desist Order, a three-page letter, from the City of Oakland’s Fire Department, instructing the group to stop having fires on the property owned by St.Onge and her husband, Wilson Riles who is African American.
Safety is important to American Indians conducting sweat lodges
Over the course of the past eight months, there have been about a dozen sweat lodges held where there were fires burned to heat rocks.
The sweat lodges have been conducted by Jeremy Goodfeather (St. Regis Mohawk), 40, who resides Richmond, California, a suburb close to Oakland.
“I was asked to conduct the sweats about three years ago. It took me about 18 months to receive permission from my elders to hold the sweat lodges,” Goodfeather told Native News Online on Wednesday afternoon.
St. Onge’s property is situated on private residential property in the City of Oakland, which encompasses three parcels of land. On the property St. Onge has created a retreat-like setting where local American Indians can come for healing and prayer ceremonies.
Neighbors, who live in an adjacent condominium complex, complained to Oakland city officials citing smoke being a nuisance from the sweat lodge fires.
“Prior to recently, neighbors would call the fire department and they would send out a fire truck to see if there was a dangerous fire burning. They came onto the property and allowed us to keep burning the fires because we always have them contained,” said Goodfeather. “But, apparently the neighbors went to see a city supervisor.”
According to the cease and desist letter an inspection was made of St. Onge’s property on February 26, 2015 – the same day a sweat lodge fire was burning. The inspection yielded several violations of city code, including not having a valid permit to have the fire burning. Numerous local and state fire code violations were cited.
“The problem is the City of Oakland does not have an ordinance that allows us to have a fire in accordance to the federal American Indian Religious Freedom Act,” according to Goodfeather. “They are clueless. They look at the letter of the law and told us: ‘You have to shut down.’ There is an intolerance and ignorance of anything that is not western culture.”
The group ignored the cease and desist letter on Sunday and went ahead with a previously scheduled sweat lodge. So, the Oakland Fire Department came out and drove around the block a couple times. Finally, a fire truck showed up with firemen who wanted to extinguish the fire. They told the firemen they were not allowed to come onto the property to put the fire out.
The firemen told Goodfeather they would go back to their truck to watch to see if the fire got out of control, but will bill the property owner for their time.
“I find it ironic that the city of Oakland would exclude sweat lodges from the fire code, seeing as how they have a district in the city limits named Temescal, named after the sweat lodges that the Ohlone people used to build along the creek there.”
Arthur Jacobs contributed to this story from Oakland, California.