NOT SWEATING THE PAST
Author: Jim Fickess
Issue: April, 2012, Page 90
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UNDETERRED BY THE INFAMOUS
SEDONA SWEAT LODGE TRAGEDY,
VALLEY GROUPS USE THE SACRED
TRADITION TO BATTLE ADDICTION AND
The lodge is pitch black as the meditation,
prayer and songs begin. Steam leaps off a
pile of redhot river stones as the ceremony
leader fans them with water from a wet sage
switch. Cedar chips are thrown on the
sizzling rocks – to “facilitate healing,”
someone tells me later.
Photo by Michael Woodall
A Native American Connections sweat lodge in Downtown
Soon, steam and heat fill the lodge. The
smell of cedar fills my nostrils. And once
again I feel a wave of uncertainty. I
remember some friends’ joking warnings:
“What are you thinking? Don’t you remember
Three years have passed since the 2009
tragedy that claimed the lives of three
enlightenmentseeking sweat lodge participants. The architect of the tragedy, selfhelp guru
James Arthur Ray, is serving a twoyear prison term. Yet the sweat lodge stigma remains: that
of an exotic, unpredictable ritual that will just as likely send you to the ER as neutralize your
inner demons. Naturally, Native American practitioners in the Valley tell a different story. They
characterize the Ray incident as a case of deadly ignorance, and continue to defend the
traditional ritual as a way of balancing body and soul.
For 40 years, Native American Connections (NAC) has been conducting weekly sweats in the
backyard of a residential substance abuse treatment facility in Downtown Phoenix. “The sweat
lodge was founded as part of our recovery center,” says Diana Yazzie Devine, President/CEO of
NAC. “It’s part of our integrated model that ties housing, jobs and recovery together.”
Contrary to the romantic imagining of a sweat lodge, these ceremonies happen not on a painted
desert flat, but in the shadow of a 10story apartment complex. “Such urban programs are
rare, but we’re grandfathered in,” says Richard Moreno, NAC’s director of behavioral health.
“We have a good relationship with Phoenix Fire. They know we are responsible and operate
The Valley sweat lodges follow traditional practices and have hosted more than 30,000
participants (mostly recovering alcoholics and drug addicts) with just two minor healthrelated
incidents, according to agency officials. Native American Connections conducts three “learning
and purifying” sweat lodges a week – two at its residential facility on Third Avenue (one on
Sundays for clients only; the other open to the community on Tuesdays) and one at its Guiding
Star women’s residential center in east Phoenix.
On a Tuesday evening at the Third Avenue facility, a pair of firetenders gets the stacked pine
logs blazing as the sun sets behind the Downtown skyline. The rocks that will be used for the
ceremony – known as “grandfathers” – sit atop the fire. Preparations for the ceremony started
in the morning when treatment facility residents set up the canvas and cloth tentlike lodge,
which is about 15 feet in circumference and 5 feet high.
“We meditate – purify our minds and spirits,” explains Shane, a 35yearold Diné (Navajo)
facility resident. “I was raised in this tradition. My grandfather took me since I was 3 and taught
me. This is part of our life since the beginning of time. This is a way I can get back in touch with
my spirit, become pure and one with God.”
A large, diverse crowd has turned out for this week’s community sweat. Instead of the usual 15
participants, there are about 25, including recovery clients and both Indian and nonIndian
nonmembers. Traditionally sweat lodges are segregated by sex, but not this one; the gender
mix is a sign of urbanization, Moreno says. The men wear shorts and are barechested while
the women wear long sleeves and skirts.
Each ceremony consists of four sessions, or “flaps,” that can run from one minute to a quarter
of an hour. Each flap represents a different geographic direction and stage of life: East – birth;
South – youth; West – adulthood; and North – elders. Each flap can focus on one of those life
stages, although the content of the worship depends on the ceremony leader and the
“What is said here, stays here, like an AA meeting,” Shane says.
The participants settle in around a fire pit; most sit crosslegged on blankets that offer minimal
padding from the hard earth. The first load of the heated rocks are piled in the center of the
tent. Tonight’s leader is a Navajo who lives in the West Valley and is an alumnus of the
recovery program. He emphasizes that if anyone is starting to be overcome by the heat, they
need to call out immediately.
Then come the prayers, the wet sage switch and the intense, skinflushing steam, which
regulars tell me represents the breath of the creator, cleansing those who breathe it in. Moreno
says that the sensation of scalding heat is something of a thermal illusion, as the temperature
only reaches 98 to 100 degrees.
Soon the first session is over and the main flap is opened for ventilation. A few people exit for
the cool outdoor air. Amidst informal conversation, the leader repeats his safety precautions as
water is passed around. This ceremony continues with three more flaps, with more people
exiting the lodge at each break, and progressively fewer returning. After the four flaps, the
participants line up and greet and bless each other in an affirmation ceremony.
There are several key procedural differences between the NAC urban sweats and the disastrous
ceremony conducted by Ray three years ago. For one, the canvas and cloth tent lets heat
dissipate, whereas the plastic tent used by Ray acted as a deadly insulant. The NAC ceremonies
are also much less crowded; reports indicate that Ray packed more than 60 people into his
tent. He also discouraged participants from leaving, even when they felt ill. There is no such
browbeating at the NAC sweats.
Moreover, the motivations are different. Ray charged $10,000 a head for his “Spiritual Warrior”
retreat. The NAC sweats, on the other hand, are altruistic – part of a “continuum of care” for
addicts that generally runs a couple of years.
“It can be like a church, synagogue or lodge,” Moreno says. “We have some alumni who have
come back for as long as 20 years. And alumni and community members help with the
program.” Native American Connections’ twoyear program has about a 6065 percent success
rate, compared to national figures of about 40 percent, according to Moreno.
The Sedona tragedy made nonNative practitioners more vigilant, as evidenced by the many
New Age and medical websites that now carry warnings about such potential sweat lodge
dangers as dehydration and heat stroke, but it was also a wake up call for many tribal
“People, even from tribes like mine who don’t practice sweat lodge, were incredulous,” Lance
Polingyouma, a Hopi cultural interpreter, says. “Then, the feeling became more indignant as it
became more clear Sedona was more about profit than conscious raising or healing.”
James Arthur Ray is currently in Arizona State Prison Lewis
serving a twoyear sentence for three counts of negligent
homicide. He petitioned for indigent status in December, the same
month his Beverly Hillsarea home sold for $3.02 million. Ray’s
website “is currently being updated,” but you can view clips from
shows such as Oprah, where he gets warm receptions as he
preaches his “Harmonic Wealth.”
READY FOR TAKEOFF
Author: Jim Fickess
Issue: June, 2010, Page 52
PHOENIXMESA GATEWAY AIRPORT JUST
LOGGED 1 MILLION PASSENGERS WITH
ONLY ONE AIRLINE. WHAT’S THE SECRET
TO ITS FLYAWAY SUCCESS?
On a recent sunny Saturday afternoon in
Mesa, people boarding a full flight to North
Dakota and disembarking from an arriving
flight from Nebraska were universally
praising their airline.
This alone is newsworthy. But on top of that,
this spring the PhoenixMesa Gateway
Airport, located 25 miles from Sky Harbor
International Airport in far southeastern
Mesa, quietly logged its 1 millionth
passenger. While Sky Harbor is experiencing
singledigit declines in passenger traffic,
Gateway’s passenger traffic this year is well
ahead of 2009, which saw a 65 percent spike
Allegiant specializes in inexpensive, allnonstop flights to
small cities (the likes of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Grand Rapids,
Michigan; and Rapid City, South Dakota) that on better
known carriers often require a plane change and a fat
For many years, it looked like Gateway was
stalled on the runway. Formerly known as
Williams Air Force Base, the site near
Williams Field and Sossaman roads was
decommissioned in 1993. The East Valley
municipalities that operate Gateway have tried to lure aerospacerelated businesses ever since
by building its three long runways into a reliever airport for Sky Harbor under an aggressive
plan to bring 100,000 jobs to the Gateway area.
Finally, the efforts are taking off. The success is largely due to Gateway’s only airline: Allegiant,
a Las Vegasbased carrier that started service here in 2007 and had its busiest month this
March with about 75 flights a week, according to PhoenixMesa Gateway spokesman Brian
It helps that the airline company sports a “close to bulletproof” business model, says Mike
Boyd, an airline industry analyst with the Denverbased Boyd Group.
Allegiant specializes in inexpensive, allnonstop flights to small cities (the likes of Cedar Rapids,
Iowa; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Rapid City, South Dakota) that on betterknown carriers
often require a plane change and a fat wallet. Its fleet of 130 to 150seat MD80 aircrafts
currently flies from Mesa to 20 destinations in the West and Midwest. The company also offers
hotel and car packages.
“They are in the tourismvacation business; they just happen to use airplanes,” Boyd says.
“They are incredibly reliable, meet passengers’ expectations and offer high value and low cost.
They are generating vacation travel; they aren’t taking business from Sky Harbor. Let’s face it;
most airlines don’t worry about the Missoula [Montana] market.”
But if most airlines aren’t concerned about smallcity markets, many families, college students
and budgetminded travelers are.
On this particular Saturday at Gateway airport, Skip Shirley was waiting to fly back home to
Fargo to take care of some business while his wife stayed in their winter home in the Valley. He
was one of many snowbirds in the terminal, which looks straight out of smalltown America: It
has one entry for departures and one for arrivals, and it’s all on ground level, as is the free or
cheap parking nearby.
“It’s cheap and convenient,” says Shirley, whose roundtrip flight cost $210. Before Allegiant, he
says, “we would have to drive two hours or so to Minneapolis, fly here and deal with Sky
Harbor. Now, I have a twoandahalf hour direct flight and I am there.”
Gateway has a long way to go to compete with Sky Harbor’s nonstop flights to 107 destinations,
but if passenger traffic keeps increasing, expansion seems inevitable.
“The service there has been very successful and we have a good working relationship with the
airport. We did add several cities and flights in October and November,” says Allegiant
spokeswoman Sabrina LoPiccolo. “We have no immediate plans [to add cities] but we are
always looking to grow our business.”
THE TEMPLE EFFECT
Author: Jim Fickess
Issue: November, 2009, Page 38
COULD A NEW LDS CHURCH RAISE
SURROUNDING PROPERTY VALUES
ENOUGH TO SAVE THE SOUTHEAST
VALLEY FROM ITS REAL ESTATE SLUMP?
One Gilbert luxury home has experienced all
of the Valley’s real estate mood swings,
including a possible “Temple Effect” high.
Built during the height of the Southeast
Valley real estate boom, the house sat
empty for more than two years as observers
wondered why milliondollar mansions were
ever built in the middle of Gilbert alfalfa
The answer may be looming to the west –
the site of a planned Church of Jesus Christ
of Latterday Saints temple on the southeast
corner of Greenfield and Pecos roads.
“Temples are famous for raising property
values,” says Paul Gilbert, a Scottsdale
attorney representing the LDS church for
temple projects in Gilbert and northwest Phoenix.
Though it’s too early to tell if the “Temple Effect” will crack the depressed local housing market,
the phenomenon has been witnessed several times near newer LDS buildings. In the past two
years, new temples in the small Idaho cities of Twin Falls and Rexburg have been surrounded
by custom home developments whose property values eclipse those in neighboring areas.
The Gilbert luxury house finally sold this summer, although the buyers say the proximity of the
future LDS temple was just one part of a good buy in a buyer’s market.
“We didn’t know about the temple when we first inquired about the house,” says Tim Penrod, a
Mormon who moved to Gilbert with his family from Mesa after getting a deal on the 6bedroom,
5bath mansion with a 3car garage and guest casita for “considerably less” than the $999,000
listing price. “But we learned about it as negotiations went on, and it was a plus.”
Candace Robinson, the listing real estate agent, says that while LDS temples are “something a
lot of buyers seek out,” she didn’t market the Penrod’s home solely to Mormons, adding that
she had the longvacant house listed for just 32 days before receiving an offer. But marketing
efforts went as far as Salt Lake City, home to LDS headquarters, where a Web site focusing on
Utah real estate listed the house as a “Beautiful Custom home near Gilbert Temple Grounds.”
Despite the sale, there are more than a dozen custom homes on the market in the exclusive,
gated Whitewing Estates at Higley, where “For Sale” signs have popped up like the
tumbleweeds in the foundering development to the south.
Whitewing resident Treven Rollins says the temple will mean more than real estate recovery.
“Will it raise property values? Definitely,” says Rollins, who is LDS. “But it will bring a different
environment to the community. Any time you build a building for sacred purposes, it brings
value to the entire community. People not of the LDS faith will have respect for it.”
“[Temples] are very good neighbors and very special to Latterday Saints,” says attorney
Gilbert. “As a result, the Church has a very extensive budget for landscaping and
maintenance.” For example, church officials recently decided to pay “a significant amount” to
bury power lines near the Gilbert temple site, he says.
In 2008, LDS leaders announced plans for three new temples to handle church and population
growth in Arizona. The third is in the Gila Valley in eastern Arizona.
The Phoenix and Gilbert temples, which are expected to open in two to three years, will be
smaller than the Mesa temple serving the entire Valley, Gilbert says. The Phoenix temple,
planned for land at 51st Avenue and Pinnacle Peak Road, will occupy about 9,500 square feet,
Gilbert says. The Gilbert temple, on a site donated by the East Valley’s LeSueur family, which is
LDS, is expected to be about twice that size.
Jim Golba, who owns a Gilbert real estate business, sees the temple as an important part of
“Gilbert is a growing community and the temple will be integrated into the community,” Golba
says. “By the time it opens, the local real estate market will be turning around and this will