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« GROMS Be Gone | Main | New Year's Walkabout »

A Tipi in Town

“We built a tipi once,” I’m babbling on like an idiot to my neighbor, who just built a real tipi in his back yard. “We made it out of pretzel rods and fondant. Green sugar for the grass.”

I throw out one of my cheesy smiles, trying to mask the embarrassment of what my friend Peggy calls ‘over-sharing.’

What does one say, though, to a new neighbor who just constructed a 15-foot tall tipi in his backyard in Bluebird Canyon?

After a big ‘wow,’ you can only wonder, ‘Did Design Review actually approve this structure?’

Ever since our neighbors moved in last year, their activities have entertained me. I’m like the nosy Mrs. Kravitz in Bewitched, always home, always looking out my window. Every thing was fairly normal until some large branches appeared in the backyard.

The construction of a Native American sweat lodge was underway. Green tree limbs covered in canvas created a dome used for ceremonies. I had only ever seen one in the news when James A. Ray’s Spiritual Warrior session went awry and three people died.

I have friends who have done sweat lodges for cleansing.  I’ve never had any interest since I participate in my own sweating ritual, thanks to menopause and that fun little activity called hot flashes.

Anyway, everything appeared fairly cool until one of the sweat lodge ceremony participants urinated in front of my nine-year old and her friend while they were playing in the yard next door. There was a fence between them, so fortunately no private parts were seen.  Another neighbor who saw the whole event from her kitchen window called the police.

That’s when a letter went out from our neighbor, Andrew, letting us know that it is his tradition, as a Native American, to use the sweat lodge for prayer and purification. His rights on the land use were covered in the Congressional American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

Tensions in the neighborhood started to grow. I knew he thought we were a bunch of OC Housewives, intolerant of his beliefs.

At home, we discussed the inappropriateness of public urination, which my girls clearly understood.

“Gross,” they squealed.

We also talked about the sweat lodge and the Native American culture. Maybe I missed a teaching moment here but all I could think about was whether the heat used was a potential fire danger to our canyon. 

I decided to talk directly to Andrew. 

“I have kids too,” he said, in regards to the public urination. “It won’t happen again.”

As for the sweat lodge, he told me that as an Acoma Pueblo Indian he has the right to an open fire, per the Congressional Act. However, he had chosen to use propane tanks to heat the rocks placed inside the lodge.

He’s a nice, family man who obviously cares about his culture.  I still wasn’t convinced all was well.

Several months after the sweat lodge was built, a retaining wall and tipi appeared.

After I shared my incredible pretzel rod design, my girls and I were invited inside the actual structure. Beautifully whittled pine poles held up the large canvas. It was a magical moment.

“What are the four flags on the outside?” my daughter asked.

‘Those represent the colors of humans-white, red, yellow and black. They also stand for the four elements and four directions,” Andrew explained.

After we left, my girls asked, “How can he put that in his backyard, Mommy?”

“He said his land use rights as a Native American allowed him to build it,” I explained. “The question is do those rights supersede those of Laguna Beach?”

My girls were both studying government. We pondered the dilemma for a moment.

 “Sometimes it’s hard to know how the rules work,” I said. “We need more information.” 

My teaching moment, that life can be complicated, had finally arrived. 

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Reader Comments (1)

Your post about the sweat lodge and tipi is a great example of open-mindedness! Kudos. Given the way that this issue has arisen in your neighborhood and community – quickly and without “advanced permission” – it has become a lightning rod issue. However, you address some very important aspects and give a very fair account of the events that are happening.

Your “teaching moments” from this issue are great lessons for us all. Taking your children with you to speak with Andrew was a mature, thoughtful and excellent way to not only learn more about the issue for yourself, but also to teach your children to address situations with others in a calm, adult-like manner. It seems that too many of us these days simply “don’t want to get our hands dirty.”

Your community and children will be better off with the increased diversity that Andrew and his spirituality bring to the area. Laguna Beach prides itself on its diversity and its welcoming attitude toward new, different ideas. Leading through example is the best teaching you can give children; they are blessed to be able to see your compassion, wisdom and natural curiosity.

Additionally, being able to bring the issue back to their schooling is a great way to excite family discourse about the roles of government, and educate our youth about the ways in which our government has failed us in the past, especially with regards to the Native American population. Without doubt, Federal legislation protecting the rights of Native Americans to practice their deeply held spiritual beliefs and rituals is important and supersedes local zoning ordinances when there are not compelling government interests involved. It would seem foolhardy for the City and its zoning department to pick a fight with Andrew over this issue. The negative publicity for the City alone should be a deterrent. And, honestly, it’s not as if every neighbor in Laguna is going to say “hey, time for my own Tipi to go up!” After all, one of the joys of Laguna is that there is diversity in all forms: art, music, architecture, religion, background, etc.

The issue has a great deal of learning lessons and in the long run, the neighborhood will be better off with Andrew and his family sharing these traditions with the community. We can use more prayer and goodness in our lives and you are fortunate enough to have it next door!
February 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

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