“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.