The sweat lodge and tipi in Andrew Soliz’s Bluebird Canyon backyard, target of some complaints by nearby neighbors, must meet city building standards or be subject to fines or forced removal, according to city officials.
Soliz says the structures at 932 Meadowlark Dr. are sacred religious buildings and are protected by federal law. Nevertheless, he said he has an appointment with a code enforcement officer on March 2. Code enforcement officer Fred Fix said Wednesday that he’s waiting for the go-ahead to inspect the structures.
The problem started last month when Lynda Sharp was baking cookies at her neighbor’s house with two 10-year-old girls, who were selling them to passersby. “I looked out the window and there he was, this man urinating in front of the girls,” said Sharp, who’s lived here for 45 years. “I don’t think public urination is acceptable in a neighborhood.”
The uninhibited man in question had been participating in a traditional Lakota ceremony in Soliz’s backyard where Native American ceremonial leader has built a willow-branch sweat lodge and a 15-foot-high tipi.
Sharp immediately confronted Soliz about the incident and then called police. “I don’t care what culture he is; that is not acceptable,” she said.
“This has been happening to American Indians for hundreds of years,” said Soliz. “I guess it’s my turn to fight the fight.”
Soliz cites the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 as protection to practice his religion where he chooses. “I don’t believe I’m doing anything wrong and I’m willing to stand for that fight,” said Soliz, who moved to Laguna Beach from Ojai in 2010. “This is my home and I have the right to practice my spirituality in my home.”
Since the visit from police, Soliz said he’s dealt with the city building department, zoning enforcement and anonymous letters in his mailbox and on his truck. “The city tells me I have to have a building permit and design review on the most sacred and ancient structures and that their design must meet the approval of a committee as well as pay hundreds of dollars in fees and applications,” he wrote to subscribers of his Sacred Ways website newsletter. Soliz said he’s going to make sure no one repeats the offending action in his backyard again. “The problem came and went so why are we still being asked to comply?” he said.
Rose Cuny, manager of the Native American Rights Fund in Colorado, said she recommends that owners of traditional Indian structures go through the required city processes and purchase the proper permits. She said she referred Soliz to California Indian Legal Services, but a spokesperson there was unaware of the situation.
Sharp, whose great grandmother was Cherokee, said Soliz is ignoring the culture of his adopted hometown. “If he’d respected the neighborhood, he wouldn’t have congregations of 20 to 30 people.”
Neighbors are also unhappy over the use of propane gas to heat the sweat lodge rocks, parking problems and the tipi’s height. “If we make city codes to keep our city what it is, why should one person feel like he can come in and disrespect the city codes?” Sharp asked.
John Montgomery, the city’s chief of community development, said the sweat lodge and tipi are allowable but subject to design review and required building permits. “We’re starting up code enforcement,” he said.
Montgomery foresees more complaints from neighbors. “You have to comply with the design review criteria that’s listed in our ordinances, and one of the criteria is neighborhood compatibility,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll get testimony about that issue.” Montgomery added that personal liability was solely Soliz’s and not the city’s.
Walter Rening, an immediate neighbor of Soliz and a retired city fire captain, said he and his son, Steve, a current city fire captain, have no problem with the sweat lodge. His greater concern, he said, are parties in the neighborhood and drivers who have been drinking.
“They’ve allowed my grandson, who’s 13, to come and see inside the tipi,” added Carol Ann Marchant, Rening’s caregiver. “I want my grandson to know all the cultures of the world. I consider it a privilege that Andrew takes time to educate children. It’s amazing.”
Charlie Brokaw, another nearby neighbor in Bluebird Canyon said he’s found the sweat lodge activities peaceful. “It’s much less intrusive than the concerts in the park in the summer,” he said.
Backyard Spirits Sweat It Out
There were 30 people sitting knee-to-knee in the pitch black and still cool confines of the sweat lodge; three tight faceless rows of knobby knees, sharp elbows and knotted strings of hands and feet searching for a noninvasive place to land.
The rows circled a small, perfectly round pit soon destined to be the steamy power center of an intense traditional Lakota-Indian purification ceremony.
White-hot rocks were handed through the slit of the tent’s opening by anonymous arms with a hand shovel. The desert stones were loaded into the pit by the ceremony’s facilitator, his dark brown hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, while he recited Native American prayers to the four directions.
In four rounds over the next two hours, temperatures rose to sauna levels as water was poured on the hot coals. The softly enunciated, other-worldly sounds of medicine songs echoed through the steam. Each participant, under secure cover of darkness, took a turn disclosing their pain and their prayers for their lives and the world. A cool sea breeze wafting just outside the tightly fitted canvas was all anyone wanted.
The idea of a sweat lodge is to heat the tent to stimulate massive amounts of sweat that cleanse the body and release emotions, if need be. And, in Lakota tradition, to dispel any demons of mind and spirit; a purification intended to maintain a healthy body and happy mental state.
The unique aspect of this sweat lodge is that it stands smack dab in the middle of Andrew Soliz’s backyard in Bluebird Canyon, in full view of a couple of his neighbors who have done a bit of their own lodging, as in complaints to the city.
Soliz, a descendant of the pueblo-dwelling Acoma American Indians and Mayan ancestry, was officially adopted into two Lakota families seven years ago. He wears the scars of “compassionate suffering” of the sun dancer in honor and respect of women, as is the tradition of all Native American cultures.
Native Indian sweat lodges are considered an analogy for the womb, thus the idea of reconnecting with the mother earth. For me, the second sweat lodge I had participated in at Soliz’s and Carrie Washburn’s Meadowlark Drive home, the heat proved too much. At the third round, it suddenly felt like a ball of fire ignited deep in my womb and instantly shot to the crown of my head, the mother of all hot flashes. My time to exit.
I informed Soliz of my need to flee. As I passed him, heading straight for the tent’s door, he gently said, “You’ve gotten what you needed.”
He later told me that a sweat lodge is not a competition. “People need to learn to take care of themselves in this world and have the courage to say, ‘I’ve had enough,’ or ‘I need help,’” he said. “That’s how people learn. We teach compassion; it’s not a contest.”
The grass was wet and cool from the previous evening’s rain. I stretched out in my t-shirt and sarong, like a human “X” branded on the ground, while my body’s sizzle fizzled. My friend entered the sweat lodge worn out from a desert trip gone cold and wind-blown, stayed for the duration and came out looking like a freshly washed babe, skin shining, eyes glowing, spirits lifted.
A man who followed my earlier exit, went straight to the yard’s fence, opened his zipper and let it fly. He said he just couldn’t hold it any longer. The problem was that another man repeated this Mediterranean-style of unabashed urination the next day during the all-male sweat lodge. This time, his action caught the eye and the ire of a neighbor, and police were called.
That’s when the heat really turned up. The Jan. 29 report was forwarded to the city’s code enforcement department and enforcers made contact.
Soliz said people tend to fear first before they understand. “My neighbors have parties, they have people come over for barbeques, for the Super Bowl. They’re way louder than we are,” he said. “They park all over the streets and they drive home drunk. We don’t.”
Still, some have abused the practice. In 2011, self-help celebrity James Arthur Ray was sentenced to three years in prison for the deaths of three people during a sweat lodge he conducted two years earlier in Sedona, Ariz. Ray charged $9,695 for the five-day spiritual retreat. Participants said they fasted, lacked sleep and felt intimidated.
Soliz said Ray was not an official Native American sweat lodge leader. “Everything he could do wrong he did,” commented Soliz, who’s facilitated ceremonies across the U.S. for the last 12 years. “In our way, you have to have been a sun dancer for at least four years before you can lead sweat lodges.”
Soliz said his ceremonies are considered religious practices and he doesn’t require a fee. He said he will wait to see what the city brings to the peace talks.
“The life and ceremonies of our people were taken away from us out of fear and as a way to control the Native people. The Sweat Lodge, Sun Dance, Vision Quest, possessing sacred items like the sacred pipe or eagle feathers were all reasons to be fined and or put in prison,” he stated. “However, there were those who carried on the teachings and ceremonies in secret. They fought for our rights, many died and there are those who are still in prison. All of our ceremonies were against the law in the United States until 1978, when Congress passed the Native American Freedom of Religion Act.
“Our people have fought this fight for hundreds of years and I am not going to stop now. In the mean time we will continue to hold ceremony.”