A backyard sweat lodge that has fired up the ire of some of its neighbors in Bluebird Canyon for months was approved by a 4-1 vote of the city’s Design Review Board last week. Its owner still needs to clear other official fire rings, while critics continue to question the lodge’s authenticity and neighborhood suitability.
The board permitted the unusual structure at the home of Andrew Soliz, who performs what he describes as Native American Lakota ceremonies, on the condition he thicken his bamboo privacy hedge with more trees. Due to several complaining neighbors, Soliz was required to obtain city approval in order to continue conducting sweat lodge ceremonies under the traditional willow-branch dome.
Only one of them, Cameron Fraser, who lives adjacent to Soliz’s backyard, opposed the sweat lodge at the meeting. Fraser contended that his family’s privacy was at stake and questioned whether the sweat lodge constituted conducting a business, which is not permitted in residential areas according to city code.
In support, 20 other residents wondered why the sweat lodge, which covers 113 square feet of bare earth, was being considered a permanent structure requiring city review when they saw it as a temporary shelter exempt from city inspection.
“I felt this was a structure,” DRB chairwoman Robin Zur Schmiede told Soliz at the meeting. “Every single one of those posts is stuck in the ground and you plan on keeping it there for a long time.” Zur Schmiede said she sees no need to evaluate how the sweat lodge is used and considers her board’s approval the final step.
“It’s just an activity, like having an outdoor barbeque or a playhouse,” she said Tuesday. “For the best of everybody involved, it should be left to the neighbors without having the community all involved in it.”
The sweat lodge was reviewed by the board at the discretion of the city’s community development director, John Montgomery, due to complaints about guest parking and an incident when a sweat lodge participant urinated in full view of Fraser’s back windows as well as his daughter, her friend and another neighbor.
“I don’t believe the director of community development issued this to DR because it’s a structure,” said DRB member Caren Liuzzi. “They issued it to DR to get this issue settled once and for all.”
Even so, the next step is to determine if a building permit is required, said Liane Schuller, a city planner and DRB administrator. Soliz will be asked by a city plan checker to explain how the sweat lodge is built and its use, she said.
Jesse Obrand, a Dana Point lawyer working pro bono for Soliz, told the board that “singling out” his client and the sweat lodge for review “reeks of selective enforcement.” Depending on the board’s decision, First Amendment rights could become an issue, he added. “It’s really a collection of sticks, leaves and strings and is no different than a child’s tent,” he said.
Other speakers pointed out Laguna’s reputation for diversity that sets it apart from nearby communities that impose strict uniformity restrictions. “There’s a tone of this that’s frightening to me, that Laguna is turning into something that wants to regulate every kind of freedom of expression,” said 40-year resident Andrea Badger.
Even so, unlikely critics are on alert. The local governing Native American community is unaware of Soliz’s ceremonies and said he is not sanctioned.
“He has not followed proper protocol and come to the indigenous people of this land,” said Joyce Stanfield-Perry, cultural resource director for the Juaneno band of Mission Indians, the original inhabitants of Orange County. “Every Indian knows that’s the first step.” Soliz, she said, has not sought permission from the chief of the state-recognized Mission tribe, which has jurisdiction over its ancestral homelands and considers Laguna Beach as the “heart” of its sacred coastal grounds.
Fraser, Soliz’s backyard neighbor, argued that the sweat lodge is incompatible with zoning for single-family homes. The structure and ceremony don’t bother him or his neighbors, he said, as long as acceptable etiquette is followed. It’s the number of people who attend, which can be up to 30 at a ceremony.
Soliz maintained that no business is being conducted. “No money is charged,” he said, adding that his income is derived from carpentry, welding and custom-work contracts. “There’s no fee to do a ceremony. Traditionally, it’s never been a business. It’s been a place of prayer, a place of healing, a place of health.”
Soliz said he has since eliminated the word “donation” from all printed materials and internet information to assuage any interpretation that exchanging money is required. “That’s unfortunate because those donations would go out to help the elderly on the Pine Ridge (South Dakota) reservation,” he said. “In the wintertime, they need wood for their stoves and propane to keep their houses warm.”
In a letter to the Indy last month, Indian-activity watchdog Al Carroll questioned Soliz’s legitimacy. Carroll, a professor at Northern Virginia Community College and Fulbright Scholar, runs an online group called newagefraud.org that exposes groups asking people to “pay to pray.”
To authentically practice Native ceremonies, Carroll said a person needs to live in the Indian community with a blood or marriage bond and speak the indigenous language fluently. “I live in Sterling, Va., thousands of miles away from my community, so it makes no sense for me to practice,” Carroll said, who describes himself as a Mescalero Apache. “He has no right to do it, because Andrew Soliz is not Lakota.”
Native Americans do not convert others to their way of life or religious rituals, Carroll explained. In his letter to the Indy, he wrote that Soliz should “quit inviting white New Agers to his imitation of a sweat lodge and quit annoying his neighbors.”
Soliz claims Mexico’s Mayan and New Mexico’s Pueblo heritage, but personal ties with the native people of South Dakota, where he says he has trained and studied. “We are all related, no matter the color,” he said. “Everybody needs help in this world.” He added, “everything I do, I get permission from the medicine men at Pine Ridge,” a reservation governed by the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
Carrie Woodburn, Soliz’s partner who runs an online company of retreats, workshops and trips called Alchemy of the Heart, requested a refund at the meeting for the more than $1,000 in fines and fees incurred so far. Board member Liuzzi suggested that Woodburn appeal to the City Council for reimbursement.
Ilse Lenschow, the dissenting board member, disapproved of the structure as not in compliance with city code regarding privacy and neighborhood compatibility.