Mothering Heights

Christine Fugate

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, Andrew Soliz, 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 normal. Then one day, 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 seen one in the news: James A. Ray’s Spiritual Warrior session where 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 participants urinated in front of my 9-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 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 federal 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 our new neighbor.


“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 he has a right to an open fire, per the Congressional Act, but was using propane tanks to heat rocks placed inside the lodge.


He’s a nice, family man who obviously cares about his culture.  Still, I needed more information.


Several months after the sweat lodge was built, the 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 white, red, yellow and black people we have on the earth, the four elements and the four directions.’ he explained.


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


“I don’t think he has permission,” I explained. “However, this land did belong to the Native Americans years ago.”


We pondered that for a moment. Both of my girls had studied California history.


“But they still have to follow the rules,” I said.


My teaching moment, of the upmost importance, had finally arrived.


Christine can be reached at [email protected]


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