Should Traditional Sweatlodge Fires Be Subject To Government Burn Bans?

SHELTON, Mason County - When firefighters showed up at Raymond "Cooney" Johns' place last year, they didn't know what to do about the sweatlodge fire Johns had ignited during a ban on outdoor burning.

Johns, a pipe carrier for the Skokomish Indian Tribe, claims the fire - which was not on reservation land - is protected under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and exempt from burn bans.

Mason County Fire Marshal Dave Salzer allowed the sweatlodge fires last year, but the issue of whether the county or state can subject the fires to local burn bans remains unresolved.

Johns, along with other Native Americans from Mason County, are pushing county government to allow ceremonial fires during burn bans.

Fires are an integral part of American Indians' way of life, says Kenny Farmer, a Sioux who lives in Mason County. "No matter where we go on Mother Earth, we practice these rites."

"All we ask," Farmer, a pipe carrier and sun dancer, told county commissioners recently, "is that we have the right to practice our way of life."

Pipe carriers - what non-Indians know as peace pipes - are conduits for a tribe's culture and are responsible for conducting various ceremonies.

"Not allowing a sweat to take place during a burn ban would absolutely be an infringement on that person's right to practice his religion," says Michelle Aguilar of the Governor's Office of Indian Affairs,

Ceremonial fires are listed as recreational fires in the county burn policy, along with campfires and beach fires, and are subject to burn bans, Fire Marshal Salzer insists.

Salzer intends to list ceremonial fires separately, but make them subject to the same restrictions as recreational fires. They would still be prohibited during burn bans.

State laws allow exemptions for ceremonial fires in areas where a permanent burn ban exists, according to Melissa McEachron, a policy specialist with the Department of Ecology. But in times of poor air quality or high fire danger, she adds, all outdoor burning - including ceremonial fires - is banned.