This piece is exercepted from a cover story that was originally published in the Weekly on Dec. 18, 2014.
Hummux Anax is pretty sure he got burned because the sweat lodge ceremony started in the north.
“A lot of people think that’s not right – the sun rises in the east,” he says. “We sang a song that should have invoked the water spirits, but it invoked the fire spirits.”
He stepped out of the dark, steaming sweat lodge and tripped over the altar, a mound of earth arranged with feathers, jewelry and a forked stick representing male and female.
Someone had placed the altar too close to the lodge door, Hummux says. He fell in the ceremonial campfire and “turtled out” on its concrete base, flames licking his pale skin.
It was bad. He slathered on some aloe and left the Esalen Institute, heading up Highway 1 to Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. The burns crossed his back and both wrists in a dragging pattern. The healing involved months of excruciating debridements, as medics stripped off the dead skin.
Hummux Anax means “fire wolf.” It is his Esselen Indian name. He says it’s his legal name, too: just “hummux,” on his Social Security card and everything. His birth name is very Anglo, as boring as Bill Perkins, and he asks me not to use it.
Hummux got his Esselen name from Tommy Little Bear Nason, an Esselen descendant whose family has lived for generations in the Carmel Valley foothills his ancestors called Xasáuan. Nason has also been a spiritual adviser to Esalen Institute for more than 30 years.
According to Hummux, Nason gave Esselen names to him and about 90 other non-Indians after leading them on vision quests in the wilderness. Nason “adopted” 14, the most committed, into the Esselen Tribe he created in the early 1990s. He calls himself the tribe’s spiritual leader.
Hummux is one of those adoptees. Three more are Mac Murphy, son of Esalen Institute co-founder Michael Murphy, who became Shekes Anax; Rudy Proctor, a retired credit union manager, who’s called Wingte Tihikpas; and actor Woody Harrelson. Proctor says singer Joan Baez, who’s been part of Esalen’s inner circle since the ’60s, is in the tribe, too, but the musician’s publicist won’t confirm it.
Nason authorized Hummux, Proctor and a couple others to lead sweat lodge ceremonies at Esalen, the New Age retreat center jutting over the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur. The ritual is heavily based in Native American traditions, including what Murphy describes as “inter-tribal” songs and prayers – including Esselen, Lakota and Cherokee.
Participants heat stones in a campfire, then move them inside the lodge, drop them into a central hole and pour water on top, creating hot steam in which they bake, drip, sing and pray before re-emerging into the outer world. Some of the lodge leaders have described the ceremony as sacred and secret, but it follows a general formula that comes up in a Google search of “sweat lodge.”
The Esalen ceremonies got especially popular after the lodge was moved to its current location above Hot Springs Creek in 2003. One organizer estimated 2,000 people took part between 2007-2011.
“Then we got tired of it,” Hummux says, “and it went to hell.”
No doubt countless people felt cleansed, even transformed, in the Esalen sweat lodge. Participants have described how the ceremony connects them with Mother Earth and with all of humanity in a profound experience of oneness.
But it was as if some destructive force was activated around the time Hummux got burned. It radiated out to divide the larger Esalen community. It infuriated the chair of the Ohlone/Costanoan Esselen Nation, destroying the tenuous peace between her tribal group and the retreat center. It drove a wedge deeper between the nearly 700-member Esselen Nation and Nason’s Esselen Tribe, which he says includes 68 members of his extended family.
The tension drills down to the question of cultural appropriation, when appreciation for traditions that aren’t one’s own becomes something more offensive. People have different interpretations of where exactly that line lies, and when the Esalen sweat lodge crossed it – if it ever did.