This post isn’t about something new, or particularly “new age.” It is about racism, exploitation, denial, cultural and

Yavapai County Sheriff's Office
Yavapai County Sheriff's Office

spiritual debasement, and in a some cases fraud, theft, rape and even murder. This is how the post evolved.

A couple of weeks ago near a small town in Arizona, three people died during or shortly after a “sweat lodge ceremony.” Those quote marks are deliberate.

The U.S. national mainstream media jumps on the story – at first – and frames the story within two main themes. The first centres on the criminal investigations that swirl around the man who ran the so-called ceremonies and whether he may be held responsible for three people dying. The second theme has consumerist overtones of the “buyer beware” bent.

The facts are these as outlined in the online Arizona Republic newspaper:

Authorities said about 60 people were inside the sweat lodge Oct. 8. The event left three people dead and more than 20 ill. The Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office announced last week that investigators were focusing on Ray and anyone else involved in organizing the ceremony, as they tried to determine if negligence caused the deaths.

James Ray
James Ray

Ray had a long history in the self-help field, moving into a particular brand of this movement a few years ago called “native spiritualism,” or “new age” spiritualism. Some call these people “plastic medicine men” which, believe it or not, is one of the more polite terms used by tradtional Indigenous peoples. This is how Wikipedia describes him:

James Arthur Ray… is a professional speaker and author. He has been a guest on Oprah, Larry King Live and The Today Show, and is the author of Harmonic Wealth, a New York Times bestseller. He is a self-described “personal success strategist” and visionary.

Ray is the President and CEO of James Ray International, a private company which holds seminars and mentoring services on wealth creation. As of October 2009, the company was not Better Business Bureau accredited, which gives the company a C rating for 7 complaints filed and 2 unresolved. He was also one of the guest speakers in the 2006 film The Secret.

Ray left Arizona for his home in California shortly after ambulances arrived along with police. He issued a statement later expressing regret. So far, Ray has not been questioned by investigating police officers.

Mainstream news tried to explain what a sweat lodge ceremony was and how it was conducted. Most of the national media, though, seemed content to explain how this particular “ceremony” led to the deaths of three people and leave it at that. Arizona reporters, however, began to dig a little deeper into the lucrative self-help business, and the revulsion expressed by many Native Americans that their ceremonies were exploited for profit. Ray had charged 60 people more than $9,000 each (more than $500,000) for a self-help package that promised to awaken the participant’s internal “Spiritual Warrior.”

Supporters say the handsome, charismatic leader teaches them money and spiritual strategies that have improved their finances and relationships. They also say there is a wow factor to his programs, which encourage participants to break through barriers by smashing wood blocks in half or walking on hot coals.

“I have really grown tremendously outside of who I was,” said Hermia Nelson, a New York businesswoman who attended retreats near Sedona in 2007 and 2008 and calls herself a member of Ray’s “inner circle.” “James has shown us over and over again that he is real. . . . I don’t think James is a reckless person or the organization was negligent. They take very seriously these types of events.”

But critics say Ray is a modern-day charlatan who preys upon the insecurities of high-wealth followers looking for meaning in life. They say he operates in an industry without regulation, oversight or any requirement to verify that claims are accurate or methods are safe.

Steve Salerno, author of “SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless,” wrote in his blog recently that Ray exemplifies modern gurus marketing spiritual materialism.

“He promotes a hodge-podge of a ‘thinking system’ that might be described as a psychological bouillabaisse, drawing on random elements of the New Age and other facets of karmic psychobabble. . . . He tries things without a clear sense of implications or consequences.”

Ray, with the flair of an evangelist, claims to have interviewed shamans on Peruvian mountaintops, witch doctors in the Amazon and a kahuna in Hawaii. He says he has sought spiritual fulfillment wandering through the Catacombs, Egyptian pyramids, museums of Paris and a castle in Portugal. In the end, he has said in his book, he distilled the wisdom and lessons of success into his own principles.

This brings me to other ways that the story evolved – particularly in the Indigenous American media. Here, something much more interesting (to me anyway) took place. It began with a cautionary statement in Indian Country Today of the sweat lodge ceremony and how it should be used and might be abused.

As Keeper of our Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle, I am concerned for the two deaths (another person later died – ed.) and illnesses of the many people who participated in a sweat lodge in Sedona, Ariz. that brought our sacred rite under fire in the news. I would like to clarify that this lodge, and many others, are not our ceremonial way of life because of the way they are being conducted. My prayers go out to the families and loved ones for their loss.

Our ceremonies are about life and healing. From the time this ancient ceremonial rite was given to our people, never has death been a part of our inikaga (life within) when conducted properly. Today, the rite is interpreted as a sweat lodge. It is much more than that. The term does not fit our real meaning of purification.

This was followed by an article entitled What Good Are the Ceremonies If They Cannot Save a People? in the Huffington Post. Tim Giago didn’t write about Ray, “new agers” or the “plastic medicine men.” Instead, Giago questioned the validity or usefulness of the traditional religious beliefs of his own tribe.

I see tribal members attending sweats and Sun Dances and then heading to the nearest bar or smoking a joint and I wonder how they can be such hypocrites. And then they sit around and brag about the sacrifice they believe they just made.

Arvol, why are the sacred rites you represent not being used to bring our own people back from the brink? Why aren’t they being used to bring back the good health our people once enjoyed? Why is there an unemployment rate of 80 percent on the lands you call home? Why is there such a high rate of STD’s and teen pregnancies in Lakota country? What good does it do to speak out and criticize an event that happened in Sedona, Arizona when it had no lasting impact upon the Sioux people? Aren’t there terrible things happening in our own homelands, right under our noses, to worry about and try to change?

Now to explain my own feelings about this story, how it was covered, and why it bothers me so much. For years, almost from the time I began my career as a journalist, I’ve come across “new agers” and “plastic medicine men” who were out there fleecing naive idiots by offering such things as an “animal totem” or a “vision” through their “vision quest ceremonies” – even guaranteeing such results if they’d cough up a few hundred bucks more.

Just as the journalists covering the story in Arizona, I stayed within the boundaries defined by the journalistic responsibilities of covering a possible crime, but also by constraints set by editors and producers who felt our only other job was to warn people to be more careful with their money. Deep down, though, where as a journalist covering the story and so could never admit, I felt betrayed and even violated by these bastards because they demeaned my religion and spiritual beliefs by their actions.

I also felt let down by the elders I knew at the time. Try as I might, I couldn’t get a single elder to come forward, to identify these fakes, or to comment on their activities. About as far as they would go was: There’s a proper way and a not-so-proper way to conduct these ceremonies. This, of course, says nothing – or worse than nothing when a few of these fakes had committed or were committing serious crimes such as rape under the guise of “native spiritual ceremony.” My anger at them – and myself – was borne of frustration at my inability to do more, and mirrors what I believe likely provoked Giago’s outburst.

This story isn’t as simple as condemning “new agers” or “plastic medicine men” because similar abuses take place in our own Indigenous communities. At APTN, we covered one rape trial of an Indigenous man. He lured people into his “lodge” for money but also sexually assaulted at least one of the women. He was properly charged and convicted but no one, at least as far I knew, ever questioned the validity of the ceremony itself or the roles of legitimate Indigenous elders. Our story rightly condemned anyone who abused a position of trust to fleece the naive and even commit violent crimes by pretending to be a legitimate elder.

It wasn’t the only story out there. A few years ago, stories on the west coast hit the headlines after a couple of men died during enforced ceremonies conducted by their own tribal elders. They conducted these ceremonies in order to “cleanse” individuals of self-destructive behaviours. Coverage of these incidents led to a re-examination of the ceremonies by the elders themselves.

Bob Goulais recently wrote in the North Bay Nugget that “misappropriation” and “misguided faith” – not the ceremony or the religous beliefs – were really to blame for the deaths in Arizona. Then, he brought up an example to show that his own people could be just as susceptible as those in that Arizona “ceremony.”

In the fall of 2001, a 71-year-old Wikwemikong woman died during a ceremony conducted by two Ecuadorian healers. During the course of a three-day ceremony sanctioned by the local health authority, the two men advised the elderly woman to stop taking her diabetic medication without medical supervision. She, along with about 50 other participants, drank a mixture of a hallucinogen and nicotine. Sadly, the elder ( elderly woman – ed.) could not tolerate the induced vomiting that ensued and died soon after.

The incidents above all had similar causes and results. Mistakes were made. People died. Those responsible were held accountable – at least those that took place within the Indigenous communities. Meanwhile, the “plastic medicine men” of the world continued to become wealthy with their “for profit” businesses by selling bastardized versions of native ceremonies and passing themselves off as “spiritual warriors.”

If you want to understand how that makes me feel, I can’t put it any better than Jim Kent in the Rapid City Journal (Oklahoma):

Picture if you will: a Native American man in a priest’s cassock, standing at an altar on a reservation anywhere in the state. He raises bread above a large gold cup and addresses the crowd around him: “We are all one in the body of the Great Spirit of Roslyn.”

No, this isn’t a new version of the Catholic Mass, nor is the man a Catholic priest. He just “digs” the Catholic religion, “respects” its history and culture and finds himself inexplicably “drawn” to all things Vatican. He wasn’t born Catholic; never attended Catholic church or schools. But this recent hub-bub about Jesus Christ and the DaVinci Code has grabbed his “inner spirit.” He’s thinking that’s because “way back” his ninth cousin on his father’s side may have been 1/16 Catholic. He just feels it.

So, he did some research, sat in on some masses, picked up an abridged version of the Bible and decided he’d start his own congregation. He calls it “The Cody Two Bear Church of the New Holy Grail.” Visitors “donate” $100 minimum for this unique spiritual experience that will bring them closer to the Knights Templar, Christ and Mary Magdalene while discovering the healing capabilities of candle wax – long used in the church, but with little awareness of its true powers. Retreats are available at a higher cost.

Kent makes me wish that I’d written that.

What happens next? The police will investigate the deaths in Arizona. If they lay charges, there may or may not be a trial. There may or may not be civil suits to follow. But that won’t deal with the real problem, because Bob Goulais was absolutely right.

Part of the problem is the “misappropriation” of our ceremonies by non-Indigenous people pretending to be elders, pretending to know what they’re doing, and doing it to make money under false pretenses. This is compounded by, again as Goulais rightly put it, the “misguided faith” of people who think they need what these false prophets offer to sell them. But the solution won’t come from government, it’s laws, or the police.

The solution – if there is one – must come from within our own nations and communities, from our own elders who need to speak up, to identify and condemn these “charlatans,” to assert their authority, and let their people know that our ceremonies are not for sale.