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Selling the Sacred

Valerie Taliman
10/14/09

The Oct. 9 headlines read: “Sweat lodge disaster” and “2 dead, 19 taken to hospitals, 64 people in sweat lodge.”

Except that it wasn’t a real sweat lodge. It was a bastardized version of a sacred ceremony sold by a multimillionaire who charged people $9,695 a pop for his “Spiritual Warrior” retreat in Sedona, Ariz.

The man responsible, self-help spiritual entrepreneur James Arthur Ray, claimed the New Age retreat would absolutely “change your life.”

It did—it took the lives of a father of three children and a healthy young woman. It also caused burns, respiratory arrest, kidney failure, loss of consciousness, and dehydration for other paying customers who were hospitalized.

Ray immediately fled the state and is refusing to tell detectives what happened during his two-hour “spiritual cleansing” ritual at the Angel Valley Spiritual Retreat, according Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh.

Some warrior.

It gets worse. Ray was actually sending “tweets” to his Twitter account during the ritual that he later deleted. Or so he thought. It turns out you can still find them in Twitter searches, including these:

“JamesARay: is still in Spiritual Warrior … for anything new to live something first must die. What needs to die in you so that new life can emerge?”

The man responsible, self-help spiritual entrepreneur James Arthur Ray, claimed the New Age retreat would absolutely “change your life.”

JamesARay: “Day 5 of SPW. The Spiritual Warrior has conquered death and therefore has no enemies, and no fear, in this life or the next.”

After fleeing the scene, Ray posted a message on Twitter saying he was spending the weekend “praying and meditating at this difficult time” and asked others to do the same.

Ray has been selling his ceremonies on how to become a Spiritual Warrior for at least seven years, according to the owners of the Angel Valley Spiritual Retreat who annually rent their property to him, “tee pees” included.

His version of ceremony included a release of liability telling participants they may experience “physical, emotional, financial or other injuries” during the five-day personal spiritual quest in the wilderness without food or water, or in the sweat lodge.

Who does that? Only a huckster posing as the real thing.

What right does Ray have to mimic, mangle, and manipulate Native ceremonies that have been carefully handed down among indigenous cultures over millennia? Ray does not own any rights to Native spirituality, because they are owned collectively by indigenous peoples and cannot be sold.

Alvin Manitopyes, a healer from the Cree, Anishnawbe and Assiniboine nations, explained that “in a sweat lodge ceremony there is so much more going on than we can actually observe with our five senses. The sweat lodge leader has to have the capacity to work with the spirit world and the sacred energies for the benefit of the people inside the lodge. The intent of the ceremony is to purify ourselves inside and out and restore balance within ourselves.”

He cautioned that some non-Native people attend and observe Indian sweat lodge ceremonies and think they can do it themselves without the proper teachings and spiritual mandate from the spirit world to conduct such ceremonies.

“Our elders conduct sweat lodge ceremonies out of love for their people to help them in their healing and spiritual growth. When someone attaches a price tag to the ceremony, then the sacredness is gone and it comes down to them playing around with our sacred ceremonies,” he said.

Selling the sacred has been around for a long time, and Ray is just the latest to capitalize on it. Native healers and spiritual leaders have been speaking out for decades about the abuse of sacred ceremonies, and continue to oppose the appropriation and exploitation of sacred ceremonies.

In 1993, some 500 representatives of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota nations held an international gathering in South Dakota and unanimously passed the “Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality,” denouncing individuals involved in the New Age movement, shamanism, cultists, and neo-paganists and others who promote “intolerable and obscene imitations of sacred Lakota rites.”

“For too long we have suffered the unspeakable indignity of having our most precious Lakota ceremonies and spiritual practices desecrated, mocked and abused by non-Indian wannabes, hucksters, cultists, and self-styled New Age shamans and their followers,” the Declaration of War reads.

Selling the sacred has been around for a long time, and Ray is just the latest to capitalize on it.

Wilmer Mesteth, a traditional spiritual leader and Lakota culture instructor at Oglala Lakota College, told the summit that “sacred traditions like our Lakota Pipe ceremony, vision quests, sweat lodge ceremonies and the sundance were given to us by our Creator and have enabled Indian people to survive a 500 year holocaust. Those sacred traditions are precious to us and can’t allow them to be desecrated and abused.”

“We have to put a stop to it,” Mesteth said. “We are the ones who were given these ceremonies so that the people would remain together and strong. We were told to take care of these ceremonies so that our children and their children would have future. For too long, we stood by and watched this abuse going on and we see how it is affecting the people. Now it’s time to take a stand to defend our people and our ways.”

Alex White Plume, former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and a strong traditionalist, said Lakota people are continuing to discuss ways to stop this theft of ceremony. He says people who are bastardizing ceremonies don’t realize the harm that can come from it.

I wonder when they will ever learn.

Valerie Taliman, Navajo, is president of Three Sisters Media and is an award-winning journalist specializing in environmental, social justice and human rights issues. Based in Albuquerque, N.M., she is a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network. This column, originally published in Indian Country Today, won first place in the column category from the Native American Journalists Association in 2010.


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red2000's picture
Thanks to Valerie Taliman for the story. I personally like the last sentence. (I wonder when they will ever learn) Lot's of people probably wonder, but as it is many times. It's definitely difficult to fill a cup that's already full.
red2000