Quick Note: James Arthur Ray Trial Begins

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  March 2, 2011 — 46 Comments

Yesterday opening arguments were heard in the trial of New Age self-help guru James Arthur Ray, who’s charged with manslaughter after three people died during a sweat lodge ceremony led by Ray in late 2009.

Prosecutors claim Ray, 53, was reckless and that the lodge — made of willow trees and branches, and covered with tarpaulins and blankets — was heated to a perilously high temperature, causing the participants to suffer dehydration and heat stroke. […] “Three vibrant, healthy adults … entered a sweat lodge at a retreat center in Sedona,” prosecutor Sheila Polk said during her opening statement. “Each one was eager to gain knowledge and each was looking for wisdom and personal insight. Instead of growth and enlightenment, Kirby, James and Liz found death.”

Defense attorney Luis Li seeks to prove that these deaths were nothing more than “a tragic accident,” even implying that poisoned building materials might be to blame, while prosecution are painting a portrait of a power-driven and negligent egomaniac. They plan to call around 50 witnesses during the length of the trial. Meanwhile, CNN profiles the voices of Native Americans frustrated at how their cultural and religious traditions have been abused and tainted by figures like Ray.

The Ray case highlights an outrage that’s long existed for many Native Americans. They are tired of their traditions being co-opted by others and exploited for capital gain. They resent that a ceremony they view as sacred is now being tied to terms like “death trap.” They don’t want their ancient ways to be deemed fashionable or inspire impersonators. […]  Autumn Two Bulls, 29, also lives on Pine Ridge, and just thinking about the dream catchers that hang in trendy gift shops, the non-Native Americans who make money off her people’s artifacts, makes her cry “rape.” “Haven’t native people been through enough?” says Two Bulls, a writer who created Reservation H.E.L.P. (Helping Every Lakota Person), an organization to help impoverished families. “It’s a fad to be Indian today. … They envision us like a fantasy culture,” but the harsh reality is one they helped create and won’t face, she suggests.

Despite the negative publicity surrounding Ray, that hasn’t slowed down other New Age personalities from making blatantly false claims of spiritual authority relating to American Indian tribes, and misusing their spiritual technologies. Recently Native American activists rallied to protest an appearance by Kiesha “Little Grandmother” Crowther, who makes the audacious claim of being “made shaman of the Sioux and Salish tribes” (a claim both tribes deny, and one she has since modified to a more generic “Native American elder”).

As modern Pagans, these issues affect us in a number of different ways, and no doubt this case will trigger some soul-searching about how we market and utilize our own practices. We should show solidarity with those who are trying to prevent the fiscal exploitation of Native American religions and culture, we can utilize our own overlap with various New Age communities to emphasize that the actions of Ray is something more than a tragic isolated incident to be glossed over, and we can work to engage in greater awareness of how the misuse of spiritual technologies can often result in tragedy. I will be covering this case as it progresses, and looking at the long-term ramifications for all involved.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I'm facing the cultural misappropriation issue on two fronts, here in the Pagan community and in Unitarian Universalism, where this has also recently become an issue. In both settings I find myself divided.

    I'm convinced that human traditions have rifled one another's contents since the dawn of time, so I can't regard a drum or sage as copyright (c) any one culture. But it's a transparent rip-off to offer them, in commerce or in liturgy, as authentic to some tradition when they are in fact a product of industry.

    Each of us can take a stand personally. Buy your dreamcatchers or your smudging sage from Native American handcrafters. Don't hype your sweat lodge by giving it the name of a people with whom you and it have no connection, and don't join in ones that do.

    While I can't view any spiritual artifact as some people's copyright, I fully empathize with the First Nation complaint that we whites took everything from them, and now we've come back for their culture.

  • Daniel

    I find it ironic that the US tried to "educate" Native languages and cultures through their sadistic, atrocious schools, and now people want to culturally appropriate Tribeal Spirituality? Sad *shakes head* Itg is good that these people are revealed as frauds.

    • Jennifer Parsons

      A telling quote from the CNN article, from the man who originally designed the sweat lodge used by Ray and lodged complaints that it was potentially unsafe:
      ""They don't care about our ways. It's a dollar sign to them," he says. "I'll never mess with colonialists again.""

      Ugh. To think that he went to all that trouble, only to have his advice ignored, and his knowledge appropriated as someone else's.

      • Jonathan

        Interesting. This adds a lot more depth to the story.

      • Daniel

        Apologies for my typos, it has been a long weekend, with much lack of sleep. Darn arthritis. Thank you for your input 🙂 And, yes, plastic "shamans" abound. There are some Traditionalists, however, who do believe in teaching and sharing the Great Red Road with all peoples, but at least that comes from the Tribe's Traditions and those who have an authentic connection to the lore and wisdom. Unfortunately, that trust in teaching has lead to betrayal to the dollar sign.

    • I already mentioned this in another thread, but the Society of Friends, aka "Quakers", played a very important role in those "sadistic, atrocious schools". This role is very often hushed up.

  • I suspect Ray was more interested in "harmonizing his wealth" than with helping his clients.

  • That's one powerful video you've linked to, Jason. "In the style of racist white fantasies of Native culture." This just sends shivers up and down my spine; I love powerful plain speech when I hear it.

    • Ma gypsyrose

      First off James Ray horrible what he did they need to convict him
      2nd we as a community need to need to become more involved in nativeamerican culture cause i don, beileve that one culture is stuck to one race we as humans need to share our knowledge and correct the many misconceptions out there.3rd ifind it completly jaw dropping that people shell out 10k n a dime to this man that people is a spiritual predator . lastly fake guru people will be every where what we need to do is put the truth out there and give true advise so others don't fall prey to them.

      • Ainslie Podulke

        In response to your 2nd point I think it is a balance between sharing, which is a vital part of cultural process, and maintaining, which is also something cultures can't live without. Since there is a buried history of domination and abuse against native people, it's a really important thing for people outside of those cultures to learn to understand what the boundaries are. Cultural survival can depend on it.

      • Cole

        I'm sorry, it seems like you might have some very valuable points, but I am having trouble determining what you are saying due to a lack of punctuation in your post. Would you mind re-posting with proper punctuation so I might read easier.

        • Ainslie Podulke

          Perhaps there is a language barrier?

          • or, Mercury retrograde!

  • *grin* I hear you, Chris.

    However, in addition to 19th Century involvement with boarding schools destructive to Native American culture (which I am sure Somebody will be here to remind us of in about 15 minutes) and in spite of an early colonial period record of unusually respectful relations with Native Americans, Quakers struggle with issues around cultural appropriation, too. I don't know that it's easy for any of us with privilege to fully grasp how to live rightly with those who have historically been denied it–by the same ancestors who bequeathed us their privilege.

    Quaker or Pagan, we're going to go on being embarrassed by unscrupulous white "Indians" for some time, I fear… until whatever it is in our culture that is able to both marginalize and romanticize whole groups of people is changed.


    • You're off by a century, Cat. The Quaker involvement in cultural genocide (in one of it's most heinous forms, the kidnapping of children to turn them against their own families and communities) was still going strong well into the 20th century.

      The Quaker involvement in the genocide (not just "cultural") of Native Americans runs deep. President Grant officially gave Quakers broad powers over many Native groups (including Comanches, Kiowas, Pawnees, Otos and Omahas) in order to "take the fight out of them." American policy toward Native people's was sometimes called "the Quaker policy" during this period (right after the Civil War). Quakers were appointed to run reservations, and they worked closely with the military to impose "peace" on Native peoples.

      A Swedish Quaker named Erik Geijer has written an article about this: http://geijer.nu/quakersandindians2.html

      Here's a link about one of the Quaker run boarding schools that operated until 1917: http://www.danielnpaul.com/CarlisleIndianSchool.h

      The central role of Quakers in the whole "Indian Boarding School" phenomenon is often glossed over, as can be seen from these two links (an NPR story from 2008, and the current wikipedia entry for "Native American Boarding Schools"): http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Native_American_boar

      • Yep. I think we all recognize that if it wasn't for all those bad nasty Quakers, Native Americans would have economic justice and full and respectful recognition of their culture's equality by now. Good thing you're on the case, Apuleius, protecting the nation against dangerous cults!

        • Are you this quick to make excuses for James Arthur Ray?

          • Sorry it has taken me so long to reply, Ap… I've been having a software issue with comments here, which took me a few days to resolve.

            I am not making excuses; I am declining to repeat a lengthy discussion we have previously had here at TWH, and which is off-topic for this post.

            I will merely add that it is significant, whether you choose to acknowledge the fact or not, that your most germane link is to a Quaker website. Quakers, on the whole, are pretty well aware of our clay feet, and strive to do better where we have been in error in the past.

            I think this is a contrast with some members of the Pagan community, who seem far more interested in finding fault with traditions other than their own than in self-examination or work to improve our actions in the world.

            Your mileage may vary.

  • A powerful video indeed! Any news about what happened on Feb 26th protest?

    • Jason Pitzl-Waters

      Nothing yet. I'm keeping an eye open though.

  • Cultural misappropriation will be a growing problem in Paganism, IMHO.

    As pagan traditions gain greater roots and legitimacy other New Age groups will attempt to steal the highlights. Why do the difficult homework and study context when one can just take what they want? I believe that the same tricks will fool other ignorant folks and the movement as a whole will end up holding the bag.

    • Jennifer Parsons

      Good point. There's a tendency of some New Age and Neopagan groups to "'[Borrow]' with both hands," as observed by Chas Clifton at http://blog.chasclifton.com/?p=2184

      I'll be the first to admit that I dash all over the place trying to learn about other practices– sometimes with embarrassing results. But the fact remains that without appropriate scholarship or at least attribution, entire cultures and traditions can be maligned as hacks misappropriate practices for their own gain– at the expense of participants.

      Situations like this one can lead to more distrust between religious First Nations communities and Neopagan communities– because of abuses of people like Ray, traditional religious practices by Native Americans could be seen as dangerous and suspect by outsiders. Native American communities could then, justified by cases like James Arthur Ray's, be loath to trust Neopagan groups and scholars who they see as misappropriating and bungling the traditions they have worked so hard to try to preserve.

  • chuck_cosimano

    And, realistically, there is nothing that can stop it.

  • I hope he's convicted. And I hope people become smarter and get out of the situations, which were uhh, KILLING THEM. On one hand, It's sad, on the other, I can't help but think.. Darwin Awards.

  • A.C. Fisher Aldag

    Um, please be aware, Native American folks and neoPagans, that us Celts had sweat lodges, too. Ours were made out of stone. Many are still standing and can be seen on historical sites like "Monolithomania". Many are still in use for health and religious purposes. And Norse people had saunas. This is not something that is culturally unique. As for dying from use of a sweat lodge — ever heard the saying, "Ya can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen?" Same goes for the sweatlodge. Common sense. Ray needn't be convicted of manslaugther, as it was not a criminal act. However, some big fat civil lawsuits for criminal negligence would be appropriate.

    • Jennifer Parsons

      I believe the heart an involuntary manslaughter charge (i.e., the unintentional killing of a person) is establishing negligence– so manslaughter does very much sound like what Ray is guilty of, if he ignored others' concerns about hte lodge's safety.

      And you're right– many other cultures, including and besides the ones you've listed, did have sweat lodges and related facilities (Roman thermae, Russian banyas and possibly Japanese bath houses also come to mind). But the fact still remains that Ray was specifically courting the notion of a Native American sweat lodge to lend a sort of authenticity to his practices. It wasn't enough for him to say, "many cultures have used heat and sweat for purposes associated with purification and cleanliness, so we've recreated something similar because we think there's some truth and value in that."

      No, Ray went out of his way to have David Singing Bear, a scholar of Native American traditions and spirtualities, help design a sweat lodge for him, and then promptly ignored Singing Bear's concerns about the safety of said lodge, all the while using Native American involvement in the building of that lodge to pass it off as "authentic."

  • Great post. I am following the JAR trial very closely …a friend of mine is a witness. The stories she can tell after following the socio/psychopath for years are unbelievable, even to those of us who have had spiritual experienced that are near indescribable in words.
    This incident was not isolated. Other people have died "mysteriously" after one of JARS "games" and "tests". He just got caught at Sedona.
    The man loved holding the power of life and death in his hands…it was getting worse and worse, just as the addiction to killing did with Ted Bundy.
    He should be convicted of manslaughter. He full well KNEW what was happening and he was directing it as he had many times before.
    Don't be fooled. There is so much those witnesses can tell that they are not allowed too. There is a reason his attorneys don't want the real Jame A. Ray's practices to come to light.
    May the Highest Justice rule.

  • Dana Corby

    I went out and had a look at Keisha Crowther's site. What crap! Not a single word on it that wasn't cribbed from someone else — and not a one of those Indian. And, on a telling note, she has taken down her comments pages and now doesn't hear any voice but her own. While there, I clicked on the link to her statement justifying her earlier lies, blaming them on being lied-to by her initiator, one "Falling Feather," and saying what she's going to do about it. That's available here: http://littlegrandmother.net/NEWURGENTMESSAGE.asp

  • Crystal7431

    This "Little grandmother" person is pretty disgusting. These New Agers are giving televangelists a run for their money ( no pun intended).

  • FrankLimas

    I JUST FOUND THIS!!! Is there any substance to the rumor I heard that Angel Valley paid a very large sum of money in order to bribe the investigators to elevate the investigation from an accidental death to a homicide so that the attention would be shifted off of the sweat lodge and onto James Arthur Ray? The investigators deliberately left exhibit A at the crime scene knowing full well that Angel Valley would completely destroy the evidence. One of the people who was paid off supposedly got guilty drunk one night and confessed to some friends who in turn spoke to others. They made certain Mr Ray could not get an independent autopsy performed on the three bodies. They actually died from a strange combination of toxins from the melting vinyl tarps of the sweat lodge and the scrap construction wood used to heat the Grandfather Stones. It's some weird combination of chemicals that apparently made especially sensitive participants feel they were fine when they were actually dying. Supposedly, Angel Valley made Mr Ray the 'fall guy' and threw him to the wolves in order to save themselves. I think it was one of the coroners who got drunk and spilled the beans. Have any of you heard this rumor?

    • Jason Pitzl-Waters

      Funny how the "rumors" you've been hearing line up so well with the defense team's talking points. What a coincidence! Now, if you have any, you know, evidence for these rumors, I suggest you get in contact with Ray's lawyers right away!

    • Bunnykit3

      Frank Limas thats the most rediculous theory I have seen yet. Mr. Ray is not being made the "fall guy". HE IS GUILTY of reckless behavior which in turn caused 3 deaths. News flash to Mr. Ray. "YOU ARE NOT GOD".

  • Here’s my summary of the first week of James Arthur Ray’s trial. Ray is the motivational guru charged with involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of 3 people during a sweat lodge ceremony in Oct. 2009. Last week, the first witnesses were called; survivors of that sweat lodge. They described the intensity of the heat, the unfolding sickness and watching their friends die.

    Ray's attorneys asked these witnesses if they could have left the lodge at any time. They said yes, and explained the reason they chose to stay in was because they wanted to experience these events that they believed were meant to help them gain control over their lives. They liked James Ray, believed he had something to teach that they wanted to learn, and they trusted him.

    The participants signed the waivers saying they knew the experience came with dangers. Ray told them about the risks, even exaggerated them telling participants his sweat lodges were “not for wimps”, they were so hot they would feel as if their “flesh was falling off their bones”. His sweats were not for wimps. This was a Spiritual Warrior retreat and if they dropped out they weren’t committed to making the changes they said they wanted to. Ray told them that this was the ultimate battle and that they “could live an honorable life, devote themselves 100% to everything they do, or they could exit dishonorably.

    This experience bears no resemblance to an authentic Native American sweat lodge; a sacred ceremony intended to open your mind/body/spirit to seeing something that you need to know, not potentially kill you. The leader doesn’t decide what you need to see or learn, that’s between you and the ‘stone people’ whose steam is the breath of your ancestors. The Native sweat lodge is intended to illuminate the spirit, not eliminate it.

    Ray may have outlined the risks, and he may not have physically kept them from leaving, but he made it difficult to do so. Those participants paid up to $9,000 to participate and they wanted to get their money's worth. They signed the waiver believing he would deliver what he promised, taking them on a journey of intense experience, and leading them out the other side.

    This was more than an intense experience; it was a fraudulent violation of trust.

  • Nancy Terrano

    “You have to understand the situation before you blindly judge it. If YOU went to that workshop, with any one of the three people who eventually died, and lasted till half-way though the last round of the sweat lodge you would have said something like, 'That's it for me, I've got to get out. Are you doing okay?' And they would have said, 'Yes”. Then you would have asked, 'Are you sure you're okay and want to stay?' and they would have said, 'Yes!'” Everyone around them was convinced they were okay. (((EVERYONE))). If ANYONE for one moment was certain these people were actually dying they would have started screaming (((SHE'S DYING!!!))) No one ever did. That's why James Arthur Ray wasn't concerned. He trusted that the people were responsible enough to get out when they had had enough. There is no crime in this! IT WAS AN ACCIDENT, as he said all along, and the coroners agree with him. All three deaths were officially categorized as “accidents”. Look it up if you don't believe me!

    All those who initially were certain the deaths were not accidental were DEAD WRONG!!!!

    • Jason Pitzl-Waters

      Were you there Nancy? Or are you another of Ray's followers trolling the Internet defending your guru?

    • Anna

      people WERE screaming they were dying. Thats the point Nancy. They were screaming and no one listened except they were told to bear the heat and feel the pain would get them to the next phase of their live because they "cheated death". This man led them to death so I guess he did give participants what he promised which is the next phase of their live…death..the after life.

  • Nancy Terrano

    If he can't prove this in court then Mr Ray is indeed crazy to allow it to be posted. Seems there is at least some substance to the rumors after all:

    • Jason Pitzl-Waters

      He posted it on the Internet! It must be true!

  • Patricia Harding

    I found this on a Native American site: "I know a medicine man who says the whole Sedona sweat lodge disaster was orchestrated by Native American shaman spirits who are angry at the white man. Now that they have given three human sacrifices to the spirit that whole area is more haunted than it has ever been. He says all the relatives have to do to prove this truth is to pitch a tent on the sites where their loved ones fasted for 36 hours. If they fast for about 24 hours on the same site alone and only using their cell phones in the event of an emergency, they will find that the area is indeed haunted and if they ask properly the Native American spirits will reveal that they did indeed kill the three people at the Sedona event. He says that anyone who wants to conduct this test must take fully responsibility for whatever may happen as a result. It is not safe. They may indeed die of fright because those Native American shaman spirits hate white people and with good reason!

    He also says any medicine man worth his salt will casually tell you that anyone who stays in a sweat lodge longer than he knows he should in order to impress others with how tough he is has no one else but himself to blame for whatever may happen as a result. What can I say? I agree!"

    • Jason Pitzl-Waters

      Why don't you share the url of the Native American site you mention? We wouldn't want anyone to accuse you of making this up.

  • Patricia Harding

    As of today it has been revealed that the prosecution violated a very big law by hiding information that would implicate Angel Valley! Yes, it seems there is more going on with Angel Valley than the prosecution wants the world to know. I mean, building a sweat lodge then covering it with rubber and sealing it until it is almost airtight. That is just plain crazy!

    • Jason Pitzl-Waters

      Ah the apologist returns.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Patricia, you would be far less vulnerable to snide comments such as Jason's if you included a link to a report of this supposed default on the part of the prosecution.

      • Jason Pitzl-Waters

        Don't waste your time, "she" is too busing posting the exact same message as "SarahStevens" at the Phoenix New TImes…

        …and no doubt in other forums under other names as well.

        I hope this sock-puppet got paid well.

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          At least the New Times story has links to the allegations.

  • windbear

    he was in it for the $$$$$$$$$$$$$$ no more than that.Any spiritual person of any value will tell you thats un acceptable