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

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