Reactions to Ray verdict from native voices, victim’s families, and Pagan community

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  June 23, 2011 — 88 Comments

“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.” – Valerie Taliman, Navajo, president of Three Sisters Media

When three people died at the end 0f 2009 in a sweat lodge ceremony led by New Age guru, “Secret” booster, and two-time Oprah guest James Arthur Ray, few, including Ray himself, could have anticipated the “accident” (as he described it) would lead to three convictions of negligent homicide. That it would bring mainstream media attention to the long-fought issue of cultural appropriation, dampen commerce in the normally recession-proof New Age markets of Sedona, Arizona, and possibly change the way many non-Native practitioners approach their teachers and spiritual technologies. As news of this verdict ripples outward, I want to spotlight three different perspectives on what these deaths, and the subsequent conviction of Ray, mean: Native Americans who have seen an indigenous spiritual technology misused in such way as to cause the death of three people, the families and friends of the victims, and the modern Pagan community, which shares some overlap with the New Age community, and has wrestled with issues of indigenous appropriation for several years.

Turning to some of the Native reactions first, the initial outpouring seems to be a mixture of relief at a conviction, ongoing anger at Ray, sadness for the victims, and some emerging thoughts on how Tribal governments should approach appropriation in the future. Heather at the activist site Don’t Pay to Pray said she was “surprised & pleased” at the verdict, and is currently working on a longer response.  Maria Myers, Ojibwe/Lakota, is praying that those who died “can finally have some peace” and that this is the end of “sweatlodge deaths.” The most significant Native response so-far has been from Steve Russell, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and a Texas trial court judge. In an editorial for Indian Country Today, Russell talks about the abuse of Indian ceremonies and proposes the idea of Tribal governments banning the selling of ceremonies.

“Indians seeking a way out of being blamed for abuse of ceremonies they don’t want public in the first place have one weapon. The First Amendment does not apply to Indian nations, since the First Amendment bans “establishment of religion” and for many tribes spiritual practices have been the glue holding them together, in some cases for millennia. Tribal governments can ban the sale of ceremonies. This ban could only be applied to tribal citizens but it could arguably be applied to them wherever they are. If they put the tribe’s spiritual heritage up for sale, disenroll them, so that they may claim to be healthy, wealthy, and wise, but not Indigenous.”

In a statement made shortly after the sweat lodge deaths, Lakota Pipekeeper Chief Arvol Looking Horse asked “all Nations upon Grandmother Earth to please respect our sacred ceremonial way of life and stop the exploitation of our Tunka Oyate (Spiritual Grandfathers).” Whether the abuses of Native ceremonies by Ray and those like him can be halted through Tribal governmental laws or calls for respect from Indian religious leaders remains an open question. New Age leaders like Kiesha “Little Grandmother” Crowther continue to make tenuous claims to authenticity while charging for ceremonies, and faux-Native sweat lodges still occur, though there are signs that may be changing.

“At the time of the deaths, sweat-lodge “experiences” were widely offered by tour guides, spa owners, and motivational speakers as lures for clients seeking a taste of Native American spirituality. But the Sedona incident prompted an apparent decline in the use of commercial sweat lodges, a trend that pleases many Native Americans, who believe sweat lodges are sacred and should not be commercialized. Now some see the Ray tragedy as karma.”

I am in contact with other Native voices regarding this issue, and will be spotlighting them in future posts. As for the friends and families of the victims this conviction it is a small piece of justice, and perhaps the beginning of closure. Liz Neuman’s ex-husband and her children said they were “satisfied” with the conviction that they “believe justice has been served.” The family of Kirby Brown, in a public statement, thanked the jurors, and announced the formation of a new organization designed to prevent more deaths at the hands of would-be gurus.

“As the horrific details of the three deaths emerged in this trial, we realized that the potential danger posed by “self-help” gurus extends well beyond James Ray.  Since Kirby’s voice has been forever silenced, her family will now speak for her.  We have launched a not-for-profit organization, SEEK, (Self-help Empowerment through Education and Knowledge) to educate the public about the self-help industry. It will empower all seekers to ask important questions and consider possible “red-flags” before following a self-proclaimed “guru”, even if they have been vetted by the public media.  We will work to protect those desiring personal growth by exposing scam artists and frauds. SEEK will advocate for professional standards, and explore avenues of accountability for this totally unregulated industry. The website is officially ready for participation. Kirby, our “super nova”, would be proud that we stood together, each day to speak and seek the truth.”

There’s been a long and ongoing debate concerning the regulation of self-help/seminar culture. Will this conviction spur new action here? Or will the unscrupulous teachers simply lie low until the dust settles? As with the issue of appropriation, there’s no quick and simple answer.

Finally, I would like to spotlight some Pagan and polytheist voices on this verdict. While the New Age movement and modern Paganism are two separate and distinct phenomena, there is some overlap with teachers and authors, and both communities have long wrestled with accusations of cultural appropriation. So I think it is apt to turn to some of our own voices on this issue, and move these conversations forward.

One of the most outspoken voices regarding Ray and the cultural appropriation of Native ceremonies is Celtic Reconstructionist Kathryn Price NicDhàna. She has a released a statement on the verdict, and discusses the racism and invisibility of Native voices during the trial and in the media.

“The James Ray trial has provided a few small openings to educate about cultural appropriation and the cultural genocide perpetuated by frauds like James Arthur Ray. But mostly it has been horrible and disappointing: Newagers on parade, racism, and the perpetuation of negative stereotypes. Three people are dead and up until today nothing had really changed, except that a lot of ignorant non-Natives now think anyone can attend a sweat lodge and it’s only inappropriate if you make it too hot and too long. Or they don’t understand that what James Ray led was not a Native ceremony, and now they mistakenly believe that Native people have scary and deadly practices. Some Pagans who have commented seem to think it’s only a matter of a few mistakes in construction and timing, “Oh, he used plastic tarps and overdid it.” In terms of non-Native perceptions of Native people and Native lifeways, I’d say the net result has been more of the same ignorance about Native traditions, just on a bigger scale.”

While NicDhàna does think this case is an opportunity for education, she is concerned that not much has changed with the New Age or Pagan communities. She warns that if “attitudes about cultural integrity and cultural misappropriation” don’t change the next deaths could happen at a Pagan gathering. Preventing those possible deaths seems to be forefront in the mind of Pagan author and neoshamanic practitioner Lupa, who argues that competency is the key factor at issue in this tragedy.

“Let’s instead focus on increasing and maintaining competency. Not “What does this person believe?”, but “What is this person doing, and is it safe?” What reduces competency? Is it the proliferation of inaccurate information on how to enact certain rites when the correct information is often restricted in access? Is it people having unhealthy relationships with the money that represents resources for everyday survival? Is it mental disorders such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder? Is it cultural appropriation? Is it any/all of these and more? What can we do about these things that doesn’t just involve repeating “Don’t Pay to Pray!” and “You’re Doing It Wrong!”? How do we answer both the concerns of marginalized indigenous peoples in the Americas and elsewhere, and those of non-indigenous people who do find New Age and neoshamanic practices spiritually, psychologically, and personally fulfilling? This, I feel, is a lot more productive start to dialogue than the assumption that James Arthur Ray is the rule, not the exception.”

Pagan author and philosopher Brendan Myers explores the moral dimensions of this tragedy, and critiques the relativism that tolerates unsafe line-crossing within ritual.

“I’m aware that this conclusion may seem controversial. Many pagans like to believe that there is no such thing as a universal moral truth, and many recoil at the use of the word ‘should’. James Ray’s sweatlodge puts that kind of relativism to a life-and-death test. As a final remark, my friends, may I say that you do not need to undergo a heat endurance test to the death in order to know that you are strong in spirit.”

Patheos columnist and author P. Sufenas Virius Lupus echoes Myers in criticizing “the underlying assumption that spiritual things are always more important than physical things, including one’s own physical well-being and one’s own physical limitations.” Lupus stresses the importance of an “opt-out” to any ritual setting, one that is respected by the ritual leaders. A practice that could have saved three lives in Sedona back in 2009.

There is much more to unpack and say on the issues raised here. I am committed to continuing the conversation within the Pagan community regarding cultural appropriation (and misappropriation), regulations, and ritual safety. In the days and weeks to come I’ll be highlighting more voices. Native and indigenous voices, as well as Pagan voices. Since this incident occurred I have been convinced that this is an issue that our interconnected communities need to pay attention to and learn from. For now, I feel that a small measure of justice has been done in Ray’s conviction, and hope that the reverberations from this case can bring forward new conversations, greater understanding, and healthier practices.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • What really upsets me is that this culture is being taken and commodified just like so many other things from cultures that have been dominated and colonized by European & American cultures. I freely admit that I am of Native American background (Echota Cherokee tribe, where my great-great grandmother came from) and I know very little, so I don’t -claim- to be an expert nor would I dream to distort or change any of these sacred rituals that have been handed down for centuries. Instead of people using these sacred things to make a quick buck or to promote the newest spiritual hype they need to shut up, LISTEN, and respectfully observe these peoples and take it for what it is, a sacred set of rituals and beliefs that has been handed down and isn’t for sale.

  • Good reporting, Jason, and thank you for including my remarks here.

  • Phyllis from Chicago

    Ah this kind of ‘cultural theft’ (Let’s call it what it is.) bugs the heck out of me. It’s one of my biggest pet peeves with the eclectic approach to religion.

    Some people just don’t seem to understand that when they cherry pick rituals out of a culture, they are expressing own utter lack of respect for the indigenous religion.

    Also, from a purely practical standpoint, they don’t stop to think about the fact that that a particular ritual may have been used to deal with specific challenges, faced by specific people in a specific environment, and may have required specific TRAINING or gnosis to properly accomplish the goals of the ritual. They never think about why it might be important to be a part of the given culture to really understand the ethics of what they are doing, how to do it, and what sacrifices, offerings, etc are suitable, not to mention what spiritual consequences may result from their actions.

    (I’m not saying all eclectics are like this, mind you, just pointing out a particular behavior that really infuriates me.)

    I won’t do it to others. I will not participate in it and I do my utmost to speak out when I see others doing it.

    I’ve had it done to me, and I didn’t care for it one little bit.

  • Chas Clifton

    Some thoughts from a Pagan who occasionally participates (by invitation) in American Indian ceremonies.

    1. All religions are changing, theirs included. It is becoming more pan-tribal (with the possible exception of the Pueblos) all the time.

    That trend began in the 1890s with the Ghost Dance and with the Peyote Way, which became formalized as the Native American Church. If you think that all NAC participants are enrolled tribal members, think again.

    Now we are seeing a new generic, Northern Plains-ish “Native American” religion developing in prisons.

    The more these trends grow, the harder it becomes to police the boundaries and decide who is “inside” and who is “outside.”

    2. Some Indian activists like to blame Europeans for everything that is wrong. OK, so if those Anglos want to become more like the Indians, is that not a Good Thing?

    I think that reasoning works for those many Indians who give (not sell) their teachings. Because, guess what, not all Indians think alike. Not all them follow traditional teachings, and of those who do, some think that those teachings are worth sharing.

    • Rombald

      Well, not all appropriation is the same. I would draw an analogy with Catholicism.

      If someone decides that, although they do not intend to convert to Catholicism, they intend to live in accordance with, say, Catholic sexual morality, surely most Catholics would applaud that. That is analogous to your “if those Anglos want to become more like the Indians, is that not a Good Thing?”

      On the other hand, if someone takes specifically Catholic rituals, and uses them in a way clearly contrary to Catholic teaching, most Catholics would find that offensive. That’s what the satanic mass is about, or that gay group that dresses as nuns.

      Black-mass satanists and gay pseudo-nuns should, to be sure, be fully legal, but it should also be recognised that their behaviour should only be approved by those who wish to offend Catholics (not a category that I necessarily condemn, incidentally).

      • Anonymous

        Catholicism? Really? You mean something like this:

        Kathy Griffin:Catholicism::Pagans:Native Spirituality??????

        I don’t think this analogy is helpful. Or even conceivable.

        • Rombald

          I can’t understand what you’re talking about.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        Rombald, I offer a concise alternative to your second category.

        There is an organization called Roman Catholic WomenPriests that purports to ordain wome as Catholic priests. They perform the Catholic rights precisely, not adapted like the Black Mass Satanists or the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, but are roundly rebuffed by devout Catholics loyal to the Vatican. For a sample reaction mosey over and search for that topic.

        • Rombald

          OK, but that group differs on a fairly narrow issue – gender requirement for ritual practice. An analogy would be whether someone who is ethnically non-Native, but otherwise fully supports the values of the relevant Native religion, should be accepted in rituals.

          In some cases, non-Native performance of rituals looks to me more like Satanists or the SPI. I mean; if you have a religion that is very much into group solidarity, and also very pro-frugality and earth-friendly (I’m not saying all Native religions were like this, but just suppose one was), and you get affluent corporate types who are intensely individualist, covetous earth-rapers using the rituals to further personal agendas, that’s like taking a Catholic tradition that’s closely linked to chastity and applying it to, say, promiscuous homosexual group sex, or something.

          BTW, I’m not meaning to defend Catholic teachings on sex here (maybe that’s what offended Apuleius) – I’m just using that as an example.

  • The Angry Archaeologist

    Sorry, but the “New Age” movements and modern “Pagan” movements are the same thing, academically speaking. Ask any religious studies prof and you’ll get the same answer. The origins are the same. One sprang from the other. They’re considered the same NRM. Both have a lot of the same problems.

    I’m a recon for all intents and purposes, though I’m even moving away from that label these days. Why? Because I’m sick of people changing crap around to fit their modern lifestyle or their personal desires. I’m sick of the brand of irresponsible spirituality touted and practiced commonly here in the U.S. This type of cultural appropriation and misuse isn’t just a problem for the Indios but for a vast amount of other traditions, Middle Eastern, Eastern and even *GASP!* European. The crap needs to stop. If you’re going to do it wrong, you’re better off joining an established religion.

    • As someone who has attended the American Academy of Religion’s annual
      meeting in Chicago, and is attending the upcoming meeting in San
      Francisco, and also as someone who knows and has talked to several
      published scholars working in Pagan studies I can assure that your
      assertion of them being the “same thing” is not the consensus among
      those who study religion.

      • The Angry Archaeologist

        Perhaps not among all those studying religion, but among general university religious studies scholars who aren’t Pagan or New Age themselves it’s pretty consistent. What a group is or where it comes from historically, in a behavioral science prospective, shouldn’t be defined by group members, but rather by outsiders looking in. Any other way and it fails to be science anymore and, in my opinion, an ethics breech. Going Native anyone?

        • I’ll defer to Chas Clifton’s response.

        • Anonymous

          The Angry Archaeologist so far has not cited one single source. C’mon, AA, don’t hold back. Dazzle us with your citational skillz. Or admit that you can’t back it up. Either way.

          • The Angry Archaeologist

            Since all I need is something using Pagan, New Age and NRM under the same definition, specifically with Pagan and New Age treated identically, anything will do:


            That’s a good one, since it shows common usage before you say the term was even used academically.

            Let’s try this one, too:
            New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction
            T Robbins – Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1991

            And another just for fun:

            Partridge, Christopher 2004 “Alternative Spiritualities, New Religions and the Reenchantment of the West” Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements, etc, etc.

            They’re never considered separately. If one is brought into the NRM argument the other is always present, considered and treated the same way.

          • Grimmorrigan

            Funny, I can find sources which contradict that. Such as Sarah Pike’s Earthly Bodies Magical Selves and the Psychism studies of Labauch. That might due to the fact that “New Age” and “Pagan” are beginning to be seen as two separate terms. Two of the three sources you presented are almost 20 years old and much has changed. While the general academic community historically sees little difference between “New Age” and “Pagan”, that is due in part to an oversimplification and lack of investigation into the overlapping practices/beliefs. In my work I’ve had to hand hold some professors, including those who work in religious studies/sociology through these differences. Why? Well as one professor put it ” I never thought there was a difference because I was told that 20 years ago and never looked into it further”

          • Gus diZerega

            I guess, using your incisive arguments, Voudon is a New Age religion with roots in Dahomey?

          • AA – Generalizing from “general university religious studies scholars” about a specific religious group or phenomenon is like generalizing from university philosophers about what to make of the latest blockbuster in Foucault studies. If you’re not a Foucauldian, you probably don’t know (and may not care). By the same token, if you’re not a scholar of Pagan or New Age studies (and preferably both), you shouldn’t be expected to keep up with this particular debate. Sources that are from 1991 are not current. Take it from current scholars in the field (whether they’re Pagans or not shouldn’t matter). They will tell you, if they’re honest, something like the following. (This is my opinion, but I do try to keep up with the debate and don’t have a particular axe to grind, having written about both, spoken publicly about them, and not committed myself intellectually to any simple pro or con position on either New Age or Paganism.) (1) There’s debate over the extent of overlap between New Age and Pagan religiosities, with members of both (especially Pagans) invested in accentuating the differences. (2) Internal (“emic”) views do count for something – religions aren’t exclusively defined by outsiders or scholars, and never have been. (3) Serious and well-informed Pagans have serious and well-informed reservations about New Age spirituality. They are not the same, in theory or in practice, though they are often not as different (in practice) as some would like them to be.

          • Anonymous

            @Adrian Ivakhiv: it is also important to take note of what current scholars do not debate, that is, what they assume uncritically. Few religion scholars who specialize in either New Age or Paganism bother to question either the underlying assumptions built in to the “New Religious Movement” concept, or, more importantly, the “Great Religions” construct, from which the idea of NRMs is derived. (This is at least in part because their chosen area of specialization is only considered to be acceptable if it is safely encapsulated inside the NRM wrapper so that everyone is clear that these “cults” are not to be treated as in any way shape or form comparable in their worthiness to the Cult of Jesus.)

          • Are you really arguing that because both new age and modern paganism are classified as NRMs that means that they are the same?

            The core principle of taxonomy is that taxa are distinct even when they belong to a larger taxon. In biological terms, two species in a genus are distinct.

            Or we can look at this in terms of counterexamples. You have claimed that *all* NRMs are the same thing. That implies that the Christian NRMs in Japan are the same as both the new age and modern paganism. And by the same logic, because Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all all Abrahamic religions, they are all the same. No reputable scholar would make either of those statement. Either you weren’t paying very good attention in class, or you had incompetent instructors.

            More specifically, one of the earliest* academic studies that included a modern pagan group explicitly contrasted a new age group with the pagan group:
            Scott, Gini Graham. Cult and countercult: a study of a spiritual growth group and a witchcraft order. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, c1980.

            * @ Chas Clifton: Is there any earlier academic study of modern paganism published? 1980 is pretty darn early.

          • The Angry Archaeologist

            Since all I need is something using Pagan, New Age and NRM under the same definition, specifically with Pagan and New Age treated identically, anything will do:


            That’s a good one, since it shows common usage before you say the term was even used academically.

            Let’s try this one, too:
            New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction
            T Robbins – Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1991

            And another just for fun:

            Partridge, Christopher 2004 “Alternative Spiritualities, New Religions and the Reenchantment of the West” Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements, etc, etc.

            They’re never considered separately. If one is brought into the NRM argument the other is always present, considered and treated the same way.

        • I thought the anthro community had moved beyond deprecating “going native”. Maybe some archaeology folks aren’t keeping up on the developments in socio-cultural.

          On just a quick google, I ran across Kirin Narayan’s 1993 article, “How Native Is a “Native” Anthropologist?”[1] which questions the presumed dichotomy of native vs. non-native ethnography.

          And, given that Zora Neal Hurston was one of Franz Boaz’ students, “native anthropology” has been practiced in American cultural anthropology since the 1920’s.

          Your “ethics breech” [sic] sounds like residual colonialist elitism to me.

          1. “How Native Is a “Native” Anthropologist?”
          Kirin Narayan
          American Anthropologist
          New Series, Vol. 95, No. 3 (Sep., 1993), pp. 671-686
          Article Stable URL:

          • The Angry Archaeologist

            Mead was also a student of Boas, and she’s generally considered full of crap in later years because of her biases that arose from Going Native. It’s pretty clear that she was influenced by her place in the culture to a point where she could no longer be objective. The same goes for Freeman. That’s cultural anthro 101.

            And, just to nitpick, “Going Native” and having ethnography from a Native are two completely different things.

          • Anonymous

            As to Mead, any scholar whose work has lasting influence will pass into vicissitudinal realm of “reception”. One sure way to avoid that fate is to stick safely with whatever the current scholarly consensus happens to be, which seems to be what you are advocating, AA.

            Question: what freaking difference does it really make what “most people” think about anything, even if you restrict yourself to the tweed jacket set? Who cares? Truth is not something to be voted on.

          • _

            One thing the new agers and the uneducated tend not to be aware of whenever they bring her up, she was a friend to colonialism and empire.

            …During America’s wars in Southeast Asia the AAA was thrown into a state of upheaval after documents purloined from the private office of UCLA anthropologist Michael Moerman revealed that several anthropologists had secretly used their ethnographic knowledge to assist the war effort.

            [At the 1971 meeting of the AAA, the late great Margaret Mead engineered a report that found no wrongdoing–according to others, she also spat on one of the anthropologists who was publicly critical]


        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          “What a group is […] shouldn’t be defined by group members, but rather by outsiders looking in.”

          What arrant nonsense. It treats members of the group as objects rather than agents. There’s a name for this kind of organized stupidity: Scientism.

        • Gus diZerega

          The arrogance of your views reminds me of a conversation I had with some secular academics who made a living studying religion a few years back. NeoPaganism, they wisely said, was not Paganism in the sense of either African diasporic or Native American practice. In fact there really was no such thing as such a broadly inclusive “Pagan” spirituality. That was a modern creation.

          Meanwhile I had attended a Voudon ceremony in New Orleans – not a public one – where the mambo not only easily granted that at least some Wiccans were fellow practitioners of a broadly similar approach to spirituality, but said her teacher had himself studied Wicca or a while.

          About the same time a good friend of mine was working with Latin American indigenous practitioners in interfaith work, and was consistently treated as a fellow on the road by practitioners of pre-Christian traditions that had to some extent survived Spanish imperialism.

          Sorry Mr. Angry Guy – I will take the word of people who know what they are talking about because they live it and it is important to them over the word of someone who’s learned the popular theories of the moment. Are there foolish and uninformed members of Pagan traditions? Sure. Just like there are foolish and uninformed member of every spiritual tradition and atheists as well.

          Academia has strengths as well as weaknesses, and I do not attack here solid academic work.

          When someone says, as they used to, that 9 million women died in the burning times, that is a statement of alleged fact that can be intelligently researched by academic methods. And it fails to hold up. When someone claims to know the meaning of what other people do because he conforms to the current view of a majority of his profession, (New Age and Pagans are the same) I am caught between pity when the belief is sincere and contempt when it is used to denigrate others.

          The social sciences are anything but constant in their theoretical categories and analytical labels. They do not even agree as to methodology. Departments vary depending on which school a majority of professors adhere to as well as the personal open mindedness of the individuals. Yesterday’s orthodoxy is tomorrow’s anachronism. The means for eliminating bad theories are less clear than in the physical sciences.

          If you are such a smug majoritarian in your work one thing is certain – you will never make any breakthroughs in understanding. But you’ll catch up in time once others do and convince enough others to become the majority for the moment.

        • “What a group is or where it comes from historically, in a behavioral science prospective, shouldn’t be defined by group members, but rather by outsiders looking in.”

          And this attitude is probably why, so much of the time, I have to sigh and roll my eyes when I read books about my religion (or those similar to it) written by some so-called “scholars.”

          Quite frankly, if you do not consider the viewpoints of actual practitioners relevant in any way, you will never have a complete picture of any religion. That makes one’s “scholarship” irrelevant no matter how many degrees you have to your credit. The conclusions drawn simply aren’t and cannot be correct.

          I practice my religion. I define my beliefs. I categorize myself. No one else can do so with any hope of accuracy.

        • kenneth

          I shall have to regretfully inform my gods and goddesses that despite our years of fruitful collaboration and their gracious attendance at my rituals that we will have to cease and desist our meetings in sacred space.

          It seems we have failed to win the imprimatur of the academic community who finds our traditions “New Age,” Insufficiently Authentic and Not Recon Enough! We have also failed to demonstrate proper Apostolic Succession in an unbroken lineage back to the Celts or Romans or whoever the “real” pagans were. You know, the ones who held the One True Ritual, kept it pure and allowed no cross-cultural contamination!

          I will inform my gods that until such time as they can give a proper account of themselves to Angry Archaeologist, one of sufficient academic rigor and citations, that our rituals are invalid…..!

          • kenneth – I suspect the only imprimatur you’ve failed to win is one Angry Archaeologist’s.

            (But if you feel a need to beat up on academics, I’m sure we could find a few who deserve it… The rest of it are used to it, at least in this country (the U.S.), which is as anti-intellectual as it is anti-pagan.)

          • Grimmorrigan

            I love how “feelings” and “opinions” replace fact and critical thinking. As a pagan academic I’ve faced a fair share of persecution. I love hearing my academic colleagues questions my faith ( we’re all supposed to be atheists don’t you know.) and few things warm my spirit like having my fellow pagans feel offended when I pose simple questions about their scholarship. Only thing to do is smile and keep silent…..I’ll get right on that.

          • (Robert Mathiesen) Mageprof

            I second what Grimmorrigan said, all of it.

            In academic scholarship, there is zilch and then there is absolute zilch. Feelings and opinions count nearly for zilch. Being offended by a hard truth, or a truth that cannot be made to serve one’s politics or morality, counts for absolute zilch.

        • Cigfran

          I happen to belong to another kind of group of people that are often the object of study by those who feel that their scholarly authority overrides our self-knowledge, in effect replacing our identity with their definitions.

          We are trans people, and we find arrogant erasure of this sort not only offensive but potentially dangerous, as it promotes attitudes and policies that cause real harm.

          Self-definition and -determination are essential for any marginalized behavioral group, and the failure to grasp that, in favor of your need for ‘scientific’ certainty, is a breach of ethics.

    • Chas Clifton

      As a member of both the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group and the New Religious Movements Group within the American Academy of Religion, let me just say that It’s Not That Simple.

      If you have half an hour, I can explain. Short version: some overlap, but also different starting points, different literary backgrounds, and different geographical backgrounds.

    • Anonymous

      The most authoritative academic source that explicitly links modern Paganism with the New Age is certainly Wouter Hanegraaff’s New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought.

      The irony is that one of Hanegraaff’s primary conclusions is that the core of New Age beliefs are derived from Platonic philosophy. So if one knows the whole story, one sees that such a linkage is not such a bad thing. And it also undermines the NRM memeage. And it also verifies Gerald Gardner’s claim that late-antique Platonism is virtually indistinguishable from the “creed” of Wicca, and also from “the teaching of the higher type of spiritualist and occult circles generally.”

      But the truth is that religious studies profs don’t know squat. Give me a Jesuit any day if you want to talk about people who know their stuff. “Studying” religion is like studying poetry, or sex (although academically trained sexologists are often quite impressive, far more so than religious studies types).

      • The Angry Archaeologist

        I’d go further than that source, actually. York’s book, “The emerging network: a sociology of the New Age and neo-pagan movements” is another place to look. So is his article, “New Age commodification and appropriation of spirituality”. Beyond him, we’ve got Bowman, Pike, Rose, Greer, etc. And that’s just the religious studies people (who I also don’t particularly like). Beyond those folks, I could also ramble off probably a dozen or so anth and soc scholars who take the same stance.

        • Chas Clifton

          That’s Michael York’s PhD diss–read carefully, it does not say that they are the same. Here is one simple difference: New Age thinking tends towards monism; Pagan thinking towards polytheism (generally). But I doubt that the social scientists appreciate the part that 19th-century literature played in the Pagan revival — much more than in the New Age movement.

          • The Angry Archaeologist

            Do you have a source which points out the monotheistic/polytheistic statistical split you’re citing here? There have been arguments to the contrary because of the “All goddesses/gods are one” argument. This also opens the sticky doorway of monotheism and polytheism as absolute definitions, when we know, for example, that most nonwestern traditions don’t always fit into that black/white dichotomy?

            I’d argue that specific literature of the 19th century is actually the influential fulcrum for both the Pagan-influential literature you’re talking about and modern New Age practices. The various Ascended Masters discourses are proof of that, including what they were and what they became. Both Crowley and the modern Aquarians believed essentially the same thing based off of earlier 18th century texts written by Blavatsky. I could argue that a good portion of the drawing down ceremony comes from the same place.

          • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

            Not monotheism, AA–monism. There is a difference, and while far more pagans are monistic than one might think, monism is pretty much a requirement for new age thought.

          • Anonymous

            “I could argue that a good portion of the drawing down ceremony comes from the same place.”

            Yeah. And “the same place” happens to ancient Egypt, as a matter of fact.

          • Anonymous

            P. Sufenas Virius Lupus is right to point out that monism and monotheism are (very) distinct things. However, positing a monism vs. polytheism dichotomy does already imply a conflation of monism with monotheism.

            In fact, monism and polytheism are perfectly compatible, and most actual polytheistic religious traditions (perhaps even all of them) include very strong monistic tendencies, and those monistic tendencies having nothing, whatsoever, to do with monotheism.

          • Gus diZerega

            I can only say “amen” to Apuleius. Gerald Gardner wrote that the views of the witches he described could be best described by reading Sallustius, who preceded Blavatsky by a little bit. . . Sallustius was a monist and a polytheist.

        • Anonymous

          Hmmm. But you said that your position is the most “consistent” among scholars who are not Pagan themselves. Then the only source you provide is one of the more well known religion scholars who happens to be a Pagan.

          And then there’s also the fact that York does not actually advocate the position you are ascribing to him. Although he does fall into the trap of placing Paganism in the NRM category, which is a bogus category in the first place and transparently derived from the Christianizing “Great Religions” paradigm.

          • The Angry Archaeologist

            All I’m saying is that the two are generally considered different parts of the same thing among scholars. I said nothing about scholars who were Pagan specifically. What I said was a statement about those who aren’t, followed by a reason why those who are could be in err.

            The citation I posted in reply to you was just an elaboration on your post, specifically that I believe that the NRM/Pagan connection predates the source you cited, though I’m not disagreeing with the source specifically. Besides, the connection has been made long before that. NRM is, after all, usually used as the political correct way of saying “cult”.

            Back to my original point on this blog post, which I should have elaborated on- The Pagan attempt to separate themselves from other New Agers is often in vein. They tend to frequent the same places and do the same sorts of things. Often, you’ll find Pagans acting just as silly as Sedona’s finest. The Pagan community would love to point fingers, saying, “It was them, not us!” but there’s a vast deal of overlap demographically. Pagans, just like New Agers, not only appropriate things incorrectly but they cut corners for their own personal comfort. Considering the needs that religion is supposed to fulfill in the individual, and the socio-political functions of religion, That’s real half assed religion, to me.

          • Gus diZerega

            Overlap is not the same thing as identity. Apples and oranges overlap in the category fruit, but are quite different in important ways from the standpoint of those of us who eat them. The “participants.” Do not bring me an apple when I request an orange.

            The words Pagan and New Age do not have tight agreed on definitions, (though I think the one in Pagans and Christians, by me, is pretty good for “Pagan” and “NeoPagan”). The people involved have developed their theological views without dependence on a common sacred text or umbrella organization that gives the illusion of agreement, and they all look to non-mainstream sources for understanding. That means Asian, Native American, pre-Christian European, and to a lesser degree (growing in Pagan communities but I doubt in New Age) African disaporic. And New Agers emphasize channeled and very hierarchical spiritual views and guru figures far more than do NeoPagans. They sometimes use similar material but have different centers of spiritual gravity.

            The Monism issue offers an important clue.

            Monistic Pagans – I am one – FOCUS most of our attention on its polytheistic dimensions. Some of them – and I am one – argue that Monism and Dualism are two dimensions of a common spiritual reality. New Agers generally do not do the former and say that Dualism is less real, less important.

            Monistic Pagans generally focus their celebrations and spiritual emphasis on what is already immanent. New Agers emphasize how we are on the cusp of some evolutionary breakthrough, or some other salvational/enlightenment focus that involves distancing themselves from today. It could be society as a whole and it could be personal illumination. but the difference seems pretty clear to me as a center of gravity, even though there will be individuals scattered all along the path from one to the other.

            And then there is that old Pagan joke about the difference between New Age and Pagan workshops: “Two decimal places.” Mr. Ray typifies this perfectly.

      • Aine

        I sure hope I don’t become like that once I’ve gotten my degree…but I love studying religion, especially Paganism, so I doubt I’ll turn out that way.

        • Anonymous

          May you be blessed to be the exception.

        • Grimmorrigan

          I hope you are an exception, however academia is its own world with its own specific cant. In my experiences if you don’t use the agreed upon terms folks will stare at you like a dog being shown a card trick. Niche scholarship does that to folks.

          • Aine

            Thankfully I am used to those stares, haha! I adore my spiritual path, and the only reason I’m attending college is so I can become educated about history, archeology, mythology, and all those other goodies I need to articulate my beliefs and teach others…and so I can go to seminary after.

            I have no doubt I’ll be arguing with a few of my professors during my time at U, though…

          • Grimmorrigan

            Just remember…no matter how wrong they are, they are right.

      • Robert Mathiesen (Mageprof)

        The scholar’s own background and standpoint matters a lot in such discussions. To an American or a Western European, Roman Catholicism and Calvinistic Protestantism seem like vary different religions. To very many scholars who are Eastern Orthodox (Greek or Slavic), they look like two variant forms of the same religion, both deviating in much the same way from Eastern Orthodoxy.

        Something similar is going on here with the view one takes of New Age and Pagan religion(s).

        • (Robert Mathiesen) Mageprof

          Oops: “… very different religions …”

    • Paganhumanist

      Although ‘new age’ and modern Paganism have some of the same roots, I would not consider them the same even if I am willing to place them both under a NRM category and yes, as NRM, both have some of the same problems. Perhaps you would like to join me with 40+ academics at our next Conference on Current Pagan Studies held at Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, CA in 2012 where we will be focusing on identity.

      As for changing religion to fit our modern lifestyle, well religions change to meet our needs, which can create tension with pass traditions. There are many Pagan traditions that cannot be observed in modern time because we are no longer a fully ‘pagan’ society with all the festivals and state sponsored events nor would I want that. Modern Paganism has, and will continue too, adapt to the world we live in.

      • The Angry Archaeologist

        Sure! What time of year? Hopefully I won’t be stuck out in a field in southern New Mexico somewhere when it’s going on.

      • Very good point about religions changing to meet needs of modern people.
        I dunno about you, but I personally wouldn’t mind a “pagan” state, and big temples dedicated to the worship of Amun, or even, somehow, having a state cult of Amun-Ra and Osiris and Isis and Horus again, and big festivals where the priests carry the barque of the god through town. Maybe even being able to offer forelegs of beef to the gods. xD Jupiter and Zeus and Odin, etc. would of course be welcome. 😉 Unfortunately, this is a hypothetical and well-nigh impossible situation. It’ll be a long time, if ever, before we, or our descendants have something fully approaching a fully polytheistic society.

        • Anonymous

          ” …. having a state cult of Amun-Ra and Osiris and Isis and Horus again, and big festivals where the priests carry the barque of the god through town …. ”

          What you are describing is not really a “state cult”. In ancient Egypt and other polytheistic cultures, there were many, many cults existing side-by-side, and these cults would change and evolve and come and go with the passing decades, generations and centuries. A “state cult” is something far more monolithic and rigid than the cults of the ancient world. Those cults were supported (to greater or lesser degrees) by local governments and sometimes by broader political entities resembling modern “states”. And the cults were also to some extent regulated by laws, while at the same time, those bodies that made and enforced laws rested on religious authority. But this was done in a much more flexible and organic way than anything we would normally associate with the phrase “state cult”.

          • That’s true. There was definitely lots of change over the years. So that’s an unfortunate term. I guess I mean something more like the ” ‘pagan’ society ” alluded to by Paganhumanist.

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          “It’ll be a long time, if ever, before we, or our descendants have something fully approaching a fully polytheistic society.”

          I’d settle for a truly secular government that lived up to its billing.

          • Shoot for the moon. Even if you fail, you’ll still be among the stars. Yeah, a truly secular government would be nice too. A worthy goal for our society. Still, one can dream…Or watch “Battlestar Galactica” or “Caprica” or something.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Your first paragraph is unecessary relative to your secong paragraph, which is responsive to the topic of this particular thread.

      All you first-paragraph comment reveals is the ignorance of academics. It’s like some non-Christian academic saying there’s no difference between Catholics and Protestants.

      • Robert Mathiesen (Mageprof)

        Not just non-Christian academics. I have talked with Eastern Orthodox (academics and non-academics) who see hardly any difference between Catholicism and Protestantism, when they are compared to Eastern Orthodoxy. The differences between Catholicism and Protestantism seem trivial to them, much less significant than the shared ways in which both deviate from Russian or Greek Orthodoxy.

        So it all comes down to the place where one stands as one examines such a question. Every scholar has such a place, whether he knows it or not.

    • Krystal H.

      More learned folks than I have already responded to this, but I feel, as a former student of a religious studies (only we called it religion and culture) program, the need to chime in, because I don’t know what the heck The Angry Archaeologist is talking about!
      I’ve studied under profs. who were atheists, Buddhists, and at least one Wiccan (among others), and not once did I hear them say that New Age = Pagan. In fact, I mostly see that attitude among certain Christian groups who generally don’t bother to actually research non-Christian traditions anyways.

      In all honesty, just because two traditions have some overlap doesn’t mean that they are the same thing, that’s just sloppy academics, and generalizing like that doesn’t help your case at all.

    • I’m sorry, but the New Age and modern Pagan movements are not the same thing. They are different in scope, participation, theology, relation to Gods, and structure. New Age tends to be ad hoc, as well as Christian or monist, while modern Paganism is a collection of varying religious movements, some of which may or may not intersect with the New Age community, and have differing views on the Gods, spirits, and theology. The past of where the modern Pagan movement may have come out of does not mean that it is that thing.

      People ‘change crap’ in religion all the time to fit their modern lifestyle and realities. Would you rather Jews go back to stoning women in the streets of cities for being a rape victim that didn’t scream loud enough? Or Christians stoning prominent scientists and/or atheists? Perhaps you would rather we go back to a worldview in which the world is looked at as flat? These things used to be part and parcel of being a ‘good’ religious person, and they changed when people decided that they weren’t requirements to be part of their religion. Religion that does not change with the times, that meets the needs (perhaps not wants, but needs) of its practitioners/adherents/etc. is backward, stagnant, and outmoded. It is a spirituality that neither helps nor empowers people to acts of communal or personal good, and sticks the God(s), and peoples’ relationships with Him/Her/Them/It, in a solidified, archaic, fossilized position rather than evolving or working with the people who worship Him/Her/Them/It.

      I feel it is a a big reach to say that you can judge if people in the whole of Paganism, in all its varying ways, are ‘going to do it wrong’. By what rubric are you judging all of Paganism’s varied communities? By what method are you suggesting modern Paganism is ‘doing it wrong’?

      I am glad Wicca is changing and moving away from strict gender polarities and embracing more abstract concepts as polarities for their Goddess and God. It doesn’t alienate people from the LGBTQI community anywhere near as much, if at all, depending on how They are understood and worshiped. I am glad that reconstructionism is more willing to embrace Unverified Personal Gnosis, and that, while the lore does still matter very-much to recons, it is slowly being moved away from being held in the same kind of esteem as The Holy Bible for Christians. I think these organic developments are healthy for religion, and its practitioners.

      What exact ‘irresponsible spirituality touted and practiced commonly here’ are you referencing? The spirituality touted and practiced commonly in America, at least, is Christianity, and even there, it can be argued that there are gulfs of difference in all the same areas I mentioned above, including ‘irresponsible’ behavior. The only kinds of ‘irresponsible’ behavior that I care about, at the end of the day, are the ones that endanger peoples’ lives, misrepresent others’ faiths, or are acts of bigotry and/or hatred. I care that people misrepresent indigenous and modern Pagan faiths. To simply throw up your hands and walk away from it fixes nothing, and adds nothing to the discussion.

    • You should join an established religion. Fundamentalism really doesn’t look good on a pagan.

  • lynn

    I don’t believe in cultural policing. Religions aren’t museum pieces that stay unchanged through eternity. People borrow each other’s cultural practices all the time, and have been doing so since the beginning of humanity. It’s inevitable. No one can stop it. Just like we trade in material things across physical borders — which has also been occuring forever — we also trade in knowledge, including sacred knowledge, across cultural/ethnic borders. Trying to stop that process is like trying to stop the wind.

    Every time I read about someone getting upset because people are “appropriating” their cultural practices, I think of how futile that response is. Especially in this age of globalized, instant, mass communication. Someone is always going to be adopting something they’ve heard about or learned from another culture, and just as inevitably there’s always going to be someone getting upset about that. And another who is sensitive about not participating in that (i.e. “guilty white liberal syndrome). This process of borrowing — or appropriation depending on your viewpoint — does not respect power imbalances and all the other contextual aspects of this issue.

    In my younger days I used to get angry over things like white people in the US playing black American blues music, because I thought that “they” were stealing “our” art form, but I’ve come 180 degrees on this topic and now love the cross-pollinization that occurs when different people encounter and adopt/adapt each other’s practices. If white guys hadn’t stolen the blues there would have been no Led Zeppelin (perish the thought) after all.

    I say that as someone whose knowledge of my own cultural heritage was literally ripped from my African ancestors during the slave trade, so I can sympathize — but ultimately do not agree with — the impulse to be proprietary over one’s traditions.

    As far as the commodification of spiritual practices, well that’s just life in America. Where everything gets commodified. The only way to stop that would be the enacting of laws against it — don’t hold your breath — or the emergence of a different economic system entirely.

    Here’s a thought: Instead of trying to keep sacred knowledge to oneself, why not be like the Indian yoga gurus and market your practice to affluent Westerners, and then use that money to help one’s own community in very crucial, material ways? B.K.S. Iyengar does this with his yoga school in Pune, India, charging Westerners one price to attend and just a nominal fee for locals. Win-win, and you undercut the fraudsters.

  • There’s at least one thing about this that is overlooked by most modern pagans: Native Americans are not the only cultures in the world that use some form of steambath as a purification. The Finnish practices usually designated “sauna” and the corresponding Russian practices usually designated “banya” share many of the features of Native American sweatlodges. (If we think broadly enough, we can include the Roman and Turkish steambath customs, though those are less obviously purificatory.)

    I am of the opinion that non-Natives should not be appropriating specifically Native American sweatlodge customs, nor should they claim to be transmitting Native culture. However, it can be appropriate to develop an explicitly modern pagan purification ritual inspired by the multiple practices I mention above.

    For example, we know that many NA sweatlodge customs involve honoring the four directions, and some include sacred chanting. A modern pagan group could include calling the quarters* and chanting modern pagan chants in a steambath purification ritual. That would be inspired by NA practices without being cultural appropriation.

    The key is stating that such a steambath purification is a modern pagan ritual. If people ask about the details of the ritual, then it is appropriate to acknowledge the NA sources of inspiration.

    * This assumes that calling the quarters is part of that group’s normal practice. If it was a Finnish recon group that didn’t include either quarter calls or four elements in their practices, it would obviously make no sense to suddenly do so just because they were in a sauna.

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      Very much agreed…There are many cultures besides the ones you mentioned that also seem to have done something similar to sweat houses, including the Irish and the Gauls (as of recent archaeological finds). Making sure to call it something new and different, with no connection to Native American practices, is the key…And even then, some people probably won’t be happy with the idea of “respectful borrowing,” but that’s just how things will be, I’m sure…

      • Gus diZerega

        Just to muddy the waters more – I was visiting a traditional Sun Dance priest on the Crow Reservation in Montana some years ago. After a sweat ceremony (which began with Cheyenne jokes – they are a neighboring tribe) we had a ceremony in which I needed up singing one of the songs, a generalized prayer one. The one I knew and love was written by Timothy White, who is aNative American as I am, although he studied directly with Huichols.

        Afterwords a number of the Crow said they really liked it and planned to use it themselves.

        Later, talking with Medicinehorse, he told me “If I teach you how to do sweats, in time you’ll change them.”

        I waited for the words of criticism. (I had not asked him to learn. As much as I love genuine sweats, I did not have time.)

        The words never came. Instead he said “And that’s fine because that’s how you make it yours.”

    • Anonymous

      For me the only real issue is honesty. If you make some crap up, don’t call it “Native American”. If you do that you are not guilty of “cultural theft”, but of the far more grave crime of being a lying sack of poop.

      The difficulty is that human beings are by nature bricoleurs when it comes to this stuff. We are all spiritual magpies. Shiny=Good. And compared to Christianity-American-Style, Native American religious traditions are Radioactively Shiny.

    • Robert Mathiesen (Mageprof)

      And the Russian banya (steam-bath house), like the flour-mill, was traditionally placed right at the edge of the village. This was a matter of safety, but safety was a complicated thing. On the one hand, there was mundane safety — the banya might catch fire, the flour-mill often explodes.

      But also there was a spiritual side to this matter of safety. To tame a river by means of a mill-race and water wheel was an uncanny thing, and a mill-wright was therefore a man suspected of magic and even of regular human sacrifice (to the water spirits). And people did drown, from time to time, in mill-races, which only reinforced the fear of the miller and the mill-wright.

      And in a bath-house perforce one went naked, without the belt (poyas) that protects one from demons. Young girls surreptitiously used the bath-house for divination, too, and that required somethign even more daring than nakedness: taking off the metal cross that all Orthodox wore on thin chains around their necks. That’s bound to bring a demon a-calling, would be the traditional view.

      So the banya is not *just* a sauna, in traditional Russian culture. Cleanliness and danger go hand in hand in the banya, and it is also one of the best places for forbidden rites.

      • Holy gods, are there any resources you could suggest for this? Not surprisingly, since I know squat about Russian culture, folklore,etc., I had no idea mills and bath-houses and banyas had such lore and significance to them. You blew my mind.

        • Robert Mathiesen (Mageprof)

          Start with W. F. Ryan, _The Bathhouse at Midnight: An Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia_ (1999, Pennsylvania State University Press). Not only is it excellent, but it gives an extensive bibliography in very many languages for further reading.

  • Charles Cosimano

    Ok, the only thing that mattered from a legal point of view is that folks died in the ceremony. Anyone who thinks that Native Americans can somehow regulate the use of ritual practices by outsiders is living in a dream world. It is not going to happen, the courts would make mincemeat out any attempt.

    New Age folks are not Pagans and do not necessarily ascribe to Pagan ethics or even care very much what those ethics are, so this will not stop anyone from doing what they are doing, though it may make them a little more careful about health issues.

    Cultural appropriation may be a big deal among academics and bloggers, but the truth is that no one else gives a damn. I remember when the subject came up at a presentation at the 1993 World Parliament of Religions and afterwards the New Age folks left the room laughing. And the reality is that after nearly 20 years, they are still laughing.

    • Mia

      You’re right, a lot of people really don’t give a damn.

      That’s why the discussions involve law. New Agers and others who appropriate can laugh all they want, but they’re not above laws no matter how high their heads are in the Jungian clouds.

      • Anonymous

        The problem is the law only can apply to preventing Natives from selling their rites. Outside of tribal law, the First Amendment applies, and as long as it does, there can be no law preventing someone from practicing any kind of religious ritual, whether they steal it from some other culture, make it up, intuit it from their pineal gland, or whatever. Perhaps I am missing something, but Ray does not appear to have been Native, so no law of this type would have had any effect on this situation.

        On the other hand, claiming a connection with Native spirituality where there is none is clearly fraud, which is illegal, and as Mr. Ray now knows extremely well, negligent homicide is a crime as well.

        • Mia

          I’m not talking only about past and present laws and legal situations. Legal changes can occur in the future as a greater voice is given to minorities and problems are better recognized. It won’t be quick, but changes obviously have occurred before, and there’s no reason why it has to become static now.

          • Anonymous

            What kind of legal changes are you talking about? Do you really think it would be a good idea for the government to decide who can and who cannot engage in religious rituals? Do you want to get rid of the First Amendment? or are you talking about something else?

          • Mia

            No, I don’t mean something that drastic. For example, recognized tribes are able to regulate themselves on who is and who is not a member of their own tribe. There are also laws regarding their crafts, to protect authenticity and their ways of life. It wouldn’t be a huge leap to have some regulation on who can and cannot conduct culturally rooted rituals for profit (obviously we can’t stop people from doing it on their own, but Ray wasn’t doing it just for the hell of it). Training, certificates, overseers, etc. I’m not saying it will happen, but it’s not impossible.

  • C B

    I appreciate Jasons’ commitment to reporting this story since it broke.
    Our empathy goes out to those affected.

  • nefaeria

    I couldn’t agree with Kathryn Price NicDhàna more. And I hope that one day this charlatan feels a smidgen of remorse, because as it stands now he seems to think that he is the victim. Let him rot!

  • Jason – I have great admiration for the way you’ve been covering this issue. It’s not, on the surface, a particularly Pagan issue; it concerns, rather, the New Age and self-help movements, and Natives, whose ceremonies are being appropriated (though that’s a complicated thing, as some have pointed out). That Pagans aren’t afraid to participate in discussions about these issues is a good thing. That they can do so as lucidly and fairly as you (and some others) have is even better.

    There are risks to blanket criticism or denigration of New Age practices and self-help “gurus” – such criticism can easily feed a general spiritual heterophobia (fear and loathing of all things different and unconventional, especially exotic practices sought and found in the East, in Native traditions, or in non-Abrahamic and heterodox western traditions – which, of course, is something that can easily be turned against Pagans). But that’s why intelligent discussion of these issues is necessary. It’s also why the emergence of groups like SEEK, which aim to provide support without ulterior motives (such as a general “anti-cult” agenda), is a good development.

    Thanks for your insights on this.

    • Anonymous

      New Age spirituality is a healthy symptom of the greater freedom to explore religious alternatives — a freedom that is still very new in the West. Right up through WWII the predominant self-image of the West was synonymous with the term “Christendom”. This is clearly articulated in the wartime speeches of Churchill and Roosevelt, neither of whom were in any way religious in any conventional sense (in fact it would be very difficult to make a case that either man could really be considered to have been Christian).

      Even after the war there was a period of cultural reaction up to the mid 60s. But then everything changed, and you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

      Besides, if one looks at the religious “scene” of ancient cosmopolitan societies in the Near East, North Africa and Southern Europe, one finds that the New Age is actually thousands of years old. The same lesson can be learned if one looks at the advanced societies of India and China at any time during their histories (in the case of India this is still true today, but in China there has, obviously, been no religious freedom since the Communist takeover).

  • The real solution involves education. People like Ray find customers/victims because there is a huge demand for meaningful experience and ritual in a spiritually sterile culture. With no way of sorting the wheat from the chaff, these people are easy pickings. Educate them that they don’t need to pay big money to any “guru” to have an authentic experience. Show them how people selling “Native American” rituals usually have no business doing so and are almost always selling bunk.

    Offer some well run and safely designed sweat experiences at a reasonable or nominal cost. They don’t have to be culturally misappropriated or rooted in Native America spirituality at all. If they are, real Native Americans should conduct them. Nor would that mean anyone has to “sell their religion.” A Native American does not have to conduct the same ritual he would for his own people. One could craft something that is rooted in one’s tradition without aping or selling its intimate aspects to outsiders.

    Educate people that shamanic ordeal is NOT the only path to spiritual growth or experience, nor the best one for all people. It is not something to be entered lightly or on a tourist lark.

    As pagans, we are uniquely situated to contribute solutions to this problem. We don’t have the marketing hustle and talk show saavy that guys like Ray have, but we have the power to undercut them financially. Educate people and give them a choice. Spend big money with people who will sell you a fake (and maybe dangerous) experience, or save yourself a decimal place or two in funds and spend a weekend at our rituals, where you’ll get the real deal.

  • Thank you, Jason, for your excellent reporting and your deep concern. The Spiritual Path is never simple, and should not be, yet many individuals adopt Spiritual paths created through thousands of years by cultures alien to their own, and I believe, simply to take that shortcut.

    Especially in the so called “Melting Pot” of America those of us who have a deep longing for Spiritual Connection often feel lost, as we have been cut off from our deepest cultural roots. This is not, however, an excuse to appropriate someone else’s culture.

    Finding an appropriate Path is an especially difficult struggle for those of us who feel rootless, but in that discovery of one’s true Path, the inner struggle of self knowledge, and the outer struggle to discover like minds and real community, I think we will find a stronger system, and a pride in a Path of our own and a legacy for our descendants.

  • Origins aside, what bothers me most about this is the “leader” using peer-pressure and bullying to exhort people to do something that isn’t healthy for them.

  • Vonricken

    Commodifying culture is not a new thing….all countries and cultures can be guilty of this….Even the indigenous tribes of America…money talks, which is why guru’s of all discriptions are making a killing in the market of gullible Macfoolery. Making spiritual connections is something that many people strive for. New Age or otherwise. If the indigenous tribes of whatever country are uneasy with the appropriation of their spirituality then I would suggest that they take the people in hand who are bleeding it out into the general populace. But they can’t can they, that pandora’s box has already been opened. Anthrapologists through out the ages have given us their view point on indigenous rituals of tribes all over the world…Very often with ignorance being their right hand man. In my humble opinion we are all connected through the energy of this universe, the divisions created through countries and tribes does not mean that we are divided and different only our understanding is divided and different.

  • Thank you for your ongoing coverage of this issue, Jason.

    Today this post by ikcewicasa is on my mind:

    “James Arthur Ray is one of many who have taken Lakota ceremonies, twisted them to their own purpose, and now grows wealthy dealing false and deadly rites to people who do not know any better. Sedona is a festering cesspool of con artists, shamans, gurus, spiritual guides, and self-proclaimed medicine people. They will all claim to help anyone, for a price, yes spirituality packed, stacked, racked and for sale to anyone with enough cash in their pockets. The entire economy of Sedona is based on shams and charlatans, many like James Arthur Ray who peddle things that they do not know or understand. James could not have understood even the basics of the sweat lodge or he never would have been charging money and 3 people would not have paid the ultimate price for his arrogance and ignorance.” More:

    While Sedona is the newage mecca, I think it is just a magnified, condensed example of the problem. This also makes it a good barometer for assessing the state of the newage industry (and it has become a commercial industry). As long as there are desperate people looking for gurus, there will continue to be James Rays. The Angel Valley deaths have made a dent in the spiritual tourism in Sedona. It remains to be seen if that downturn is permanent, the beginning of a sea change, or just a temporary lull before more business as usual.

    Next week there will be more testimony in the trial to discuss victim impact, aggravating circumstances and sentencing. The best roundup of both mainstream and independent coverage continues to be on the James Ray Daily:

    Thank you, Wild Hunt writers and readers for taking the time to listen to voices that aren’t usually heard in these debates. Slàn.