Archives For Sedona

“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 SEEKsafely.org 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.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

A few quick updates on previously reported stories.

Who’s the Victim? Talk radio host Bryan Fischer, Director of Issues Analysis for the American Family Association, came under public scrutiny last week for a hateful anti-Native editorial that claimed American Indians were “morally disqualified from sovereign control of American soil” because theycontinue to cling to the darkness of indigenous superstition”. After waves of criticism, the AFA took the editorial down, perhaps realizing that their star pundit had gone too far. However, rather than an apology, or even some sign of contrition from Fischer over his editorial, he has instead posted a new editorial claiming Americans aren’t “mature” enough to have the conversation he wants to have, and essentially stating that he is the true victim on his talk radio program.

The column generated an incredible amount, so much intense, vitriolic and profane reaction – in fact, we had the woman here that monitors comments, she had to say “look, you have to get somebody else to do this, the things that people are saying about Bryan are so vulgar, they are so vile, they are so profane, they are so blasphemous, I can’t take it any more.” That’s how much hate there was, and yet we’re the ones that are accused of being the hatemongers.

Nothing like playing the “we’re the real victims here” card, is there? But just to recap, here’s a video of Fischer reading from his controversial editorial, along with some bonus triumphalist rancor.

Does that sound like a victim? Someone who is trying to have a “mature” discussion? Or does it sound like someone speaking from a place of power and privilege about a people he most likely has little first-hand knowledge of? I guess his form of Christianity means never having to say you’re sorry.

James Arthur Ray’s Bad Business: With jury selection starting today, and trial slated to begin on March 1st in the matter of three deaths that resulted from a sweat lodge ceremony led by New Age guru James Arthur Ray, NPR’s Morning Edition looks at the “fading aura” of Arizona’s spiritual tourism market.

But business has dropped for many of them, including bookstore owner Luci Guadreau. A retired teacher, Guadreau has had to dip into savings to keep Golden Word, her store of spiritual and metaphysical books, afloat. ”I literally see people walking around with their cell phones, adding up prices, and deciding which of the things they’re going to buy,” Guadreau said. “When we first got here I did not see [that] at all.”

The debate now is whether the drop-off in spiritual dollars comes from the recession, or from Ray’s “negative energy”. A question that was recently taken up by the New York Times as well. The NPR report also notes that Angel Valley Retreat Center, where the now infamous sweat ceremony was held, has been hit with 10 lawsuits from sweat participants, and family members of the victims. The facility has seen a 50% drop in business last year.

Some Bad Press For the Exorcism Business: It couldn’t have happened at a more inopportune time. Just when Catholic exorcisms were having their mainstreaming moment thanks to Anthony Hopkins vehicle “The Rite,” and the subsequent media outreach by real-live exorcist Father Gary Thomas, along comes a exorcist sex-scandal from one of the practice’s most outspoken proponents. Father Thomas Euteneuer, a star in the Catholic pro-life activist ranks, and vehement anti-Pagan exorcist, recently admitted to having sexual relations with at least one of his clients. Politics Daily religion reporter David Gibson looks at the fall-out of this scandal, and how it has shaken the Catholic right.

Some of Euteneuer’s avid disciples continue to praise him as a prophet who confessed to a single and very human failing, while others feel betrayed and say the priest and his organization are so hypocritical they have hurt the sacred cause of protecting the unborn. Critics also say that the full story of Euteneuer’s misdeeds has still not been told, and that policies on exorcism must be tightened to prevent further abuses.

“In my opinion, from now on, for the good of the faithful, all exorcisms should be done in the presence of at least one other person besides the priest,” Matt Abbott, a Catholic columnist for the conservative website RenewAmerica.com, wrote in an e-mail. “That person, or persons, should be vetted by the Church and law enforcement and should not be a personal friend of the priest performing the exorcism.”

Will the still-secretive Catholic exorcist community actually adopt anti-abuse reforms in the wake of the Euteneuer scandal? We’ve seen how slow-moving the Church has been with its sexual abuse crisis, will they learn their lesson this time and act swiftly to create an ethical guide towards Catholic exorcism? One that provides direct oversight to the ritual? As for Euteneuer, expect him to lay low for awhile, especially since there’s been wide talk of “additional allegations” against the priest. On a personal note, I can’t say I’m too sorry to see an anti-Pagan hater pulled to the sidelines. Between that and the revelation that Father Gary Thomas is a Satanic Ritual Abuse believer, one who thinks that being a Pagan or Witch “immediately disqualifies” you to run for public office, perhaps this latest exorcism boom will stay in the theaters.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

A few quick news notes for you on this Wednesday.

About That Wall of Separation: This election cycle in the United States has brought forward an old argument, is there a “wall of separation” between religion (“church”) and our government (“state”)? While many argue that the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution decreeing that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”, and years of subsequent legal precedent, make such a separation very plain, certain factions of Christian conservatives claim that the Establishment Clause was only meant to prevent denominational favoritism among Christians, and that ours is a Christian country. This division in understandings was in full display in a recent debate between Delaware Senate candidates Christine O’Donnell (who has gotten too much coverage from me already) and Chris Coons.

In a debate at the Widener University Law School, Ms. O’Donnell interrupted her Democratic opponent, Chris Coons, as he argued that the Constitution does not allow public schools to teach religious doctrine. “Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?” Ms. O’Donnell asked himaccording to audio posted on the Web site of WDEL 1150 AM radio, which co-sponsored the debate. The audience at the law school can be heard breaking out in laughter. But Ms. O’Donnell refuses to be dissuaded and pushes forward. “Let me just clarify,” she says. “You are telling me that the separation of church and state is in the First Amendment?”

O’Donnell has been roundly mocked in the press for this latest gaffe, but it’s very representative of a certain understanding of the US Constitution, and many feel she was sending “dog whistle” signals about her stance on church-state issues. Far more explicit was Minnesota Republican Secretary of State candidate Dan Severson, who spoke plainly what O’Donnell only alluded to.

Quite often you hear people say, ‘What about separation of church and state?’ There is no such thing. I mean it just does not exist, and it does not exist in America for a purpose, because we are a Christian nation. We are a nation based on Christian principles and ideals, and those are the things that guarantee our liberties. It is one of those things that is so fundamental to the freedoms that we have that when you begin to restrict our belief and our attestation to our Christian values you begin to restrict our liberties. You simply cannot continue a nation as America without that Christian base of liberty.

This is the same sort of viewpoint that drives Christian groups like WallBuilders, who claim that modern Pagans have no expectation of Constitutional protection under the religion clauses. Separation of Church and State isn’t just about Christmas displays on public lands, it’s about the very character and nature of our country. If we swing too far into an understanding that would please Severson or O’Donnell, it could jeopardize the free exercise and equal treatment of religious minorities in the United States. We would go beyond sanctioning “moments of silence” and see reinvigorated battles over teaching Christianity in our public schools.

Is James Arthur Ray Hurting Sedona? Chas Clifton links to a New York Times article about a decline in tourism at the New Age hub of Sedona, Arizona. Is it the bad economy, or “negative energy” from the James Arthur Ray sweat-lodge deaths?

“It was a very unfortunate and sad situation that could have happened anywhere,” said Janelle Sparkman, president of the Sedona Metaphysical Spiritual Association, who attributes the woes that New Age practitioners are experiencing to a lack of disposable income for spiritual needs and not what happened that awful afternoon. “It was not indicative of Sedona or Sedona’s practitioners at all.” But sweat lodges are now far less common, with the authorities shutting some down to avoid further trouble. And the spiritual association is pushing the importance of ethics among spiritualists.

Could this controversy, along with the economic downturn, bring some reforms to the New Age movement? Or will it be business as usual once this controversy fades and the economy picks up? As for James Arthur Ray, his trial over the sweat-lodge deaths is scheduled to start in mid-February. You can be sure I’ll be following it here.

Spirit Day: Today is Spirit Day, an effort to show support for those who have taken their lives due to anti-LGBTQ bullying. While much of the Internet is rallying to turn their profiles purple, some LGBTQ Pagans, like author and academic P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, are questioning how useful the day, and the message of “it gets better”, really are.

“Which leads me to the second point: “it” doesn’t get better; you just learn to put up with it more, and as you grow stronger in your own sense of self and identity, it bothers you less that other people think these things, say these things, and could potentially threaten you with physical violence and worse (as happened recently in New Jersey to several people)…but, you push through it and you don’t let them frighten you or bother you or dissuade you from living your life the way you want to live it. Every time I step into an LGBTQI event, or a march, or a gathering, it is possible some homophobe with serious insecurities and some religiously-inspired foolish notions may come in and decide to attack me or my friends. I hope it doesn’t happen, but I prepare for the contingency that it might. And as far as I’m concerned, they can bring it all they want–they will not get me without a damn good fight.

So, yes, one hopes that it does get better, but I cannot assure that it will for everyone or that such is the case everywhere in the world. Giving the message to teenagers that you just have to put up with it and tough it out (and that one is possibly deficient if one doesn’t feel up to it or can’t do it) is not a good thing, in my estimation–it seems like blaming the victim to me, and I am totally against that.”

Lupus suggests finding strength and solace in prayer and spiritual work, and has provided a spell against homophobia, and a prayer against persecution. What do you think? Is Spirit Day a worthwhile endeavor that will change opinions, or is it merely a purple-colored band-aid on a much deeper problem? Feel free to share your opinions in the comments.

ADDENDUM: For another Pagan perspective on Spirit Day, check out T. Thorn Coyle, who is taking up the call from two powerful goddesses to go into battle and teach power and respect.

“I want to see us teaching power and respect. I want to see us supporting each other to stand tall, rather than cutting the tallest person in the room down to a more comfortable size. Many people I know are teaching this to their teens and children, and trying to do this in their communities. This Samhaintide, can we all commit to doing a bit more? Can we examine the ways in which we – personally or communally – are acting out of disrespect, fear, force, or powerlessness?

Last year, some of us made a pledge to the Morrigan to help each other grow strong. For myself, I have done more work getting body and soul to a place of health and fitness than ever before. I have gained muscle and am gaining weight. My core is bigger. I’ve trained. I’m back studying hand-to-hand combat with a teacher who is even more skilled than the one I had before. I know that others have been training, too. This Samhain, my community is honoring our promise by teaching and learning basic self-defense. This starts with physical posture and extends to our energy bodies. The presence of centered pride in our midst immediately ratchets up the presence of self-respect in the room. That is where we will begin. From there, we will learn to move, to defend, to break out of locks and set ourselves free.

My hope is that this workshop, this simple introduction to self-defense, will be able to be taught in multiple places. It feels important enough to my partner and I that we have submitted a proposal to teach it at Pantheacon and I am already planning to take it to Houston. We don’t have any certificates saying we are qualified to do this. All we have is our own training, a push from two powerful Goddesses, a call from community, and this need. This need arises from the images of every youth who committed suicide this year. If parents, children, and friends all carry a sense of internal power and help foster that in each other, everything in the world changes.”

Feel free to share other Pagan perspectives on Spirit Day in the comments!

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!