Native Beliefs on Trial and other Pagan News of Note

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Top Story: We start with the ongoing James Arthur Ray controversy. The “Secret”-selling guru was arrested and charged with three counts of manslaughter last week, this came in the wake of a long investigation into the deaths of three participants at a “spiritual warrior” sweat lodge ceremony led by Ray in October. Now, after Ray’s lawyer appeared on Larry King (a fan of Ray and “The Secret”), the prosecution is seeking a gag-order on further press appearances. The idea is to stop Ray’s supporters from using the bully pulpit of popular media to pollute possible jury pools, but the Don’t Pay To Pray blog points out that this will also restrict all information about the trial from the public (including damning interviews with sweat-lodge participants).

“After James Arthur Ray’s attorneys plastered their faces all over the media, on Good Morning America and Larry King Live, in a transparent attempt to influence a potential jury, Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, has requested a “gag order” hearing. A gag order is a judge’s order prohibiting the attorneys and the parties to a pending lawsuit or criminal prosecution from talking to the media or the public about the case. The intent is usually to prevent prejudice due to pre-trial publicity which would influence potential jurors. Based on the “freedom of the press” provision of the First Amendment, the court cannot constitutionally restrict the media from printing or broadcasting information about the case. The prosecutor’s tool to stop a case from being tried in the press is a gag order on the participants under the court’s control. While the Gag Order would stop James Ray’s attorney’s from trying the case in the media, it would also stop the public from having access to any information from Yavapai county staff regarding any aspect of this case with the exception of the scheduling of hearings.”

Don’t Pay To Pray is also concerned that a jury trial in Sedona would result in “a jury composed of several people who conduct the same type of plastic sweat lodges that Ray did.” These concerns are echoed by Johnny P. Flynn, a Potawatomi Indian and  faculty member in the Department of Religious Studies at IUPUI, who says that Native religion will end up being put on trial by various non-Native “experts”.

“I am not a psychic or an attorney, but my experiences through the years with American Indian religious issues tell me this: even though James Ray will be sitting at the defense table, it will be our religious practices on trial in that courtroom. And it will be experts who will argue both sides of the case … In following the Ray story over the past few months, I am amazed at the number of non-Indian sweat lodge experts the media has been able to locate. Few Indians if any have been interviewed … James Ray’s defense might be compelled to bring in experts to argue that he did the ceremony the right way—and to insist that occasional and “unforeseen” death is one of the by-products of American Indian religious practices … The prosecution would then be compelled to bring in their “experts” to argue that a non-Indian, who allegedly learned to do this ceremony from “shamans” all over the world, did the sweat lodge the wrong way. Ray would be guilty of manslaughter by way of “malpractice” even if he is an “expert” on the sweat lodge.”

For the moment, Ray still sits in jail, while his lawyers appeal the 5 million dollar bail, and lawyers on both sides position themselves for the coming trial. If the gag order goes through, news on this issue could dry up until the trial starts. But I suspect there will still be plenty to talk about, like the James Ray true believers who are organizing prayer conference calls on his behalf, or the Native American (and guru-debunking) activists who are using services like Twitter to network and share information. It still remains to be see what reverberations will be felt in the larger New Age community, or if it will be business as usual after a short period of making noises about “accountability”. You can bet I’ll continue to keep you posted as things develop.

In Other News:

Stonehenge’s Modernist Box: Britain’s Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment is protesting the approved design for Stonehenge’s new visitor center, saying it would detract from the landmark, and that the new “twee” footpaths are more appropriate for an “urban garden”.

“We question whether, in this landscape of scale and huge horizons and with a very robust end point that has stood for centuries and centuries, this is the right design approach?” said Diane Haigh, CABE’s director of design review. “You need to feel you are approaching Stonehenge. You want the sense you are walking over Salisbury Plain towards the stones.”

This is quickly becoming a big issue for Britain. The new center was supposed to be a compromise on the scrapped plans to build a tunnel that would reroute traffic away from the site. With the looming influx of Olympics visitors, pressure is mounting to get the site ready for the spotlight. It remains to be seen if CABE’s objections will now slow that process down. You can see a concept photo of the proposed center, here.

Kupala not Valentine: A right-wing nationalist Polish group called Niklot (named after a famous Slavic pagan) is protesting the celebration of Valentine’s Day, saying that Slavic Poles should celebrate Kupala Day instead.

“Niklot claims that Poles should observe the Kupala Day, a Slavic fertility holiday traditionally celebrated on 23-24 June. On Kupala Day young men would jump over the flames of bonfires and girls would float wreaths of flowers often lit with candles on rivers, attempting to gain foresight into their relationship fortunes from the flow patterns of the flowers on the river.”

You can read more about Kupala and Kupala Day at Wikipedia. The Helsinki Federation for Human Rights is calling for city officials to oppose the group, who have been putting up posters that say “F**k Off Valentines”, claiming Niklot promotes racism and fascism. Niklot spokesman Ireneusz Woszczyk disputes these claims, saying the group is only interested in tradition. Could one of our experts on Slavic Paganism weigh in on this? Is this group extremist? Or are they misunderstood reconstructionists?

Haitian Vodou Leaders Lend the UN a Hand: United Nations officials in Haiti are asking for help from the estimated 60,000 voodoo priests and priestesses in that country to perform a census of the dead and injured.

“…in postquake Haiti, the practitioners of voodoo have taken on a more practical role, enlisted by the government to help count the dead, tend to the injured, and soothe the psychologically damaged. “One must understand that Haiti is voodoo,’’ said Max Beauvoir, 75, the “pope’’ of Haitian voodoo and a former biochemical engineer who once worked for Digital Equipment in Maynard, Mass. “Helping Haitians is nothing else but helping ourselves.’’ To make use of that resource, the United Nations has reached out to the vast and influential network of about 60,000 voodoo priests in Haiti, Beauvoir said. And the priests, firmly entrenched in their displaced communities, are eager to lend a hand.”

The article also interviews Vodou “pope” Max Beauvoir, and discusses how Haiti’s Houngans and Mambos are helping a traumatized nation regain its footing. Whatever the future may hold for Haiti, it seems very likely that Vodou will be an ongoing and important part of that future.

The Wicker Tree: In a final note, director Robin Hardy’s long-awaited sequel/re-imagining of 1973 cult-classic “The Wicker Man”, “The Wicker Tree”, finally has its own web site!

Looks nice! No word on a release date other than “2010”, but you can sign up for updates. For all of my previous coverage of “The Wicker Tree”, click here.

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