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

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“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.