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Verdict in self-help guru's sweat lodge trial stirs reaction among Native Americans
Self-help guru James Arthur Ray was found guilty of negligent homicide after three died in his sweat lodge ceremony.
June 24th, 2011
01:03 PM ET

Verdict in self-help guru's sweat lodge trial stirs reaction among Native Americans

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN

(CNN) - They didn’t serve on the jury, weren’t plaintiffs in the case, nor did they watch in the courtroom.

But for Native Americans who cleave to rituals passed on by their ancestors, the trial of self-help guru James Arthur Ray mattered.

Ray was convicted Wednesday of negligent homicide in the October 2009 deaths of Kirby Brown, James Shore and Lizbeth Marie Neuman. They died after participating in a sweat lodge ceremony Ray led during his “Spiritual Warrior” retreat outside Sedona, Arizona.

 At least 15 other participants fell ill, while 40 emerged from the experience uninjured. Each had paid about $10,000 for the five-day retreat experience.

The case fueled long-held frustrations of Native Americans who say their ancient traditions are being appropriated and exploited by “impersonators.” They resent that what is sacred to them is now seen by some as a death trap.

“It’s a fad to be Indian today,” Autumn Two Bulls told CNN earlier this year, from her home on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

“In America, you are an individual. You can be whatever you want to be. When you’re Lakota, we belong to each other,” said Two Bulls, a writer and activist. “So when you take our way of life and put a price tag on it, you’re asking for death, you’re asking for something to happen to you.” 

This sort of spiritual comeuppance was echoed by others, including Alvin Manitopyes of the Plains Cree/Sautleaux First Nations. He grew up on a reservation in lower Saskatchewan, Canada. And though he today works as a public health consultant in Calgary, Canada, he has conducted ceremonies in sweat lodges for more than 20 years.

“Mr. Ray has faced the application of man made laws in respect to his charges in a court of law, but according to natural law he is still accountable to the karma he created for himself,” Manitopyes wrote in an e-mail late Wednesday, after learning about the verdict.

The Arizona jury’s negligent homicide verdict didn’t go as far as some hoped. Prosecutors were seeking a conviction on manslaughter charges, which would have allowed for a much longer sentence.

Negligent homicide means a defendant should have known better, while manslaughter suggests that the defendant knew and blatantly disregarded this knowledge. 

The defense attorneys argued that what happened in that sweat lodge was a horrible accident.

Among those disappointed by the verdict is Valerie Taliman, a Navajo who serves as the West Coast editor for Indian Country Today Media Network.

“He deserves to pay for the lives he took. Our prayers go out to the families who lost their loved ones because of his greed and wrongful exploitation. He had no right to create the false illusion that he had any connection to Native ceremonies,” she said in an e-mail sent Thursday. “He is a worst case example of charlatans selling spiritual snake oil.”

She hopes that when jurors convene to pass down the sentencing, they’ll go as far as they can.

“He took something we hold sacred and broke every rule we go by, then sold his desecrated version of our ceremonies to people that he actually profited from, then killed. I hope they make an example of him and give him the maximum sentence," Taliman said.

"According to our teachings, what he’s done to these people will come back on him over a lifetime," she  added. "Let’s see how spiritually grounded he is now.”

- CNN Writer/Producer

Filed under: Courts • Culture wars • Traditions

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soundoff (97 Responses)
  1. Zelda

    @Del Crowe: I'm Asian and one thing I never undestand native Americans. Why didn't you plan to excel the English? My countrymen and neighboring countrymen spend billions of dollars to get English education so that we could dominate the world ever since we came in contact with the English. You got free English and Latin education? I'm sorry for the abuse incidents, but we'd faint with joy if we or our kids could get such a thing as free English education. Why didn't you overcome all the obstacles and plan to topple the dominant English and create your own country? Haven't you been spoiled by them?

    June 27, 2011 at 12:14 am |
  2. RightturnClyde

    I'd blame the patrons MORE than the accused. The U.S. full of nuts who want to sit like Yogi with their ankle behind their neck or do ancient martial arts . follow a Bag-One, sing Harry-Krishno, burn candles on the Washington Mall ... they want to pretend they are Comanches ... and be crab roasted in Sedona (and then they want to get guarantees). The real Comanches had to chase down 1000 lb animals just to have dinner (and got killed) .. Lewis & Clark tell of a severe winter in Mandan settlements. The real native Americans had a hard life with no guarantees. You can bet nobody being a make-believe Ninja would want to go back and be one .. or a Yogi or a Cossack or any of those things. Most of these people take the elevator rather than walk upstairs, want all-electric homes (climate control), drive to a store 2 blocks away and sit in a desk-cubicle and interact with a PC all day. The patrons want what they got... they got what they paid for. Be careful what you wish for - you may get it

    June 26, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • turbofire amie

      so, you would call me a nut because i do yoga? tsk tsk.... that is not very sporting of you.

      June 26, 2011 at 9:38 pm |
    • RightturnClyde

      I call it nuts. Many of them .. they buy Indian get-ups (or other make-believe garb .. Kung Fu, Batman, whatever) and then they imagine themselves to be a Ninja or a Turtle or a Humpty-Dumpty .. whatever (Peter Pan) and then they play-act some secret hero game (on weekends) while they struggle for equilibrium during the week. So some of them end up in a sweat lodge (or they sky dive off Half Dome .. whatever) .. none of it is evidence of sanity. Yoga, Karate, Kung Fu, Iron Man, Survival Show, Croc Wrastler, Lloyd Bridges .. whatever you can afford. .. Sedona Sweat Lodge... it's all the same fantasy land .. and yeah it's nuts.

      June 28, 2011 at 2:18 am |
    • RightturnClyde

      Hey .. imagine this .. Jack Webb (Sgt. Friday) or James Arness (Matt Dillon) or James ROckford (James Garner) goes home on the weekend and dress up in Harley leathers and pretend hey are He*lls An*gels ... you cannot imagine that ... hey mom .. look at me .. I'm a biker .. (and mom says "be careful and don't get hurt") They were not dressing up like Halloween 40 years ago .. they didn't need to play-act .. they were men. It's lately that everybody has some weekend hero game .. and they go out into the wilderness with only a canteen of water and a cell phone just in case they need to call AAA. {So now they find the poor dip who runs the sweat lodge guilty .. when any of the people in the game could leave at any time i it was getting too rough.)

      June 28, 2011 at 2:45 am |
  3. dave nelson

    As a native american, i can say without a qualm that anyone who treads the path should keep a watchful eye for snakes. In other words, if you wish to attend such a ceremony, seek out the ones who have done it for generations, not some johnny come lately who is only out to make a buck. If you cannot find a native american tribe who will give you permission to join in, then maybe you should find something else to cleanse your body and spirit.

    June 26, 2011 at 5:15 am |
  4. ZMBMN

    it's a shame he was tried on the too few charges. Impersonating a holy man should have been added to the list..

    June 26, 2011 at 12:03 am |
    • God Himself (aaaahhhh!)

      Everyone who says they are a "holy man" are fraudulent. We already have laws against fraud.
      The problem is going after these frauds. No religious person wants to set a legal precedent that would unmask them all.
      Just more "CYA" and "business as usual".
      Religions require an absence of proof. They are the perfect haven for every fraud in the world. Just look at how many frauds are in the religion business. Most of the world is "taken in" easily because no proof is required.

      June 26, 2011 at 12:19 am |
  5. frank

    I tried to follow the traditions of the natives without knowing what I was doing and was injured at an S&M club one time, but that's probably not a story that belongs here.

    June 25, 2011 at 10:52 pm |
  6. fernace

    In my native Sweden we have ritual "bastu bad" known to most Americans as sauna baths. This traditional & ritualistic activity has been "diluted" for general consumption, in fact, it's a status symbol to have a sauna in your house, now. I believe the original bastu came from the spiritual rituals of our Sami population (native reindeer herding people), & quickly caught on with the rest of the Nordic nations. To do it properly it involves a steaming bastu, rolling in snow (some use ice swimming) & using slim tree branches to "force" impurities out by slapping them on your skin! It takes knowledge & experience to perform this ritual correctly, so as not to cause damage & it's not for the beginner to just jump into. Our bastu bad doesn't have the sacred qualities of the Sweat Lodge, but I can certainly appreciate the concept of using traditions of indigenous people the wrong way & causing damage. In this case the guy was trying to get rich on top of that! Shameful & sad!!

    June 25, 2011 at 10:45 pm |
  7. frank

    Those wasichus was trippin!

    June 25, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
  8. sacredpipe

    I have been making seat lodge ceremonies as an ojibwe man for more than 30 years. It is unfortunate that tribes, all of them refuse to make agreements and alignments between tribal sacred law and American law...which would permit them some form of certification or other methods employed by professions such as doctors and attorneys, to protect the sacred rites. Today, only the Zuni and Hopi tribes make any real effort to use existing laws to stop people like Ray from doing work like this in the first place. Holding him accountable with these verdicts is a good thing, the convictions seems to match the facts to me...though there are no penalties for arrogance. Ray is a punk and he gets the reward that every punk brings to himself. The more fundamental issue must include why would so many "victims" be so poorly informed as to believe going to a fake ceremony like this was a good idea? I believe the ignorance of the victims must be weighed in here. It seemed a case of the arrogant pretender and the clueless victims to me. The sweat lodge is an ancient correction ceremony best practiced by those people supported and put forward by tribal elders. The continuing theft of such practices is a strange epidemic, for which Ray is the poster child for everything that is wrong about it. Because the deaths of white people took place here, the mainstream media has spoken about how American Indians feel abused by such practices, but it is really the deaths of white people driving this story, not the desecration of another culture's sacred work.

    June 25, 2011 at 9:18 am |
    • ikcewicasa

      You have made two very good posts here.

      1 regarding money, yes the expenses should be reimbursed to spiritual leader, holy person who is running the ceremony, especially if they have to travel. That is entirely different than the people charging a multihundred dollar or more rate for an "authentic Native experience" You and I know it is not possible to get that at some expensive resort.

      2. as far as certification. well In this case we are our own worst enemy in this regard. I am sure you have seen some of our own people selling out to the highest bidder, happy to use our ceremonies to make a quick buck. It would be nice if we all played by the rules we claim to follow and cherish. It would also be nice if we Indian people could get together and agree on something... hell anything could make this situation better.

      I an not Hopi or Zuni but from what I understand they have pretty much closed down access to their ceremonies to any outsiders not specifically invited. As a Lakota we are much more open with our ceremonies and that has been a two edged sword. we have benefited and also suffered as a result of our openness and willing to share.

      There is also freedom of religion. That means you and I can attend and poor inipi ceremonies, that is a good thing. It also protects the charlatans, scam artists, and shameons that will use religious freedom as a cover for their activities. I do not know what to do other than to keep on with what I know and doing it in the best way possible.

      http://ikcewicasa.wordpress.com/

      June 25, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • Richard the Lionheart

      Well said.

      June 25, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
    • Father John in Denver

      One man's "desecration" is another man's "sacred." No ceremony or rite belongs only to one race or one people. It is arrogant to think that people cannot find solace and peace through ceremonies conducted in a traditional Native way by someone who is not a Native. Every people throughout the world has a set of Shamanic ceremonies. Those are evolving things, and the ingression of those ceremonies by other peoples is part of the evolution of religion and spirituality. I'm not thrilled with the people who charge tens of thousands for access to ancient rituals, either. Nor am I thrilled with make-believe Native Americans, esp. fake Lakota. I have spent time in my youth with these wonderful people, and respect all of their tradition. But it is freedom of religion that is guaranteed by our country that allows non-Lakota to partake of Lakota rituals. Just because someone is not of The People doesn't mean that person is wrong. Charging $10K for it? And letting people die? Now those things ARE wrong and the mark of a charlatan. And, no, I'm not a Native wannabe. I have my own sacred traditions and follow them.

      June 26, 2011 at 6:19 am |
    • jorgath

      Father John: "Every people throughout the world has a set of Shamanic ceremonies."

      Actually, no they don't. Shaman/shamanic is a specific term that refers to the spiritual leaders of certain tribal groups in Siberia. And in this case the various Native groups are quite within their rights to argue against their religious ceremonies being misused – in this case, by being used in a way that was clearly more about for-profit enterprise than religion. I'm not saying that only Natives can practice these ceremonies, nor that people can't be paid to perform them (although I'd say a fair recompense of time and expenses should be all that is charged). But religious ceremonies performed by people who don't believe in them are offensive to the people who do. If I, as a non-Catholic, were to take Catholic communion without undergoing baptism and confirmation, it would be offensive. If a "guru" were to claim that he could perform Catholic communion without being ordained, it would be offensive.

      BTW, I am a white American who does not belong to any specific religion, but I empathize with my Native counterparts on this one.

      June 26, 2011 at 9:08 am |
    • ikcewicasa

      @ Father John I am not the one being arrogant. our traditional ways were given to us.

      I am glad that you have your own traditions and follow them. I would never turn to the person next to me and say that they have a right to YOUR traditions. It is not my place to say that and to do so would be highly offensive.

      http://ikcewicasa.wordpress.com/

      June 26, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  9. onefeather

    Greed and stupid people, if you pay someone 10 thousand to tell you something then you got what you deserve. This man has taken something spiritual and special and trashed it for money and those who paid are just as guility. If one is so weak that they pay someone that con's them so that they can feel better has a lot of problems.

    June 25, 2011 at 1:58 am |
    • Manifold Density

      ^^this^^

      June 25, 2011 at 2:29 am |
    • Hippo

      I respectfully disagree. Some of us are more suggestible than others.

      Vulnerable people need protection from predatory people. James Ray is a very persuasive predator.

      June 25, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  10. Zelda

    If you worship nature or your ancestors, dead or alive, you get enslaved by outsiders, because such groups always enslave or abuse some members within. A pattern on Planet Earth. Every human needs liberation by Jesus. Every falsehood is a form of slavery. False religions always have evil rituals involving victims. Secularism has unprecedented greatest number of victims in the form of unborn babies.

    June 24, 2011 at 11:59 pm |
    • EvolvedDNA

      Zelda.. you worship a dead ancestor..who was a victim...or was it assisted suicide

      June 25, 2011 at 12:27 am |
    • Secular Human

      Christians in America are more likely to commit murder or get an abortion than are atheists.

      (Seriously, look it up if you don't believe me.)

      June 25, 2011 at 3:29 am |
    • Del Crowe

      I was forced to go to an 'Indian school' as a child where they told me that the spiritual faith of my people was evil. I was forced to attend mass, and pray in latin, an ancient white man's language I didn't understand. In many cases, the church services were led by the same priest who I was forced to fellate the night before. It took the Elders entire summers on my reservation to deprogram the children and return them to the true way of God. I do not enter a Christian church unless it's for a wedding or a funeral, and only out of respect to the deceased or happy couple.

      June 26, 2011 at 7:30 am |
    • Zelda

      @Evo-, Jesus is sovereign and alive. Anything is better than believing that creation creates itself. @Secular: you are talking about secular Americans who fantacize themselves to be Christian. Only regular church attenders are Christian, not those false claiming Americans. @Del, you were having hopeless barbaric lifestyles before Europeans came. On this planet, if you don't use brain or be protected by brain-using ones, you lose rights and land all the time everywhere. Stop self-pitying. You're not the only one. The Christian Church made the whole world civilized. It was your fault you didn't have self-preserving defense system. Be happy it wasn't other races who found you first.

      June 26, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
    • Zelda

      Del, believe in Jesus. The oldtime Westerners liberated the world from barbarism. You should be thankful Christians occupied the land(you were not using it well anyway it was matter of time outsiders come to you), because Christian Americans and their associates rescued the world. There is nothing you can be proud about your own culture with so much of meaningless abuse and chaotic shamanism, except your love for your own family. Look at yourself and your clans more objectively. Excel and overcome if you really believe you deserve better. Otherwise, admit you were defeated by your own weakness. Laziness is not honored in this world.

      June 26, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
  11. John Richardson

    Greedy New Age charlatans are just the latest in an ages old tradition of religious charlatans and they won't, alas, be the last.

    In any case, while I understand the outrage Native Americans are feeling, it shouldn't take years of training to know that you don't have people fast in the desert and then go into a sweat lodge. Either done wrong pose potentially serious dehydration risks. Doing them consecutively is insane. It is truly a wonder that there weren't more deaths.

    June 24, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
    • Thunderbird Man

      Absolutely right John! I was amazed that there weren't more deaths after he had them fast in the desert before this sweat lodge.

      June 25, 2011 at 9:15 am |
    • JohnR

      Yes, the negligence here was on an absolutely eye popping scale.

      June 25, 2011 at 9:55 am |
  12. Thunderbird Man

    They weren't the first to die in a sweat lodge performed by someone who had no business doing what he was doing. I wouldn't have cared except he told them "Now we're going to do a Native American Sweat Lodge". Many of the different Tribes have their own version of Sweat Lodge. It takes many many years of training from Traditional Medicine people to become authorized to perform this ceremony no matter what tribe you are from. Most importantly, you NEVER charge money for anyone to come to it. ONLY an offering of Tobacco. I am very familiar with the type of people who attended his ceremony, and have dealt with them in the past. Most are New Age types who mix a variety of Earth based spirituality together and call it "The Red Road" "Indian Ways" etc. This doesn't work when trying to learn true Indingenous Teachings. You must learn from a legitimate teacher, and only follow one way. Most recently we have become selective in who we teach. I was told that I can now tell certain people "there is nothing I can do for you...go to church". For anyone seeking this type of teachings, and they ask for money...turn and walk away. This won't be the last time someone dies in a sweat lodge performed by an imposter.

    June 24, 2011 at 8:39 pm |
    • sacredpipe

      Many American Indians confuse money with the sacred. The issue has nothing to do with the money. Everything on earth costs money. I have been making sweat lodge ceremonies more than 30 years and the participants always help with the costs, when I travel, those people who asked for the ceremony pay the transportation. It is sad that people claiming sympathy with American Indians confuse money with ceremony. There needs to be more financial reality and responsibility among tribal communities to build and infrastructure and support system, like other world religions do, and this costs money. As an Ojibwe man I have heard these childish arguments all my life "don't pay to pray"....money was not the problem here, though it does seem weird that it was so easy to find so many to pay so much, but is hardly the point. Please grow up.

      June 25, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • jorgath

      sacredpipe: I agree with you that "don't pay to pray" is silly. However, if the objection is to people charging TOO much, rather than people charging, I think it's valid. In my not-so-humble opinion, people running such ceremonies should be collecting fees for the expenses of materials used and time spent. If I run a ceremony for 20 people that lasts 3 days (counting travel), I want those 20 people to pay me for three days of not working in some other fashion, for food and water for 21 people for three days (unless there's fasting, in which case obviously this is reduced), for travel expenses (those that I pay for, like a van from the airport to my ceremony site), etc.

      What I shouldn't ask them to pay me for is the privilege of participating in a ceremony led by my esteemed self. I should make it clear that I'm not just charging material expense fees, but that my payment-for-time is reasonable. I don't run ceremonies, in fact, but if I did I'd calculate that part of expenses as $10/hr. and 10 hrs/day (total, not per person). And I'd make sure that the expense breakdown was visible to everyone before they paid.

      In other words, keep prices reasonable, charge for expenses (including your time) rather than for the ceremony itself, and be financially transparent. If you do all of that, you're on the correct approach.

      And of course, have a well-designed campaign for donations. 🙂

      June 26, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  13. Marie Kidman

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGSvqMBj-ig

    June 24, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
  14. ikcewicasa

    It was only a matter of time before something like this happened. We Natives have asked, begged and pleaded with you to not appropriate our ceremonies. Now people have died, and more will die if we continue to be ignored. It took thousands of years to perfect these ceremonies and it was done to protect the participants, when the rules are ignored or the ceremonies changed to fit your own needs, disaster results. Prayers for those that died and for the family members that remain behind.
    http://ikcewicasa.wordpress.com/

    June 24, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
  15. Sean

    new you

    I have heard of sweat lodge ceremonies, I've never experienced one before and have heard if done right they can be good for clearing toxins out of your body. What was the actual cause of deaths? Was it dehydration?

    June 24, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
  16. Frogist

    I saw this on Anderson Cooper last night... lol I said "on Anderson Cooper last night"...
    Composing myself...
    I was so pleased this guy was convicted.
    I'm a little perturbed over what Two Bulls said that people are asking for death. I know she probably meant Ray, but it does seem a little callous to the victims as well.

    June 24, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • Fraggist

      If you want nekkid pics of Mr. Anderson, simply go to a "Faker" site. If they don't have any ready, you could request some made up special for you. Celebrity fakes are often very appealing to their fans. Try it if you haven't already.

      June 26, 2011 at 12:25 am |
  17. Truth

    Watching "The Secret" with James Arthur Ray will be like watching "The Towering Inferno" with O.J Simpson.

    June 24, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • frank

      Hahahahaha

      June 24, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  18. RightturnClyde

    It is a lawyers world. Everybody went to this fellow voluntarily and wanted to be in whatever a sweat lodge is. He probably was negligent, but were they locked in? Was there no possibility of opting out at any time it got too rough? I tend to think there are a lot of nuttos doing Yoga and Iron Man and various extreme things .. are they forced to do it? How responsible is the sailboat maker if you decide to sail around the world?

    June 24, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • Hippo

      These people were dehydrated and sleep-deprived. They may have been too weak to get out of the sweat lodge.

      They went in because James Ray assured them it was safe and they trusted him. It was pitch-black inside and nobody could leave except between rounds. Ray ridiculed people for leaving, and they tried to stick it out.

      It's not the same as you or I walking into a movie theater, deciding we don't like the film, and turning around and leaving.

      June 24, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • Artist

      Wow, you are not very smart. Life is not black and white. He does have some responsibility. Because he failed it, some people died. They made choices and were delusional but they didn't opt to die.

      June 24, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • RightturnClyde

      There is an old story about a successful stock broker who takes his parents out on his yacht in Long Island Sound and he has a nice tailored blue captains jacket with for gold braids on each sleeve and a nice white captains hat and he asks his dad how he likes the captains jacket. The dad says " to you you're a captain and to your mother you're a captain .. and to me sometimes you are a captains ... but to a captain you are not a captain." ..to an Indian (indigenous person) .. the people in the sweat lodge are not Indians. So why does somebody go out there and do that if they expect assurances that it's perfectly safe? .. did anybody assure the real Indians that it's safe to kick a Buffalo's bu*tt?

      June 28, 2011 at 2:57 am |
  19. frank

    Don't sweat the small stuff, and it's all small stuff!

    June 24, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  20. Artist

    He was a greedu pos like any other "inspirational speaker" aka preacher or what have you. While some delusional people give to preachers, these people gave their lives for a delusion.

    June 24, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.