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. online gambling

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    March 30, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
  2. Sacred Pipe

    The truth is always simple. In American Indian cultures, those who lead ceremony are under the direction and receive the permission of tribal elders. This rule is in particular true about the sweat lodge. People who lead the sweat lodge correctly are known to, and approved by living tribal elders. This demented white man did not have that, or anything close to it. Behaving in a visible and up front manner, anyone who wants to work with the sweat lodge must seek out the permission, guidance and support of actual tribal elders. Anyone on this earth who makes sweat lodge without doing this is incorrect. Simple. I have been in sweat lodges with people from all over the world. As a ceremony it is and should be open to all people. Other ceremonies like those internal Hopi ceremonies have never been and are not designed to be open to all people as they have to do with internal continuity and are not open ceremonies the way a sweat lodge is. We call the sweat lodge, at the level that is most common, a correction way ceremony as it is designed to work to help correct the toxic garbage that builds up in the mind, heart and spirit.

    August 7, 2011 at 8:36 am |
  3. Victorio Lopez

    Casinos are traditionally practiced by white people in New Jersey and Las Vegas, should native american casinos be banned because some guidos in Atlantic City are 'offended' by them?

    The stupidity of this article offends me, lets ban this writer from journalism.

    July 23, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • Jay

      Gambling and sacred ritual are two different, VERY different things. You are the one that sounds ignorant with this comment.

      September 20, 2011 at 8:43 pm |
  4. Victorio Lopez

    Seriously, there are people who think that everyone's freedom should be impinged because Native Americans do something that only they should be allowed to do?

    Btw, idiots, sweat lodges exist in man cultures. I went to Sweden and Finland once, and they did it. My friend is Mongolian and he does it.

    This article is crazypants at work.

    July 23, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • DQ

      I don't see anyone saying Native American ceremonies should be Native American only. The argument is that a non-native should not claim to have the authority or knowledge to preside over a Native American ceremony–let alone charge money (and $10,000 at that) for it. And I think that's fair.

      Look at it this way: imagine a non-ordained atheist who came along and started giving people Catholic Communion for a fee, ensuring his customers that they will be taking God into their own body even though he is neither a priest nor a Catholic. Catholics would be outraged–this person is not part of their community, performing what they see as a sacred pillar of their faith for profit. And I think most folks would agree in this case–this person should not have the right to perform this ceremony (whether individuals were Catholic or not or themselves held communion sacred).

      Now, anyone might be invited to attend a legitimate mass. Of course! But if someone's charging at the door for entry, something's wrong.

      Or how about this–an unlicensed person who is neither ship's captain, judge, or priest performs a marriage ceremony. No one would acknowledge that marriage as valid.

      This is a similar situation. It's not that non-natives can't or shouldn't participate in sweat lodges in the Native American tradition (or any other tradition). It's that a sweat lodge is a sacred ceremony, like any other religious service, and any old Joe shouldn't be allowed to head the ceremony, only the people who are part of that community who are trained and sanctioned to do it should. Nor should they force attendees to pay for it.

      July 28, 2011 at 9:17 am |
  5. Yahdilah

    A traditional sweat lodge seperates women and men. There are songs and prayers during these ceremonies. It is never done for finacial gain. You can't call James Arthur Ray's shindig a sweat lodge ceremony. As a native american, it offends me.

    July 12, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
  6. Night Owl

    Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light
    Everyone needs some peace and quiet once in a while. Find the time to be alone with yourself everyday, but without neglecting your duties and responsibilities.

    July 10, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  7. Horace

    nothing to say.

    July 10, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  8. Horace


    July 10, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  9. Genaro is a crazy internet troll

    Folks, just disregard Genaro's comments. He's actually an internet troll named Lee Kuan Major, who's been abusing people who've been following this case and posting comments after various articles.

    June 29, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
  10. cynthia caldwell

    hope the native americans can have some justice,but sorry to say they will never get their land and lost ancesters back.us the white man should be so ashamed

    June 28, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • Victorio Lopez

      are you for banning sweat lodges for everyone but native americans? what kind of crazypants 'justice' are you hoping for here? some guy has a cheesy sweat lodge event, and now liberals what some to ban anything that may 'offend' some random group of native americans? weird.

      July 23, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  11. Mike


    June 28, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  12. Ghân-buri-Ghân

    He should be sentenced to death by boiling water. That would be poetic justice. A little harsh maybe, but it would be justice.

    June 28, 2011 at 3:40 am |
    • Sandy

      I am just not evil enough to wish such things upon people

      June 28, 2011 at 8:41 am |
    • Zelda

      N. Koreans actually do that on innocent prisoners. Atheists have neither mercy or sense of justice. None whatsoever.

      June 28, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • cynthia caldwell

      I agree with you to no end,my experience with sweetlodges never cost a penny,are safe.I feel he was only trying to make money on what he thought was a good idea.I thought he was to be sentenced today and can't find anything,hope he gets the max and loses every cent he made through his snake oil sales

      June 28, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
    • Sandy

      I'm not evil enough to fantasize about people being boiled in water. Obviously you are. I was under the impression that this was much more than a sweat lodge. It would come under the heading of an extreme sports warrior endurance challenge. From what I have read, the reason Mr Ray charged so much was because he knew he was taking an incredibly big risk in sponsoring such a workshop.

      If the workshop was held on your property in a sweat lodge you built and you knew beforehand that this person had problems the year before in using the sweat lodge you built on your property it would have been YOUR responsibility to make certain the sweat lodge was used safely.

      June 28, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
  13. Asklepios417

    The reason our economy is in a mess and our national debt is out of control, experts now theorize, is because America was built over sacred Indian burial grounds.

    I saw that just the other day on the Onion News Network.

    June 28, 2011 at 1:27 am |
    • Paul

      Those who desecrate the sacred land do not deserve to live happily ever after. It all comes back around eventually

      June 28, 2011 at 8:43 am |
    • cynthia caldwell

      that makes perfect sence,and not to forget every founding father tryed to wipe out every native american there was.SHAME,SHAME,SHAME

      June 28, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  14. WhatWouldMaudeDo

    I'm a little confused and torn on the issue of Native American traditions or practices being something that are proprietary and off limits to anyone but Native American tribes. I understand how exploitation by attaching one's business to the culture is wrong, especially considering historical events, but I guess I'm confused about what is considered appropriate and what is not. Maybe there isn't even a consensus about where the line is drawn. Native American culture is such a rich tradition that is truly an asset to the dominant culture, but I get the feeling that it's somewhat compartmentalized not very accessible to the average outsider except in the most superficial and stereotypical examples. I'm assuming that much of the reason for that is to prevent the nations from being assimilated into the greater culture and cease to be a unique community and maybe partly to keep these cultures from being commercialized and ending up like the very stereotypes that much of the general population has as its only reference.

    It seems in many South American countries there has been much more assimilation and the result appears to be that the indiginous cultures have actually helped shape the national culture as much or more than the imported European influences. I know that the history isn't the same as here, but it's very interesting to see the contrasts. I'm not informed or involved enough to have any real opinions on this, but I wonder what others think about issues like adopting certain spiritual practices like the group in the article. I do see the problems with this case, but on the other hand, different societies have adopting things from others, changed them, combined them, taken what works for them, etc. There are very few existent cultures which haven't been influenced by others. For some it would be considered a compliment to appropriate something from another society that one likes. I guess what I'm wondering is, beyond obvious exploitation, when is it okay to take an interest in Native American ideas, etc. and when is it not.

    June 27, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
    • Genaro

      I KNOW I have South American Indian blood in me. My father, who was raised in Ecuador, would like to deny it. Having Indian blood is frowned upon in Spanish circles, but I AM NOT A WHITE MAN!!

      I tell you this much: If I had my way I would give those white people NO CHOICE WHATSOEVER except to abide by the TREATY they signed with James Arthur Ray. Oh, three people died? What about all the Native Americans who died as the result of broken Christian white man treaties? They don't care, right? WELL, I DON'T CARE EITHER!!!

      June 27, 2011 at 10:48 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      The traditions are not completely cut off to people outside of their tribes, however, the tribe deserves the right to teach only those that they deem respectful and honorable enough to not then go out and pervert the ceremony/tradition by making it into something it isn't and profiting from it.

      June 28, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  15. Sacredness

    The use of sweat lodges and other ceremonies are best left up to each respective tribes who sing the songs and understand the meanings and use of the sacred items in a ceremony. They are not for exploitation and it is not a commodity. Unfortunately, there was some lives taken needlessy in the name of greed. He should recieve the maximum sentence, this will send out a strong message to those who think they know how to conduct ceremonies when they don't know how. This is very, very sad.

    June 27, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
    • Genaro

      I don't tell you how to live your life and you don't tell me how to live mine. If I choose to conduct a sweat lodge ceremony in a unique way that would be MY BUSINESS.

      If YOU build a sweat lodge on YOUR property and allow others to use it the proper use of YOUR sweat lodge on YOUR property becomes YOUR business, right? If you do nothing to make certain YOUR sweat lodge is being used safely on YOUR property and someone dies as a result YOU should be held equally responsible because it was YOUR responsibility to be there making certain everything was being done properly. ESPECIALLY, if you had let that particular person use YOUR sweat lodge the year before and there were problems.

      We should be in agreement that Angel Valley should be equally responsible for this tragedy and Mr Ray goes to jail so should Angel Valley owner Mr Hamilton.

      We should also be in agreement that if white people die trying to emulate Native Americans why the hell should you Native Americans care? After what the white man has done to your people? WHY SHOULD YOU CARE?

      June 27, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
    • Debra

      And you Native Americans don't come complaining about how much money Mr Ray charged for that event when you are perfectly comfortable with the concept of stealing all Mr Ray's money without earning it, okay? If it was BAD for Mr Ray to charge the money the money is spiritually poisoned and YOU should want no part of that money. Like stealing money from a person who made the money selling heroin, right?

      June 27, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      @Genaro, You are oversimplifying a complex issue.

      There are many components that go into a sweat lodge ceremony, physically, spiritually, mentally. All of these must work in harmony and all of these must be closely safeguarded by the person responsible.

      Regardless of which tradition is being emulated, regardless of whether the leader is Native American, trained by Native Americans, or is making it up as they go, they are responsible to ensure that those who enter the lodge are physically and mentally prepared for what they will encounter inside. This includes teaching them to recognize signs of trouble, and making sure that they understand that they can and should leave if these signs begin to show.

      Clearly, Ray did not do this.

      June 28, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • Icarius

      If I want to sweat I'll just go to the sauna at my health club. Native Americans do not have the "copyright" on sweating together with friends. Nor do they have the only path to spirituality and experiencing a "higher plane". It is a travesty that Native Americans were victims of genocide. History is full of enthic warfare and land grabs all over the globe. We can't go back and change that, we can only go forward with enlightenment. Respect for our planet and all it's people.

      October 9, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
  16. JR

    this man is charging money to do a sweat lodge,thats not right he's useing these people to gain for himself they should give him life for killing someone ,he dont even look native,the natives should have there way with him when they lock him up and throw away the key so he don't do this to other people

    June 27, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • Genaro

      There was MUCH, MUCH MORE than just a sweat lodge at that warrior workshop. Mr Ray charged so much because he knew he was taking a VERY, BIG RISK by sponsoring such an endurance event. He was right! It has cost him his entire career up to this point. It cost him his company, his houses are up for sale. His reputation is ruined. He DESERVED all that money for the risk he took to help people reach their full potential.

      The sweat lodge was built on Angel Valley property. It belonged to Angel Valley. The owner Mr Hamilton KNEW of problems with prior JRI sweat lodges, thus it was the responsibility of the owners of Angel Valley to have emergency personnel on hand for the two hours of the sweat lodge ceremony. By the definition quoted from this article. Mr Hamilton is guilty of manslaughter:


      “…while manslaughter suggests that the defendant knew and blatantly disregarded this knowledge.”

      June 27, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  17. Genaro

    You have to consider that Mr Hamilton already testified to having a fire ant problem at Angel Valley. If there were a couple of fire ant colonies on the site of the sweat lodge do you think Mr Hamilton would not have secretly had something done about that? There is no safe method I know of to kill an entire fire ant colony.

    There are indications Mr Ray and Mr Hamilton had some sort of disagreement and Mr Ray never intended to hold a workshop at Angel Valley ever again. That’s why Mr Hamilton would want to ruin James’ workshop.

    I believe James Arthur Ray was SET UP!

    You Native Americans should be DEMANDING that the white man honor the treaty they signed with James Arthur Ray. How many Native Americans have died because of broken white man treaties? Why the hell do you Native Americans want to be the heroes of the white man?

    Think about it!

    June 27, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • cynthia caldwell

      it is called 'poetic justice' thats why.i'm sorry james ray deserves everything he will get, i can not stand greedy money making oppertunists and that is what j.r. is,and now...he is going down.

      June 28, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • evensteven

      You have an agenda, Genaro. Please divulge plainly what it is so that your comments may be given the appropriate regard.

      July 4, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
  18. Zelda

    Native Americans need Jesus for salvation. Super-sti-tions and shamanism save no one.

    June 27, 2011 at 10:29 am |
    • Genaro

      Are you talking about the same Jesus who stood by and did nothing while the Christian white man broke every treaty they wanted to break and stole Native American lands? That Jesus?

      June 27, 2011 at 10:37 am |
    • Thunderbird Man

      Are you talking about the same Jesus who stood by while priests beat and molested Native American kids in boarding schools?

      June 27, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • Genaro

      If you are talking about a different Jesus be sure and let us know. We wouldn't want to be accusing some completely innocent Jesus

      June 27, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • Zelda

      Humans abuse others regardless of claiming whatever religions. Those criminals will be punished most severely by Jesus if they haven't repented and transformed. Look at your own evil. What have you developed for yourselves except endless barbarism? You've been spoiled by the English. If you don't use your brains, treaties get broken all the time on this planet. Learn the world history, please. Native Americans should be gratetful it wasn't Russians, Nazi Germans or something worse who found them first. The world people went through a lot harder time than you. Stop the self-pity and study human history. Be smarter than the English if you want your land back. People lose land all the time.

      June 28, 2011 at 1:10 am |
    • Zelda

      Sorry, but if the English treated some other races like they did with Native Americans, those other races could have been the kings in this land long ago bringing the English down under them. Laziness is a disease. Face the hard reality. Learn some stuff from the Jews.

      June 28, 2011 at 1:19 am |
    • myweightinwords


      In the name of Christ generations of white men have abused, used, killed, and tortured Native Americans. They kidnapped children from their homes and forced them into white schools where they were not allowed to speak their native languages, dress in their traditional clothing, and where they were forced to "convert" to Christianity.

      Somehow, I think they were better off with their native religion.

      June 28, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • PatriciaH

      So then, it is indeed the same Jesus and he proves his love for his children by letting them get away with atrocities in their livetimes then ensuring they are tortured for all eternity when they die. With love like that...who needs hate?

      June 28, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • evensteven

      Zelda, Anthropologists would describe the posture of your mind as ethnocentrism. In other words you cannot see past your own upbringing and values to understand the culture of other people. Most people never get very far past their ethnocentrism because its simpler, easier and takes less effort to look at life in polarities: good & evil, light & dark, black & white

      July 5, 2011 at 12:35 am |
  19. Genaro


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


    This article could easily be about Mr Hamilton

    They are right! Mr Hamilton SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER! He should have had emergency personnel on hand for those two hours. He sure charged enough to afford them!


    “…while manslaughter suggests that the defendant knew and blatantly disregarded this knowledge.”


    If Mr Ray is guilty then SO IS MR HAMILTON! Mr Hamilton is guilty of MANSLAUGHTER, according to this definition. He knew there were problems in the past and disregarded this knowledge. As a result three people died!


    NOTE: Mr Ray charged as much as he did because knew his 'extreme sports' warrior workshop could be very dangerous and he was risking his entire career by doing his best to help people reach their full potential as human beings.

    June 27, 2011 at 9:13 am |
    • cynthia caldwell

      from what i understand he wouldn't let them out,made them feel like losers if they tryed and after having to pay 10 grand,didn't want to miss the event.who knows,i'm just glad he will have to pay in some way

      June 28, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  20. vinh vinh

    Why did they have to go thru all this trouble to get next level of consciousness?

    There is a thing called marijuana. And it is G Good.

    June 27, 2011 at 7:50 am |
    • Genaro


      You of all people should be making certain that the white man is FORCED to honor the treaty they signed with James Arthur Ray. You should not be defending the white man breaking treaties WITH ANYONE!!!

      We both know that true warriors take responsibility for their actions and their lives. Any warrior who stays in a sweat lodge longer than he should has gotten just what he or she has asked for and YOU KNOW IT!

      Different Native American tribes have different sweat lodge ceremonies. YOU HAVE NO LEGAL PATENT on how a sweat lodge ceremony must be conducted. I believe Mr Ray's ceremony incorporated MANY DIFFERENT TRADITIONS. It was not a strictly Lakota or any other Native American ceremony!

      June 27, 2011 at 9:24 am |
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