On Thursday October 8th two people died and 19 others were taken to a hospital from the Angel Valley Retreat Center, in the Sedona area, a renowned resort in central Arizona, after spending time in a make-shift sweat lodge while attending a “Spiritual Warrior” program by self-help expert James Arthur Ray.
UPDATE: A third person died at the Flagstaff Medical Center late on Saturday October 17th.
The tragic event made national headlines in the US, with experts on sweat lodges and Native Americans criticizing the reported construction of the lodge, the number of participants, and the length of the ceremony.
James Ray is President and CEO of James Ray International, which holds seminars on “wealth creation” where he charges up to US $ 10,000. He was also interviewed in the New Age 2006 film The Secret, appeared on Oprah Winfrey show and is the author of Harmonic Wealth, a New York Times bestseller.
As another example of the on-going exploitation of Native Americans culture, this tragic episode is being widely discussed within the US blogosphere.
In detailing her 80's sweat lodge experience conducted by a Lakota Sioux woman, Gabrielle Daniels, aka blksista, writes that she “photographed the building of the lodge until I was told not to, because it was not something to be shared with those outside of the group”,
streaming her pictures while another lodge building is described in this YouTube video.
blksista further explains:
And when the lodge was completed, covered in hides and blankets and evergreen branches, and when the stones were heated, and we were in various stages of undress, in shorts and in bathing suits, we went in small groups at a time. I’d say that there were about six to eight people at a time in the lodge. And I sat and withstood the steam and heat from the stones until it was time for me to go. Compared to say, a sauna, where pine tar and eucalyptus mixed with water can be thrown on onto the heat, no scents were allowed on the stones. I was there for at least twenty minutes to half an hour. Everyone was like that. No one was forced to stay in longer than it was possible for them. People were quietly asked if they were okay during the sweat; they simply said yes or no, or nodded. I nodded. …
And here's her conclusion:
…people in New Age religions embrace only one part of the totality of a culture or a people–like the buying masks and idols or a religion–without an understanding of what these items or these rituals really mean. Disrespect results, and then eventually, leaders can become authoritarian and cultish, people can get turned off and leave, or people can get hurt or worse, die. That’s the cruel lesson, I feel, that’s being learned regarding this tragedy. I can only hope that this time, that it’s heeded.
In a post on Beyond Growth, a collaborative blog exploring the future of personal development, Duff McDuffee tries to summarize what we can learn from this tragedy:
One thing we might conclude is that all spiritual teachers or personal development gurus are bad, and should be avoided. Or that James Arthur Ray specifically is a greedy, evil person. Or that the Law of Attraction and The Secret are total bullshit. And these would indeed be ways to read the situation that have some merit. …
One could see this disaster as “the dark side of The Secret,” which is not just “negative thinking” but even positive intentions gone horribly wrong. Thus, positive thinking and intent are not enough if they lead to negative consequences. Indeed, Ray himself emphasizes that the results one brings about in life are what are most relevant to one’s spiritual progress. …
Could it be that one spiritual purpose of this “Spiritual Warrior Event” is to give an opportunity to Mr. Ray to act with the honor of a samurai, taking 100% responsibility for not only the design of the workshop, but even for his evoking of the Warrior?
Samthor, one of the dozen people commenting on that post, writes:
the great spiritual lesson here is “no means NO”.
that you can't just take the most sacred ceremonies from another culture that you do not belong and have not paid any dues too, mix it with whatever you feel like and sell it off as a business venture.
for decades actual native americans have tried to warn the white culture about fraud ripping off and bastardizing their culture and ceremonies. no one listened opting instead for the glittery promises of the new age gurus and plastic shamans.
and as a result people are constantly being ripped off and put in danger.
He also points to a list of people (updated only through June 2008, though) that died in recent years in situations similar to the Sedona tragedy.
Please remember these victims in your prayers and don't let these deaths be forgotten. They were all human beings and none of them deserved to die like this.
For thousands and thousands of years, no one died in a sweat lodge. When people decided to sell them, seven people, that we know of, died in 28 years.
The same blog Don't Pay To Pray, “A blog about all the fakes, frauds and flim flam artists that don't pray, but prey on the gullible and the greedy”, provides a very extensive list of links to useful resources managed and/or related to Native Americans.
In an opinion letter published on The Arizona Republic website, titled “Making money off Indian culture”, Karen Ramirez writes:
I am a Dakota who finds it amusing that so many individuals feel it is necessary to make money off the traditions of my culture.
To James Ray, I suggest you discontinue a practice you have no knowledge of, which is evident by the practice of charging your followers, which is not the Native American way.
After the Sedona tragedy, James Ray posted the following tweets:
Previously, during the same Sedona event, he also posted on Twitter these notes (since then deleted but still available through a simple search):
According to the most recent reports, “local authorities have no record of an application or permit for a temporary structure at the Angel Valley Retreat Center”, while it seems that “resort personnel specifically told Ray it was a bad idea to build the lodge, and that cramming that many people into that small a space wasn't safe.” Appearing on Tuesday at a previously scheduled seminar in California, a tearful James Ray said: “I have no idea what happened. We'll figure it out,” adding that he had hired private investigators.
The police investigation is still underway in an attempt to determine if criminal charges should be filed against James Ray and his staff.