USA: Native Americans exploitation in Sedona ‘sweat lodge’ deaths

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

James Ray

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:

James Ray's tweets

Previously, during the same Sedona event, he also posted on Twitter these notes (since then deleted but still available through a simple search):

James Ray's tweets

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.


  • Stumpa

    I wish to express my sympathy to all of the families of those injured by this tragedy. This is an unfortunate incident that “true sweat lodge leaders” have warned against for years. I am of Native Heritage (Nakota / Dakota) and I’ve been praying in lodges for over 20 years. I am actually able to run sweats for my own family, but I am not authorized to pour water (lead the sweat) for others. These ceremonies are old and there is a lot of protocol and preparation that goes with them. Building the lodge is part of the ceremony. When I first saw the footage of the lodge I was very confused. I only know the way I’ve been taught and when I saw the lodge I knew that it was something that was different. It was not built in a traditional way and this ceremony is about the “traditional way.”

    I know that things are different in different cultures. I know that “sweat ceremonies” differ with the Dine’ and the Supai People and others, but this lodge that I saw on video was not like any other I’ve seen. It is too bad that the people attending this retreat did not know that this ceremony must be done a certain way or it can be dangerous. Also, the sweat lodge is not a ceremony that is for sale. A true sweat leader does not charge a fee. It takes a lot of energy to put on a sweat and some people may choose to donate time, food, work, money or other energy to help “carry the lodge.” If you are told that the ceremony costs money then you should know that you are attending a sweat ceremony that is not being run in the “traditional way.”

  • asdf

    I have lived in New Mexico and Arizona for the last twenty years and can tell you new agers are not well recieved by the locals. Many of them are Californians with more money and arrogance than brains and they tend to congregate near Sedona and Santa Fe. Knowing the type this incident does not suprise me at all though it is still tragic. Native American culture is very strong in this area (about only place in country natives were not almost wiped out) and white people with brains learn to respect it but also understand nothing is more pathetic than being a rich wannabe tourist. The southwest is the most beautiful part of the country imho but unfortunately it does sometimes draw rich tin foil hat wackos.

  • Brent

    I live in Albuquerque, and participate in a traditional Lakota sweat lodge regularly. If 19 people went to a hospital and 2 people died, it WAS NOT being led by someone who was of the tradition. He had no right. This is a sacred ceremony.

  • Let me correct an assumption made here that the You Tube building of a sweat lodge is from my own experience. It is not. I merely culled it from You Tube to illustrate my point about the building of lodges.

    I am from New Orleans, LA, and my mother introduced me to Native Americans through books as a child. She told me not to cheer for the cavalry while watching old movies because they were the ones helping whites to steal Native land. So appreciation and understanding for other peoples’ struggles came early for me. My family is not related to Native people of Louisiana, but through my grandparents, we certainly knew of black people who were.

    Otherwise, I appreciate your using my articles on Global Voices, and invite you to do so at any other time.

    Blessings to you all at this time, and let’s hope that this horror leads many others to understanding.

  • SimpleTruth

    ubject: Statement concerning Sedona Deaths

    As Keeper of our Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle, I am concerned for
    the 2 deaths and illnesses of the many people that participated in a sweat
    lodge in Sedona, Arizona that brought our sacred rite under fire in the
    news. I would like to clarify that this lodge and many others, are not our
    ceremonial way of life, because of the way they are being conducted. My
    prayers go out for their families and loved ones for their loss.

    Our ceremonies are about life and healing, from the time this ancient
    ceremonial rite was given to our people, never has death been a part of our
    inikag’a (life within) when conducted properly. Today the rite is
    interpreted as a sweat lodge, it is much more then that. So the term does
    not fit our real meaning of purification.

    Inikag’a is the oldest ceremony brought to us by Wakan Tanka (Great Spirit).
    19 generations ago, the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota Oyate (people), were given
    seven sacred rites of healing by a Spirit Woman – Pte San Win (White Buffalo
    Calf Woman). She brought these rites along with our sacred C’anupa (pipe) to
    our People, when our ancestors were suffering from a difficult time. It was
    also brought for the future to help us for much more difficult times to
    come. They were brought to help us stay connected to who we are as a
    traditional cultural People. The values of conduct are very strict in any
    of these ceremonies, because we work with spirit. The way the Creator,
    Wakan Tanka told us; that if we stay humble and sincere, we will keep that
    connection with the inyan oyate (the stone people), who we call the
    Grandfathers, to be able to heal our selves and loved ones. We have a
    “gift” of prayer and healing and have to stay humble with our Unc’i Maka
    (Grandmother Earth) and with one another. The inikag’a is used in all of the
    seven sacred rites to prepare and finish the ceremonies, along with the
    sacred eagle feather. The feather represents the sacred knowledge of our

    Our First Nations People have to earn the right to pour the mini wic’oni
    (water of life) upon the inyan oyate (the stone people) in creating Inikag’a
    – by going on the vision quest for four years and four years Sundance. Then
    you are put through a ceremony to be painted – to recognize that you have
    now earned that right to take care of someone’s life through purification.
    They should also be able to understand our sacred language, to be able to
    understand the messages from the Grandfathers, because they are ancient,
    they are our spirit ancestors. They walk and teach the values of our
    culture; in being humble, wise, caring and compassionate.

    What has happened in the news with the make shift sauna called the sweat
    lodge is not our ceremonial way of life!

    When you do ceremony – you can not have money on your mind. We deal with the
    pure sincere energy to create healing that comes from everyone in that
    circle of ceremony. The heart and mind must be connected. When you involve
    money, it changes the energy of healing. The person wants to get what they
    paid for; the Spirit Grandfathers will not be there, our way of life is now
    being exploited! You do more damage then good. No” mention” of monetary
    energy should exist in healing, not even with a can of love donations. When
    that energy exists, they will not even come. Only ‘after’ the ceremony,
    between the person that is being healed and the Intercessor who has helped
    connect with the Great Spirit, the energy of money can be given out of
    appreciation. That exchange of energy is from the heart; it is private and
    does not involve the Grandfathers! Whatever gift of appreciation the person
    who received the help, can now give the Intercessor what ever they feel
    their healing is worth.

    In our Prophesy of the White Buffalo Calf Woman, she told us that she would
    return and stand upon the earth when we are having a hard time. In 1994 this
    began to happen with the birth of the white buffalo, not only their nation,
    but many animal nations began to show their sacred color, which is white.
    She predicted that at this time there would be many changes upon Grandmother
    Earth. There would be things that we never experienced or heard of before;
    climate changes, earth changes, diseases, disrespect for life and one
    another would be shocking and there would be also many false prophets!

    My Grandmother that passed the bundle to me said I would be the last Keeper
    if the Oyate (people) do not straighten up. The assaults upon Grandmother
    Earth are horrendous, the assaults toward one another was not in our
    culture, the assaults against our People (Oyate) have been termed as
    genocide, and now we are experiencing spiritual genocide!

    Because of the problems that began to arise with our rebirth of being able
    to do our ceremonies in the open since the Freedom of Religion Act of 1978,
    our Elders began talking to me about the abuses they seen in our ceremonial
    way of life, which was once very strict. After many years of witnessing
    their warnings, we held a meeting to address this very issue of lack of
    protocol in our ceremonies. After reaching an agreement of addressing the
    misconduct of our ceremonies and reminding of the proper protocols, a
    statement was made in March 2003. Every effort was made to insure our way
    of life of who we are as traditional cultural People was made, because these
    ways are for our future and all life upon the Grandmother Earth (Mitakuye
    Oyasin – All my relations), so that they may have good health. Because these
    atrocities are being mocked and practiced all over the world, there was even
    a film we made called “Spirits for Sale”.

    The non-native people have a right to seek help from our “First Nation
    Intercessors” for good health and well-being, it is up to that Intercessor.
    That is a privilege for all People that we gift for being able to have good
    health and understand that their protocol is to have respect and appreciate
    what we have to share. The First Nations Intercessor has to earn that right
    to our ceremonial way of life in the ways I have explained.

    At this time, I would like to ask all Nations upon Grandmother Earth to
    please respect our sacred ceremonial way of life and stop the exploitation
    of our Tunka Oyate (Spiritual Grandfathers).

    In a Sacred Hoop of Life, where there is no ending and no beginning!

    Namah’u yo (hear my words),
    Chief Arvol Looking Horse, 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White
    Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle.


  • Dave Desmarais

    All that I have read in the above thread, as well as in the article, rings true.
    I am a Metis man, a pipe carrier, and a sweat lodge keeper, and I’ve been in many hundreds of sweat lodge ceremonies in the past 15 years, as well as many Sundance ceremonies, both as a dancer and as a helper.
    Within the traditional Native spiritual world, there is protocol to be respected and followed.
    There is a certain amount of time and level of experience that is required by traditional Elders before they are willing to pass on the rights to conduct ceremony.
    Unfortunately, there are those who buy a pipe, build a lodge and set themselves up as leaders, with little or no experience in proper conduct and protocol.
    There are also those who dabble, in the sense that they take a few components of Native spirituality, mix in other new age beliefs and practices, and start running ceremonies.
    Often times their intentions are good, and seldom have negative consequences (at least on the scale of this situation) but there is powerful, palpable energy in these ceremonies when conducted as they were meant to be, that is not to be taken lightly.
    And I’m not even delving into the inherent disrespect shown by dabblers and appropriators, to those who dedicate their lives to learning and keeping the traditions alive, strong and pure.
    In speaking of the Inipi (sweat lodge ceremony) in “The Sacred Pipe” (recorded and edited by Joseph Epes Brown) Black Elk said “All these things are wakan (holy) to us and must be understood deeply if we really wish to purify ourselves, for the power of a thing or an act is in the meaning and the understanding”
    Yes, intention is powerful, but, as illustrated by the James Ray situation, it’s not enough.
    Work with an Elder, put in your time…take the years to earn your stripes.
    Don’t play with this power.

    Kahkiyaw Niwahkomak
    Mitakuye Oyasin
    All My Relations

    Tihtipayiw Piyesiwak
    Rolling Thunder

    • Elaine

      Hi Dave: This is well written and clear to the point, on the teachings; I am so fortunate to know you and your teachings hope to see you soon, Elk Stone Woman

  • thanks for all the great comments, stories & clarifications everyone! indeed, we’d underline the continuous misappropriation of native american values and ceremonies, which inevitably brings to more of such… absurdities – calling them tragedies probably is not enough; and now investigators are talking openly of an homicide investigation:

    “An investigation into the deaths of two people who spent up to two hours inside a “sweat lodge” at an Arizona retreat last week has been elevated from an accidental death investigation to a homicide inquiry, Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh told reporters Thursday.”

    even if, yes, santa fe (i live nearby) and sedona are billed mostly as places for “rich wannabe tourist”, locals know that’s essentially a fake – just read the current SF reporter column about “Travel + Leisure” magazine’s annual survey of America’s favorite cities…

  • Memi

    There was a time in my life where I was at a crossroads, deeply in pain, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I sought to relieve my pain by seeking help in many places. There were partial truths in all of them, yet being an intelligent, intuitive person to begin with, I never fully surrendered to any one “ism”, person, or system, understanding that only the Creator is capable of deserving and honoring that kind of trust.

    James Arthur Ray reminds me of some of the “healers” I met and sought out in my journey to the source of my pain.The best of them were skilled practioners who were humble before their gift. The worst of them confused their ego with divine power.

    Especially egregious were the ones who charged the most money. While there is nothing inherently evil about money, it is highly dangerous to bring large sums of money into the mix when dealing with spiritual matters.

    The Harmonic Wealth that Ray purports to lead his flock to is deeply tainted by the lust for money most of us are still in thrall to. Ray and his ilk exploit that lust for their own benefit, their own greed and are in denial about the state of their inner honesty.

    These two people did not “choose” to leave. They were in deep physical stress, but overrode their true instincts, because they had surrendered themselves to this man. I’ve seen it too many times at these sorts of events. I’ve succumbed to it myself – put myself in jeopardy to impress the group, push my limits, expand my horizons. Thank God that common sense eventually took over and I was able to finally read the Bull Excrement Meter that was flashing in the danger zone.

    Ray’s tears at the moment are not for the deceased, but for the vast personal empire he is in danger of losing. I have yet to see him humble before the Creator.

  • unfortunately a third person died yesterday at the hospital – what needs to happen anymore before authorities treat all this as a clear, strong homicide case??

    (CNN) — A woman hospitalized after spending time in a sauna-like “sweatbox” has died, bringing the total fatalities to three, authorities said late Saturday.

    In addition to the deaths, 18 others were injured at the October 8 event at Angel Valley Retreat Center near Sedona, Arizona.

    The latest victim, Lizabeth Neuman, 49, is a Minnesota resident. She died at the Flagstaff Medical Center, the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office said.


  • opichi

    Hello – Gabrielle and Bernardo – the video you both posted was stopped because the elders said not to make it – so why are you posting it? Listen to your own advice and take it off the net, please. Thanks!

    • First, I have not taken credit for this slide show of Native people building a sweat lodge in 2008. It occurred elsewhere. Understand that this was about the building of a sweat lodge, and it was not showing the ceremonies involved within it. Someone else put this up on YouTube.

      My late friend was teaching us over 20 years ago, long before digital cameras became mainstream, and it was understandable that she, concerned about doing right, would tell us to refrain from photographing even the building of lodges. Today, there are dozens of recordings of the building of sweat lodges on YouTube. Those who would place lodge ceremonies on YouTube, I think, are out of their minds.

      Even voudou, real voudou, is private. What tourists see in dances and public “ceremonies” is a blind, a curtain, to what is really taking place beyond their eyes and with believers, acolytes, and priests.

      Thank you.

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