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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.


  • @Opichi: maybe there’s a misunderstanding here: that video has nothing to do with Gabrielle’s experience, that is: it is not the one the “elders said not to make it” – and so I corrected the post accordingly

    As Gabrielle herself pointed out in a previous comment:

    >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.< Please let me know if you think we're still at fault - but also note that we (or nobody else beside its author/publisher, maybe) cannot take it "off the net", at the most we can only take it off our GV post...

  • Padraigen

    This is tragic and I can’t believe that once again the Native Americans have made it all about them. This isn’t about race or stealing someone’s ceremony. Healing and purification through sweating has been used throughout the world for ages. With such a mix of people and races today, it would be natural that unique ceremonies would be created. Though with so much money involved it is hard to imagine anything good to come from it.

    I live in Minnesota where the Swedes and Finlanders have their own ceremonies of “sweating” which is good medicine as well. So I ask why is the word “white” being used in a negative, racist way? It would certainly be good if more Native American tribes were as interested in other cultures. Most of came from clans, tribes, and medicinal healing through the power of the spiritual and natural world. Why are we getting specific directions from people on how to do ceremony? One of the most healing sweatlodges I attended was lead by a white woman trained by a Lakota medicine man. Her power and goodness were as important as his. They were both wise and good and not greedy. It was a beautiful combination of traditional ceremony and a true medicine woman with great intent. I have to wonder about the true intent of the wealthy man who put all these people and toxins in so small a space. Bad medicine.

    My heart and prayers go out to the families of the dead. And to those who were hurt by this incident and still healing. It’s about them.


  • What a wonderful tradition that American Natives have, It is sad to see people try and conive truth out of anothers tradition. I think that if one is to find gods presence he must be humble and modest.Only true believers can contact god through experiences and rituals, and let us hope that real love that makes me to forgive and treat my fellow man with kindness is the end result of any spiritual arena.

  • @Padraigen: of course some kind of “healing and purification through sweating has been used throughout the world for ages”, just add to the list turkey, israel, japan, or even the roman empire famous open baths…

    but here we’re talking about a “Spiritual Warrior” seminar including a 36-hour solitary-fasting “Vision Quest” and other specific Native Americans elements, aimed at “Creating Absolute Wealth” and exploring “The Seven Levels of Spiritual Awakening” – all this promoted by a multimillion dollar enterprise with pretty hefty fees for each participant, and so on….

    can we honestly call this a ‘new remixing’ of traditions and ceremonies?? it seems rather lack of respect and exploitation to say the least, as others explained so well in previous comments – not to mention the three people that died…

    and please let’s not forget the more than 500 years of genocide, racism and misappropriation that white people – yes, our ancestors – carried on (and some of them are still doing, somehow) exactly against Native Americans – not the other way around

  • Disseminated

    Wow Padraigen. As a Fin from Minnesota I couldn’t be more embarrassed about your comment showing a lack of understanding of culture, ceremony and racism. I am not sure where to even begin…

    Well I suppose your racist assault on Native Americans would be a good place to start. Native Americans in our country still live in the highest levels of poverty of any group of people, not even close. Do you have any comprehension of why that is Padraigen? Here’s a clue…white people killed them, raped their wives, spread disease, killed their food supply, killed their children and then put whoever was left in small parcels of land lacking in natural resources to sustain a living. You live in Minnesota where we are supposed to have the best public education and the highest level of progressive enlightenment? Wow. Make no mistake, your comments were so offensive that I truly pray you never speak on behalf of another white Minnesotan again and would prefer you leave our state.

    Secondly as a Fin we make sweat lodges because it is cold in Finland! We then jump in a lake because we are crazy and think that is fun. IT IS NOT A SPIRITUAL CEREMONY!!!!! Again, please do not speak on behalf of Fins as you are obviously not one and have no clue what you are talking about.

    Your white lady friend made a good sweat lodge with the TRAINING of a lakota elder. Do you not understand that he gave her a gift and that is why she was able to perform the ceremony in the correct way. That is the WHOLE POINT that Native Americans are making about this James Ray fraud. He was not properly trained or supervised by an elder ,has no comprehension of what he was doing, and was completely blinded by greed. I truly don’t understand how you cannot comprehend such a simple concept and attack Native Americans. HE CALLED IT THE WARRIOR RETREAT!!!!

    Well our friend Padraigen here is a prime example of how racism is alive and healthy in America today. White people think that because they are not burning crosses or \have some friends\ from other cultures or go on spiritual retreats led by other white people that they are somehow not racist. Well the anonymity of the internet allows people to show their true ugly heads. As a white person from Minnesota I certainly do not claim to be at the end of my journey in understanding and adjusting my behavior based on my own white privilege but your comments just give me more drive. *Moderators* by posting her initial comment you already violated your own policy regarding hate speech. This is in response to that violation.

  • I’m french, and please, apologise my writing on in french. Hope you could translate…
    Depuis une dizaine d’année, je m’interesse à la culture lakota. J’ai assisté deux fois à la danse du soleil, sur la réserve de Rosebud. On m’a même fait l’honneur de participer. On m’a invité aussi à participer à la cérémonie de sudation. L’officiant a longuement pris soin de bien m’exliquer de quoi il s’agit. Il m’a traduit les paroles des prières, afin que je sois à même non seulement de comprendre, mais de bien être conscient de l’acte sacré auquel je m’associait et de mon investissement personnel. Il m’a aussi exliqué les dangers éventuels et m’a bien précisé qu’il ne s’agit pas d’une performance et que je ne devais pas tenter d’aller au delà de mes possibilités physiques, m’indiquant que la sudation est faite pour soigner, et non pas pour “mortifier”.
    De retour en France, queque temps plus tard, je me suis aperçu qu’il y avait, ça et là, des gens en mal d’exotisme qui reproduisait avec une totale inconscience et un total irrespect certaines des cérémonies lakotas. A tel point qu’un jour, certains de ces “apprentis sorciers” (expression française pour désigner des ignorants qui se piquent de tout connaitre) ont utilisé des pierres trouvées alentour. La composition chimiques de ces pierres contenaient du soufre. L’eau versée sur les pierre a immédiatement dégagé des vapeurs d’acide sulfurique !
    Donc, laissons à ceux qui ont la maitrise, le savoir ancestral, la sagesse, la pratique des cérémonies. Le savoir et la ferveur sont les garanties de leur bon déroulement. Laissons aux lakotas leur culture, et remercions dieu s’ils nous invitent, nous, les washicuns à y participer. Adhérer complétement, comme je le fais, à la spiritualité et aux croyances lakota ne me donne pas le droit de me prendre pour un lakota.

    Michel Massias
    Loudun, France

  • here is the above comment in english, thanks to google translate plus my editing (hope got everything right)

    Over the past ten years, I’ve been interested in the Lakota culture. I assisted twice the Sundance ceremony on the Rosebud Reservation. I was very honored to participate. I was also invited to attend the sweat lodge ceremony. The officiating has taken care to explain at length what it is. He translated the words of prayers, that I am able to not only understand, but be well aware of the sacred act which I associate myself and my personal investment. He also explained potential hazards and made quite clear that this is not a performance and that I should not attempt to go beyond my physical capabilities, telling me that the point of sweating to treat and not to “mortify”.
    Back in France, some time later, I realized that there was here and there, people in search of exoticism that reproduced with complete unconsciousness and a total disrespect some of Lakota ceremonies. So much so that one day some of these “apprentice sorcerers” (French expression to refer to ignorant people who pride themselves on knowing everything) used stones found nearby. The chemical composition of these rocks contained sulfur. The water poured on the stone immediately emitted fumes of sulfuric acid!
    So let to those who are mastering the ancient knowledge and wisdom, the practice of ceremonies. Knowledge and enthusiasm are the guarantees of their good conduct. Leave to the Lakota their own culture, and thank god they invite us, we the “washicun” to participate. Adhering completely, as I do, to Lakota spirituality and beliefs do not give me the right to take them from a Lakota.

  • Dee Campbell

    Shame on you JamesARay, for trying to make money off of Native American ceremonies. So many white people try doing this. I am part Cherokee and this hurts me. Is nothing sacred anymore.

  • this video-interview has just been published on cnn: CNN’s Gary Tuchman talks to two former admirers of James Ray who have lost faith in the “self-help guru.”

    it’s very interesting, let’s hope it’s gonna be an eye-opener for other followers and save their lives and money…

  • Ann Gie

    When one submits his/her body to a sauna, it requires certain time and temperature just like the hot bath that the Japanese are doing in an onsen.
    If body is exposed to a higher temperature and longer time inside a hot area, it is of course dangerous. Sweat is water going out from the body and it caused dehydration and organ failure follows especially kidney.
    If it was a traditional ceremony, therefore, experts in this ceremony know when to start and when to end it.
    Asking the participants if they were still okey was not right. Pride and humility pushed them to stay longer in that situation. Too bad, medical advice was not on hand to help them…

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