March 02, 2011

Sweat lodge trial begins

New Age guru James Ray was in the news from October 2009 to February 2010 for the deaths he caused in a Sedona sweat lodge. Now his manslaughter trial for those deaths has begun.

The trial doesn't exactly qualify as Native news, but Indians are still upset over Ray's appropriation of their culture. Some tidbits from a major article summarizing the situation:

Sweat lodge trial fuels Native American frustrations

By Jessica RavitzProsecutors say the deaths resulted from Ray's recklessness, an overheated lodge and because he encouraged people to stay inside when they weren't feeling well. His defense team denies those allegations, and attorney Luis Li has called what transpired "a terrible accident, not a crime."

Accidents, in fact, have happened even in ceremonies overseen by tribes. The Seattle Times reported a year ago the death of a 29-year-old Puyallup tribe member in a Swinomish smokehouse ceremony on a reservation near La Conner, Washington. The cause of death, overheating, was ruled accidental by a county medical examiner, the paper reported. And no criminal charges were filed in that case because it was an accident, says Alix Foster, an attorney for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.

The Ray case highlights an outrage that's long existed for many Native Americans. They are tired of their traditions being co-opted by others and exploited for capital gain. They resent that a ceremony they view as sacred is now being tied to terms like "death trap." They don't want their ancient ways to be deemed fashionable or inspire impersonators.
And:After the disaster and criminal charges, representatives of various tribal nations stepped into the legal fray, filing a federal lawsuit last March against Ray and those who run the Angel Valley Retreat Center, where he had leased land for his program.

The plaintiffs, on behalf of their tribes, sought to end the "abuse and misuse" of their ceremonies and hoped to convince the court that their rituals were their property and should be protected under the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act. Just as a merchant can't claim earrings were made by Native Americans if they weren't, their ceremonies shouldn't be falsely advertised either, they argued.

That suit was dismissed in October. The court held that "the operation of a sweat lodge is plainly not art, craftwork or a handcraft." Services can't be protected like goods, the court ruled.

Amayra Hamilton, along with her husband, Michael, owns the Angel Valley Retreat Center, where the lodge was located. Their business has suffered greatly since the sweat lodge incident. The couple, in fact, has filed a business claim tort suit against Ray for running his retreat, on their property, in what their attorney Kelley Ruda calls "a ridiculous manner."
I knew the Lakota lawsuit wouldn't go anywhere. And for facilitating Ray's nonsense, the Hamiltons deserve what they got.

More thoughtsAutumn Two Bulls, 29, also lives on Pine Ridge, and just thinking about the dream catchers that hang in trendy gift shops, the non-Native Americans who make money off her people's artifacts, makes her cry "rape."

"Haven't native people been through enough?" says Two Bulls, a writer who created Reservation H.E.L.P. (Helping Every Lakota Person), an organization to help impoverished families.

"It's a fad to be Indian today. … They envision us like a fantasy culture," but the harsh reality is one they helped create and won't face, she suggests.

She says this from her reservation, where there's 80 percent unemployment, suicide rates are reportedly 300 percent higher than the national average and alcoholism ravages her community. Two Bulls says she was 18 when her mother died in her arms from cirrhosis.
Journalist Valerie Taliman offered her thoughts:Ray is a symbol, the latest and most horrifying example of what this trend purports, she says by phone. And the double standard in how he's been treated is glaring, she says.

"If an Indian man, a traditional person, killed people in a sweat lodge, he'd be in jail," she says, not free on bond. "And if I went out, and I impersonated a Catholic priest, and charged people to attend ceremonies, they'd arrest me."
Surprisingly, a Native built Ray's sweat lodge:Singing Bear is a 60-year-old Eastern Band Cherokee who calls himself a wisdom keeper, ceremonial leader and healer. He says he spent 20 years learning from tribal elders on reservations across North America.

So when he was asked to design a sweat lodge outside Sedona, where he lives, it mattered to him that it was done right. He says he selected the blankets and canvas covering that would breathe and offered the space traditional blessings and prayers, at no charge. And he says he worried when he heard how large they said Ray wanted it to be.

He says he told higher-ups at Angel Valley that what Ray wanted was too big and that only trained facilitators should lead ceremonies.
Comment:  Singing Bear could've said no to completing the sweat lodge if he thought it was dangerous. But I guess it's hard to turn down a job over a hypothetical outcome.

Incidentally, Autumn Two Bulls is one of the Indians Dominique Vantell Lonehunt attacked. I'd say she's doing a lot more to help Indians than he is.

For more on the subject, see New Book on Sweat Lodge Killer and Sweat Lodge Deaths on Dateline.

Below:  "James Arthur Ray’s sweat lodge ceremony in this structure left three dead and became a crime scene."


Anonymous said...

I don't know if I'd call it a fad to be Indian today; this sort of pretending has been going on for over 30 years, the exact opposite of a fad. But it is trendy...unless you're a real Indian. Oddly, this seems to be exclusive to Indians. There are no wannabe Tibetans or Hmong in China. No wannabe Maori in New Zealand.

Love that name H.E.L.P. I love when acronyms are recursive. Reminds me of EINE (EINE Is Not Emacs) and its sequel, ZWEI (ZWEI Was EINE Initially). (No, they don't have one for DREI.)

Jaine said...

it's true that there are no wannabe Maori in New Zealand and while there isn't anybody ripping off Maori ceremonies there was a problem a few years back with drug companies wanting to patent Maori medicinal plants. I can't remember the specifics but I don't think the companies were successful due to intellectual property rights. I would have thought the Court could have ruled in the favour of Lakohta due to Intellectual Property rights.

Burt said...

"Singing Bear", you gotta be kidding!

You can't call yourself a wisdom keeper, ceremonial leader and healer after spending 20 years around natives learning from "elders", thats what you call a "hobbyists" or as politicians like to call them, anthropologist.

If Singing Bear is a legitimate Indian, where does his "healing" and "wisdom keeping" fit into this tragedy?

Look at this sweat lodge! It looks like it was made from a parachute. Sweats should not be treated like some quick fix, manufactured, production line healing either.

I am offended and angry at how our native ceremonies are equated with the "pardoning of sins" Christianity so proudly boasts of with it mega-malls and trinkets, just pay the admission booth and take a ride on the Jesus ferris wheel.

Its a good idea I never meet these people cause in my tradition, they'de get horsewhipped to death, but in the whiteman's laws, the criminals are protected and the innocent are persecuted.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Mike Tyson got part of a moko. Also, on Star Trek: Voyager, Chakotay's tattoo looked vaguely Polynesian.

"Singing Bear"? <_< I have never seen a bear sing outside of cartoons, and even in cartoons, it looks stupid now.

Jaine said...

"Yeah, Mike Tyson got part of a moko. Also, on Star Trek: Voyager, Chakotay's tattoo looked vaguely Polynesian"
haven't seen Mike's moko but somebody did point out to me that Chakotay looked slightly Polyneasian - don't know if it was the tattoo that made them think that. There was a French designer also used moko in one of her collections and responded with the arrogant 'we are honouring Maori' to critism. People who cherry pick from other culures for commercial gain or status are everywhere unfortunately.