Sweat-lodge trial: James Arthur Ray often misused teachings, critics say
By Bob Ortega
But those attending the Spiritual Warrior retreat did not know that Ray already was being accused of misappropriating and misusing others' teachings without permission or proper training. They did not know that his claims to have been initiated into three shamanic traditions, gaining expertise in a variety of spiritual and esoteric teachings, were either exaggerations or questionable.
And they did not know that Ray's way of running a sweat lodge violated the spiritual and safety practices of the Native American traditions he claimed to follow.
A review of Ray's writings and recordings, and interviews with followers, did not reveal any reference in which he specifies from whom he learned two Native American spiritual practices he adapted for his Spiritual Warrior retreat: the "sweat lodge," in which participants gathered in a low, wood-frame shelter covered with tarps; and a preceding "vision quest," in which each participant was led into the countryside, required to mark out a 10-foot circle, and then stay there alone without food or water for 36 hours.
Years before the deadly 2009 ceremony, Ray "was approached several times by native leaders and told he was not trained to run Native American ceremonies," said David Singing Bear, an Eastern Band Cherokee and Sedona resident who has run sweat lodges. Singing Bear said that Phillip Crazy Bull, a Lakota chief who died in 2006, spoke with Ray in 2005.
Such training matters for physical safety reasons as well as for spiritual authenticity, says R.J. Joseph, a Cree filmmaker and former Native American program director at Sedona's Enchantment Resort.
"Desert people aren't really vision-quest or sweat-lodge people; they've adopted those ceremonies from Plains Indians. So when you have a fast or vision quest, it's generally in cooler climates. You certainly wouldn't put anybody out in the desert for two days with no water. Not in the desert," he said.