There's nothing new about the James Ray Plastic Death "Sweats". Over the years at least a dozen other newagers have died, and many more have become violently ill, in these pretendian ceremonies with various plastic shamans. You will note however that, with only one exception,* those who have died have not been Indians.
This is almost wholly an appropriator's phenomena. It's what clueless outsiders do when they are messing with something they don't understand; something they don't realize that you can't learn from a book or the Internet; something that is sacred and can't be bought.
It is vitally important that people remember the James Ray Death Camp was not a Native American thing. What happened there were not Native American ceremonies. This was a racist white man exploiting non-Indian people's fantasies of "Vision Quests", "Lodges", "Spiritual Warriors" and wind through their hair while wolves howl and vast desert vistas sweep away from their yin-yang painted tipis. They didn't want to know anything about real Indians, real Indian lives, and real Indian ceremonies; they want Dances with Wolves and they were gullible and desperate enough to pay some predatory cult leader over $9,000 to get that fantasy. The sick irony is that they thought it would make them rich.
Angel Valley Retreat Center. James Ray's DeathLodge at lower left.
In 1992, the "Men's Movement" amped up the white fascination with romanticized fantasies of Indians. Sherman Alexie - Spokane poet, fiction writer and filmmaker - was often asked to speak at these gatherings, and has written about why he chose not to. I appreciate Alexie's ability to handle these things with such humour and candidness.
From "White Men Can't Drum"
My friend John and I were sitting in the sweatlodge. No. we were actually sitting in the sauna of the Y.M.C.A. when he turned to me. "Sherman," he said, "considering the chemicals, the stuff we eat, the stuff that hangs in the air, I think the sweatlodge has come to be a purifying ceremony, you know? White men need that, to use an Indian thing to get rid of all the pollution in our bodies. Sort of a spiritual enema."
"That's a lot of bull," I replied savagely.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that the sweatlodge is a church, not a free clinic."
The men's movement seems designed to appropriate and mutate so many aspects of Native traditions. I worry about the possibilities: men's movement chain stores specializing in portable sweatlodges; the "Indians 'R' Us" commodification of ritual and artifact; white men who continue to show up at powwows in full regalia and dance.
... ... ...
Perhaps these white men should learn to dance within their own circle before they so rudely jump into other circles. Perhaps white men need to learn more about patience before they can learn what it means to be a man, Indian or otherwise.
In a wonderfully candid 2001 interview with the Iowa Review, Alexie discusses the problem of writing across the lines of ethnicity and gender, as well as how to handle the issue of writing about ceremony.
SA: And about women's experience — I'm better than most male writers. They see the Madonna-whore — it's incredible: these progressive, liberal intelligent, highly-educated men are writing complex, diverse, wonderful male characters in the same book where the female characters are like women in a 3 a.m. movie on Showtime.
JF: You've said having come from a matriarchal culture gives you more insight.
SA: I think it helps. And I give my stuff to the women around me. 'Does this work?' I spend my whole life around women—I should know something. If I don't know it, I ask. It has to be a conscious effort. It's too easy to fall back on stereotypes and myths, and I think that's what most writers do about Indians and what most men do when they write about women.
... ... ...
JF: You said once that universality is a misnomer, that it's really a Western sense of the word.
SA: Well, when people say universal they mean white people get it.
... ... ...
... "universal" is often a way to negate the particularity of a project, of an art. I hate that term; it's insulting. I don't want to be universal.
... ... ...
JF: Along those lines, I'm wondering about a seeming paradox. You often say during readings and talks that you want to honor your culture's privacy, and yet your work is so public. It seems like you protect it and expose it at the same time. There's a tension created.
SA: Yes, of course there is. One of the ways I've dealt with it is that I don't write about anything sacred. I don't write about any ceremonies; I don't use any Indian songs.
JF: True. You mention sweat lodges but only obliquely. I'm thinking of the image of the old woman in the poem who emerges from the sweat lodge.
SA: Yes, I'm outside the sweat lodge. In Reservation Blues I'm in it and I realized I didn't like it. I approach my writing the same way I approach my life. It's what I've been taught and how I behave with regard to my spirituality.
JF: How do you draw the line as to what is off limits?
SA: My tribe drew that line for me a long time ago. It's not written down, but I know it. If you're Catholic you wouldn't tell anybody about the confessional. I feel a heavy personal responsibility, and I accept it, and I honor it. It's part of the beauty of my culture. I've been called fascist a couple of times, at panels. I've censored myself. I've written things that I have since known to be wrong.
JF: What kind of things . . . I guess you can't say.
SA: (Laughs). All I can say is that I've written about cultural events inappropriately.
JF: How did you know?
SA: The people involved told me. After considering it, I realized they were right. In a few instances. Not every instance, but in a few. I can't take them out of what they're in, but I'm not going to republish them, or perform them in public, no anthologizing: they've died for me. There are Indian writers who write about things they aren't supposed to. They know. They'll pay for it. I'm a firm believer in what people call 'karma.' Even some of the writing I really admire, like Leslie Silko's Ceremony, steps on all sorts of sacred toes. I wouldn't go near that kind of writing. I'd be afraid of the repercussions. I write about a drunk in a bar, or a guy who plays basketball.
JF: So the only flak you get is from individuals who say, "I think you're making fun of me." Do you try to soothe things over?
SA: Some people are unsoothable. But I'm a nice enough guy, and I think people know that. If I weren't pissing people off I wouldn't be doing my job. I just want to piss off the right people. I try not to pick on the people who have less power than I. It's one of the guidelines of my life. And if I have, then I feel badly about it. I try to make amends.
* Note - As archived by Heather at Don't Pay to Pray, one 2009 death in a "lodge" was a First Nations man in Canada, Lawrence Catholique. However, there were some very odd and suspicious things about that incident. Despite being a traditional healer, nothing about the circumstances resemble a sweatlodge ceremony from any First Nations culture that I am aware of. A later article says he had changed the ceremony, "experimenting with wood embers in the lodge". It was a tragic death, but if reports are true, he had changed the ceremony, deviating from the time-tested safety protocols. Also, add third James Ray Death Trap victim, Liz Neumann, to the list of dead newagers. She is the woman who was in a coma, who died after the Don't Pay to Pray blog post.
Thanks to Kooshdakaa for forwarding the Utne Reader article that contained some of these quotes and links: What Happens in the Sweat Lodge Stays in the Sweat Lodge