I join with the many activists who have followed this trial in being relieved we have a verdict of guilty. Like my colleagues, I would have preferred the manslaughter conviction, which carries a longer sentence. But at least Ray has been found guilty of causing the deaths of three human beings through his negligence. He will do time. May this serve as a deterrent to the other frauds and exploiters out there.
James Arthur Ray exploited Native people by mimicking their ceremonies and selling them for obscene amounts of money. He exploited lost souls looking for a spiritual leader. He killed three people in his sham plastic tent and sent many more to the hospital. I only wish the penalty was more severe for the damage he has done.
I pray that all those who have been exploited and harmed by this arrogant fraud, and by exploiters like him, find justice, completion, peace and healing.
Racism and Invisible Indians in the James Ray Trial
One of the most horrifying things about the James Ray trial, and the coverage by the mainstream media, is that Native people were rendered largely invisible. Of the many witnesses who testified, only Fawn Foster, a groundskeeper at the Angel Valley
retreat center, claimed to have any Native heritage (I don't know if she does, but this is what she stated on the stand). The defense tried to use her stated ethnicity, and her disapproval of pay-to-pray, as a reason to doubt her testimony. It was ugly and racist.
Even worse was the news coverage on In Session and Headline News. They found a pretendian fraud to lead a badly-done and dangerous fake sweat for their cameras. Then they had the fraud on the air repeatedly to talk as an "expert" on Native ceremonies. The fraud violated so many ceremonial protocols in the footage, it was appalling. Native people from the family he claimed had adopted him went online to speak out and say he is not a member of their family and has no rights to ceremonies. He caused much distress to Native people, but even over objections In Session kept having him back.
A few days after that, In Session had a panel of six people discussing their experiences with "sweat lodges". Not a single one of the people interviewed was Native. They were all non-Natives who dabble in what they think are Native ceremonies. As I wrote to In Session at the time: "Non-Natives chanting vocables in a plastic tent is not a 'Native ceremony.'"
Native people and their supporters wrote and called In Session and Headline News to protest. We blogged and tweeted about it; one group started a petition. The only response was that eventually In Session stopped their coverage of the James Ray trial completely. They never issued a clarification or retraction. They never apologized. Perhaps they were embarrassed they had been tricked by the fraud, and wanted to pretend it never happened.
Though In Session gave the non-Native people multiple days of coverage to opine on Native ceremonies, and to spread more ignorance, the only time I saw any Native person given a chance to speak was a brief phone call with Floyd Hand (Lakota). His brief spot was not promoted the way the non-Natives were; he was given very little time to talk, and the vapid on-air personality interrupted him and ended the call when he didn't give her the sort of sound bites she was looking for.
It was very offensive.
The James Ray trial has provided a few small openings to educate about cultural appropriation and the cultural genocide perpetuated by frauds like James Arthur Ray. But mostly it has been horrible and disappointing: Newagers on parade, racism, and the perpetuation of negative stereotypes. Three people are dead and up until today nothing had really changed, except that a lot of ignorant non-Natives now think anyone can attend a sweat lodge and it's only inappropriate if you make it too hot and too long. Or they don't understand that what James Ray led was not a Native ceremony, and now they mistakenly believe that Native people have scary and deadly practices. Some Pagans who have commented seem to think it's only a matter of a few mistakes in construction and timing, "Oh, he used plastic tarps and overdid it." In terms of non-Native perceptions of Native people and Native lifeways, I'd say the net result has been more of the same ignorance about Native traditions, just on a bigger scale.
Today's verdict is not ideal. Manslaughter convictions would have locked him up for longer. But at least there is a guilty verdict, and some consequences. Maybe some of the exploiters will think a bit longer before they do one of their macho, sham ceremonies, where they (consciously or unconsciously) act out the racist fantasy that they can be "the better Indians" - that they can make their imitation ceremonies longer and hotter, and in airtight deathlodges, because they must know better than those traditionals who've only been doing this for many, many generations. And they must also be the better Indians since apparently they can just attend a few rituals by another fraud and then hang out a shingle as a sweat leader, when those silly Indians have to grow up in the traditions, be trained for decades by people who were raised in these ways, go through ceremonies cultural outsiders don't even know exist in order to be trusted with the right to have a lodge, and then be acknowledged before the whole community as someone who has earned this right. (As the Lakota ways are the ones most-mimicked by the exploiters, including James Ray, I think Chief Arvol Looking Horse's comments on the issue are especially relevant.)
I keep hoping we can use this case as an opportunity for education, and maybe in a small way we have done that. But aside from those who injure and kill ritual participants now knowing there is a precedent for them to face criminal charges, I'm not sure much has changed. I hope there will be more questioning of cult leaders like Ray. But with our increasingly desperate society, with the environmental and economic disasters we're facing, many people seem all too willing to turn off their brains and follow anyone who claims to have easy answers, or easy solutions. My prediction is that more people are going to die. Newagers and NeoPagans are still leading plastic sweats. Back when I was attending Neopagan gatherings in the 1980's, I saw Neopagans make every single one of the mistakes Ray made - the dangerous changes to lodge construction, the macho changes in tradition, the ignorant mixing of fragments of ceremonies, the ignorance of proper spiritual and physical safety protocols, all of it. The only difference, really, is that Ray charged thousands of dollars whereas Neopagans, if they charge money, usually charge hundreds.* Unless something changes in people's attitudes about cultural integrity and cultural misappropriation, the next deaths may be at a Neopagan gathering.
For those who've never researched Gaelic (Irish and Scottish) Sweat House traditions, if someone brings that up you may be interested in this earlier post: New Age Death Sweats IV: Jackboots at the Seder Table. The section specifically about comparative Sweat-related traditions, "But Sweatlodge is Universal", starts about 1/3 of the way through.
*Yes, the old joke does still seem true for much of the Neopagan community:
Q: What's the difference between a Newage gathering and a Neopagan gathering?
A: A decimal point.
For those of you who may not know, the main reason I have very little to do with the mainstream of the Neopagan community these days is the cultural appropriation and usually unintentional, but still very real and unacceptable, racism that is so prevalent there. I just couldn't take it anymore. By the technical definition I'm still a type of modern Pagan, in that I'm a polytheist and practice an earth-based tradition that is both pre-Christian and other-than-Christian. But our Gaelic Polytheist (GP) community has largely different values than the eclectic Neopagan community. We don't have a lot of overlap. As participants in a traditional lifeway, my GP friends, family and I have more in common with our Indigenous friends. These days when I participate in large-scale gatherings it's usually at Gaelic cultural events that are generally secular in nature, or Interfaith gatherings with Indigenous friends and colleagues.