GMAFB: Guru Connected with Sedona AZ Sweat Lodge Deaths Says He’s Being “Tested”

Jeezus. All because the cousin of one of the two dead asked for more accountability from James Arthur Ray, who reportedly took off and hid before cops could get a statement from him, and later snuck out of town.

The man in charge of a spiritual retreat last week in Arizona that left two people dead after they were overcome in a sweat lodge said Tuesday night he is “being tested” by the tragedy and has hired his own investigators to try to determine what went wrong.

The comments from self-help expert and author James Arthur Ray came during a seminar he held at a hotel in Marina del Rey, near Los Angeles. Ray broke down in tears as he addressed the deaths.

“This is the most difficult time I’ve ever faced,” Ray told the crowd of about 200. “I don’t know how to deal with it really.”

An audience member asked Ray to describe what happened at the retreat, but he declined, saying only that he has hired his own investigative team and is cooperating with authorities.

“We’re looking for answers,” he said. “I’m as frustrated and confused as other people are.”

Ray added that he wrestled with whether to go through with Tuesday’s seminar, which he said was scheduled weeks before the sweat lodge deaths.

“My advisers told me, ‘Don’t do that. You don’t know who’ll show up. They’re going to eat you alive,'” he told the audience. But he said it was important for him to keep his commitments.

“I’m grieving right now,” said Ray, who received a standing ovation at the end of the seminar. “I’m grieving for the families.”

I’ll bet you are. He’s probably also grieving over several big fat lawsuits that would drain him dry. Number one, too many people were brought into the sweat lodge, rather than taking the people in small groups. Two, plastic tarps (especially those made in China) may have released toxins into the air upon meeting the heat of the enclosure. Three, using sandalwood incense for an extended length of time compromising the little oxygen available. Four, nobody took a break for fresh air. If his chosen investigators come to the same conclusions as the cops, his ass is gone.

Tom McFeeley, [Kirby] Brown’s cousin and family spokesman, called on Ray to assure that the retreat’s participants “were not mistreated and not put in a reckless situation.

“He was someone people believed in, people paid good money to get his advice,” McFeeley said. “It’s a person we all wanted to believe had our best interest in mind. Quite simply, that didn’t happen.”

McFeeley also said he is concerned that Ray exhibited a “godlike complex” during the event that might have kept people from opting out of activities Ray acknowledged could cause “physical, emotional, financial or other injuries.”

McFeeley could say that again. I’ll bet nobody at all was checked or monitored during the ceremonies, or allowed to say that they had had enough or were not feeling well. The whole retreat seems like a marathon in which only the ones left standing would be deemed worthy of Ray’s esteem. They would then be real warriors after being pushed to the ends of endurance. This is no different from a Marine march with a full pack or a high school football player passing out in 100 degree weather. A second participant who died was someone from Wisconsin: James Shore of Milwaukee, who unfortunately will be coming home in a box. (I find that the Blonde White Girl in Distress meme in evidence here because I haven’t been able to find a photo or a more descriptive article about Shore.) Not only was there negligence, but another Milgram experiment had emerged.

From the Chicago Tribune:

Investigators say the two-hour session inside the sweat lodge consisted of eight 15-minute rounds and various spiritual exercises led by Ray. After each round, the flap to the crudely constructed structure was raised to allow more heated rocks to be brought inside.

Authorities said participants were highly encouraged but not forced to remain in the sweat lodge for the entire two hours. The participants had fasted for 36 hours as part of a personal and spiritual quest in the wilderness, then ate a breakfast buffet Thursday morning.

Those people were weakened, whether or not they were in shape or not. By Tuesday, one participant still remains in critical condition; eighteen others were treated for ailments ranging from dehydration to kidney failure. A 36-hour fast?

Let’s read from local Native American traditionalists about this tragedy.

Native American sweat lodges are a sacred place of worship for tribal members. Traditionalists are disturbed by what happened in Sedona last week.

“That’s why it bothers me when I hear of things like this happening up there,” said Rachel Carroll-Pthers who’s a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.

“In a way it makes me mad. If it doesn’t apply to them or their culture and who they are and they don’t do it right or respect it, then they should leave it alone,” said Pima tribal member Marvin Coops.


“A lot of Native people say they’ve taken our land. They’ve taken away a lot of things from us. Now they want to take away our spirituality because a lot of non-Natives practice it, which we don’t approve of,” said Carroll-Pthers.

Carroll-Pthers would probably disapprove of me because I am not Native, but at least I received instruction from a Native woman who wasn’t charging $9,000 a pop, and left it to Grandfather and Grandmother to give her the things she needed at a crucial moment.

More interesting points were made at the from Johnny Flynn. Johnny Flynn is an assistant professor of religious studies at Indiana University, Purdue-Indianapolis, and the director of the American Indian Program there. Professor Flynn is also an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation of Oklahoma. He’s been a participant in sweats for over 40 years. He states:

At the heart of the reaction of Indians to the tragedy in Sedona last week is that James Arthur Ray is not an Indian. Running a sweat lodge ceremony is not simply constructing a lodge, heating rocks, and pouring water. In my language, the rocks are mishomsinanek ewi nokmisek, “grandmas and grandpas”, and so they must be chosen carefully. The wrong stones can explode in the fire, or worse, in the lodge. They can give off toxic fumes or not heat properly. As one sweat leader many years ago taught me, “the stones choose you, not the other way around.”

Even the act of bringing the stones into the lodge is dangerous; super-heated rocks carried from an even hotter fire can roll off the shovel or pitchfork and land in someone’s lap – and that possibility is an active part of the discussion of the participants in the sweat lodge as the rocks are coming in the door.

The sweat lodge is considered the womb of the Mother Earth, a living being, so it must breathe in order for it to participate in the ceremony. News accounts out of Sedona indicate that Ray’s sweat lodge was covered in plastic sheeting. As I have tracked the news stories and anecdotes of sweat lodge deaths and near-disasters, every one of them was covered with plastic sheeting or plastic tarps.

Missed by many who use the lodge is its fundamental purpose of celebrating creation and the creator as emerging from the principle of the feminine.

The principle of the feminine? Get that? He means women. Not just Native women. Any women. Ray’s imitation of the sweat lodge may have been a desecration of the feminine. Any woman who lives even part-way feminist principles should shrink from this kind of disrespect.

In my tribe, women control the sweat lodge. While men may tend the fire, bring the rocks, or be the one who pours the water, the lodge is “owned” by the women. They decide when; usually on the full or new moons. They decide who attends, and where the lodge is to be built. Participants become brothers and sisters in the womb and emergence allows a new start purified of past events or illnesses, spiritual or physical.

The sweat lodge is used in Native American substance abuse treatment programs and has been an integral part of ceremonies of spiritual cleansing of returning veterans dating back to the time of wars with the United States. Many tribes believe that participation in wars and battles cause the dead to cling to the souls of the combatants and must be released to the next world through a process of cleansing that includes the sweat lodge and other related purification rituals.

Flynn suggests that the sweat lodge first came to the attention of the larger culture when many Native American men returned from Vietnam psychically destroyed and drug addicted. The tradition of the sweat to help these men was reinstituted. I would like to add that this was also the time when the Lakota Sioux began to take the lead among tribes in resisting the state and Federal government. They used the sweat to prepare themselves spiritually to confront the authorities who assaulted them or their rights, even unto death. It is essentially a nonviolent, defensive response, so that people’s spirits remain strong. I think this is where certain whites misapplied the sweat lodge for their own purposes, and this is also where the disrespect occurred.

(The sweat was also applied when biracials began to return to their Native roots. It thus became a ceremony to reintegrate these souls into the fabric of Native tribes and peoples.)

Participants in the Sedona event were told that this was part of becoming a “spiritual warrior,” and it is clear from the news accounts and Ray’s own advertisements that this was not about celebrating the feminine or purification of the spirit – it was an endurance contest. People were encouraged to compete with one another for no other purpose than to return to the workaday world ready to do battle.

I said earlier that this was like a marathon. A sweat is meant to let go of the tools of competition or death, not assume them.

And finally, no one ever pays for a sweat lodge. Ever. Participants may bring food to share, or wood, or work for the building and maintenance of the sweat lodge, or even share gas money with those who struggle to make it to the ceremony – but no money. Anyone who charges any money for any sweat lodge is not doing it for family, tribe, or as a celebration of the feminine.

There was never a child born, or a spirit reborn, who came into this world from the last with a dime in their pocket. It is common sense.

This was indeed my experience. But in order to circumvent Native Americans and having to confront their own mistaken beliefs about people of color and their culture, these whites are only too willing to fork over vast sums of money to other whites like Ray to take the easy way to the rituals and the gains taken from the experience. It’s no wonder then, that Native traditionalists are pissed off and disgusted. Native American spirituality becomes like a tourist destination than a location where peoples are made whole.

According to the New York Times, Ray is attempting to pass off blame for the construction of the lodge to the Angel Valley Spiritual Retreat. The Yavapai County Sheriff isn’t buying it. A permit was never obtained to build the temporary structure. The website asked whether this episode could be called, “The Dark Side of ‘The Secret’?”

I don’t think we’re going to see the end of this tragedy, even after it culminates during a civil or criminal trial. But these people in the New Age truly need to get a clue. What they teach may cause others to end up dead. It’s never been about the leaders in Native religion; it’s been about the people.

~ by blksista on October 15, 2009.

4 Responses to “GMAFB: Guru Connected with Sedona AZ Sweat Lodge Deaths Says He’s Being “Tested””

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  4. Blksista,
    Thank you for your candid and honest commentary. I feel the outrage of the Native Peoples and it is justified!
    As a white woman, I have had the honor of participating in sweat lodge ceremonies led by Natives. I was not only instructed to communicate if I was getting too hot, but I was encouraged to leave the lodge and care for myself in my healing. I have never had to leave a sweat, but I have seen others leave and I have never experienced anyone becoming ill as a result of the sweat. Nor was i ever charged any money, but we always offer gifts of appreciation.
    There is a tremendous responsibility on the apprentice who wishes to learn about other cultures and their spiritual traditions. It requires years of devotion, reciprocity and study. It seems that Mr. Ray did not humble himself enough to learn about Native traditions before he stole and desecrated their sacred rites. What a sad situation, only made more sad by Mr. Ray’s lack of accountability and compassion.
    The only bright spot is that i discovered your fabulous website – Thank you.


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