Death and the plastic shamans

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First, I'd like to pass some virtual tobacco to Robert Animikii Horton for his words of wisdom in an earlier article for concerning the appropriation of Indigenous culture: On the theft and appropriation of Indigenous cultures

There is no need for me to, in turn, appropriate the ideas of Horton in an attempt to re-write his wisdom for context on why theft and cultural appropriation of Indigenous cultures is so harmful, but I would like to use his article as context to the "Sweat Lodge Deaths" in 2009 in Sedona, California. Award-winning author James Arthur Ray who facilitated the sweat lodge was found guilty on June 22 of causing the death of three people. It is unsure what will happen to Ray's "spiritual career" now.

James Arthur Ray is the self-help guru. He is also a Plastic Shaman.

A plastic shaman is defined by Horton as someone who performs First Nations spiritual "services for profit, as well as personal opportunism and ego taking advantage of others due to inadequacy, a lack of moral compass, or the vain wish to be reborn within an objectifying obsession and fascination...This is to appropriate, to exploit, to steal, to acquire, to minimize, and to capture a sacred culture."

Thus is the idiocy of trying to jam too many people into a First Nations "traditional" sweat lodge in the Sedona heat and bullying them to stay inside the lodge, causing the death of three participants on Oct. 8, 2009. Ray was found guilty of negligent homicide in the deaths of James Shore, Kirby Brown and Liz Neuman.

On that day at Ray's New Age "Spiritual Warrior" retreat at his Angel Valley Retreat Center near Sedona, Arizona, other than the three deaths, 18 others were hospitalized after suffering burns, dehydration, breathing problems, kidney failure or elevated body temperature from attending his sweat lodge ceremony.

Another red flag is that Ray is making people pay for a Vision Quest. The attendees of the "Spiritual Warrior" retreat paid $10,000 each to participate in the retreat, had fasted for 36 hours during a vision quest exercise before the next day's sweat lodge.

In case you want to try and wrangle up some sympathy for Ray as newbie to all this, know that in 2005, at the same ranch during a similar "Spiritual Warrior" retreat led by him, a 42-year-old man was seriously injured after reportedly falling unconscious after exercises inside the sweat lodge.

In response to the sweat lodge deaths, on Nov. 12, 2009, the Lakota Nation (located in North and South Dakota) launched a lawsuit against the United States, the state of Arizona, Ray, and the Angel Valley site owners under the Sioux Treaty of 1868 between the United States and the Lakota Nation.

"The Lakota Nation alleges that Ray and the Retreat Center have (1) Violated Article 1 of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 by violating the peace between the United States and the Lakota Nation, (2) Desecrated the Onikig'a (sweat lodge ceremony) by causing the three deaths, (3) Violated the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Arts. 29 & 36, and (4) that Ray and the Angel Valley Retreat Center committed fraud by impersonating an Indian and should be held accountable for the deaths to the survivors." 

Ray's spirituality seems to revolve around wealth attainment. Consider the titles of his books: The Science of Success, Practical Spirituality: How to Use Spiritual Power to Create Tangible Results, Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life You Want and The Seven Laws of True Wealth: Create the Life You Desire and Deserve.

I honestly don't know how spirituality and wealth can be mashed together, as new-agers often mash up different cultures, religions and concepts of spirituality into a mush palpable to the eager but often timid white tongue. But I don't believe it's very spiritual to take advantage of -- to the tune of $10,000 each -- people who are perhaps so spiritually bankrupted from capitalism themselves that they think they can throw more money at the problem.

Money to buy a Vision Quest Experience. Money to buy entrance into a Sweat Lodge Ceremony. Maybe get a "proper Indian name" or dodem which will have to include references to Thunder Horses or High Flying Eagles or other cool, white-people-like animals.

I can only speak from my white-skinned perspective, but this whole situation -- the selling of appropriated Indigenous culture for profit by someone non-Indigenous -- surely required a white-person-to-white-person intervention since I think it's important that we stand up to this kind of cultural abuse by others of our kind. Enough is enough.

We need to make a public stand against this appropriation by first seeking advice and guidance from the aggrieved culture -- not simply acting on their behalf. I know First Nations have had enough of us white knights, rushing into a situation and asking questions later.

In an Angel Valley press release dated Oct. 13, 2009, it states its "sympathy". 

Regarding the cultural appropriation of First Nations traditions (such as the sweat lodge), it claims, "We want to express our sincerest feelings towards the Native American Community for this having taken place on the sacred land that we are the stewards of. We have been offered assistance by Native American friends to heal the land, which we have accepted with gratitude. We also know that an initiative has been taken among those who lead sweat lodges in the authentic way, to get together and review how incidents like this can be avoided in the future. We feel the pain of the Native American Community".

The lack of understanding is clear in how the letter is signed off, with "Michael and Amayra Hamilton, the co-founders of Angel Valley Spiritual Retreat Center", claiming they are the "owners of the land". I point out: no-one can own the land.

So where does that leave us, with the "owners of the land" claiming they "understand the pain of the Native American Community"?

Let me again return to the words of Robert Animikii Horton, "The above-described thieves, whether they realize it or not, have assumed the duty to finish what many, such as; residential school priests and administrators, assimilationists in the halls of government fuelling the fires in the engines of colonialism, and those who sought to exploit resources; have sought to do in the past. This is to appropriate, to exploit, to steal, to acquire, to minimize, and to capture a sacred culture."

Do they, can they, really feel this pain?

Krystalline Kraus writes the Activist Communiqué blog for

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