They didn’t serve on the jury, weren’t plaintiffs in the case, nor did they watch in the courtroom. But for Native Americans who cleave to rituals passed on by their ancestors, the trial of self-help guru James Arthur Ray mattered.
Ray was convicted Wednesday of negligent homicide in the October 2009 deaths of Kirby Brown, James Shore and Lizbeth Marie Neuman. They died after participating in a sweat lodge ceremony Ray led during his “Spiritual Warrior” retreat outside Sedona, Arizona. At least 15 other participants fell ill, while 40 emerged from the experience uninjured. Each had paid about $10,000 for the five-day retreat experience. The case fueled long-held frustrations of Native Americans who say their ancient traditions are being appropriated and exploited by “impersonators.” They resent that what is sacred to them is now seen by some as a death trap. “It’s a fad to be Indian today,” Autumn Two Bulls told CNN earlier this year, from her home on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. “In America, you are an individual. You can be whatever you want to be. When you’re Lakota, we belong to each other,” said Two Bulls, a writer and activist. “So when you take our way of life and put a price tag on it, you’re asking for death, you’re asking for something to happen to you.”
This sort of spiritual comeuppance was echoed by others, including Alvin Manitopyes of the Plains Cree/Sautleaux First Nations. He grew up on a reservation in lower Saskatchewan, Canada. And though he today works as a public health consultant in Calgary, Canada, he has conducted ceremonies in sweat lodges for more than 20 years. “Mr. Ray has faced the application of man made laws in respect to his charges in a court of law, but according to natural law he is still accountable to the karma he created for himself,” Manitopyes wrote in an e-mail late Wednesday, after learning about the verdict.
The Arizona jury’s negligent homicide verdict didn’t go as far as some hoped. Prosecutors were seeking a conviction on manslaughter charges, which would have allowed for a much longer sentence. Negligent homicide means a defendant should have known better, while manslaughter suggests that the defendant knew and blatantly disregarded this knowledge. The defense attorneys argued that what happened in that sweat lodge was a horrible accident. Among those disappointed by the verdict is Valerie Taliman, a Navajo who serves as the West Coast editor for Indian Country Today Media Network. “He deserves to pay for the lives he took. Our prayers go out to the families who lost their loved ones because of his greed and wrongful exploitation. He had no right to create the false illusion that he had any connection to Native ceremonies,” she said in an e-mail sent Thursday. “He is a worst case example of charlatans selling spiritual snake oil.” She hopes that when jurors convene to pass down the sentencing, they’ll go as far as they can. “He took something we hold sacred and broke every rule we go by, then sold his desecrated version of our ceremonies to people that he actually profited from, then killed. I hope they make an example of him and give him the maximum sentence,” Taliman said. “According to our teachings, what he’s done to these people will come back on him over a lifetime,” she added. “Let’s see how spiritually grounded he is now.”
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