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Native History: A Non-Traditional Sweat Leads to Three Deaths

On October 8, 2009 the misguided use of a Native sweat lodge held by "self-help guru" James Arthur Ray's ended in tragedy with three deaths.
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This Date in Native History: The often misguided and misrepresented spiritual representation of traditional Native practices broke into mainstream media on October 8, 2009 when James Arthur Ray, a 53-year-old “self-help guru,” saw tragedy strike his latest retreat.

Ray, a controversial spiritual leader, offered sweats in a sweat lodge to those willing to shell out almost $10,000 for a week in Sedona, Arizona. Tragedy struck when three of the participants died, two in the lodge and one in a nearby hospital following a week in a coma.

Ray drew the ire of Indian country from the start as the ceremony he was selling bore little if any resemblance to an actual sweat lodge ceremony.

Indian Country Today Media Network West Coast Editor Valerie Taliman wrote an award-winning opinion piece where she stated, “It was a bastardized version of a sacred ceremony sold by a multimillionaire who charged people $9,695 a pop for his ‘Spiritual Warrior’ retreat in Sedona, Arizona.”

RELATED: Selling the Sacred

In June of 2011 Ray was found guilty of negligent homicide in the three deaths. The victims participated in the “Spiritual Warrior” retreat, where 18 people were hospitalized for burns, respiratory arrest, kidney failure, loss of consciousness and dehydration.

RELATED: James Arthur Ray Found Guilty of Negligent Homicide

Taliman was quoted by CNN following the tragedy as saying, “What right does Ray have to mimic, mangle, and manipulate Native ceremonies that have been carefully handed down among indigenous cultures over millennia? Ray does not own any rights to Native spirituality, because they are owned collectively by Indigenous Peoples and cannot be sold.”

Ray however is one of many who Taliman also referred to as a “huckster posing as the real thing” and was only found guilty of a crime when the loss of life occurred.

Following the guilty charge Ray was sentenced to two years in prison and ordered to pay $57,000 in restitution to the families of the victims—he was released from prison on parole on July 12 of this year.

RELATED: Self-Help Shamster Behind Sweat-Lodge Homicides Released From Prison