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Selling Magic; Delivering Death

James Ray’s Arizona trial for manslaughter played like a bad movie; Harry Potter meets John Wayne. And now he's been found guilty of negligent homicide.

For $9,695, Ray promised that Native American wisdom, imparted by him, would make you healthy, wealthy, and wise. People lined up to consume this swill in spite of the obvious fact that most real Indians are neither healthy nor wealthy.

Dennis Mehravar, one of the suckers, er, I mean participants, quoted Ray: "He asked, 'Has anybody been in a sweat lodge before? Well, you've never been in my sweat lodge.'"

My Cherokee purification ceremonies involve water rather than heat. It’s also not for sale.

Having been in sweats conducted by Comanche, Cheyenne, and Lakota I’ve never seen plastic used in the construction of a sweat lodge, which was the case in Arizona.

In Ray’s plastic tent, three people died and 18 were hospitalized.

Ray considered the ceremony a near-death experience. The first time I sweated, the elder in charge told me to leave if I had trouble.

The whole Ray debacle reminded me of another death in the early nineties in Central Texas. A woman died in a "Native American sweat lodge" maintained by a non-Indian while in it by herself. No fire keeper. No singer. Nobody to remove her if she was unable to remove herself.

In spite of the fact that no Indian was involved, the tragic deaths at the bottom of the Grand Canyon brought calls to ban dangerous, pagan ceremonies. Those of us who leaped to the defense found ourselves cross-examined on the finer points of ceremonies. This is Comanche country, but I doubt any Comanche ever died in a sweat.

There’s a big legal problem around the abuse of Indian ceremonies that ties into the cultural problems we all experience.

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Government has the power to ban practices that are dangerous. To put a finer point on it, practices that a reasonable legislator might believe to be dangerous. Dead people are a pretty strong evidence of danger.

To defend against the banning, we have to delve into matters of how the ceremonies are performed. Indian spiritual practices differ from Christianity in that "The spirit world takes care of its own business." Which is to say, trying to convert others is silly and futile.

The Indian equivalent of the TV preacher gets no respect. A Comanche medicine man, now deceased, who was kind enough to teach me a little about the people on whose bones I walk, had more holes in his jeans than teenagers. I never saw him charge anything beyond expenses but I did see him refuse to reveal things and make merciless sport of anthropologists.

A lot of what is written about Indian ceremonies is unreliable. You can only learn by doing.

Why not ban the ceremonies when abused by non-Indians? Because the First Amendment protects all beliefs. A non-Indian may hold beliefs he takes to be traditionally Indian in a completely sincere manner, but the courts generally do not inquire into sincerity.

Sincerity? Look no farther than the tragedy in Arizona. Those people paid a lot of money. They were explicitly instructed that they would think they were going to die and they should not interfere with how others processed the experience.

According to some survivors, Ray’s staff floated the idea that the dead people had left their bodies on purpose and were having such a good time they decided not to come back! Now, that is (er, was) sincerity.

Indians seeking a way out of being blamed for abuse of ceremonies they don’t want public in the first place have one weapon. The First Amendment does not apply to Indian nations, since the First Amendment bans "establishment of religion" and for many tribes spiritual practices have been the glue holding them together, in some cases for millennia.

Tribal governments can ban the sale of ceremonies. This ban could only be applied to tribal citizens but it could arguably be applied to them wherever they are. If they put the tribe’s spiritual heritage up for sale, disenroll them, so that they may claim to be healthy, wealthy, and wise, but not Indigenous.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He is a columnist for Indian Country Today. He lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at