Playing Indian

Originally posted on USC’s now-defunct TRANS/MISSIONS: Media, Culture, Religion, Society blog.

by Judith Weisenfeld

On February 3, 2010, the Yavapai County, Arizona Sheriff’s Department arrested self-help counselor James Arthur Ray, charging him with three counts of manslaughter for the deaths that took place in the course of his October 2009 “Spiritual Warrior” retreat. Prior to the deaths, Ray had advertised the retreat as part of his program to “create harmonic wealth in all areas of your life” and offered secrets he said he had “searched out in the mountains of Peru, the jungles of the Amazon (and a few other places I don’t care to recall).” On the final evening of the five-day $9,000 retreat, participants gathered inside a tarp-covered wooden sweat lodge for a ritual of purification they hoped would attract material bounty.  About an hour into the “sweat lodge” event, some participants began to vomit and pass out from the high heat, dehydration and lack of ventilation. Before it was over, nearly two-dozen people were hospitalized, two people were dead and one more would die a week later.

Not surprisingly, early media coverage of the deaths noted Ray’s appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2007 when she featured participants in the film version of Rhonda Byrne’s self-help bestseller, The Secret.  Ray himself has been active in engaging the media to insist that the deaths were accidental, as in this January interview in New York magazine. Understandably, media coverage of his arrest has focused on the experiences of families of the victims. Less prominent in the mainstream press has been discussion of the response within Indian communities to this specific event – an official statement by Oglala Lakota Chief Arvol Looking Horse and a lawsuit filed against Ray by the Lakota Nation, for example – and to the commodification of Native ceremonies more generally.

The tragedy at Sedona offers an opportunity for reporters to consider the history of complicated engagements by non-Indians in aspects of Indian traditions and to explore the implications of commodifications of cultural and religious practices. James Arthur Ray is not alone in packaging and selling Native American spirituality, and the deaths in Sedona were not the first to happen in commercialized sweat lodges. This event should be engaged in the broader historical context that Philip J. Deloria outlines in Playing Indian, his 1999 study of the appropriation of Indian identity and practices from the American Revolution through the 20th century.

Not surprisingly, questions about whether Indian spiritual practices can be considered part of the public domain and available to anyone or understood as inextricably linked to the tribal communities in which they originated are discussed with vigor on the Internet.  Websites, blogs and online forums such as New Age Frauds and Plastic Shamans, Don’t Pay to Pray and Nuage Tricksters provide valuable resources for covering this story in a way that takes seriously the repeated claims of spiritual exploitation by some Indian peoples, as well as the complicated debates about race and religious authenticity that the deaths in Sedona and Ray’s arrest raise. The significance of this story lies not in Ray’s connection to Oprah or to The Secret but in what it reveals about the religious politics of contemporary self-help culture and non-Indians’ relationship to indigenous people and their traditions.