Today is a historic day because James Arthur Ray is the first plastic shame-on to be held accountable for taking human lives in fake ceremonies. Finally, after more than two years, Ray has been sentenced for his negligence that caused the deaths of Kirby Brown, James Shore and Liz Neuman.
There’s a lot of mixed emotion in Indian country today. There’s happiness that someone was finally held accountable for perverting our ceremonies, but frustration that the prison term for killing three human beings was so short. Ray was sentenced today to only 2 years in prison and ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $57,514.12. He was given only 2 years for the death of each human being, but is being allowed to serve his sentence concurrently. With time off for ‘good behavior', he may be out of prison in less time than it took to try him.
Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Warren Darrow told the court that he wanted his decision to be based on law, not emotion. Yet, earlier he referred to James Ray as "vile" on an audiotape where he’s barking orders at people gullible enough to believe he had some masterly of what indigenous spiritual practices. The judge made it clear that he intended the sentence to be a deterrent to other frauds seeking to use bogus ceremonies and thought control methods to hustle money from cultural outsiders. Previously, Darrow threw out the defense motion to strike the aggravators that the jury found and stated, "I find that the aggravating circumstance of emotional harm is so strong and such that probation is simply unwarranted in this case.”
While the judge was convinced that it was necessary to punish James Ray for his recklessness, Darrow's concern about the deceased willingness to believe everything Ray claimed also factored into the sentence. Prior to handing down the sentence, the judge wondered out loud why doctors, lawyers, and other educated professional people attending the event did not exhibit any common sense. This seems to indicate that concern over the lack of critical thinking skills on the part of James Ray’s victims may have mitigated his sentence. Judge Darrow admonished Ray saying, "Mr. Ray, when a person has your capabilities to gain people’s trust, there is a large, large responsibility that goes with that trust … They placed their trust and it was violated.” The judge concluded, “a prison sentence is mandated in this case." Yavapai County prosecutor Sheila Polk strongly urged the judge to impose the maximum sentence of 9 years, 9 months "The defendant led the life of a pretender, and there are predictable consequences when one leads a life of pretense," she argued.
Most of the friends and family members of those who passed in the plastic sweat lodge agreed that it wasn’t about revenge for them; It was all about being accountable. Kirby Brown’s mother’s testimony was both moving and memorable. She testified previously that has come to realize that Kirby should have been more skeptical and has become active in educating the public about the dangers of blind acceptance of those who claim to know something about spirituality. Today, she told the judge, “My heart's been ripped out! My life blown apart!” She strongly criticized the New Age teachings that were promoted by James Ray and the Angel Valley camp and referred to the “horrible fact of Sedona.” Kirby’s mother made a strong statement against those who tried to rationalize her daughter’s needless death as a choice to "transition" and labeled the thinking behind it as “horrifying” and “disturbed.”
Although he wasn’t very convincing, James Ray addressed those in the courtroom and finally expressed remorse for his charlatanism. But instead of forthrightly accepting responsibility for concocting a scam, Ray blamed the deaths on the “arrogance that comes from my industry.” He justified his egotism and arrogance by blaming his behavior on his profession and suggesting that the self-help industry, not his own character flaws, bred ignorance and made him believe his own press.
Since Ray chose not to fight the claims for restitution, the judge ordered him to pay $57,514.12 of the nearly $130,000 the state requested. Most of this will go towards compensating the friends and relatives of those who passed in the bogus sweat lodge for the costs they incurred in coming to the lengthy trial.
While this landmark prison sentence for a plastic is encouraging, people shouldn’t be too confident that this will stop the thousands and thousands of other frauds out there trying to exploit Native American spiritual practices for money. Sadly, this sentence will probably do nothing more than make the existing frauds more cautious and more likely to adopt a “kinder, gentler” approach to the perversion of our sacred rites. There are still thousands of people out there who fraudulently present themselves as “shamans” and "medicine people" and “ascended masters”. The sad reality is that there are more individuals out there determined to sell their own perversions of Native American spiritual practices, to market their twisted and contorted from their own ignorance and arrogance, than any tribe has time or energy to deal with. Someone has already died this year in a bogus vision quest near Sedona, and I doubt that this sentence will do anything to stop the next person from dying in a “kinder, gentler” plastic ceremony run by a more clever huckster with a softer approach to cultural genocide.
Getting James Arthur Ray out of society for two years or less is a good start, but it's only a band-aid solution to the enormous problem of cultural appropriation of indigenous ways of being. Until the root of the problem is addressed, people will continue to be harmed emotionally, physically, financially and spiritually in the many bogus ceremonies offered by frauds who value material wealth over their fellow human beings. The root cause of plastic ceremony deaths are, ignorance, arrogance, deeply instilled racism, white privilege and colonialism. It would be a good thing if James Arthur Ray’s prison sentence served, as Judge Darrow wished, as a deterrent to the plastic medicine people, but experience has taught most Native people that frauds never stop their deceit. Even after being exposed, frauds merely transform themselves into less objectionable versions of themselves. Scam artists become addicted to the easy money and the glory and will do anything to continue their insatiable pursuit of profit and undeserved status. They re-market themselves, fix any flaws in their false persona that gives them away and continue to take people’s money in exchange for spiritual fool’s gold. But these frauds couldn’t make a penny without followers who are all too willing to believe their pretty lies. Until cultural outsiders are willing to take a hard and courageous look at themselves, to look at their privilege and entitlement and their indoctrination from centuries of colonialism, these frauds will continue to seek them out and offer them empty rituals that have no connection to anything spiritual. Those who refuse to look at this reality will continue to risk their welfare and even their lives when they seek arrogantly and out of willful ignorance. I hope the James Ray verdict will be a wake-up call to all those who misappropriate Native spirituality, but I know that all those frauds and exploiters out there will just use this as an opportunity to paint themselves as the opposite of James Ray. Only those with the courage to really look at what is lacking inside them that compels them to seek out Native spirituality as a solution to their affluenza and discontentment with their materialistic society will be safe from the next wave of James Ray wannabes that is surely to come along, dressed in the sheep's clothing of the "kinder, gentler" plastic shaman.
CNN: Sweat lodge leader sentenced to two years in prison
Reuters: Guru gets two years jail for Arizona sweat lodge deaths
The Guardian: Jail for self-help guru James Arthur Ray over sweat lodge deaths
People: James Arthur Ray Sentenced to Two Years in Prison for Sweat Lodge Deaths
Associated Press: James Arthur Ray, self-help guru, gets prison time in sweat lodge deaths
CBS: Guru sentenced to 2 years for sweat lodge deaths
UPI: Sweat-lodge operator gets 2 years
Phoenix New Times: James Ray Sentenced to Just Two Years in Prison for Sweat Lodge Deaths
An in-depth article from Self magazine ‘When Self-Help Harms
Dorothy Schley: Colorado Springs Spirituality Examiner
James Arthur Ray sentenced today
Sweat lodge victim's mother laments Ray's charisma
The most racist thing I’ve seen today … I James Ray listened to indigenous people, three need not have died
Video of Judge Darrow giving the sentence
Self-help Guru Gets 2 Yrs. in Sweat Lodge Deaths
ABC 15 Video: Self-help Guru gets 2 years in sweat lodge case (this one shows a bit of the perp walk)
Arizona v James Arthur Ray in 10 minutes
On ISUMA TV from Iktome Returns Film Collective
Twinkie Wrangler’s Takes: This is NOT what a Spiritual Warrior Looks Like
Cooked Justice? Disgraced #SelfHelp Guru #JamesRay Will Stew In Short Prison Stint For 3 Deaths!
Families Tearfully Tell of Sweat Lodge Deaths
Video of James Ray crying and expressing remorse
Sweat lodge organizer to be sentenced Friday
James Ray, White Shamanism and Death
James Ray Sob Fest Part 1
James Ray Sob Fest Part 2
Native America Calling: Monday, November 14, 2011– What is Sacred?
The term “sacred” is thrown around quite a bit in Indian Country. Sacred lands, sacred ceremonies, sacred objects – sacred this and sacred that. The English definition describes sacred as something holy, blessed or revered. But what is the Native grassroots understanding of this term? Can something that is shared with the public be considered sacred, like our tribal dances or our traditional songs? Once they are revealed, do they lose their power or their sacredness? Is it necessary for the sacred to be shrouded in secrecy? Guests include traditional practitioners Boye Ladd (Ho Chunk) and Gladys Jefferson (Crow).
James Arthur Ray didn't pay me anything to write this blog.
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