Religious Practices on Trial in Arizona: The Problem With “Experts”

New Age guru and erstwhile sweat lodge expert James Arthur Ray was arrested and booked on three charges of manslaughter on February 3, 2010 in Prescott, Arizona. Bail was set at five million dollars, and as of Monday morning February 8, Ray was still in the Yavapai County jail.

Since the October 8 incident that resulted in the deaths of three people in a Ray-led “Warrior Sweat,” Sheriff’s deputies have interviewed hundreds of witnesses in the investigation leading to the indictments. Dozens of participants were treated at area hospitals after the sweat lodge, and by the end of that fatal day Kirby Brown and James Shore were dead. A third participant, Elizabeth Newman, died a week later at a hospital in Flagstaff, Arizona.

I am not a psychic or an attorney, but my experiences through the years with American Indian religious issues tell me this: even though James Ray will be sitting at the defense table, it will be our religious practices on trial in that courtroom. And it will be experts who will argue both sides of the case.


Experts on terrorism have led the United States into two wars since 9/11 and this past week on Fox News, political “expert” and former governor Sarah Palin shared her view that the Obama presidency could shore up sagging poll numbers by invading Iran.

Fertility experts have brought us the “Octomom,” and experts on the meaning of the biblical decree to “go forth and multiply” have TV viewers goggle-eyed over the nearly score of Duggar children in Arkansas.

In following the Ray story over the past few months, I am amazed at the number of non-Indian sweat lodge experts the media has been able to locate. Few Indians if any have been interviewed; and even decidedly liberal MSNBC featured Court TV anchor Ashleigh Banfield as their expert on the sweat lodge.

Banfield’s expertise, admitted on air, was one sweat experience with her stepbrother or brother-in-law (she wasn’t sure how he was related), “step-brother” she added, “that’s it.” And the supposed kin by marriage was, “uhm” not an Indian.

Got it. Indians can’t be experts.

But one white lady in one sweat with someone who is somehow related to her is qualified to tell the world really how it is with Indian traditions.

That is kinda, sorta how James Ray set up his spiritual Ponzi scheme, right? He knew someone who knew someone who did “Indian sweats” and presto and voilà, Ray is taking people on spiritual retreats at 10K a head and then people start dying. So, experts have to be brought in to figure out what happened.

No Indians mind you, just experts.

And the truth is, we don’t want to be experts. Why? Because we know there is no such thing as Indians, redskins, warriors, braves, chiefs, or savages. Those are sports teams and ah, therein lies the rub.

Ray sold this scheme to the unwary because the real experts on Indian cultures have never been Indians. Only non-Indians can be the experts. And experts have repeatedly dubbed what we do as marginal at best—unadulterated savagery at its worst.

In the same way sports teams seek to own the balls-out brutality of the Indian warrior, James Arthur Ray brutalized sixty people in a plastic-covered hut less than the size of the average American living room. Because, that is how Indians become warriors. 

Right now Indians who do practice their tribal ceremonies are walking on edge. Already in Arizona, state legislator Senator Albert Hale, who happens to be Navajo, has introduced a bill to regulate native-style religious practices on non-Indian lands. The bill would require the State Department of Health to draft regulations in consultation with American Indian spiritual leaders.

The state legislature of Arizona might be surprised to learn that they already regulate sweat lodges—in the Department of Corrections. American Indian inmates are required to follow rules which include pictures of sweat lodges built in the Lakota style, not Navajo, which is the tribal affiliation of a good number of inmates in the Arizona prison system (an amazing fact that is a story for another time).

So, even though a non-Indian might be compelled to be put on trial for killing people with his “ceremony,” it is Native American religion which will be the defendant in this case.


James Ray’s defense might be compelled to bring in experts to argue that he did the ceremony the right way—and to insist that occasional and “unforeseen” death is one of the by-products of American Indian religious practices. After all, those folks paid ten thousand dollars for a “Warrior Retreat,” didn’t they?

And native religions are, well, barbaric and cruel. 

The prosecution would then be compelled to bring in their “experts” to argue that a non-Indian, who allegedly learned to do this ceremony from “shamans” all over the world, did the sweat lodge the wrong way. Ray would be guilty of manslaughter by way of “malpractice” even if he is an “expert” on the sweat lodge.

We’ve been there before.

Experts had to be brought in during the legal debates over the use of peyote in the Native American church; anthropologists, who had spent a few days in the church, were deemed more qualified to judge the ceremony than Indians who grew up in the church.

In this case, we will be asked once again to kneel before experts to ensure that non-Indians who do hybridized and abbreviated versions of our tribal ceremonies don’t kill anyone. It is not enough to ask us. And if MSNBC can’t find one single Indian to say this is wrong, we are in trouble.