October 18, 2009

Oprah Winfrey Should Apologize for Promoting Dangerous Fraud James Arthur Ray

by Dr. Al Carroll
Wednesday October 14th, 2009

Two people died in a distorted New Age version of a Native sweatlodge in Sedona. Dozens more were badly injured. They each paid over $9000 for a bastardized version of a ceremony which by tradition must never be charged for. Natives don't believe in "pay to pray," but apparently the New Age movement does. It is far more of a consumerist phenomena than a genuine spiritual movement. Many lost, misguided, and genuinely sincere seekers get caught up in the idea of paying cash for shortcuts to salvation, and Oprah Winfrey seems to be among them.

Winfrey promoted New Age leader James Arthur Ray on her program a number of times. It was Ray who jammed over sixty people into a "sweatbox." Traditionally perhaps a dozen people are in a sweatlodge. The lodge is made from natural materials so the heat will not be too intense. But not Ray's "sweatbox." It was sealed with heavy plastic tarp to deliberately make the heat as intense as possible. People even competed to see who could withstand the highest temperatures, making it a bizarre contest rather than a ceremony to heal. Traditionally most of those in a sweatlodge have been through it before so they could guide novices, but seemingly the clients/victims of Ray's outnumbered those conducting it by at least twenty to one.

Traditionally, you don't charge for spiritual ceremony. You also don't do it out of curiosity, because you think it would be "cool," or for any reason except to heal. Survivors of alcoholism or PTSD are often healed by a sweatlodge. Thrill seekers should go elsewhere, hopefully to some self examination.

Spiritual exploiters like James Arthur Ray should be ashamed of themselves, but rarely are. After all, they get rich and have cult followings of the naïve or lost. Ray may belong in prison for negligent homicide, along with others who conduct extremely dangerous false versions of a sweatlodge. Ray's operation likely knew that a sweatlodge, when run by anyone other than an extensively trained Native traditionalist, routinely results in deaths or injuries. There are deaths from phony New Age sweatlodges in Texas, Britain, Australia, and in California multiple times. The Australian Medical Association issued a warning about phony sweatlodges, something that American and European medical associations should do.

A sweatlodge that is not properly run can result in death from asphyxiation, heart attack, or dehydration. Hapless New Agers routinely get burned or scalded. There are also many cases of psychological damage. You can relive traumas in a sweatlodge, such as child molestation or rape, as well as manic episodes. The rocks heated in a sweatlodge, if not properly chosen, can explode. Finally, many of the worst exploiters sexually abuse their followers. It's easy to pass out in the heat of a sweatlodge. Many women (and men) are molested or raped. No one should trust any operator who insists on a sweatlodge alone or in the nude.

Don't trust anyone who advertises or charges for ceremony. There's a simple standard that non-Natives should use when thinking about going to an alleged "Native" ceremony: If the operators seek out non-Native peoples, they are frauds looking to take your money. Actual Native traditionalists neither seek nor want converts. Native ceremonies are intended for Native communities, always. They lose their power and meaning once taken outside that context.

For her part in promoting the dangerous fraud James Arthur Ray, Oprah Winfrey should publicly apologize and vow to be more careful about who she endorses in the future. How many of the victims in Sedona would never have gone there had they not seen Winfrey's program? How wealthy did Ray become off of his victims because of Winfrey's repeated endorsement of Ray, both on her show and online? Why didn't her show's researchers take the time to look carefully and see what they should have known, that Ray was potentially dangerous to his followers?

Winfrey, I believe, is a good hearted person who sincerely wants to help her audience. She apologized for promoting an author who lied about the life he described in his books and strongly criticized him on her own show. Why can't she do the same to James Arthur Ray and confront him also? She should do the right thing and retract all endorsements of Ray and vow to take greater care in the future and never promote New Age exploiters again.

Bio: Al Carroll is a historian, Fulbright Scholar, and one of the founders of New Age Frauds Plastic Shamans (NAFPS) an activist group dedicated to warning the public about exploiters and imposters who pose as Native medicine people, located online at http://www.newagefraud.org/. His first book is Medicine Bags and Dog Tags: Native Veterans from Colonial Times to the Second Iraq War from University of Nebraska Press.