Vi Waln: Spiritual legacy being stolen from under our noses

Last week the prosecution rested their case in the trial against James Earl Ray at Camp Verde, Arizona. I bet the trial will get even crazier when the defense presents their case. Lawyers will do anything to keep a rich client out of jail.

Ray is accused of manslaughter in the untimely deaths of three people. Kirby Brown, James Shore and Liz Neuman all died after participating in the “Spiritual Warrior” retreat near Sedona on October 8, 2009. These three people lost their lives over money.

Ray charged people nearly $10,000 each to participate in his retreats. He is also the man who was pouring the water in the sauna that resulted in the 3 deaths along with 18 other emergency room visits and/or hospitalizations. His trial has been ongoing since early March 2011.

The fact that there is a long, drawn-out trial only proves that Ray has lots of money to cover his attorney fees. This dangerous man charged people outrageous amounts to basically get in a plastic covered sauna for a heat endurance contest. I really think it’s sad that the blood money paid up front by the many innocent people who were hurt by Ray is paying for his defense at his manslaughter trial.

Many Indian people are upset over the fact that numerous media reports during the last 20 months or so continue to refer to this incident in Sedona as a ceremony. However, Bob Ortega, who writes for The Arizona Republic, referred to it as “an imitation sweat-lodge ceremony.” I was glad to read that someone finally called it for what it really was: an imitation.

In addition, the jurors apparently listened to a recording where Ray was said to proclaim his sauna was "not a weenie-a** sweat lodge like everyone else" and that "you'll feel like you're going to die, but you won't."

When I read Ray’s statements I wondered who he was referring to when he said “everyone else.” Did he mean a real inikaga conducted by a member of a federally recognized tribe? An authentic inikaga is not an endurance contest.

The leader of the inikaga knows the responsibility they are charged with regarding everyone who is participating. In a real inikaga the health of the people is put first and the one pouring water over the hot rocks will make sure everyone is okay. Every inikaga I have ever been in was one where the leader made sure all those inside were okay.

I saved some text from a now defunct website which once promoted those expensive retreats. The webpage used to describe Ray as someone who had “studied and been exposed to a wide diversity of teachings and teachers – from his collegiate learning and the schools of the corporate world, to the ancient cultures of Peru, Egypt and the Amazon. Armed with this comprehensive and diverse background in behavioral sciences, coupled with his experience as a successful, entrepreneur, and an avid thirst for spiritual knowledge, James boasts the unique and powerful ability to blend the practical and mystical into a usable and easy-to-access formula for achieving true wealth across all aspects of life.”

Ray is not the only non-Indian who has an “avid thirst for spiritual knowledge.” In fact, this is the season for them to flock to Indian Reservations to guzzle as much of our spiritual way of life as they can. They have a thirst that cannot be quenched. It is like they want to return to their homes drunk on our Lakota spirituality.

I am extremely grateful to those Lakota medicine men and spiritual leaders who still conduct ceremonies exclusively for enrolled members of federally recognized tribes. Those of you who have attended ceremony where there is only Indian people participating know the sacred energy is much stronger than it is in a ceremony where non-Indians are allowed to participate.

I have experienced firsthand what it is like to have non-Indians show up on my reservation for a couple of weeks in the summer with the attitude that they know more about my way of life than I do. Excuse me but I was born a Lakota. These ceremonies are ours by birthright. The Lakota people would do well by our descendants to come together and declare our ceremonies closed to only our own people.

Still, I know there are Lakota spiritual leaders on my own reservation who would call me racist for my opinions on limiting ceremony to our own people. Some of them believe the concept of Mitakuye Oyasin allows for people of all races to embrace our ceremonial way of life. They are blind to the fact that many of these people take what they learn here and exploit it in places far, far away from the watchful eyes of the Lakota who do not believe our ceremonies should be open to non-Indians.

On June 10, 1993, the Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality Resolution was passed. This document reads in part “We especially urge all our Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota people to take action to prevent our own people from contributing to and enabling the abuse of our sacred ceremonies and spiritual practices by outsiders; for, as we all know, there are certain ones among our own people who are prostituting our spiritual ways for their own selfish gain, with no regard for the spiritual well-being of the people as a whole.”

It is time for all Lakota spiritual leaders to limit participation in our ceremonies to tribal members. Isn’t this why our medicine people fought hard for the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978? In fact, isn’t that why it is called the American Indian Religious Freedom Act?

Our children’s spiritual legacy is being stolen from right under our noses. It’s time for us to take back our power so that our ceremonies and spiritual ways of life will no longer be corrupted by people like James Arthur Ray.

Vi Waln is Sicangu Lakota and an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. Her columns were awarded first place in the South Dakota Newspaper Association 2010 contest. She is Editor of the Lakota Country Times and can be reached through email at vi@lakotacountrytimes.com.

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