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On July 12, James Ray walked out of an Arizona prison on parole.

It's hard to object to his parole.

Keeping him in prison is expensive.

He only kills willing victims.

But the public should know he's back....

James Ray’s Arizona trial for manslaughter played like a bad movie, Harry Potter meets John Wayne.  

For $9,695, Ray promised that Native American wisdom imparted by him, a white man, would make you healthy, wealthy, and wise.  People lined up to consume this swill in spite of the obvious fact that most real Indians are neither healthy nor wealthy.  Wisdom is in the eye of the beholder but we have enough sense not to kill people in spiritual ceremonies.

Dennis Mehravar, one of the suckers, er, participants, quoted Ray:  “He asked, ‘Has anybody been in a sweat lodge before?’  I would say probably maybe eight or nine people raised their hands.  And then his comment was, ‘well, you've never been to my sweat lodge.’"

I’m Cherokee, and our purification ceremony involves water rather than heat.  It’s also not for sale, although there’s not a lot to be done if somebody decided to sell it and did not care about lost reputation in the Cherokee communities.

I’ve participated in sweats conducted by Comanche, Cheyenne, Shoshone, and Lakota, but I’ve never seen plastic used in the construction of a sweat lodge, which was apparently the case in Arizona.

In Ray’s plastic tent, three people died and 18 were hospitalized.  I’ve never even seen that many people in a sweat lodge.

Ray considered the ceremony a near-death experience.  The first time I sweated, the elder in charge told me to leave if I had trouble.

The whole Ray debacle reminded me of another death in the early nineties here in Central Texas.  A woman died in a “Native American sweat lodge” maintained by a non-Indian while in it by herself.  No fire keeper.  No singer.  Nobody to remove her if she was unable to remove herself.

In spite of the fact that no Indian was involved, the tragic death brought calls to ban dangerous, pagan ceremonies.  Those of us who leaped to the defense found ourselves cross-examined on the fine points of ceremonies.  This is Comanche country, but I doubt any Comanche ever died in a sweat.  It would be hard to take the conversation seriously if a real person were not dead.

There’s a big legal problem around the abuse of Indian ceremonies that ties into the cultural problems we all experience.

Government has the power to ban practices that are in fact dangerous.  To put a finer point on it, practices that a reasonable legislator might have believed were dangerous.

Dead people are pretty strong evidence of danger.

To defend against the banning, we have to delve into matters of how the ceremonies are done that most of us consider private.  Indian spiritual practices differ from Christianity in that most of us have some idea like the one taught me: “The spirit world takes care of it’s own business.”  That is, trying to convert others is silly and futile.

The Indian equivalent of the TV preacher gets no respect.  A Comanche medicine man, now deceased, who was kind enough to teach me a little about the people on whose bones I walk here in Texas, had more holes in his jeans than teenagers put there on purpose.  I never saw him charge anything beyond expenses but I did see him refuse to reveal things and make merciless sport of anthropologists.

A lot of what is written about Indian ceremonies is unreliable.  You can only learn by doing and those who know will not teach weekend Indians.

Why not ban the ceremonies when abused by non-Indians?  Because the First Amendment protects all beliefs.  A non-Indian may hold beliefs he takes to be traditionally Indian in a completely sincere manner, but the courts generally do not inquire into sincerity.

Sincerity?   Look no farther than the tragedy in Arizona.  Those people paid a lot of money.  They were explicitly instructed that they would think they were going to die and they should not interfere with how others processed the experience.

According to some survivors, Ray’s staff floated the idea that the dead people had left their bodies on purpose and were having such a good time they decided not to come back!  That’s sincerity.

Indians seeking a way out of being blamed for abuse of ceremonies they don’t want public in the first place have one weapon.  The First Amendment, like the Constitution and Bill of Rights generally, does not apply to Indian nations.  The First Amendment bans “establishment of religion,” which is laughable for many tribes for whom spiritual practices are the glue holding them together.  Not to mention the theocracies.

My tribal government has been a constitutional republic since 1827.  It does not follow that I should disrespect other forms of tribal government, and I don't.

Tribal governments can ban the sale of ceremonies.  This ban could only be applied to tribal citizens, but it could arguably be applied to them wherever they are.  If they put the tribe’s spiritual heritage up for sale, disenroll them, so that they may claim to be healthy, wealthy, and wise, but not to be indigenous.

I do not say that lightly.  Disenrollment is very akin to a death penalty, and should only be considered for the most egregious offenses.

Selling fake ceremonies is an egregious offense even when it does not kill people.  It forces Indians to defend their most sacred practices by reference to details that are never meant to be public.  If a person with Indian blood would force his or her people into that situation, I would question whether they value their tribal citizenship in the first place?

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