Selling Magic; Delivering Death
Russell, Indian Country Today Column
Ray’s Arizona trial for manslaughter played like a bad
movie; Harry Potter meets John Wayne. And now he’s been
found guilty of negligent homicide.
For $9,695, Ray
promised that Native American wisdom, imparted by him,
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.
one of the suckers, er, I mean participants, quoted Ray:
“He asked, ‘Has anybody been in a sweat lodge before?
Well, you’ve never been in my sweat lodge.’”
purification ceremonies involve water rather than heat.
It’s also not for sale.
Having been in
sweats conducted by Comanche, Cheyenne, and Lakota I’ve
never seen plastic used in the construction of a sweat
lodge, which was the case in Arizona.
In Ray’s plastic
tent, three people died and 18 were hospitalized.
the ceremony a near-death experience. The first time I
sweated, the elder in charge told me to leave if I had
The whole Ray
debacle reminded me of another death in the early
nineties 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
In spite of the
fact that no Indian was involved, the tragic deaths at
the bottom of the Grand Canyon brought calls to ban
dangerous, pagan ceremonies. Those of us who leaped to
the defense found ourselves cross-examined on the finer
points of ceremonies. This is Comanche country, but I
doubt any Comanche ever died in a sweat.
There’s a big
legal problem around the abuse of Indian ceremonies that
ties into the cultural problems we all experience.
the power to ban practices that are dangerous. To put a
finer point on it, practices that a reasonable
legislator might believe to be dangerous. Dead people
are a pretty strong evidence of danger.
To defend against
the banning, we have to delve into matters of how the
ceremonies are performed. Indian spiritual practices
differ from Christianity in that “The spirit world takes
care of its own business.” Which is to say, trying to
convert others is silly and futile.
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, had more holes in his jeans than teenagers. I
never saw him charge anything beyond expenses but I did
see him refuse to reveal things and make merciless sport
A lot of what is
written about Indian ceremonies is unreliable. You can
only learn by doing.
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.
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
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! Now,
that is (er, was) 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 does not apply to Indian nations,
since the First Amendment bans “establishment of
religion” and for many tribes spiritual practices have
been the glue holding them together, in some cases for
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 Indigenous.
Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of
Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and
associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at
Indiana University-Bloomington. He is a columnist for
Indian Country Today. He lives in Georgetown, Texas, and
can be reached at