March 9, 2011

Producer's Notebook: Building a Sweat Lodge Shoot

Posted: 04:23 PM ET

Canton, GA- The ground had just begun to turn to mud when we arrived at the Canton, GA, log home. Rain soaked the grass and shoes trampled it, as the participants of the days’ sweat lodge ceremony made preparations. HLN/In Session anchors Ryan Smith, Christi Paul, and Jane Velez-Mitchell were on their way to join the group, and share the experience. 

I was there not to participate, but to make sure the shoot went off without a hitch – and there were a few too many unknowns for my liking. My colleague Adam Blank has participated in a sweat lodge ceremony himself, and was the driving force behind our project. But I had only the murkiest idea of how the day would unfold; the answers we received about specifics seemed, to the mind of a producer, pretty vague. There were technical questions too: Would the metal microphone clips burn our anchors’ skin once the heat rose? Would the steam deal a deathblow to our camera before the first frames of footage were even captured? And the mud – there was lots of mud. Someone, surely, would slip and take a spill with expensive equipment in tow.

As we were welcomed, a contagious spirit of anticipation and camaraderie spread. Lupe, the gracious mistress of the house, held out hope for a “donut” – a rain-free spot above her backyard. Gary Adler FourStar, the leader of the ceremony, said the cameras would work if the spirits wanted them to. The fire was built, the lodge was covered, and our veteran cameramen followed along to be the proverbial fly on the wall. 

FourStar is of Assiniboine lineage, and the founder of the Many Horses Foundation. He said that rainy morning he’d be denounced by some for allowing filming of the sacred ceremony, and the criticisms have come. FourStar is an insightful guy and doesn’t need my help in defending his decision, nor is it my place to defend it. Native American heritage and tradition, like all other, is a complicated, multi-faceted thing, and reasonable minds can passionately disagree. Our job is to document what we can.

As it turned out, the infrared camera rolled unencumbered by the steam for some 40 minutes inside the hut before our photographer turned it off to allow privacy for the hours that followed. We show only Jane, Christi, and Ryan’s images from this footage, and not the intensely personal moments of others. The group emerged after three hours; some legs didn’t bear up after the physical and spiritual chore. Hugs were exchanged, water bottles drained, and one young couple wandered off to sit among trees surrounding the site.   

As I’m scrubbing my sneakers and Adam is nursing a cold, we are immensely grateful to FourStar and the others for allowing us to attend. The images and insights of Christi, Ryan, and Jane, however controversial, will illustrate the sweat lodge experience and its spiritual purpose in a way even four months of testimony in an Arizona courtroom can not. As we watch the trial of self-help guru James Ray on charges he caused the deaths of three participants in his own version of the ceremony, we know that agendas differ and each lodge is unique. At the end of the day, we, and our viewers, know a little bit more about the world around us.

-Lena Jakobsson, In Session Field Producer

Filed under: James Arthur Ray • Sweat Lodge • Trials

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Danny Mosley   March 9th, 2011 8:02 pm ET

The sweat lodge session here and the way it was told on insession
sounds and looks like a very personal and holy/sprit filled/ becomeing one with self / nature and others that were there.I know we didnt get too see the whole thing but Ryan & Christy that this was not an out of body type thing,but to reach out with ones sprit and gather things with in self.
James Ray charges 10 to 17 k to tell people what he wants them to hear as it seems so far,he seems like he knows all and sees all.
Unlike Mr.Goldstar.
Now im writing this on Ash wed. my place of worship will burn palm leaves and mix the ashes with water that has been prayed over and we will kneel at the alter and our pastor will dip his finger in the ashes and make a cross on our forhead after that there will be no talking and we can stay at the alter as long as we like.
James Ray is a money maker not a leader spirt or other wise.
A crimenal trial might convict him,but a civil trial would be a so called "slam dunk" so would i go to a sweat lodge if it where held with the sprit of some one like Mr.Goldstar But not James Ray

mary sue welch   March 10th, 2011 10:00 am ET

Perhaps this is a case that should be a civil trial. However, I believe that when James Ray leased the facility at Angel Valley, it was his responsibility to be certain of what they provided for his event. These might have been amenities such as nurses, paramedics, an ambulance standing by, ETC. His organization was in charge of this event and they failed to protect those who paid exorbitant amounts of money to participate.

Terry McKay   March 10th, 2011 10:54 am ET

Our Indian ceremonies were given to us by the Creator. As such, they should not be used for personal gain, monetary or "prestige". The sweatlodge is a very personal rite. No camera or recording device should be allowed into the lodge. Very strict protocol is followed at a sweatlodge, lead by an acknowledged Elder. Any traditional Elder that I know of, will not allow cameras into a sweat lodge.

rhoward   March 10th, 2011 11:33 am ET

Admittedly the prosecution's witnesses seem strange by so-called "normal" standards, I think people need to keep in mind is that who else is going to spend thousands of dollars to attend seminars held by an egotistical person like James Ray? Most of us do not have the kind of money these frauds charge to waste on this kind of thing and that is what the callers can't get their heads around. I personally feel that the witnesses have been credible and the prosecution is doing the best they can with what they have.

Nona Main   March 10th, 2011 5:51 pm ET

I don't care who this man says he is or which tribe he claims to have lineage to. If he was brought up the way he claims he was brought up, he would NOT have allowed this to be filmed. If he was brought up the way he claims, he would know the repercussions of such things. But he will. Mark my words, there is a higher power that will deal with his wrongdoings. These ceremonies are not to be messed with. Maybe he has permission to do this but he's abused what's been given. I was very emotional watching this, seeing the ways of our people being exploited makes me very sad & angry. And to think this goes on all the time makes me sick to my stomach!!!!!

Suzanne Sliva   March 11th, 2011 11:16 am ET

I have a couple of questions for the cnn people. Were you told how hot this experience was going to get? If so, did you look up any info on how much heat the human body can tolerate? And what the side effects might be? Were you satisfied that if something went wrong, your leader would have rushed to your aid? How much time went by between rounds? Could you hydrate between rounds?

I respect the native americans regarding their ceremonies but they would not appeal to me. In my opinion, James Ray is completely guilty in the same regard as a Doctor would be in a malpractice suit.

laura feagin   March 11th, 2011 12:51 pm ET

I am wondering when medical experts will be introduced in the trial of James Ray. It seems much time has been spent debating whether the professional people who participated in the "sweat lodge" ceremony had free will. When people are exposed to extreme heat and experience dehydration, it wouldn't matter if they were inclined to exit the lodge or not, they were likely emotionally or physically unable to do so, due to their condition. People become disoriented quickly, loose their bearings and often hallucinate when dehydrated. Any medical professional would agree. Insert the spiritual factor and the supposed quote from Ray, "you're going to feel like you are dying, but you wont," and you have a recipe for disaster. The participants actually expected to feel like they were dying and obviiously ignored physical symptoms and attempted to perservere to gain Ray's promised spiritual enlightenment. It is upsettiing to see so much time spent on the free will aspect of the participants. Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that many intelegent people become brainwashed by cults and gurus. James Ray was grandiose, arrogant, ill prepared and completely responsible for the nightmare that occured. On a side note, the reference to similar Native American rituals is ridiculous and insulting. Their spiritual ceremonies are not connected to ego and profit and no further comparisons should be drawn.

gary sheldon   March 11th, 2011 1:11 pm ET

Ray is like a hypnotic preacher of the persuasion that his idea of a god
must provide you with financial wealth. Not unlike the false doctrine that says you must give to get because God will give it to you pressed down shaken together and running over. That is just from a seminar clip.

Also the notion that there is no record of pesticide spray is not altogether true. Records are required to be kept as to date/ time / name of pesticide used. Reputable vector control companies are required by law to keep these records. Also there are methods to determine the lifespan of a chemical used to control pests.

Ozgirl   March 11th, 2011 3:34 pm ET

Nona Main thank you for your comments but I was glad I saw it because it intrigued me as to your ways of life and how it should be respected. This is about James Ray though and I think it all forms part of constructing the scene and how things could have gone so terribly wrong. I have witnessed good people turn very bad using the material that James Ray uses so I am acutely aware of the need for every aspect to be discovered so that the public can make a very good understanding of what went wrong. I have no doubt you are beautiful people who value your customs and respect it. We'd love the opportunity to also. This video has exposed James Ray and a money grabbing fool who must now suffer the consequences of his actions. There was no excuse for what happened really, if people were doing things of their free will they would have come and gone from that tent as they felt need to.

Kelly Bourlier   March 14th, 2011 11:01 am ET

I was in an Indian sweat tent. First they told us not to wear any metal and if you don't want to come out, but need air, you can lift a part of the tent and be able to breathe the air.
There was no wood. A hole was dug and hot rocks were brought in and placed in the hole. There was a dead bird hanging from the roof. The Indian man would place herbs on the rocks and chant.
It was an experience and interesting.
I don't think these people knew what they were doing.

Kelly Bourlier

McDonald, Ohio

Claire   March 14th, 2011 12:26 pm ET

1. No Pre Medical Exam Required, Any medical history required?
2. Instructed by James Ray " You are going to feel like you are going
to die" Do you know what it is like to die? I may get the flu so
bad and feel like I am going to die, and some one else has a
higher tolerance, this varies from person to person.
3. If James Ray new he was going to take them to the piont of feeling
like death, he should have had medical readily available to
administer medication for dehydration, heat stroke,. etc.
4, If I paid for such a seminar, and was under the guidance of James
Ray, I would expect him to take me to the state, were I would not
die, So i would think that he James Ray was not knowledgable
medically what happens to the body

Love your show...Ryan

Jere   March 14th, 2011 2:09 pm ET

every single thing that is briught out in this trial is evedence of a cult.
sweat lodge ceremonies that are done properly may not be ...but ray is a murderer! because he did not run this ceremony correctly...and unfortunately innocent people lost their lives. he is nothing but a money making guru!! conducting a cult!!

love the show!!

Maddy   March 14th, 2011 2:15 pm ET

According to defense questioning,, seems they are blaming those who went to this sweat lodge for their own deaths , because of questioning,, reading what contract participants signed,, In 0therwords , they were supposedly signing away their rights, taking all blame off Ray or his corporation for any problems, illness, or death.
The man wasn't interested in people or why they were there,, it was all about the MONEY!!

Trish   March 15th, 2011 2:10 pm ET

Did you notice any insects at Angel Valley? I was in Arizona last week, and also, coincidentally, shortly before this tragedy occurred. I spent time in Sedona, and in the woods outside Sedona. I don't remember seeing any insects on either trip.

As for Ray'[s famous release form - it may have mentioned difficult activities, but fails ot mention the cumulative effect of going from one ot the other. On top of lack of sleep during the whole event ["You can sleep next week"], Also, interesting that it says the participant is doing this of their own free will, making their own choices, etc., but the activities are things that depersonalize and weaken the individual – separating couples, shaving heads [the military does this to strip identity], leader Ray yelling, intimidating people & tellling the group of individual's infractions. Then, after 36 hours outdoors without food & water [the defense pointing out someone could choose to smuggle some to the event doesn't do Ray any favors - if it's about participant's choice, why could they not *openly* carry food or water?] The whole stay-in-the-circle-&-pee-in-a-bag thing? Humiliation?

Some people argue that if some people didn't get shaved, or some left the "sweat lodge" [and didn't return after Ray's repeated calls for anyone wanting to return], or some skipped vision quest, that demonstrates people weren't under Ray's control. Well, of the 35-40 people living at Spahn Ranch with the Family in 1969, only 6 participated in the Tate/La Bianca/Hinman murders. But California still convicted Manson.

Susan   March 15th, 2011 3:36 pm ET

You would think, just by what was written in the waivers, that Mr. Ray would have had some kind of medical personal handy. It sounds as if something had happened before for him to put such statements in the waivers. People sign waivers all the time and feel relatively safe thinking that no one was going to purposely put them in harms way.

Susan in AZ   March 15th, 2011 5:32 pm ET

I agree Maddy, the defense is really beating up the survivors of a horrific event. If I'm on the jury, I'd be really mad at their attacks. While I see that these were decision making adults, they were also beaten up physically and mentally with samurai games, dehydrating fasts and head shaving. Not unlike military boot camp. This culminated in a mind game where Ray tried to control them into staying in the sweat lodge past the point their intuition was telling them to leave. Their safety was not Ray's priority. That was his downfall, not theirs. They expected him to know, better than themselves, that they were not in danger.

Jane in New York   March 16th, 2011 1:41 pm ET

Self-help books and seminars are no more scams than other methods in the marketplace. People who want to live more fully can be greatly helped or seriously duped and robbed by psychiatrists, pharmaceutical products, counselors, universities, diet plans, exercise equipment, magnetic bracelets, trade schools, psychics, and RELIGION. From the testimony, it appears James Ray’s approach was definitely one of the better methods. He didn’t use trickery to get people to sign up. His business practices should not be on trial.

The toxins in the tent and manufactured logs were what poisoned the participants. Nobody could have anticipated that deadly mix. It was a convergence of disparate factors resulting in a horrible accident.

The prosecutors are way over-charging. I see that a lot on your program. They respond to public pressure that says, “Somebody’s dead; somebody has to pay.” Justice is impossible when vengeance knows no bounds.

Trish   March 16th, 2011 1:42 pm ET

I also am horrified by the tone the defense has been taking – from the beginning. During the defense opening statement, the attorney said something to the effect of: These deaths were tragic & nothing anyone says here can chance that [ok, obvious], but thenhe said, "Are we clear on that?" This sounded so snotty, I couldn't believe it.

But once they started getting the chance to cross the victims, it sounded like they were so obsessed with winning the argument[s] with the witnesses, that they didn't seem to notice how calous their questions & their tone of voice were.

Maddy has a really good point about the defense making it sound like "they signed the waiver, they have nothing to complain about" – it sounds to me like they really buy the claim that everyone is creating their own reality & there can be no influence or circumstance that one cannot survive unless one is not trying.

Rick Williams   March 17th, 2011 11:18 pm ET

Great article I really enjoyed talking with you at the sweat and thanks for giving such a great perspective of the lodge, so many negative comments have been posted, but I was very impressed by the way your team showed up "in a good way", that is why you were able to walk away with so much footage to take out to share, positive view unlike the hours of trail footage that will distort the real meaning and workings of a lodge.

A comment about all the posting about the waiver.
The water Pourer has a responsibility to the people in the lodge whether they signed a waiver or not.

KellyB   March 18th, 2011 8:18 pm ET

Sounds to me like a very deepa nd propfound esperience ..that should have someone trained in medical emergencies there "just in case". Safety first

kawesoton light   March 24th, 2011 11:59 am ET

i am a native american (mohawk nation).i live on the mohawk terittory at akwesasne . i cant believe that this so called traditional native american, gary four star would allow cameras inside a sacred ceremony. i have sun danced for over 25 yrs...we have sweats at our home on a regular basis.we teach our chidren and grandchildren the responsibilities of life.we teach them that some things are sacred .my grandson is 7 yrs old and saw a sweat lodge ceremony on tv and asked me why are they doing that?he helps me get sweats ready,he sings,it is a way of life for alot of our people.if this man (gary fourstar)was truely a traditional person he would never have allowed this. i hate it when people sell out our sacred ceremonies weather for money or maybe fame....i feel he is no better than this james ray,

Puzzled   March 24th, 2011 6:13 pm ET

How many times do people get just enough information on how to do something before they start calling themselves "experts" and "gurus" and using that limited expertise to entice people to buy their products before the price goes up ten fold? I've seen it so often in the personal development industry and its shocking ....... absolutely time it was stopped.

Sheila Firehair Stover   March 24th, 2011 10:42 pm ET

All tribes do not sweat. Traditonalists are very careful as to how these ceremonies are conducted. co-ed sweats are not common– nir is sweting with strangers, or going where one has no refernece for the leader to be who they say, trained, and knowledgeable. Doing a sweat is generaly for a pecific purpose–it is NOT like, gee, lets do a sweat, then get the car washed. This Four Star person is not being truthful about who he is or his upbringing. Filming is a no no. There are those out there who will do as they please-they think to change thing to suit themselves, make it easier, "cuter" like the ancestors didn't know best? Not in my book–nor the way I was instructed. As to the AZ debacle/ Mr Ray–he's a fake, con, selfish, careless, a culture vulture. what is really beyond me–why intelligent people wanted to spend massive $$$ to be with him. What belongs to Creator in a sacred manner does not cost–nor put on such trappings. &a plastic covered enclosure? Geeeeeez, Louise. Google Arvol Looking Horse's statements on that travesty.

Sheila Firehair Stover   March 24th, 2011 10:48 pm ET

My keyboard is waiting to go to the techie– apologies for typos. MY grandmother just rolled in her grave over those mistakes! Thank you, Nona Main, for your commentary-also, the comments by kawesoton light–which fit well with what I was taught–even tho I am Minisink/Delaware.

Caracalla   March 25th, 2011 6:15 pm ET

I can't be the only one who sees that this guy has all the makings and same characteristics of a dangerous cult leader. He needs to be put behind bars for a long time and humbled into knowing he is not as great and above everyone else as he thinks he is. Sure the people volunteered, but to pay $10,000 each for what he was doing? Obviously these people had issues and he was preying on their weaknesses. If it were not all about money and actually for helping people he could have charge several thousands less for basically a week of summer camp. They weren't eating caviar and drinking champagne with every meal and the place looked worse than a YMCA camp and the tent's looked like $150 pieces of junk, and that's a kind estimate. So why so much money if you're there to HELP people. He just wanted to help himself. Cult leaders are VERY SELFISH people. We don't need another Jim Jones. The jury needs to put a stop to him NOW!!!

Nicholis Blumenberg   March 30th, 2011 11:55 am ET

I have a comment about what Hope Miller said. She said that it was unprofessional and that had seen many red flags and problems in the time that she was working for Jame Ray. If she was such a professional and had so many issues, why then did she not voice her concerns to her supervisor. In that light should she not be in trial for negligence, because she sat back and did nothing that may have saved a life?

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