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SEDONA, AZ – Three people have died so far from a sweat lodge ceremony run by self-help guru James Arthur Ray.

On October 8th, Ray was running a $9,695 “Spiritual Warrior” retreat at the Angel Valley Retreat Center in Arizona. At the end of a two-hour sweat lodge ceremony, two participants died, and one died later after a week-long coma. Another eighteen were hospitalized for various ailments such as dehydration and kidney failure.

Attendees claim they were told to fast for 36 hours, and were left alone in the desert with only a sleeping bag. After this “vision quest”, they were given breakfast before entering the sweat lodge.

Despite some participants vomiting and collapsing, Ray repeatedly urged participants to stay. One attendee claims he closed the door and refused anyone from exiting. Ray believed the group members were purging themselves.

Once authorities had arrived, Ray refused to speak with them, and soon left Arizona.

Sweat lodge ceremonies, when conducted properly, are never considered lethal. Native Americans have expressed outrage over Ray’s wrongful appropriation of their spiritual practices, claiming most sweat lodge leaders have 4-8 years of prior apprenticeship, that participants are encouraged to speak up when they feel unwell, and that the ceremony length was much too long.

A sweat lodge is a hand-built dome or hut that is made of natural materials. A group sits around a pit filled with hot stones warmed outside the lodge, and either sit in silence, sing, chant or drum, depending on the tradition.

Arvol Looking Horse, the 19th generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle, said, “What has happened in the news with the makeshift sauna called the ‘sweat lodge’ is not our ceremonial way of life.

“When you do ceremony, you can not have money on your mind. We deal with the pure sincere energy to create healing that comes from everyone in that circle of ceremony. The heart and mind must be connected. When you involve money, it changes the energy of healing.”

Police say that there is currently a homocide investigation going on, but have not charged any suspects yet.

Here is Beverly Bunn’s account of the sweat lodge incident:

Ray has refused all interviews, but said at an event in Denver, “To their families I say, ‘I feel your pain. I accept and I understand your anger, and I just pray every single day that you’ll find peace.'” Ray has said he is cooperating with  authorities, but has also his own investigators to look into the incident