Pandora’s Brew: The New Ayahuasca Part 4

Ayahuasca Healings

Last week (March 18, 2017), I received an email that read, in toto:

Just like I promised:
Get the free eBook here (right click, “Save Link As…”)
I wrote this back in 2010, and the secrets contained within this eBook, have allowed me to create and live the most beautiful, fulfilling life I could have ever imagined.
It is actually a “channeled” book, are you familiar with what channeling is?
Back in 2010, I met The Teachers who showed me how to create my ideal life experience, no matter where I was at.
(The Teachers are the true authors of this eBook)
Following Their words, led me down a path more magical, more beautiful, more filled with joy, love and freedom, than anything I could have ever dreamt up.
Because they taught me, how to truly follow my heart. There’s no secret, that following your heart, is
the key to creating the life of your dreams.
The question is:
How?
You know you want a life of freedom, but how do you get there?
The mind can be so strong in it’s fears and doubts.
And we can be so controlled by other people’s expectations of us…
So the question is, above all of that, how can you still follow your heart?
This is the key to your most fulfilling life, ever.
And this eBook gives you the answers, and shows you, how you can move forward, to create the life that your heart and soul, so deeply yearn for.
It’s time!
So enjoy this eBook, and I’ll talk to you soon! [To be continued..]
With infinite gratitude, so happy to share this,
Trinity de Guzman & The Ayahuasca Healings Family

About once or twice a week I get a missive like this from Trinity, the messianic young founder of Ayahuasca Healings Native American Church. Since I initiated my membership in the Ayahuasca Healings community (by reluctantly giving them my e-mail address), I have received at least 48 of these love bombs, with subject lines ranging from “Welcome Beautiful Soul” to “Day 6 – How To Choose The Right Shaman” to “…I’m going to be a father!! Yay!!”

Gayle Highpine likens Trinity’s writing to a New Age version of prosperity gospel:

Psychological triggers are his stock in trade. “You can manifest the life of your dreams” is powerful bait, not a religious teaching. Who wouldn’t want to live like Trinity, traveling the world skiing and surfing and having adventures? If he has any metaphysical beliefs, they appear to be “The Secret,” the New Age version of prosperity gospel, which uses the “law of attraction” and the “art of manifestation.”

Prosperity gospel just happens to be the brand of Christianity with which Donald Trump has aligned himself—and one that many Christian groups themselves have a hard time stomaching. The promise of wealth, power, and success in exchange for unlimited and unquestioning faith is a powerful draw for the suffering. Someone ought to do a thesis on the parallels between Trumpism and Trinity-ism—call them legion, for like the biblical demons of the man of Gadarenes, they are many.

A few prelims

In my second post of this series, I mentioned the existence of a set of organizations calling themselves branches of the Native American Church who, under the aegis of the Oklevueha Native American Church (ONAC), claim to be serving ayahuasca legally in the United States. I’ll be calling these groups the “new ayahuasca churches” (to distinguish them from the Santo Daime and UDV). I also characterize these groups as “neo-shamanic.” A complete unpacking of this term is beyond the scope of this discussion, so for the sake of the current argument, I’ll define “neo-shamanism” as any of a variety of novel forms of shamanic practice based on the Amazonian model but modified significantly through their adoption into a New-Age, Western, scientific-industrial cultural context. Changes generally include the elimination of tobacco smoke, the erasure of sorcery, the lack of knowledge or use of the sopla and chupa (blowing and sucking) methods of curing, the use of bottled ayahuasca bought on an underground market, the use of recorded and non-Amazonian music, an ideology heavily influenced by Eastern religion and medicine, and the appropriation and incorporation of idealized elements of indigenous and Native North American religious culture. I’ll also recognize that neo-shamanism and “traditional” ayahuasca shamanism represent points on a spectrum of shamanic practice, as even “traditional” ayahuasca shamanism is adaptive and eclectic.

It’s also important to clarify up front that ONAC is an organization drenched in controversy. They’ve been repeatedly renounced in the press and in the courts by the National Council of Native American Churches, the governing body of legitimate NAC organizations in North America. ONAC’s leader, James Mooney, claims membership in a branch of the Seminole Tribe that, according to the Seminole Tribe, doesn’t exist. Most recently, they’ve had a very public and tawdry falling out with their own lawyer that appears to have culminated in the installment of Howard Mann, pornography and gambling magnate, as head of ONAC. But I’m going to hold off on the ONAC discussion for now, and lead instead with the Ayahuasca Healings story, which brought ONAC to our attention in the first place.

On with the story:

Among the new ayahuasca churches, Ayahuasca Healings, also known as Ayahuasca USA and Ayahuasca Healings Native American Church (AHNAC), is the youngest and newest, has (or had) the biggest ambitions and the most successful marketing operation, and as a result, gathered the attention of the press, the National Council of Native American Churches and, finally, the U.S. federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

Ayahuasca Healings came on the public scene in the second half of 2015. They immediately claimed to be the first, public, legal ayahuasca church in America, a feat accomplished, they asserted, through their affiliation with the New Haven Native American Church. They advertised retreats both  in Peru and on their 160-acre retreat site in Elbe, Washington. The domestic retreats were offered in exchange for a “suggested donation” of $1497 to $1997 for a four-day retreat (Ayahuasca Healings 2016a). Their stated mission was to build 30 retreat centers in the U.S. at the rate of two per year until 2032, “the start of our New Golden Age” (Ayahuasca Healings 2016b). [Note: The content of some linked webpages may have changed since the date of research, and thus do not reflect statements made in this post. The bibliography at the end of this post will provide original access dates, and archived pages are available from the author upon request.]

The tone of Ayahuasca Healings’ message and mission are characteristic of the general tenor of public conversation around ayahuasca: That it’s a panacea, that it’s a step to ultimate awareness and personal empowerment, that ayahuasca will change the world:

Just like yoga and meditation have come from the East to help Westerners return back to the essential Truth of Presence & being in the heart…
Ayahuasca has come from deep within the jungles of the Amazon, for the exact same reason.
And I truly believe that Ayahuasca will be just as ‘mainstream’ as yoga & meditation are becoming…
We’re going through a massive, collective Awakening.
[automated email, “Day 2: The Great Awakening & Ayahuasca”]

Ayahuasca Healings is headed by a messianic young leader named Trinity de Guzman who says that in his first ayahuasca session in 2013, “I was curled into a fetal position, crying, shaking, and vomiting. And I knew that at that moment that I was here to share [ayahuasca] with the world” (Rose 2015). Formerly an internet marketer who was making five figures a month by the age of 19 (by his own account), De Guzman is profiled on the website Entrepreneurs for Change under the episode title, “Travel The World For Years While Your Remote Team Does All The Work” (Li 2016). After people began to look more deeply at Ayahuasca Healings, this profile story became the focus of significant criticism, especially de Guzman’s statement that he paid his offshore employees a dollar an hour for their work, saying, “that is actually a normal, good wage in these countries where we’re hiring.”

Trinity de Guzman selfie at Macchu Picchu. Photo from profile at entreprenerusforachange.com.

De Guzman is flanked by Marc “Kumooja Banyan Tree” Shackman, whose now-defunct website (http://balancingbetweenworlds.com) billed him as a “contemporary shaman, transformational life coach, inspirational guest speaker and Heart Energy Medicine therapist.” Videos released by the group (here, here and here are but a few) show a small group of young people, working and living together on their land in Elbe, celebrating, sharing food and the warmth of a fire, expressing their joy at the transformations they’ve experienced through ayahuasca and the hope that they feel at being a part of this new spiritual community.

AH’s promises of love, healing and community; the charisma of their leadership and of their young and idealistic participants; and particularly the promise of legal and open ayahuasca ceremonies in the United States attracted a ready following and a significant amount of press coverage both in the local press and online media outlets such as Reset.me, Munchies and The Daily Beast (Rose 2015, Siegel 2015, Malandra 2016). It didn’t hurt that de Guzman has a professional background in internet marketing. In fact, Ayahuasca Healings’ ability to market themselves appears to be one of the factors leading to their downfall, when it brought them to the attention of James Mooney and the ONAC church. On Dec. 3, 2015, in two posts on its Facebook page, ONAC disavowed knowledge of New Haven NAC, under whose aegis Ayahuasca Healings purportedly was operating, and asserted that only those groups and individuals with an explicit relationship to ONAC enjoyed the legal protections they offered. In a Dec. 4 comment to one of these posts, a Facebook user posted a comment which stated (incorrectly) that only two organizations in the United States had the right to administer ayahuasca in their religious sessions: the UDV and ONAC. Following the opening comment was a piece of text entitled “Buyer Beware,” which detailed why Ayahuasca Healings was not protected. The comment appears to be signed by a “Chief Oklevueha NAC,” presumably Mooney, although my queries as to the authorship remain unanswered.

 

A screenshot of Inti Munay’s post to the ONAC Facebook page, with text attributed to “Chief Oklevueha NAC.”

That same day, Dec. 4, 2016, the “Buyer Beware” text appeared on the website of anthropologist Bia Labate, expert in the internationalization of ayahuasca, as an anonymous blog post (Anonymous 2015). Differences between the blog post and the Facebook comment suggest that one was not a cut-and-paste of the other. Instead, they appear to be two derivations of the same source material, making the apparent signature of “Chief Oklevueha NAC” intriguing indeed—and ironic: Did Labate begin her series of anti-AHNAC blog posts with a piece written by James Mooney, head of ONAC, or one of his proxies?

What is clear is that Ayahuasca Healings had attracted Mooney’s attention—and that he was not happy with the fact that they were operating as a branch of his church without his acknowledgement and blessing. On Dec. 4 Mooney issued (via Facebook) a 2-page letter to the New Haven NAC disavowing their relationship to ONAC and demanding that Ayahuasca Healings deal directly with ONAC. Mooney closed by stating that his lawyers would be in touch with a formal cease-and-desist order, and that ONAC would notify local law enforcement of NHNAC and Ayahuasca Healings’ activities. “They will have to decide at that point whether to arrest you and those you participate with, or leave you alone.” (Council of Elders, Oklevueha Native American Church. 2015. “Letter of Distrust.” Posted to Facebook.com/OklevuehaNativeAmericanChurch/, Dec. 4. Accessed May 25, 2016.) The next day, Ayahuasca Healings announced their intention to join ONAC.

By this time, however, ayahuasca watchdogs had had enough. On Dec. 7, 2015, another post appeared on Labate’s blog, this time written by a law expert, exposing the false claims of legality offered by ONAC (Hudson 2015). The post also detailed AH’s market-oriented approach:

The [Ayahuasca Healings] website is a lead generation factory collecting email addresses. The multi-step marketing process…can have the unfortunate effect of entrapping customers in commitment-to-buy. This is Sales 101…It exploits people.

The scary thing is that so many people have bought into this in the past week that Ayahuasca USA stopped accepting applications.

Ayahuasca Healings, however, continued to move forward with their plans. On Dec. 12, they announced a formal affiliation with and blessing by James Mooney, whom de Guzman, in his enthusiasm, described as “literally no higher authority in the Native American Church in all of America” (Ayahuasca Healings 2015).

On the same day, Labate released another blog post, this one entitled “The ‘Legality’ of Ayahuasca Churches Under the Oklevueha Native American Church” (Highpine 2015a) examining the specifics of ayahuasca law in the US, how the UDV had gained their exemption, and why ONAC’s (and therefore AHNAC’s) claims to the legal use of entheogenic sacraments were false. On December 21, Indian Country Today published an opinion piece denouncing ONAC and the use of marijuana in Native American ceremonies—a piece that drew a swift and sharp rebuttal from Mooney (Hopkins 2015, ONAC 2015). The next day, Highpine published another blog post on Labate’s site examining the legal status of ayahuasca in the United States (Highpine 2015b). These blog posts had become a five-part series targeting Ayahuasca Healings, and they managed to get the attention of some members of the public. Using the blog posts as fodder, moderators of some of the ayahuasca forums initiated conversations about the issue, and the news media, who had previously covered the story uncritically, began to look more closely at the claims and ambitions of de Guzman and ONAC (Malandra 2016).

Finally, on January 11, 2016, a Facebook group was launched called “Ayahuasca Healings Is NOT Legal.” “This group is dedicated to refuting the claims of ‘Trinity de Guzman’, James ‘Screaming Eagle’ Mooney, the ONAC, et al. in regards to illegitimate claims of their ability (and intent) to distribute ayahuasca in the state of Washington legally,” the description reads. Their first post was a link to the Dec. 12 Highpine article, “The ‘Legality’ of Ayahuasca Churches Under ONAC.” Membership of the Facebook group approached 150 people by March. However, in Elbe, things continued as planned, with the group’s first weekend retreat taking place on Jan. 22 (automated email, “Please Help”).

Towards the end of January, Trinity’s business partners in Peru sent out a press release disavowing any relationship with Ayahuasca Healings and clarifying that de Guzman’s role in their operation was as investor and booking agent, nothing more (Polley 2016). At least one more well-known retreat center in Peru later declined to do business with Ayahuasca Healings after learning of the controversy. And on January 24, a former member of the Ayahuasca Healings inner circle released a YouTube video denouncing the group on the basis of four major complaints: the lack of elders within the operation, the lack of indigenous representation, the excessive price of the retreats, and the lack of support from within the “global medicine community”—in addition to the overarching fact that they were telling people their U.S. retreats were legal, but they were not (Montgomery 2016).

The Ayahuasca Healings controversy attracted the attention of the Native American community as well. On Feb. 18, Indian Country Today published a formal statement by the National Council of Native American Churches denouncing ONAC and the use of any sacrament other than peyote in NAC ceremonies. Although this was the same message they had issued in various amicus briefs and other memoranda in the past, this time they named ayahuasca specifically:

Some of these illegitimate organizations, comprised of non-Native people, are now claiming that marijuana, ayahuasca and other substances are part of Native American Church theology and practice. Nothing could be further from the truth. We, the National Council of Native American Churches are now stepping forward to advise the public that we do not condone the activities of these illegitimate organizations. [NCNAC 2016]

Then, sometime in the end of February, Ayahuasca Healings received a “friendly” letter from the DEA requesting that they file a formal petition for exemption under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (automated email, “Please Help”).

On March 8, 2016, Ayahuasca Healings announced that they had made the decision to go on a “temporary hiatus,” and that they would “not be conducting ceremonies or holding retreats for a limited period of time” (automated email, “Please Help”).  Their stated intention was to bring the operation into full alignment with RFRA, and yet later in the letter, they assert, “Although AHNAC has repeatedly faced criticism from detractors who believe that our interpretation of the law as it currently stands is mistaken, we are 100% confident that what we are doing here is 100% legal.”

The news of the hiatus came as a shock to those “members” who were in the process of packing for their pre-paid ayahuasca retreat in Elbe. No refunds were offered, as the money had apparently all been spent. Besides, as AH’s new representative pointed out, AH’s terms and conditions stated that monies paid would be considered a gift or an investment in the future of the church, not a fee for service (Dylan Ayahealings, Facebook comment, April 15, 2016). Participants quickly discovered that the credit card companies were treating the situation as a case of fraud and refunding payments on that basis. Meanwhile, de Guzman had been in Peru since February, and according to complaints from AH members, neither he nor Shackman were in contact with members or with the public.

As of March 8, according to the new homepage of the Ayahuasca Healings website, information on retreats would be available only to members. The first step in obtaining a membership was to provide your email address, at which time they would begin to send you one email a day for ten days. The welcome letter, which, like all missives from AH, is signed by Trinity de Guzman, reads:

Together, we are going to take a journey. The Inner Journey.
The most valuable, beautiful, rewarding journey we could ever take.
The emails I send you, will be like a map for you. To a treasure chest.
To the peace, love, joy, and happiness you know you came here to live.
A way out of being trapped by society. A way out of any depression or anxiety.
And a way to let go of the deepest rooted fears that keep you stuck.
So please follow these steps to make sure you receive our emails from here on.
If you are using Gmail, here’s how:
[automated email, “Welcome beautiful soul!”]

To be continued.

Works Cited (links without parenthetical citations will be listed, in order of appearance, at the end)

Anonymous. “Let the Buyer Beware: Advertised ‘Ayahuasca Healing Retreats’ Are Not Legal in the United States.” 2015. Bia Labate Blog. Accessed April 19, 2016. http://www.bialabate.net/news/let-the-buyer-beware-advertised-ayahuasca-healing-retreats-are-not-legal-in-the-united-states.

Ayahuasca Healings 2015. “Ayahuasca Church in America, Video Blog – Week 1, CELEBRATE!” Dec. 12. Accessed April 19, 2016. https://youtu.be/Ek0HtGxQfCo.

——— 2016a. “FAQs.” Accessed May 24, 2016. https://ayahuascahealings.com/faqs/.

——— 2016b. “ONAC of Ayahuasca Healings – Vision, Mission & Philosophy.” Accessed May 24, 2016. https://ayahuascahealings.com/ayahuasca-usa-church-vision/.

Highpine, Gayle. 2015a. “The ‘Legality’ of Ayahuasca Churches Under the Oklevueha Native American Church.” Bia Labate Blog. Dec. 12. Accessed April 19. 2016. http://www.bialabate.net/news/the-legality-of-ayahuasca-churches-under-the-oklevueha-native-american-church.

——— 2015b. “Is Ayahuasca Actually Illegal in the United States?” http://www.bialabate.net/news/is-ayahuasca-actually-illegal-in-the-united-states. Published Dec. 22, accessed April 19, 2016.

Hopkins, Ruth. 2015. “Pot and Pretendians.” Indian Country Today. Dec. 21. Accessed April 19, 2016. http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/12/21/pot-and-pretendians.

Hudson, Hamilton. 2015. “Don’t believe the hype about the ‘Legal Ayahuasca USA Church’ Going Around Facebook—It’s Not Legal, It’s Dangerous, and Here’s Why.” Bia Labate Blog. Dec. 7. Accessed April 19, 2016. http://www.bialabate.net/news/dont-believe-the-hype-about-the-legal-ayahuasca-usa-church-going-around-facebook-its-not-legal-its-dangerous-and-heres-why.

Li, Lorna. 2016. “Travel the World for Years While Your Remote Team Does All The Work – Trinity De Guzman.” Entrepreneurs for a Change. Accessed May 25, 2016. http://www.entrepreneursforachange.com/25/.

Malandra, Ocean. 2016. “A Closer Look at That ‘First Legal Ayahuasca Church in America”’ Story You’ve Seen Hyped In The Media.” Reset.me. Feb. 1. Accessed April 19 2016. http://reset.me/story/first-legal-ayahuasca-church/.

Montgomery, Scott. 2016. “USA Plant Med Communities! Ayahuasca Healings: An Ex-Insider’s Fiery Perspective.” Jan. 24. Accessed April 19, 2016. https://youtu.be/Ti_YUXmrF5M.

NCNAC (Native American Church of North America). 2016. “National Council Does Not Condone Faux Native American Churches or Marijuana Use.” Indian Country Today. Feb. 18. Accessed April 19, 2016. http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2016/02/18/national-council-does-not-condone-faux-native-american-churches-or-marijuana-use-163464.

ONAC 2015. “Pot and Pretendians: ONAC Rebuttal.” Indian Country Today. Dec. 29. Accessed May 24, 2016. http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/12/29/pot-and-pretendians-onac-rebuttal.

Polley, Lara. 2016. “Media Release–El Jardin de la Paz and ayahuascahealings.com.” January 27. Accessed. April 19, 2016. http://www.eljardindelapaz.com/#!Media-Release-El-Jardin-de-la-Paz-and-ayahuascahealingscom/cay8/56a968a10cf215a9bb9eacdd.

Rose, Nick. 2015. “America Is Getting Its First Legal Ayahuasca Church.” Munchies. Dec. 11. Accessed May 17, 2016. https://munchies.vice.com/articles/america-is-getting-its-first-legal-ayahuasca-church.

Siegel, Zachary. 2015. “America’s First Legal Ayahuasca ‘Church’.” The Daily Beast. Dec. 6. Accessed May 17, 2016. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/12/07/america-s-first-legal-ayahuasca-church.html

Other links:

https://ayahuascahealings.com

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the DEA Exemption Process, and Ayahuasca Healings

http://www.npr.org/2017/01/13/509558608/with-his-choice-of-inauguration-prayer-leaders-trump-shows-his-valueshttps://www.ncronline.org/blogs/small-c-catholic/beware-prosperity-gospel-trump-administration

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/january-web-only/paula-white-donald-trump-prayer-partner-inauguration.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/07/15/how-the-prosperity-gospel-explains-donald-trumps-popularity-with-christian-voters/

https://nativeamericanchurches.orghttp://www.newhavennativeamericanchurch.org

https://www.facebook.com/groups/1019591274765819/?ref=br_rs

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