Couple questions alternative healing groups' activities on Haida Gwaii

Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, Canada/November 9, 2013

By Rob Smith

Some people on Haida Gwaii think Earth People’s United (EPU) is a cult.

Others disagree.

Laura Duthiel said peer pressure and shaming, combined with hallucinogenic drug use, were key components of how leader Erik Gonzales controlled her when she was a member. She ingested drugs that paralyzed her for what she estimates to be eight hours. It was for her a “coma-like state.”

For her it had nothing to do with healing.

Tom Greene’s concern began at a public meeting in the town of Skidegate when he asked about a youth exchange to Guatemala. He had just recently heard of violence in that country on the news. When he raised the issue he was assured by employees of the Nygstle Society, a cultural healing organization, that the youth were safe.

Green claims he was shocked afterward when a man warned him he was taking on the cult.

Haida youth have travelled to EPU’s Deer Mountain Center located on 1,700 acres of land northeast of Yreka in Northern California. Youth have also been to EPU’s compound on the shores of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. You can see them on EPU’s self-produced videos on YouTube.

Seven years ago Raven Ann Potschka was one of those youth. She confirmed to APTN Investigates the types of drugs used in Gonzales’ ceremonies. These include peyote, ayahuasca, amanita, and psilocybin. Potschka calls them medicine.

“We are doing things as a family, a spiritual family we are doing these ceremonies together for support and we are also all learning together for me I benefited greatly,” she added.

However Tom Greene told us about a story a young woman told him. She told him that when she was in Guatemala she lost her memory for two or three days. She told Greene she suspects it’s because of the drugs she ingested.

When APTN Investigates contacted the woman and repeated the story Greene told us and asked for an interview.

“I didn’t want anyone to know about that,” she said and hung up.

Potschka says a scenario like that makes her uncomfortable, but she says she has never seen anyone have a negative reaction during the ceremonies.

“Whenever we go out of country we have Elders with us. I feel it’s a super safe environment,” said Potschka.

Haida leader Guujaaw wouldn’t comment on the youth’s memory loss. The former president of the Haida Nation believes that the drugs are valuable medicine. He admits he does ceremonies but not with Gonzalez. He says that compared to alcohol and cocaine these drugs are relatively “benign.”

Dutheil disagrees.

She says amanita is poisonous and it took her months to recover after suffering what she terms an overdose.

The local RCMP are also concerned. Last fall they took the unusual step of placing a warning in the local newspaper.

It read in part: “The Masset RCMP is urging the public to think critically about the use of these so-called ‘healing’ or ‘spiritual’ drugs. Not only are some of these substances illegal in Canada but it has been reported that they can produce negative long-term side effects.”

Local doctors were also alarmed by the rise in “spiritual” drug use. Quoted in a CBC report, Dr. Harvey Thommasen said, “people aren’t being told what they are taking.”

The doctor was particularly concerned by the use of amanita in ceremonies. It’s a local mushroom he called a deadly poison.

Haida Elder Fred Russ says amanita was used by medicine men in the old days, but those healers worked with the substance all their life. They knew how to mix it and only used it one-on-one for specific reasons. Never in large groups.

The other group being discussed in Haida Gwaii is Psychology of Vision. Despite its name, the two founders Lency and Chuck Spezzano are not psychologists.

In fact, Charles Spezzano was fined in 2004 for acting like a psychologist while not being licensed by the state of Hawaii.

Chuck Spezzano told APTN Investigates that because he works internationally he doesn’t need to be licensed. He said he is not a psychologist and calls himself “a coach.”

But he says the work he does is indeed psychology.

Dutheil says the POV sessions were a horrible experience for her.

Potschka agrees. She said what POV offers is “deep group therapy sessions.” And when she attended, the community members were not told what they were getting into.

Duthiel says she witnessed people crying and throwing up in the sessions she attended.

“Your personal boundaries, they are breaking that down and they are exposing you are pretty much giving yourself over,” she said.

But, despite that, she kept on going to the sessions.

“Like an addiction, you gotta go. And just never ending you almost got dependent on it. You begin to realize you don’t have any other friends, just the friends that were in that group,” she added. “You leave your family behind to go be with this other family.”

But Dutheil says it was never made clear what exactly was done. Explanations were vague.

“It never was explained to us what that really means. They want to call it whatever they want to call and make us believe we are advancing is some way. But you’re in a controlled environment and you are being controlled,” she said.

APTN Investigates asked Charles Spezzano to explain one of the many type of healing methods POV uses. It’s called an “original mind download.”

“It’s a blessing. And if you’ve ever received a blessing where you can feel it, that’s what a download is meant to be,” he replied.

How does that help a person looking for healing, we asked.

“Basically it provides some wholeness. Where there was a split mind or conflict or something like that, it brings peace,” he said.

We asked him how one becomes qualified to do a download.

“Well, first of all, you experience it and then you learn how to pass it on,” Spezzano replied.

The Spezzano’s are shocked that they are being accused of being a cult and that the work they are doing is dangerous. Chuck Spezzano claims more than 40 years’ experience. Lency Spezzano claims they are a great help to First Nations. She says that wherever POV goes, there is a cultural renaissance in the community.

They help people, insists Charles.

What they do not do is disempower people in order to take their money, he added.

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