Scientology and the Blackfeet 

Tribal members are getting advice, free trips—and perhaps a new rehab program—from their connection with L. Ron Hubbard's church. Is this the help they need?

In 1964, when Rayola Running Crane was just 13, her parents sent her away from her home in Browning on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. She and her friends were drinking alcohol on a regular basis, and she had already been in an alcohol-related car accident that caused her permanent back injuries.

She says her parents gave her two options: Go live with her brother in San Francisco, or go to a boarding school in Oklahoma.

“They didn’t want me to lose my life to drugs and alcohol,” she says.

It was the beginning of Running Crane’s long experience fighting substance abuse on the reservation. In 1979, five years after she’d returned to Browning, her 4-year-old son was killed in an accidental shooting while on a vacation with his grandparents in Nebraska. He had gone over to a friend’s house to play, Running Crane says, and the children were left unattended by alcoholic parents who had gone to the bar that morning. A 10-year-old at the home found a loaded .44-caliber Magnum and shot her son.

“I had to go identify him,” she says. “His right arm was completely blown off.”

Running Crane says she became a full-blown alcoholic for the next six years, until she moved back to California and gained sobriety. But in 1993 her mother became ill and Running Crane, by this time in her early 40s, returned to the reservation with another son, who was seven.

“I was afraid of being around alcohol again,” she says. “I stuck real close to my parents.”

Life on the reservation hadn’t changed much in her absence, and as the years went by, the rampant alcoholism and drug abuse there didn’t change, either.

Running Crane’s modest house, in a neighborhood of identical homes, feels like an oasis on the Blackfeet Reservation. Outside, mangy dogs roam the streets of Browning and trash piles up three feet high on the windward sides of chain-link fences. For years, unemployment here has hovered at about 69 percent—nearly 20 times higher than the 3.6 percent state average. The population suffers with chronically high rates of poverty and DUI arrests.

Inside Running Crane’s home, everything is in its place. There are fresh-cut flowers in a vase on the table—a testament to her sunny disposition—and a huge pot of ground beef on the stove for the Indian tacos she’s keeping warm for a party later on.

Running Crane, who says she’s now been sober for 21 years, says she’s tried to improve her community by talking to people about Christianity and 12-step programs, the things that helped her get away from drugs and alcohol.

She’s gone into local schools to teach kids how to craft clothing with traditional Blackfeet designs, a skill she learned from her grandmother. And she’s invited people into her home “to show them there is a different way of life.”

Not much has made an impact. But tonight, Running Crane is excited about a new possibility for helping her people: Scientology, and the books, ideas, and alcohol and drug treatment programs developed by the religion’s controversial founder, L. Ron Hubbard.

“I think our reservation lost a lot of its morals and values, and I think this would be a way to bring happiness back to the reservation,” she says.

Running Crane isn’t the only one forming a connection to Scientology. Emissaries connected to the religion and to Narconon, a nonprofit drug treatment and education program affiliated with Scientology, have been making inroads on the reservation throughout the past year. Scientologists have offered free seminars and all-expenses-paid retreats at a luxurious Scientology center near Los Angeles. They’ve also sent boxes of Hubbard’s books to several tribal members working at Crystal Creek Lodge, the only drug treatment center on the reservation, which is based on 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Al-Anon. (Narconon, despite its similar name, is not connected with any 12-step program.)

In February, the Scientology emissaries were at the center of an even more surprising exchange in Browning. They secured for Hubbard one of the tribe’s highest honors: a Blackfeet war bonnet, typically awarded to war heroes. Now, the L. Ron Hubbard Museum in Hollywood, Calif., has a Blackfeet war bonnet, too.

•••

The story of Hubbard and the Blackfeet is one that’s been told for years. According to official Scientology biographies, Hubbard, born in 1911, spent a short time on his grandparents’ Kalispell ranch when he was a boy. During that time, he claimed to have befriended a Blackfeet medicine man named “Old Tom” who taught him tribal lore and made him a blood brother in a special ceremony.

Parts of Hubbard’s biography don’t hold up under scrutiny, according to historians and researchers. Tribal enrollment records from that era contain no “Old Tom,” historians say. Christian names were not used among the Blackfeet of that time period, and the Blackfeet never had a blood brother ceremony, they add.

Other parts of Hubbard’s life story invite similar skepticism. Navy records belie Hubbard’s claims to having been a World War II hero; school records belie his claim to being a nuclear physicist. Hubbard’s chief verifiable accomplishments appear to be the dozens of Westerns, science fiction and other novels he wrote. In 1950 he also penned Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, a self-help book that he used four years later to found his religion.

Scientology essentially holds that humans are hampered and harmed by negative experiences from present and past lives, and that people can begin to “clear” themselves of this baggage by being “audited.” Auditing involves giving a confession of sorts to a Scientology counselor while being connected to an E-meter, a device that, according to followers, measures electrical currents in the body and acts as a type of lie detector, helping auditors zero in on psychic troubles.

Through auditing, Scientologists rise to ever-higher spiritual levels in the religion, paying donations—in the form of fees or work—in order to advance. In order to reach the highest levels and become what’s known as “Operating Thetans,” Scientologists can spend tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to news accounts.

Controversies about this and other Scientology matters have kept the religion in the spotlight for decades. In the early 1980s, 11 of the church’s high-ranking officials, including Hubbard’s wife, went to prison for what federal prosecutors said was a conspiracy to infiltrate government agencies.

The rogue elements were purged from the church, Scientologists say. But in 1995, a disgruntled former Scientologist posted documents on the Internet that described stories previously only revealed to high-level church members, inspiring more adverse publicity. According to the documents, contents of which were published in the Washington Post, Hubbard thought that human suffering on earth is rooted in an incident 75 million years ago, when Xenu, the dictator of an intergalactic confederacy, decided his part of the galaxy had become overcrowded. With the help of psychiatrists, Xenu brought billions of people together, froze them, flew them to Earth in spaceships, stacked them around volcanoes, and blew them up with hydrogen bombs. He then brainwashed their souls, which have attached themselves to our bodies, and are the source of our woes.


Scientologists have alternately denied that the Xenu story reflects their beliefs, or have said that the story is taken out of context.

Aside from news stories, Scientology also maintains a high media profile through celebrity members such as Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kelly Preston, to name a few. It claims to have millions of members in the United States, although a 2001 survey by the City University of New York pegs its membership closer to 55,000.

•••

Besides auditing, Scientologists also believe in using “technologies” or “tech”—their terms for the theories, methods and programs developed by Hubbard. A tech called Criminon aims to stop criminal behavior; one called Applied Scholastics aims to improve people’s studies.

Narconon is considered a tech to stop drug abuse. Currently being promoted on the Blackfeet reservation and present today on reservations in Oklahoma, in towns across the nation—and in dozens of countries around the world—the nonprofit program was created in 1972 by Hubbard and a former Arizona State Prison inmate who was a Scientology convert.

Narconon teaches that drug residue accumulates in body fat and remains there indefinitely, tempting the former addict to use again.

According to Narconon, addicts can remove drugs from their fat through saunas and a vitamin regimen that’s similar to a Scientology practice known as “the purification rundown.”

Narconon has claimed this treatment method has a 70 to 80 percent success rate; the average drug treatment program success rate, by comparison, is much less. For instance, a 2001 article in Neuropsychopharmacology, an international scientific journal, calls the post-treatment relapse rates for people with substance abuse dependence “remarkably high.” About 30-35 percent of alcoholics avoid a relapse within a year of treatment and those percentages are even lower for people addicted to drugs.

Medical experts have repeatedly argued against Narconon’s basic physiology. No significant amount of drug residue is stored in fat for any length of time and whatever minute amounts do exist in fat cannot be sweated out, they say.

A series of 2004 articles in the San Francisco Chronicle about the use of Narconon in public school drug education efforts led California to study the program in 2005. Ultimately, a panel of scientists advised the schools to kick Narconon out, stating that the program’s methodology “does not reflect accurate, widely accepted medical and scientific evidence.” Narconon’s allegedly high success rates, critics say, have not been verified in peer-reviewed, independent studies.

Running Crane and other tribal members embracing Scientology are not deterred. Despite the headlines Scientology and Narconon have generated over the years, they say they were only dimly aware of any of controversies until recently.

•••

Larry Ground says he didn’t know much about Narconon or Scientology until this February, when his old friend, Patricia Devereaux, Running Crane’s niece, showed up at his Browning home with American Indian actor Saginaw Grant. They wanted Ground’s assistance in honoring Hubbard—who died in 1986—with a posthumous Blackfeet war bonnet.

Devereaux says she is a public service supervisor for Narconon. “I head a division, and one of the departments of my division is opening pioneer areas,” she explains. She says she chose Indian reservations as her pioneer area, starting with the Blackfeet, her tribe.

Grant, in an interview with the Independent, says he is not a Scientologist and does not work for Narconon, but has helped promote Narconon for the past 20 years. He got his show business start in 1998 with a part in War Party, which was partially filmed on the Blackfeet reservation. He has also appeared in television shows such as “Saving Grace.”

“I agree with some of the tech they use in rehabilitating people,” he says. “They don’t get repeat clients,” he adds, citing the high success rate claimed by the program.

Grant says he knew Devereaux through his involvement in Narconon, and she asked him to go to Browning to offer help with the rehabilitation program.

“Several years ago I made a movie up there,” Grant says, referring to War Party. “So when they contacted Patricia to do this, she knew that I’d been familiar with some of the people up there, so she asked me to be a part of that.”

But Grant and Devereaux did more than just talk about helping people addicted to drugs and alcohol during their visit. They also approached Ground, a member of the Crazy Dog Society, a legendary group of Blackfeet warriors, about the war bonnet.

According to Blackfeet tribal historian Curly Bear Wagner, warriors in the Crazy Dog Society “were the police force, you could say, a very long time ago. It’s a very important organization.”

Wagner adds that the war bonnet is one of the most sacred honors the tribe gives. “You have to do something very outstanding to receive one of those war bonnets,” he explains. They can only be bestowed by certain tribal elders, Wagner says, and the elders must get permission from the tribe’s chief.

Ground says he was able to find elders through the Crazy Dog Society who, he says, could legitimately do the ceremony.

“We didn’t take it very lightly,” Ground says of the decision to award the bonnet. “We said, ‘Okay, well, let’s take a look,’ you know. It’s an honor that is bestowed upon people that made great efforts, that save lives, that take care of people.”

Ultimately, Ground says, members of the Crazy Dog Society decided to award a war bonnet to Hubbard because of Narconon’s positive influence on Devereaux’s life and because of Hubbard’s alleged relationship (as Scientology presents it) with the Blackfeet.

In February, a bonnet was presented to Devereaux, on Hubbard’s behalf. The event in Browning was glowingly described in a press release distributed by Galaxy Press, a business branch of Scientology that publishes Hubbard’s novels.

“Amidst the steady beat of tribal drums and ceremonial chants of Montana’s Blackfeet Indians,” the press release states, “leaders of that proud nation recently honored their blood brother and champion, L. Ron Hubbard, with the Blackfeet Indian war bonnet, the highest honor that can be received for any person.”


•••

Before returning to Los Angeles, Grant and Devereaux also talked to the staff of Crystal Creek Lodge, the Blackfeet Reservation’s only drug treatment center.

It was not the first time Crystal Creek had been in touch with Scientology. In November 2007, Los Angeles-based Narconon sent its executive director, Clark Carr, to speak with the Crystal Creek staff. Afterward, several employees were invited on an all-expenses-paid trip to the Scientology Celebrity Centre in Hollywood, a palatial hotel and intensive learning center for the religion.

One of the people who visited was Crystal Creek Lodge Director Pat Calf Looking. He says he was given a room once occupied by actor Errol Flynn; the whole group got the “red carpet” treatment, he notes.

A tour of Narconon’s Los Angeles facilities left him impressed. “Basically I thought it was a good program,” says Calf Looking, whose office bookshelf contains a stack of Hubbard books about three feet thick. “The success rate was pretty high. They said it was like 80 percent. It’s worldwide, so I’m sure it’s successful.”

Calf Looking wants to launch a Narconon pilot program in the near future. “I know [Devereaux] wants to come home and possibly start a Narconon here,” he adds, “and I know we’d be interested in working with her.”

After the war bonnet ceremony, the Scientology Celebrity Centre issued more invitations to Larry Ground, Rayola Running Crane and about 10 other Blackfeet to spend 10 days at the Centre.

“It’s beautiful,” says Running Crane, gushing over the accommodations. “It was so gorgeous I was like, ‘Wow, I’m so grateful I’m here; why would they bring us here?’”

Running Crane says they put her in a room where Marilyn Monroe once stayed. She admits she was skeptical when she first arrived.

“For some reason I was afraid in the back of my mind that it was almost a cult,” she says. But she adds, “On the fourth day I was there, I was sent to a gentleman by the name of Rev. Alfred E. Johnson, a Baptist minister. This gentleman laid out the whole picture for me—he wrote a sermon especially for the Blackfeet Nation. And it was such a beautiful sermon. My walls went down, my heart opened, my ears opened, my eyes opened.”

She says Johnson explained that Scientology does not require her to give up her faith in Blackfeet tribal religion or in Christianity.

“And that’s what got me,” she says. “That’s when I began to believe.”

After that, she spent her time at the Centre learning about Hubbard’s life and about Narconon, Criminon and Applied Scholastics. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is what we need, it’s so simple, it’s so easy,’” she says.

She says she knows now that she wants to bring Hubbard’s teachings to Browning. “I’ve made a commitment in my mind that this is what I’m going to do.”

•••

On the evening of March 27, Running Crane takes her pot of Indian taco meat to Ground’s home, where about 20 other Blackfeet, including most of those who went to the Celebrity Centre in February, are gathering to discuss how to introduce Scientology to the reservation. The group includes several teenagers, Running Crane’s sister Marilyn Rhodes, who heads up the drug prevention program at Crystal Creek Lodge, and Frank Kipp, founder of the Blackfeet Nation Boxing Club and juvenile probation officer for the tribal court.

About 30 eagle feathers hang from the ceiling of Ground’s home; he’ll use them to make another Blackfeet war bonnet. Before eating, Ground lights a sweet grass smudge and waves it over the food. Another Blackfeet man chants and says a prayer in the tribal language.

Most of the attention in the room is focused on Ground as he checks out a collection of photos from the war bonnet ceremony on a laptop; Ground does most of the talking, and appears to be leading the proceedings. Upon meeting a reporter from the Independent for the first time, he states, “I’m not shaking your hand for nothing,” and tells the reporter to sit down. A minute later, he’s more relaxed, and talks freely about Scientology and the people who have gathered tonight.

“Everybody that is here is working in some fashion to save lives,” he says.

Ground says the hospitality the group received at the Centre convinced him that Scientologists want to help.

“If we would have seen anything other than what we’ve seen, we would have went like this,” he says, crossing his arms and turning his back. “We would have turned our backs on it and walked away.

“The simple fact that they have all the literature and stuff like that…and they’re willing to give it? Hey, you can’t beat a deal like that. If it saves one person, and it changes a life, it’s worth it.”

Everyone in the group has seen devastation on the reservation. They talk about a 14-year-old who died while using meth shortly after they returned from the Centre, and about a rash of drunk driving accidents that killed and maimed people this year.

But there’s a palpable earnestness and hope in the air. Now, with the help of Scientology, Ground and the others feel they have the power to do something about the problems they see.

After everyone eats, Ground claps his hands together loudly and invites people to sit in a circle around a large plastic folding table.

“Everyone’s got to be on task,” he announces. “We need to be moving together and walking together.”

Pens and paper are found, and notes are taken on a plan of action for bringing tech to the reservation. The group has been armed with boxes of Hubbard’s books, and videos that explain Scientology and its technology.

At one point, Running Crane holds up Self Analysis, a thick book by Hubbard that describes itself as “a simple self-help volume of tests and processes based on the discoveries contained in Dianetics.”

“I’ve always looked for self-help books throughout my life to make myself a better person,” Running Crane announces. “And now I’ve realized I don’t have to do that, because of the simple techniques of L. Ron Hubbard.”

Eventually the talk turns to the problems people might face when they present Hubbard’s work to other Blackfeet.

“Here’s one of the things that everybody is going to run into,” Ground says. “You’ll run into skeptics. You’ll run into people that say it’s a cult.”


“Black propaganda,” someone calls out, using Scientology lingo for things that go against the religion.

“Yeah, black propaganda,” Ground continues. “I know that each and every one of you guys have talked to your families about it. Let your families take a look at it and see what they feel and think. Don’t push it on anybody.”

•••

When first interviewed by the Independent March 26, Blackfeet Tribal Chief Earl Old Person seemed doubtful the war bonnet ceremony had even taken place.

“I haven’t heard of that,” he said.

But by April 10, he had heard about it, and he wasn’t happy.


“They’re not given that right to transfer a war bonnet,” he said. “Those people don’t have the right to do it. You’ve got to be given authority to do it.”


Besides, there’s no such thing as a posthumous war bonnet ceremony, he added. “The person’s got to be present,” he said.

Old Person said there were only a few elders who can transfer war bonnets, including him. He said he’d asked Devereaux to come talk to him about correcting the situation.

As far as Scientology and Narconon’s recent activity on the reservation, he said, “I think they really need to come to us. Talk to the people that have some authority.”

Outside the reservation, meanwhile, Scientology watchdogs have been blogging online about the war bonnet exchange and wondering why it happened.

Rick Ross, founder and executive director of the Ross Institute, an educational nonprofit that studies cults, offers this explanation to the Independent: “Scientology is always, by it’s very nature, preoccupied with the continuing edification of L. Ron Hubbard…By raising his profile and enlarging his legacy and his image, Scientology, being inextricably linked to him, benefits.”

Steven Kent, a sociology professor at the University of Alberta who also studies cults, says polishing Hubbard’s image may be one aim, and winning recruits might be another. “The ideal achievement is to get a person to graduate from a Narconon program and continue with Scientology programs,” Kent says.

But Narconon chief Clark Carr disagrees entirely.

“That’s a complete opinion, and nothing could be further from the truth. It’s not a religious program,” he says. “We’re not allowed to even disseminate Scientology as a religion, and we’re not allowed to disseminate any religion in the program.”

Then why did the war bonnet ceremony happen at all?

John Goodwin of Galaxy Press, which publishes Hubbard’s books, says he, for one, wrote the press release about the ceremony to help promote Galaxy’s summer 2008 re-release of many of Hubbard’s Western novels, including Buckskin Brigades, a 1937 novel about the Blackfeet.

But Devereaux wants to make it clear the ceremony was not a public relations stunt to sell more books. She says the idea to try and secure a war bonnet for Hubbard was hers alone.

“The reason I did it is because I know that L. Ron Hubbard’s tech saved my life, and I know that this man is a great leader, that he saved the lives of not only me, but many other people,” she says. “And not only that, he is Blackfeet, because he was brought in by a medicine man by the name of Old Tom.”

As far as the legitimacy of the ceremony, she says, “You have to understand that Earl Old Person is the chairman of our tribe, he’s also the chief of my tribe—but there’s also holy societies that exist within the whole tribe. In order to get a war bonnet, you don’t go through the political arena, you go through the spiritual leaders.”

On April 29, Devereaux called the Independent with another concern. “I’ve just talked with my chief of my tribe [Earl Old Person],” she said. “And he’s going to issue me a statement, that I’m going to fax to you when I get it, that basically states that he didn’t speak to you.

“I’m not sure who you spoke to,” she added. “But it wasn’t my chief, because I’ve been in touch with him.”

The fax never arrived, but a few hours later a woman saying she was on Old Person’s staff called to say, “Mr. Old Person does not in any way wish to be quoted or have his name mentioned in the article. He is going to retract everything.”

•••

It might be easy to think the Blackfeet caught up in Scientology have been swayed by the glamour of Hollywood, or by expert persuasion, and free books and promises. But considering the problems on the reservation—and the fact that Ground, Running Crane and the others don’t see any other organization rushing in to help them—it’s perhaps not surprising that they would at least give the religion a try.

Running Crane, for one, says the situation is simple: She thinks Scientology theories are helpful and she’s going to try to help people with them.

“It’s just a matter of people having the faith in the tech itself and to know that it is going to work, after they see all the concepts and precepts,” she says.

If Hubbard’s methods don’t work, she thinks the group that’s been formed will stay together and keep trying to help in other ways.

Since their last meeting, Running Crane says they’ve found a building they can use to hold meetings, teach Hubbard’s technologies, and even have a coffee shop where local teens can hang out.

“Our commitment is really strong, it’s powerful, and it’s going to stay together,” she says, “regardless.”
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