A boy's life hangs in the balance in New Ulm, Minn., this week as a court decides if he should abide by the advice of prominent doctors or that of a group claiming to be American Indian healers whose website the boy's mother says she "found on the Internet."
The Internet is a funny thing. Perhaps Colleen Hauser, the mother of 13-year-old Danny, who has Hodgkin's lymphoma, also looked a little deeper on the Web and discarded critical opinions about the group, the Nemenhah Band, but I doubt it.
Too bad, because Danny's life may depend on it.
If she had, she would have found case files in which Nemenhah's leader, Phillip (Cloudpiler) Landis, who submitted testimony in the case, had been convicted of fraud in two states. Or that another member of the band, James Mooney, won a case that allows him to claim religious exemption from law and sell drugs -- peyote.
Maybe she researched all possibilities and still decided to take the word of a convicted criminal over that of Mayo Clinic doctors?
Calvin Johnson, the attorney for the Hausers, said neither he nor the family were aware of any possible criminal behavior of anyone associated with Nemenhah. And he didn't seem particularly concerned about it. In fact, he bristled at anyone who might question the Hausers' beliefs.
"We don't trample on the quality of someone's religious path," he said. "We don't do that. Danny has a wonderful soul and beautiful heart."
No one disputes the last statement. But many, including Native Americans, take issue with a family that chooses the claims of Landis, who has been convicted of fraud for misleading investors in an alternative-health mushroom-growing business, instead of Mayo Clinic doctors.
One is Al Carroll, a Mescalero Apache, Ph.D.-holding author and Fulbright scholar who moderates a website (www.newagefraud.org) dedicated to exposing people who exploit American Indian traditions for profit.
"I would argue from what I see on their sites that Nemenhah are alt-medicine types who hide behind a laughable pseudo-native facade," Carroll said in an e-mail from Indonesia, where he's teaching about native history. "That's pure Hollywood and New Age nonsense."
The Hausers, who are not Native American, joined the group by paying a fee, now $250, plus $100 monthly. Though the group calls it a donation, they warn members not to "neglect this part of the Adoption Covenant ... if they do, the Nemenhah Band cannot continue in its important work and its offering to Humanity globally."
Nonsense, said Carroll, who calls the group's leaders "plastic shaman[s]."
"No reputable traditional native healer would demand someone deny medical treatment which would save their lives, especially to a child," he said. "It's reprehensible beyond words. Only a crackpot fanatic who thinks modern medicine is part of some type of grand conspiracy would let a young boy die when there are good options to save him."
Carroll is not alone.
Nemenhah's website and forums refer members to other sites where they can -- surprise -- buy "sacraments" such as oils and herbs. One forum discusses how baking soda can cure cancer.
D'Shane Barnett, special projects officer of the Native American Health Center in California, called that a "pyramid scheme by profit-sharing through a referral program," adding, "This entire organization, Nemenhah and Native American Nutritionals ... is founded on the principles of profiting from the bastardization and tokening of Native American people and practices."
In other words, if Danny's Internet-purchased regimen doesn't work, critics say, he will live a tragically short life, but it won't be because the government interfered with religion. Call it death by multilevel marketing.
During an interview from Missouri, Landis was defiant. He said he has never counseled the Hausers on medical choices. He said that Nemenhah is not a tribe, but rather a church, and that churches frequently disagree with each other.
They also are allowed to take offerings, as are medicine men, he said, adding, "If not, this is not America."
Gabrielle Strong, a Dakota tribal consultant from Morton, Minn., said she doesn't blame the Hausers, but feels sorry for them. "I feel this group is taking advantage of vulnerable people," she said.
Strong, who said her mother is being treated for breast cancer with chemotherapy, along with spiritual remedies, said American Indians are abuzz about the Hauser case, but tribal leaders are hesitant to get involved.
"We are not the kind of people to impose our beliefs on people," she said. Yet, "I feel terrible for this family. This young man's life is on the line, and I wish someone legitimate [from the American Indian community] could talk to them."
So I made an offer to the Hausers through their lawyer: You got second opinions from medical doctors, who agreed chemo was needed. Give it another shot. Strong has said she would help me get you second opinions from Indian leaders in Minnesota familiar with traditional medicine. Then your family could reconsider.
You have my number, counselor. A kid's life is at stake.
Jon Tevlin • 612-673-1702