Yelm -- Before environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. spoke at the Ramtha School of Enlightenment, he'd already heard from critics.
"Someone who doesn't like you very much told me I was speaking at a cult," Kennedy told the crowd of more than 1,000 Ramtha students who gathered in the school's "Great Hall" on Thursday for his speech. The group laughed.
"I guess it would be OK if I spoke at Bob Jones University," Kennedy said.
Kennedy is the son of a U.S. senator who was shot to death while campaigning for the presidency and the nephew of slain President John F. Kennedy.
He was invited to speak as part of a tour promoting his latest book about the environment, "Crimes Against Nature."
Before speaking to the crowd, he dined at the home of the school's head, JZ Knight. The school's philosophy is based on the belief that Knight channels the spirit of Ramtha, a 35,000-year-old warrior from Atlantis.
"(Kennedy) is a golden boy from a golden family, but his true desire is to help make a difference in the world," Knight said.
Kennedy's environmental views are consistent with the school's philosophy, said spokesman Steve Klein.
"Part of the teaching is that all of Mother Nature is an organism," Klein said. "It's an understanding that all life is sacred."
Kennedy spoke of the sanctity of nature: "I don't believe that nature is God or that we should worship as though it's God, but I think it's the most powerful way God communicates to us," he said.
But his 11/2-hour talk focused less on the environment than on what he said is endangering it: U.S. government and the media becoming more controlled by corporations.
"This White House has invited the polluters in to write the rules and regulations," Kennedy said. "They are subverting the laws they are supposed to enforce."
He blames the news media for not alerting the public.
"The White House press corps has become stenographers for this administration," the environmental lawyer said.
And the White House administration itself borders on fascism, he said.
"Oppression is a continuum and we need to recognize that continuum if we're going to protect our democracy," Kennedy said. "Germany was a democracy that elected Hitler. Italy elected Mussolini."
David Burt, a Canadian fisheries biologist, said he appreciated Kennedy's candor.
"Somebody has to stand up and make things known. Good for Mr. Kennedy, to take the risks and say something," said Burt, a 15-year enrollee of the school.
Burt has seen fish populations decimated during his career and said he worries the political will to stop pollution may not come until too late.
"Our salmon populations coastwide on the West Coast are in deep trouble. A lot of river systems, their days are numbered," Burt said.
Beda Belpeer, a homeopathic doctor from Belgium who has attended the school for two years, said she admires Kennedy's bravery.
"For a lot of Americans, it takes courage to stand up against the president," Belpeer said.
Attendance at Kennedy's speech was limited to current members of the Ramtha school: More than half of them are in the middle of a spring retreat and had been camping in the Great Hall.
They danced to techno music before the speech began -- to get them "jazzed up," Klein explained -- and sat on their sleeping mats and pillows on the floor when Kennedy spoke.
"When the speaker's bureau told me I had an opportunity to speak here, I was really excited, because I just really wanted to see this place," Kennedy said. "I've had a tremendous amount of fun here and seeing all you people with no chairs.
"You're good people with good values, and all the values this country is supposed to stand for."