When a Native American decides to share his or her medicine, that’s a gift one should never take lightly.
Recently, I drove through Flagstaff AZ. Last time I’d done so was almost 50 years ago.
Then, I traveled to meet a man once trained as a Hopi priest.
He’d either been kicked out of that regimen or decided to bail from it (he was never quite clear with me on this point). He lived in a traditional hogan-type dwelling, right beside the Jeddito Wash—a place where he said his forebears had moved to farm corn at least five generations prior.
This Jeddito area was not far from the Hopi Reservation. Yet lines drawn in Anglo fashion seemed to make it “officially” part of the Navajo Rez. Back then, a major bout of push and pull was underway about which designation the acreage should carry. Since the man, Ron, was of mixed tribal ancestry—part Hopi, part Tewa, part Navajo—he told me, “Every time I put a foot down, it feels like it lands on a banana peel.”
The story of how I first met Ron would take a long time to tell if I included all relevant details. So, I’ll just skate over ‘em with a quick summary.
A SHOW OF FEATHERS
A half-century ago (plus a year!) Ron’s brother had just exited prison in California. That bro had offered advice to a buddy of mine (also a convict) about a tapestry this pal had woven on a Native American theme during a jail workshop.
Ron’s bro told my buddy that his fabric artwork would have zero power unless he put a pair of feathers from the wingtips of a certain bird in the center of it.
After I saw the tapestry bearing the feathers and heard the tale of its modification, I told my friend, “I want to meet a man who knows where the feathers go.”
I subsequently spoke with Ron’s brother as we walked through streets of the Oakland neighborhood where that ex-con was then living, out on parole. I related my experiences growing up on the wild rim of the Everglades. I told him I hoped to understand more about the indigenous way. I’d been striving to walk a path toward a fuller and more deeply realized experience of nature, but I felt I needed—if not an actual guide—at least a person who could provide me with a few useful tips. After questioning me closely, this brother gave me Ron’s mailing address. Following an exchange of letters with Ron, I left for Arizona to visit him.
HUNT FOR THE RIGHT HOGAN
Searching out the correct hogan was probably the toughest part of my quest. Those rez roads just seemed to me to be a rough and dusty maze. In a letter to a friend afterward, I wrote: “I struggled to drive on putative streets that might’ve gotten a Sherman tank stuck. I started off slow to spare my rig’s shocks and tires. But after I’d been passed by many hurtling pickups whose Indian drivers hit me with curious stares, I realized the correct procedure was to put my pedal to the metal and bounce from one high point to the next, leaving a glittering trail of slightly-used car parts behind in clouds of billowing dust.”
In such rambunctious fashion, I navigated world-class washboards, sumps of soft sand, domes of crumbling rock and the occasional sudden abyss. As another friend who worked as a doc on this rez once told me, “If you drive here, the smart time to slam on your brakes is if you see a sign that says, ‘Dip.’ Because what it really means is, ‘Goodbye!’”
I also had to stop and ask directions numerous times, a process that won me many a suspicious stare. No problem there; I’d envisioned interactions like that would be one price of admission. In response, I just tried to present myself and my reason for coming frankly and humbly.
ON PUMPKIN’S PATCH
After I finally located Ron’s hogan, he stepped outside to greet me as if we were already good friends. Ron was a short man with a round, beige face – his relatives gave him the nickname, “Punkin,” meaning, Pumpkin. His longish black hair was bound in a headwrap or Navajo turban; he wore faded Western clothing that was stained and patched. He used a cane and walked with a limp, due to a horrific auto accident that had broken his pelvis years before.
Hogans are traditional structures, generally round, or multi-sided octagons or hexagons, built with a doorway facing east to welcome the sun.
These homes are of ad hoc construction, using whatever material may lie close to hand, be it scrap lumber, a heap of old railroad ties or a windfall of stout branches. That’s to form the skeleton. The flesh and skin and scalp of the home are made of adobe clay, slathered thickly on the walls and roof to provide all-weather insulation.
Ron’s place was about 16 feet in diameter and 8 high, arranged around the centerpiece of a Franklin stove with a smokestack that pierced the hogan’s roof. Its furnishings were: a pottery water jug, enamel wash basin, cracked mirror, dipper, bow and arrows in a quiver, a lever-action rifle, a battery-powered radio, a basket of tools, wall pegs draped with clothing and dangling feathers, plus a broad but rickety shelf crammed with a collection of mismatched dishes and canned goods. Just outside the front door was a kind of ramada or shade porch. From its vegas or beams dangled three blackened haunches of mutton, hung up to cure and dry in the desert heat and breeze.
Over the course of my visit, scraps of this dried sheep meat plus handfuls of parched corn went into quite a few stews. We also steadily worked through the supplies I’d brought in an ice chest.
SHE FED GERONIMO
Within this tiny hogan lived a trio of people. Ron, of course, and a nephew in his teens. (Who if not sullen was at least laconic, speaking seldom yet clearly, so each word seemed freighted with significance.)
Ron’s grandmother, too. That worthy lay upon a pallet, covered by a homemade quilt, where she periodically thrashed a bit while emitting groans. Entirely understandable, since Ron informed me that she was dying of some type of cancer.
However, during the moments she felt good, this granny sat up and spoke to me in a mix of English and what I supposed was Navajo, a blend which Ron fully translated for me. In her most astonishing statement, she proudly claimed that she’d once fed Geronimo and his band whilst they were on the run from the federals. Since the last possible year this could’ve taken place was 1886—some 90 years before my visit—the woman must have lived an extremely long and eventful life.
She certainly looked ancient, her face as seamed and weathered as the sandstone outside, as wrinkled as leather hinges upon which her hogan’s never-closed door sagged. Yet her dark eyes sparkled as she reminisced. “Geronimo paid us in gold,” she recalled. “Such pretty twenty-dollar pieces.”
LYFT COMES EARLY TO THE REZ
Ron didn’t own an automobile, so for transport he relied on the kindness of friends and relatives—and after I arrived, this new stranger. My rig was a V-8 Chevy with dual rear tires and a plywood camper shell on the back, well-suited for vagaries of high desert terrain. It had a 35-gallon auxiliary fuel tank, useful in a place where it was truly a l-o-n-g way to the next service, engine power to spare, and dual wheels that could float over soft spots while also supplying drive.
So that was our horse. I brought Ron, his granny and his nephew to whichever place they needed to go. When I wasn’t trotting out on episodes of dusty chauffeuring, Ron guided me around on an insider’s tour of the whole region.
I took him to Holbrook, where he could sell his kachina dolls and sandstone slab paintings to the souvenir shops and trading posts. Then, to Meteor Crater where we hiked down to the bottom so he could find exactly the right sort of oblong crystal to use for a scrying glass—one with an inner refraction that supplied a double image with a colored blur in between. It was the local equivalent, I supposed, of a crystal ball.
Next, we went to a shabby bar in Flagstaff, where a Navajo woman Ron knew who felt she’d been insulted by her children had made terrific progress on drinking herself to death. (Sadly, our intervention did not result in a rescue; the woman insisted on remaining in town and pouring herself into a bottle.)
In our free time, we roamed all over the joined reservations, crossing borders as if they did not matter—which they certainly didn’t, not to us. We visited the ruins of ancient and abandoned villages, toured outcrops and cliff faces garlanded with petroglyphs whose broad array of meanings Ron duly explained. He told me legends of the early Spanish explorers, tales of sacred caves and sacred peaks, backgrounds of old conflicts and the current accommodations.
RED MAN HAS PLENTY TONGUES
Besides his English and Navajo, Ron claimed expertise in Hopi, Zuni and Spanish. Impressive enough, but he took the top of my head off with his ability to precisely mimic the speech of animals—the squeak of a mouse, the croaks and gurgles of a raven, the screech of a hawk, yip of coyotes, the buzz of a rattlesnake. Not only that, but throughout my visit, he always spotted animals and pointed them out when all I could initially see was a featureless expanse of rocks, sand or brush. I realized that my eyes and ears were being educated and opened.
Once, when I was chatting with Ron about archery, he precisely imitated the noise of a bowstring release. I complemented him, he chuckled, then proceeded to modify it as the sound of a 60, then a 70-pound bow.
He was always quietly cracking jokes. When a row of angular power transmission towers appeared on the horizon, he said, “Look, white man kachinas.” And he owned many creative takes on cliches. Such as, “Where there’s smoke, there’s beans.”
The next phenom I’m going to tell you about remains imponderable to me, even today. I’d be thinking about our conversations, and all our experiences together thus far, then begin to draw a conclusion to file away in my head… whereupon, slouched over in his post on my truck’s passenger seat, he’d nod and mumble, “Uh-huh. Yup. That’s right.”
And the timing of such gnomic utterances by him was astonishingly precise. Always.
FROM THE HOGAN TO THE KIVA
Under his guidance, I participated in a Native American Church peyote circle in someone else’s hogan. After that I played a seemingly benign role—though it was one I didn’t fully grasp—in a healing ceremony for his grandmother. She underwent a night of blessing before heading off to a hospital in town.
Finally, I attended a Green Corn Dance up on the Hopi mesas, where everything I’d been up to so far came to a strange sort of climax.
Ron had begged off and did not accompany me. Perhaps because he’d become persona non grata with the Hopis for some reason or maybe because he was embarrassed about not making it into their priesthood—I never knew the actual reason.
However, the Hopis did know who I was. Clearly, word had spread about my local explorations. Before the ceremony started, I pulled a notebook from my shirt pocket to jot down a thought and then was startled as some tribal officials shouldered through the crowd, making a beeline for me. They demanded I hand over the notebook. Didn’t seem like I had much of a choice, so I gave it to them.
Yet that was far from the end of it. They ordered me to come with them. Someone pulled out a wooden chair; they told me to sit on it. Next, they sicced all their clowns on me. Ron and others had told me that in Hopi lore, the clowns at a ceremony outrank the priests. Which is to say, they can make fun of anyone, at any time, and for any reason.
They chose to mock me for participating in the peyote circle. They staggered around drunkenly, acting as if enraptured by trippy visions, like hippies zonked on LSD. At that time, I resembled a cowboy much more than a hippy, but their point was made. And made. And made again. Nothing else was going on. The entire crowd gathered for that dance got to watch the white boy being humiliated as a clueless dilettante. I took the event as an opportunity to remain calm. I just observed, determined not to react in any manner.
FRACAS ON THE MESA
But that still wasn’t the end of it. Just before the initial encounter when my notebook had been seized, I’d watched a far different bout of social theater. A dump truck with an old man and a young one standing in its bed had been driven slowly through the village, while the citizens hurled garbage at them and yelled imprecations. I heard someone next to me say the word, “powaka” —meaning witch or sorcerer. The young one appeared disturbed by the public shaming. The older one just stood still, a look of cold menace on his bony face, as if he planned to recall the identity of everyone who had dared to chuck a hunk of refuse at him.
The clowns retired, and the corn dance began. But the officials commanded me to stay in my chair. Next, they told the powaka’s disciple to come off the truck and stand behind me. It took me less than a second to realize that I was under attack. In front of me, the ceremony proceeded. Behind me, that young apprentice of darkness was seeking to do… something. I didn’t ken what it was, but I intuited that it was rather bad.
So, I desperately and thoroughly did not want it.
My first choice was not to spin about to face him, but rather to ignore and thus invalidate any effort he might make. Face-to-face, he might scare me, and then I thought he’d score some sort of edge. Even acknowledging his presence would award him a certain type of power. My second strategy was to let my eyes fill with the spectacle of the corn dance in front of me, and my ears fill with its sounds. And my third was far more interior and personal—though I can say that it involved everything I knew at that point about prayer and meditation and poise. Overall, the theme of my refutation ran a lot like that classic playground rejoinder: I am rubber and you are glue, whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you!
I gradually became aware that a Hopi elder had come over to poke me on the shoulder with a finger. He handed me back my notebook and gestured for me to stand up. I did, turned, and saw that the sorcerer’s apprentice was gone. In a moment, I was gone, too. I slipped into the crowd and right back into a relative anonymity. People there no longer paid me any sort of special attention. Whatever the gantlet might’ve been that I had been compelled to run, I seemed to have made it all the way through.
Or maybe I’d just ceased to be interest to anyone. Which was fine with me.
Yet I rather think that I lucked out that they didn’t let that cold old coot from the dump truck work on me. Had that happened? I might’ve been a goner.
NEXT—A TOLL EXACTED
Soon, I was driving home to California, with a wee white buckskin bag holding a handful of Ron’s corn pollen beside me on the seat, right in the place where he’d sat as we’d traveled the dusty rez roads. Having it there felt much like having him riding along with me. I decided to stop at a roadside viewpoint that overlooked the Little Colorado River.
This sacred stream runs by a natural kiva, the Sipapu, the place of emergence of the Hopi into this world.
The air was still, the pullout empty, I had the place to myself. I exited the truck cab, stood at the edge of the canyon, shut my eyes and thanked the powers that be for all that I’d learned, and the fact that I’d managed to come away unscathed.
Then I felt my cowboy hat lift off my head. A sudden and strong gust of wind had sprung out of nowhere to snatch it up. I watched that hat sail out over the Little Colorado’s canyon, and then plunge down into it. Briefly, I thought of vaulting the guardrail and attempting to chase it, but I instantly saw that any such effort would be useless. My hat had been taken far, far away. And although the blast of wind had fallen off as suddenly as it had arrived, I felt certain another gust could easily come. Especially if I tried to clamber down into the canyon to retrieve my lid.
Clowns always outrank the priests, I reminded myself.
A HIGH DESERT HARVEST
It’s difficult to say what I’d gained or achieved on this trip—and I do mean trip, in all three senses of the word! Or, maybe it’s just too personal. I don’t feel a great yen to try to describe my overall results in any detail. Perhaps that’s the real bar to revelation, here.
Yet I can say that whatever it may be has served and fueled my life and work in all subsequent seasons. It’s helped me in environmental activism and in performing green journalism, in appreciating natural health, and relating to wildlife as well as communicating and sharing my stuff with indigenous folk.
I feel grateful to Ron, naturally. Nothing could or would’ve happened for me in Arizona without that man’s openness, generosity, and sponsorship. Yet I’d not call my results a direct gift from any one individual or group. It was a harvest from the total experience. I’d named an esoteric goal, then pursued it headlong. That had produced value, just in and of itself. Plus, my time on the rez had taken me a step or two nearer a sense of kinship with other peoples.
A place on Earth that had once seemed foreign and far-off to me now no longer did, not quite so much.
A spirit imbues and flows through all being, a phenom I’ve come to recognize and acknowledge. Always—and in all ways—I intend to beckon, court and nurture it as fully as I can. If there’s any sort of constant or consistent theme to this activity, it can be found in a phrase by the poet and seer Robinson Jeffers, “not man apart.”