When I first began to speak in my broken Navajo, the rapport came instantaneously, accompanied by much laughter at my attempts at conversation. The more Navajo I learned, the more friendly and welcoming the people became. Many Navajos invited me to their homes to participate in ceremonies, some of which were closed to white people.
One of these was the peyote ceremony, more formally known as the Native American Church, a religion introduced by the Plains Indians in the late 1800s. The US government permitted Native Americans to use peyote as long as it was used in a spiritual context and not recreational.
A young Navajo man who took a romantic interest in me, Curtis Yazzie, introduced me to the religion. His extended family accepted me into their life as though I was a part of the family. After trust had been established, one of the women confided in me that the family belonged to the Native American Church. At that time it was illegal for white people to attend.
Most Navajos rarely discussed their religious life with white people. They usually claimed they were Mormon or Catholic when asked. It was not unusual for a Navajo to belong to two or three different religions at once. Each church offered certain benefits in their quest to save souls.
After a few visits to Curtis’s family, his mother invited me to participate in my first peyote ceremony. She asked me to call her Shimá, the Navajo word for “my mother.” Her invitation filled me with great anticipation—along with a measure of fear—knowing that I was going to experience mind-altering plant medicine.
The women told me that I must leave my white man’s clothing behind because I was going to enter into the Indian world for the sacred ceremony.
I took off my clothes and pulled out traditional Navajo attire from the paper bag I had brought with me. The week before, I had made a light blue satin skirt and a dark blue velvet blouse with the sewing machine that I had bought in Gallup especially for this occasion. I wound a hand woven red wool sash around my waist, and then covered it with a big silver concha belt. Turquoise hung from my pierced ears and turquoise bracelets circled my wrists. A silver squash blossom necklace adorned my neck and deerskin moccasins covered my feet. Shimá put my long hair into the traditional Navajo knot, worn by both men and women, called “tsiiyéé.” She wrapped the knot with white yarn.
My reflection in the dusty and cracked mirror looked positively regal. I felt like I was going on my first date, with the same nervous excitement.
Finally, late in the evening, we filed into a special hogan reserved for ceremonies and took our places in a big circle. We sat on our woolen Pendleton blankets on the hard-packed dirt floor. The strange new sights and smells put me into a state of wonder.
A fire was burning in the middle of the hogan. The wood had been placed in a unique configuration, obviously of some significance. The incense-like odor of the burning piñon and juniper logs wafted up my nose, creating a mystical sensation.
The Road Man, the person who led the peyote ceremony, sat on the west side of the hogan, facing the door on the east side. A crescent-shaped mud wall about three inches high stood in front of him. It looked like a low altar with a large peyote button centered on top.
The peyote had come from a place in southern Texas, near the border with Mexico, where the landowner had given the members of the Native American Church permission to harvest the fruit from the cactus once a year.
The Road Man had a solemn expression. He spoke in a slow and measured cadence. I imagined that he was explaining the purpose of the ceremony. Shimá told me that this ceremony was for healing a baby who had been quite sick with a high fever for many days in spite of white man’s medicine.
I could not understand anything that the Road Man said because my Navajo language skills at that point were still rudimentary at best.
On the other side of the circle from me, I saw the attentive mother holding the sick and listless baby, bundled up in a small Pendleton blanket and strapped to a cradleboard. The baby’s cheeks looked copper-colored from the fever.
The Road Man passed around the “medicine” in three forms—a powder, tea, and as a “button,” the term that referred to the large bud from the cactus.
All the forms of peyote tasted revolting to me. I gagged, trying desperately not to vomit. Shimá had told me that when people vomit during the ceremony, it means that the evil within them is being expelled. I surely didn’t want all these people to see the evil inside of me. So I managed to keep the peyote down in spite of a few dry heaves that I disguised as coughing attacks.
As the night progressed, the prayers became more impassioned. The people implored God to help the sick baby, and to help all the sick Navajo people, especially the wounded Vietnam vets. I watched both men and women wipe away their tears.
The peyote meeting broke all stereotypes that white people might harbor about traditional Navajo people being passive, non-communicative and without emotion.
At certain times during the ceremony, the Road Man passed around sacred tobacco, wrapped in carefully cut cornhusks squares. The tobacco came from plants gathered in the high regions of the sacred San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff, Arizona—before their gathering area had been turned into a big ski resort.
As each person held the sacred cornhusk-wrapped tobacco, he or she said a prayer, punctuated by a puff of tobacco smoke exhaled into the air. In between the prayers, the people sang and chanted to the hypnotic beat of a water drum that sounded like the pulse of life and in synch with my own beating heart.
When the sacred tobacco made its way around the circle to me, my Navajo mother, seated next to me, leaned over and whispered in English, “You can pass it on.” Instead, I held onto the tobacco, took a puff, exhaled, and began to pray—in Navajo.
In the middle of my prayer, it dawned on me that I had understood most of what the people had said during the last few hours of the ceremony. I immediately dismissed the observation and assumed that I was in a dream—or else so intoxicated from the mind-altering peyote that I was having a major hallucination. I kept waiting to wake up.
When I finished my Navajo prayer, I took another puff and blew the smoke out into the room to mark the end of the prayer, and then I passed the sacred tobacco to the person on my left.
A few minutes later, the water drum came to the person seated on my right. I began singing one of the peyote songs—in Navajo—accompanied by the beating drum.
This fantastic dream feels more realistic than real life. I must be really high.
As the night moved into morning, the peyote began to wear off. I slowly awoke from my dream-like state, no longer able to understand what people were saying. I looked over at the baby. He looked alert and peaceful with normal color in his cheeks. He made little gurgling sounds as he gazed at his mother.
At daybreak, we all filed out through the single opening to the east, then knelt down and touched our foreheads to the ground. We blessed ourselves with our eagle-feathered fans, extending our arms toward the sun so that the rays would enter our bodies and bring healing to any part that might be ailing.
We all walked in silence to a nearby house built of cinder blocks where some of the women had stayed up most of the night preparing us a feast for breakfast. They had spread a large white sheet on the floor. On the sheet I saw pots of mutton stew, plates of Navajo fry bread and bowls of canned peaches.
As I ate my mutton stew, the Road Man began to talk to me in Navajo. When I told him that I didn’t speak Navajo and didn’t understand what he was saying, everyone laughed uproariously.
Then the Road Man said in English, “You sure talked up a storm in Navajo last night.” I felt chills up and down the back of my neck.
How is this possible? Did the peyote help me to tap into something universal that allowed me to overcome the language barrier?
I had no idea how to explain this mind boggling, mystical experience. I felt confused and tired. I would never be able to share this experience with anyone since it defied rational explanation. I did not want to be labeled psychotic, or at best, a liar. So, for many years, this was my secret, along with several other experiences I had while living with the Navajo.
After I returned home from the peyote ceremony Sunday morning, I felt foggy brained from the sleepless night and probably from traces of peyote left in my system. As I puttered around my little apartment, I heard a motorcycle approaching outside. I peeked around the shades to see who was there, hoping not to be seen since I was in no condition to entertain visitors.
A young white man dressed in a black leather jacket and black leather pants dismounted from his big, black motorcycle and walked toward my front door. He knocked on the door. As he knocked, I locked the door without making a sound. I had no idea who this person was, maybe a Hell’s Angel gang member. He kept knocking insistently. I waited apprehensively inside.
The young man walked around the side of the house, trying to peer in the window while I ducked out of view inside a hallway, feeling increasing fear.
The man went to the kitchen window at the back of the apartment and began to force it open and crawl inside. I took a deep breath, gathered my courage and marched into the kitchen, ready for a possible assault.
When the intruder saw my face, he beamed and said, “Hi Rickie. I didn’t think you were home.” Now I was totally confused. Only members of my family used the name “Rickie,” a nickname from childhood.
I tried to act like I knew the man, as I stalled for time. “Where are you coming from on your motorcycle?” I asked, searching for clues to his identity. “Seattle. Aunt Judy said to send you her love.” In that instant, I had a flash of recognition.
“John? Are you my brother John?” I hadn’t seen my 20-year-old brother in a few years. He had taken time off to explore the world. He was at an age where each year brought dramatic changes in appearance. We had a good, long laugh.
The peyote ceremonies continued to be a source of wonder and amazement that blew to smithereens my concept of reality. Each ceremony offered inexplicable experiences for me to ponder during the ensuing years.
On one occasion a group of Navajo people organized a peyote meeting to pray for rain. The reservation suffered a major drought in l972. Crops and livestock were dying. Washington declared the Navajo Reservation a national disaster area and sent helicopters to drop bales of hay for the livestock.
Another one of my Navajo friends invited me to participate in a peyote ceremony that took place in a teepee. Native American Church members used teepees during the warm months and their traditional hogans during the colder months.
I came in my usual ceremonial regalia and silently filed into the teepee with the others and took my place in the circle.
The people prayed fervently. In addition to focusing on the drought, the prayers included a plea for the end of the war in Vietnam and a return of their warriors.
About an hour into the ceremony I heard a light pitter patter sound on the canvas of the teepee. The sound closely resembled that of rain. I dismissed the idea as being unlikely.
Midway through the ceremony, we had our customary break for anyone needing to urinate. As I squatted in the night a few yards away from the teepee, I put the palm of my hand on the ground. The earth felt damp. I assumed the dampness was just an illusion created by the peyote.
When daybreak came and I stepped out of the teepee, I noticed tiny desert wildflowers around the teepee. At breakfast the women who had been up all night cooking commented on the fact that it had rained briefly during the night, but only over the teepee. After breakfast I went back to see the little wildflowers. They had disappeared.
I participated in many ceremonies on weekends. Some of the ceremonies I remember vividly, including the sounds and smells, as though they happened yesterday. Of others I remember only small fragments.
One scene I remember is of a man who burst into the hogan where we were praying. He said that there was some evil witchcraft taking place near-by and asked if the Road Man could come and help right away.
Another noteworthy moment that I remember vividly is the time it appeared as if the participants could read my thoughts.
As I was looking at a turquoise ring I had on the fourth finger of my left hand, it suddenly morphed into a wedding ring. I felt a wave of panic come over me at the idea that I might be married and not know it. When I looked up, the Road Man was looking directly at my face and laughing. I looked around at the other faces in the room. Everyone was looking at me and smiling. I thought to myself, “This is so strange, no one will believe me when I tell about these ceremonies.” At that very moment, the Road Man said out loud, “No, they won’t believe you. But you don’t need to tell them about what happens here.”
Geez. They know my thoughts! How is that possible?
During my second year on the reservation, my Navajo family arranged a peyote ceremony as a gift for my healing.
I had developed an enlarged lymph node under my jaw on the right side. Although I had no explanation for the enlarged node, I didn’t feel too concerned.
Over the next few months, the lymph node continued to enlarge and became hard, but painless. Although I knew very little about medicine, I sensed this might be something serious. Although I felt scared, I tried to ignore it, hoping it would go away.
Eventually the lymph node got so big that one of my students asked me if I had a goiter. Her words woke me up and made me realize that I had to do something right away. I took a day off from school and drove to the nearest health facility, a mission hospital nearly an hour away in Ganado.
Hospitals intimidated me. They had an unpleasant odor to them and tended to be places where bad things could happen.
A young internist in a crisp white coat saw me in his office. He looked alarmed after he palpated the mass. He said, “It’s very hard and immobile. Not a good sign. It could be cancer.” He wanted me to get the mass biopsied that same day. He said that he would call me for the follow up appointment as soon as the pathology report was available.
I escaped from the hospital without getting the biopsy, feeling panicked.
The next day at school I told my teacher aide, Donna Scott, what had happened at the hospital. I confessed to being afraid. She said that she knew a Hopi medicine man who might be able to help me.
That weekend I drove to the Hopi reservation to look for the Hopi medicine man. He was hard to find. I asked several people to help me. I finally found him herding sheep. He listened to my story. After looking at the lump, he said that his specialty did not lie in this area. He referred me back to a Navajo medicine man.
I tracked down the Navajo medicine man with great difficulty. The instructions involved turning right at a large sage brush, then going over the wash and down the dirt road a ways until coming to two juniper trees. “Then go left until you see a hogan. Take the road on the right. Keep going over two more washes and then the road will disappear. Get out and walk down the sandstone ledges to a hogan.” After getting lost a few times, I finally found the medicine man. He too told me that my lump was not his area of expertise. I felt dismayed.
When my Navajo family heard my story, they told me that they knew a certain Road Man who could cure this problem. They generously offered to host the ceremony. They agreed to share the costs with another family who had a gravely sick baby that needed some special prayers.
Peyote ceremonies cost a lot of money to host. They required a sheep to butcher and the purchase of enough food to feed all the participants and their families. The Road Man charged relatively high fees as well. My Navajo family’s generous offer deeply moved me.
During the ceremony, I got so involved in the praying and chanting that I somehow forgot about my lymph node. I concentrated heavily on the healing of the sick baby.
At daybreak, as we ate our breakfast on the floor of the cinderblock house, I noticed that every single person had their eyes fixated on me in an expectant manner. I didn’t know what was happening. I felt awkward and self-conscious. Suddenly I remembered my lymph node. My hand flew up to my neck. The lymph node had disappeared.
Oh my god. I’m healed. No one will ever believe me in the outside world. This will be my secret.