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Chapter Excerpt from:
"The Prophet's Way"

A Visit to the Apache Nation

by Thom Hartmann

This is an excerpt from "The Prophet's Way," copyright 1997 by Thom Hartmann and Mythical Intelligence Inc. All rights reserved. Please do not copy or redistribute this in any form.


A Visit to the Apache Nation Face-to-Face with an Older Culture
What is life if we are imprisoned like cattle in a corral?
We have been a wild, free people,
free to come and go as we wish.
How can we be caged?
— Victorio, an Apache leader

In 1995, with this book already started, I experienced my first true encounter with an Older Culture.

As I now know is typical, this older culture has been beaten, pillaged and slaughtered by a Younger Culture. But enough of the culture has survived that I was able to experience their way of being first-hand. The encounter taught me several important lessons about living in the Spirit.

Earlier in the year I had been invited to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to speak to a group of school principals and superintendents about ADD. Oddly, a few days before I left for the trip, I received a fax from Herr Müller which said, "You must visit the American Indians." It was completely out of context and I couldn’t figure out why he’d say that, particularly then, other than that he often does seemingly inexplicable things.

While I was in Harrisburg a local physician, Dr. Jane Shumway, invited me to visit her home and meet with her, her husband Clare (a retired professor of pediatrics and also an MD), and a few local psychiatrists and pediatricians. Jane and Clare are an amazing pair: both over 70, they’re active and passionate about life. Both are avid bird-watchers, and Jane has become one of Pennsylvania’s experts on ADD (she’s still in private practice).

Over dinner with them and their doctor friends, Jane said, "Have you ever thought about visiting the Apache Indians?" I nearly choked, remembering Herr Müller’s fax.

"I’ve thought about it," I said.

"Clare and I are going out to the San Carlos Apache reservation in October if you’d like to join us," she said. They were going to be doing in-service work with members of the community and the local physicians, and thought that my perspective on ADD may be of some use to the social workers and teachers. (As it happens, minimal work was done with physicians, due to lack of interest.)

I made a tentative commitment and penciled it into my calendar.

In the meantime, the exigencies of business forced me to cancel. I had to give speeches in Cleveland and Detroit the week that Jane and Clare were going to be in Arizona, and so I told them that I’d not make it.

This was particularly distressing because I was hoping to meet Paul Nosie, a descendant of Apache Chief Nosie, whom Jane had spoken of very highly. On the other hand, though, Jane hadn’t been able to get any commitment of any sort from Paul to meet with us. "He operates on what he calls ‘Apache Time,’" Jane explained. "Things just seem to happen when and how they should, and he dislikes planning things."

Then a few weeks later Herr Müller came to the United States for a board meeting at the Salem children’s village in Maryland. I organized my schedule around it, and flew out to spend a day with him.

While we were there, he took me for a long walk up the side of the mountain on the backside of the Maryland property (it’s in the Allegheny mountains in western Maryland). Up to this point, I hadn’t mentioned to him my planned and then aborted trip to visit the Apaches with Jane.

(Pardon the digression, but as I’m typing these words a hummingbird with a red head and a gray-speckled body just came over and is hovering about two feet just behind and to the left of my head. I’m sitting in a folding chair outside Jane and Clare’s travel trailer on the edge of a canyon here on the Apache reservation, typing into a Sharp Zaurus hand-held computer. The little bird is just hovering there, making soft squeaking noises as if he’s trying to tell me something. I’ll have to ask somebody about this.)

Anyway, as Herr Müller and I were walking along an old logging trail through the forest in Maryland, he put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed me hard. "Why haven’t you visited the Indians yet?" he said, a slight hint of reproach in his voice. "There is an important lesson there for you, and important people for you to meet and know."

I told him about Jane and the invitation.

"And you are not going?" He narrowed his eyes. "Don’t you recognize when things are organized by G–d?"

I shrugged. "G–d also organized that my business would be struggling now and I’d have to take on the teaching responsibilities of several of my former employees."

He looked at me for a moment as if deciding something, then said, "Probably it was only for this reason—that we have this conversation—that I had to come here."

"What do you mean?"

He shrugged, smiled, and changed the subject. His "it was only for this reason that I had to be here" comment was one I’ve probably heard a hundred times in various circumstances over the past 18 years.

Our conversation lingered with me, though, and so, without telling Herr Müller, I booked a flight to arrive in Arizona a week late (the earliest I could work out), but didn’t order the tickets. I’d wait and see what came out of it all.

Then, a week later, I received another fax from Herr Müller reminding me that I should go visit the Indians. I called Delta, and learned that in order to get a discounted price I’d have to order the ticket then and there. I called my travel agent and asked her to print and mail me the ticket.

I arrived in Phoenix Wednesday night and drove out toward the Apache reservation in the dark. A nearly-full moon hung low in the sky just off my left shoulder, throwing the mountains across the desert into sharp relief, like broken teeth jutting from a dinosaur’s jawbone. The air was cold and smelled of creosote bush, and the two-lane highway was empty. I found my hotel in the town of Globe, just a few miles from the Apache town of San Carlos, got a room, and went to sleep.

Thursday morning I went for a walk on the edge of the desert as the sun came up. I recognized the familiar desert speckled with sage, cholla, tumbleweed, and giant saguaro standing, arms out and up to the sky, like mute guardians over this ancient land. Near here is Mt. Graham, an Apache holy place, a confluence of spiritual lines of power, which the University of Arizona has used political influence and money to take from them to build an observatory.

On the drive out to the reservation police station where we would meet with several social workers, I saw ahead of me, above the road, a giant black bird, flying in the same direction I was driving and holding an altitude of about 20 feet. With slow, graceful sweeps of its wings like I’d never before seen a raven do, it bobbed along in the air ahead of me. The car caught up with it, and, as I slowed down, it just kept flying down the road, right above my lane, just above the car. I passed under it and it seemed not to notice me: in the rear-view mirror I followed it until it was just a speck above the highway, out of sight.

I arrived at the lake above Coolidge dam and found where Jane and Clare were camped. They were supposed to take their travel trailer and drive back home that day, but decided to stay two extra days to show me around and introduce me to people. (I’d called them just two days ago to say that I was coming. "You operate on Apache Time, too," was Jane’s comment.)

I told Jane of the experience with the bird over my car and asked her opinion. She told me that birds are her messengers, bringing her information about situations and the future, and often protecting her from danger. Just a few days earlier, she said, a raven had appeared out of nowhere and dove at her windshield. It woke her from her reverie and she slowed down in response to it. Moments later a truck roared by and cut in front of her. Had she not slowed down in response to the raven, she could have been seriously hurt.

From their trailer, Jane and I went onto the reservation, where we met with a woman named Velda who works with Tribal Social Services. The tribe had recently taken over social services functions from the Federal Government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Velda was horrified to discover that in all the years that BIA had been running their foster parents program, there had never been a single bit of training of foster parents. She was looking for resources, and Jane brought me along to talk with her about ADD.

"This is a very bad situation here," Velda said. "This tribe has over 60% unemployment, and you can trace so many problems back to that."

Jane had found a partial set of parenting instructional videotapes to take to Velda from the local Catholic school. Velda was wishing out loud that she could get such resources for the tribe, when I looked at the videocassette box.

I was startled to see that on it was the picture of Dr. Michael Popkin, a close friend who’d written the foreword for my first book on ADD and owns an Atlanta company called Active Parenting Publishing. I looked in my Zaurus to get his address for Velda, and also discovered that tonight I would be missing a previously-scheduled dinner with him in Atlanta. I’d completely overlooked it!

The coincidences were startling: I excused myself to go call Michael to apologize for missing dinner. In the phone conversation, he offered to send to Velda a new and improved set of instructional videotapes at no cost, and so when I returned to the meeting I told her about that.

"This is a real blessing for us," she said, telling me that for a tribe of 10,000 people there were fully 50 foster homes, none had any training, and all were totally full.

After the meeting, as we went to lunch, Jane was fretting that I might miss meeting Paul. She hadn’t seen him for several days, and couldn’t get in touch with him. Finally, she shrugged as we drove to the San Carlos Cafe (the only diner on the reservation) and said, "Well, if it’s meant to be it’ll happen."

"Apache Time?" I said.

She nodded thoughtfully.

The cafe was a dutifully air-conditioned building. We retired to a Formica-topped booth in the back of the room after ordering our meals (I ordered an Apache Taco, which, it turns out, is vegetarian).

As our food was coming, Jane looked over my shoulder at the front door with a startled expression on her face. I turned to see a huge bear of a man, tall and muscular with a mustache and black hair in a pony tail down his back, with a friendly-looking Apache woman at his side. They came to our table.

Jane whispered, "I guess it was meant to be," and introduced me to Paul and his wife, Marilyn, who sat down at our table with us.

Looking at Paul up close, I would have guessed he was in his early thirties, but I had to recalculate that when their daughter and granddaughter came in a few minutes later (their granddaughter’s name is "Blessing").

We talked about the situation of the Apaches and of tribal politics: small talk, really, and then Paul said something that startled me.

He was describing a visit he’d made on behalf of the tribe to a drug rehab training center in Minnesota. He’s partly responsible for the drug and alcohol programs for the Apaches, and so had gone to meet with other drug and alcohol program administrators and counselors.

"I noticed that the walls were covered with flags and emblems from the countries and organizations of the people who’d visited there in the past," he said. "And in the center of the main wall, right over the fireplace, there was a glass frame that held a dream catcher and an eagle feather. I asked the people there if they had any idea of the importance and spiritual significance of their wall decoration, and none did. That gave me an opportunity to talk with them about the importance of knowing your purpose in life, of being grounded in the Earth, and of connecting to your spirit and the planet’s."

He paused for a moment and got a faraway expression on his face. "Probably it was only for that reason that I had to be there."

I was shocked. His voice even sounded like Herr Müller’s. So, when he invited us to join him for a sweat, and to see the Crown Dancers, local ceremonies which are normally forbidden to non-Apaches, I eagerly accepted.

After lunch, we went back to Jane’s trailer and I wrote the following note:

It’s mid-afternoon on Thursday, October 12th, and I just returned from lunch with the descendant of a famous Apache chief, a man Herr Müller had sent me to see, although neither of them knew or had ever even heard of the other.

As I’m writing these words, I’m sitting on the side of a mesa overlooking a small valley, with cactus and scrub-brush covered hills rolling off into the distance. This is the desert about 100 miles east of Phoenix, Arizona, and it’s over 100 degrees in the shade: it’s the most desolate and unyielding land Uncle Sam could find to herd the Apaches into, and not a mile from where I’m sitting Geronimo hid from government soldiers after they (after signing a peace treaty with him and his tribe) slaughtered his wife, his parents, and all but one of his children in an unprovoked attack.

Friday night I attended a sweat ceremony with Paul, Marilyn, and a few other Apaches and Jane.

This was a deeply powerful experience for me; it was the first time in my life I’d participated in an age-old ritual from an older culture. I can’t describe the ceremony because it’s profoundly
personal, and the man who taught me the ceremony was concerned that putting it into words in print would profane it.

I will say this: it confirmed everything I’d intuitively known about the power of connecting to your spiritual source.

The next morning I got up at 4:30 a.m. to go to the Sunrise Ceremony with Judy, a friend of Jane’s. Judy is one of the planet’s Good Souls, a wonderful mother and grandmother to her three children and grandchild, and struggles with the many economic and social problems facing other Apaches.

The morning of the Sunrise Ceremony, she’d invited me to first "walk the mesa rim" with her. We set out at about 5:30 in the morning from the edge of the desert.

Judy walked the six miles along the mesa rim so rapidly I occasionally got out of breath or had to run to keep up with her. It was dark, and the road was strewn with pebbles: the desert was absolutely silent. She’d read the first chapter of my book ADD Success Stories the night before, and wanted to discuss it.

"You wrote that Native Americans like us Apaches are more likely to have ADD than Anglos," she said.

I didn’t know if she was offended or not, so just said, "It was a speculation. A few others have told me that that was their observation." I shivered in the cold, wearing only my jeans, dock shoes, and a long-sleeved white shirt.

"I think you’re absolutely right," she said. "My people were hunters and warriors, and you can see that in everything they do. My son is a great Hunter, but he’s stuck in a Farmer’s high school and he’s having a miserable time. I think you’ll see this throughout our tribe, and it may be why the Indians are so easily snared by alcohol."

I told her about the teachers we’d met with a few days earlier on the reservation who said that they’d seen incredible amounts of high-energy activity from the Apache children. One teacher, an Anglo woman who’d come here recently, had said, "These children have a power, a force, that’s hard to describe. If I try to restrain a child, to hold him back from running toward something, and grab his arm or put my hand on his shoulder, and he’s only eight or nine years old, I feel the strength of a teenager or a young man. They are incredibly powerful, and when they make a decision it’s nearly impossible to stop them from acting on it."

Judy agreed. "Your concept of Hunters and Farmers was an insight for me. It was a revelation. All of a sudden so many things made sense. We’ve always thought it was just my son with a problem, but now I realize that we’re an entire family of Hunters, living among a tribe of Hunters, and that the problem is as much with the Anglo school as it is with us. You’ve given us a way to understand why and how we don’t fit into white society, and done it in a way that leaves us our dignity and self-respect."

I thanked her, and she kept bubbling about the insights she’d gotten, and how one led to another, and we managed to work each other up into an enthusiastic lather about the wonders and pains of being a Hunter in a Farmer’s world.

As the sky was turning first pink then light blue, and the edge of the sun came over the mountains to the east as if it were melting off their tops, we arrived at the Sunrise Ceremony.

In a large dirt area surrounded on all sides by desert, seven men stood in two rows, four ahead of three, beating drums and chanting. I recognized one of the chants from what I had heard sung the night before in the sweat ceremony.

Standing in front of the men were two women. On my left, facing them, was a girl around 12 or 13 years old, dressed in the most elaborate and beautiful buckskin dress I’d ever seen, completely covering her from neck to toes, with a blue shell or stone fastened to the center of her forehead and elaborate beadwork and decorations. To her left was an older teenage girl, also dressed in an beautiful buckskin dress but nowhere near as elaborately adorned as the younger girl.

The young girl held in her right hand a staff with a curved handle on the top; there were eagle feathers and bells hanging from it. With each beat of the drums, the girls bobbed up and down, flexing at the knees and ankles. The men behind them danced, too, lifting first one foot, then the other, with each beat.

In front of the two girls was laid out a square of buckskin, and there were things on it that I couldn’t make out. To either side, flanking the medicine men and singers, were four men, two on either side, and they were dancing with the drums, too. One man on each side held a burden basket, tassels swinging to the dance, and the other man danced with his hands held in half-fists in front of his stomach.

The girls and the singers and medicine men faced directly into the sun, which was now fully above the mountains. The air had changed, in about 30 minutes, from below sixty degrees to above eighty. Stretching down from the singers to the sides of the medicine men, creating a three-sided rectangle, were two rows of people, about twenty in each row. They were dressed in normal fashion, and were the visitors who’d come to participate in the ceremony. All were dancing, in a step just like the men and the girls. The two rows faced each other from a distance of about seventy feet.

Judy led me over to the row on our right, and the line parted to let us in. We began to dance along with everybody else, gently moving from foot to foot with the beat.

"This is a rite of passage," Judy whispered to me as we danced in the bright sunlight. "When a girl gets her menses, the Sunrise Ceremony is scheduled. A partner (or friend) who has already been through the ceremony is chosen to assist the girl during the ceremony. The godmother is chosen by the mother of the girl having the ceremony. For four days her family and her Godmother’s family camp on opposite sides of the ceremonial area, in huts they make specifically for this purpose. The girl is kept from contact with anybody, and has been preparing for this day for the previous four days by building all fires and cooking all food. She has her own little hut to stay in during the four days of the ceremony, built just for her and for this. The ceremony runs from Thursday night until Sunday night, virtually nonstop."

"It’s what we were hearing last night during the sweat?" I said.

"Yes. There was a ceremony last night. This is the girl’s first full initiation, though. You’ll see. And tonight will come out the Crown Dancers. It’s awesome."

Each chant the medicine men and medicine singers did lasted about fifteen minutes, and we all danced through each one. There was a minute or so pause before they’d launch into another one.

We danced like this for an hour, and then two.

I was becoming tired and my feet and legs were sore: the sun was now fully thirty degrees above the horizon, the air temperature was over ninety, and the girl in the buckskin dress hadn’t stopped dancing since before sunrise. Judy noticed that I was sweating. "It’s an endurance test, isn’t it?" she said with a smile. I nodded. She inclined her head toward the girl in buckskin. "It’s really a test for her. This is a very difficult four days. But if she comes through it, she knows that for the rest of her life she will be able to survive anything. And she’ll have a great blessing because of this."

A group of four women in their sixties broke out of the line opposite us and danced slowly over to our line, stood in front of a man down the row from me, and danced facing him for a minute. They backed up and he danced out of the line as if attached to them by an invisible rubber band.

"If they come for you, you must dance with them," Judy whispered.

I swallowed. I’d been warned several times that these ceremonies were "Apache only," and felt very self-conscious, surrounded by these people who had been so viciously crushed by my people.

Women broke out of our line and danced with men from the other line.

The morning continued; it was now ten a.m., and the sun was unbearably hot. It had to be in the nineties in the shade, in the sun I guessed it was well over a hundred degrees. The girl in the buckskin was visibly exhausted, but she kept dancing and pounding her staff into the ground, shaking the bells in perfect beat with the drummers.

Two elderly women danced over to our line, heading straight for me. "Your turn," Judy said with a giggle.

They danced in front of me, eyes locked on mine, then began to move back. I danced forward without even thinking about it: it was as if a huge invisible hand had put itself to my back and propelled me forward. We danced all the way across to the other line and then back. When the chant ended, they both smiled and said, "Thank you." I bowed and said the same back to them, which made one of them laugh, a friendly gesture. They turned and walked back to their line and I rejoined Judy.

Another chant began and we started dancing again. "The women here say you did a good job. Much enthusiasm and spirit."

"Thank you," I said.

"Were you praying for the girl?" Judy said.

"No, I was dancing."

"Dancing is praying," Judy said. "Maybe it would help if you knew the words to the chants, but this entire ceremony is one long prayer for this girl. So now when you dance, pray."

"Are you praying to the sun?" I asked, remembering that this was the "Sunrise Ceremony."

She looked at me sharply. "We believe in one God, and always have. We pray before the sun not to worship the sun but because the sun reminds us of the creator of the sun, which warms us and gives us life. We respect the animals and honor them because they’re part of God’s world and His creation."

We fell silent. I danced, looking at the girl in buckskin. She glanced in our direction and smiled, and in her smile I saw my own 14-year-old daughter’s face. I prayed for both of them as I danced.

Across from us in the line were a man and woman about my age who were dancing with a particular enthusiasm. Judy nodded at them with her nose (Apaches don’t point with fingers) and said, "That’s her father and mother."

Her father was almost directly opposite me, and so I synchronized my dancing with his, praying for his daughter and my own.

The girl’s friend was replaced by her godmother, an Apache woman in her thirties who I later learned works in the nearby hospital in Globe. The chant and drums began again, and we danced for another half-hour, as the air became dusty and dry and the sun poured down heat on us like liquid fire.

The chant stopped and the godmother helped the girl down onto her knees. The girl kneeled and then rocked back on to her feet on the buckskin, and lifted her hands to the sky, holding them palms facing the sun, on either side of her head. The chant began again, and the girl rocked from side to side, moving with considerable effort, still bouncing with the beat as she did so, looking in the direction of the eastern horizon. This continued for a half-hour or so, as we all danced with her; occasionally she’d begin to wilt but each time, just before she fell over, her godmother would bend over and rub her back and say some words to her, and she’d then go back to her motions with a new vigor.

The godmother then stretched the girl out, face down, on the buckskin. In a very ritual fashion, she massaged the girl, starting with the top of her head. The girl was laying in what in Yoga is called the "Cobra" position, flat on her stomach with her hands at her sides, but with her head, shoulders, and chest held just above the ground and her face lifted to face the sun and mountains in the east. It’s a very difficult position to hold for more than a few minutes.

The chant was going again, and there was a recurring phrase: "Di stitkcthe lay." The "tkcthe" sound is like a guttural back-of-palate sound that they have in German and Hebrew but for which there is no equivalent in English.

"What does that mean?" I asked Judy.

"‘Di stitkcthe lay’ means ‘she will become strong,’" Judy said. "The godmother is giving the girl her strength, giving it to every muscle in her body. A woman can only be godmother to a young girl four times in her life because of this."

"Why is that?"

"After four times, a woman risks losing her own spiritual power. A person only has enough power, normally, to do this four times in her life, because much of this ceremony is the giving of the godmother’s spiritual power to the girl."

After massaging the girl from head to foot with her hands, the godmother did it again, twice, with her moccasin-clad feet. The chant continued, and we kept dancing. I was experiencing pains in muscles I didn’t even know I had, and was incredibly thirsty.

When we’d first arrived and I’d seen the people dancing, my thought was that it was a quaint and primitive ritual. Culturally interesting, from an anthropological point of view. I’d wondered why they kept it so simple and hadn’t made it more sophisticated, like European ballroom dancing.

Now, dancing in the hot sun, I noticed that my consciousness kept shifting. The mountains seemed distant, then near. The sky was flat, then deep. The cactus and scrub brush around us seemed to shimmer as if glowing with an aura. Occasionally a bird would fly over and I could feel its life as if something warm and radiant had beamed from its heart to mine. I kept feeling waves of alternating joy and grief, and a lump welled up in my throat whenever I prayed for the girl and my daughter, whenever I caught the eye of her father across from us.

Then it struck me, a flash of insight. The beat of the drums was always the same for each chant: we were tuning our brains, and it was probably to the 10-Hertz Alpha brain-wave frequency or a harmonic of it.

I realized that this wasn’t just some sort of primitive dancing: it was a form of mantra meditation, just like the Hindus do, and the Tibetans with their prayer beads, and the Catholics as they recite the rosary for hours on end.

They’re inducing altered states.

In a cascade of insight, I saw how this ritual is really very sophisticated, and the early white settlers corrupted it by turning it into square dancing and making it "entertainment." Like the medicine man’s comments the night before about tobacco "hurting" us because we’ve turned it into a commercial product, with dancing we’ve turned the sacred profane.

I also realized in that flash that we in white society have lost our rituals of adulthood, leading to gangs and other replacement-rituals. The closest things I could think of were graduation from high school, or, for the World War II generation, joining the army.

This ceremony is the bottom line for these people, the most visceral, the most real and connected to life, and the most powerful. Watching it, participating in it, I knew absolutely in my guts that our white culture has become a shallow joke about to self-destruct, with television leading the charge.

I shivered, a wash of cold from the insight, and continued my dancing.

Around noon, after six hours of nonstop dancing and the temperature now well above one hundred, the chants changed. The grandfather, and then the father, stood in front of the people and gave long speeches in Apache. "They’re thanking us for standing with their child," Judy said. "And they’re giving prayers, thanking God for this day and this ceremony and for all of us."

Then the medicine man took a large bowl filled with pollen to the far end of the lines, and all the men (except me) lined up. Each dipped out a small handful of pollen, then, one at a time, went up to the girl and the godmother, sprinkling it over them—a pinch each to the head, shoulders, and breasts, and praying over each of them. It was highly ritualized, and each sprinkling took a few minutes. Behind the men, the women extended the line, and it took more than an hour for every person to go up and bless the girl and her godmother. Throughout it all, the chanting and dancing continued.

When Judy returned from her line, she told me to meet her here at seven in the evening to see the Crown Dancers. I left and drove back to my hotel to recover from the morning and type up these notes.

The sky was so black it seemed hollow as I drove up to the area of the Crown Dancer ceremony. There was a bonfire the size of a small house in the center of the ceremonial area, flames leaping twenty and thirty feet into the air, the night sky stuttered with flecks of orange-glowing embers and smoke.

Around the bonfire were hundreds of Apaches. The drummers and medicine singers were going full blast, and most of the crowd was dancing, the left-right-left-right foot-lifting with hands just above the waist that I’d seen earlier. Judy and I joined.

After about twenty minutes of this, four men wearing six- or eight-foot antlers made of wood came running out of the darkness in the willow trees to one side of the area. Their heads were covered with black hoods, and they were naked other than a buckskin cloth around the waist and moccasins. Their bodies were painted with gray, white, and black clay.

Carrying staffs and spears with bells on them, they danced with a frenzied fervor around the fire, then turned and danced at members of the crowd, who fell back before them. All the while the dancers were jingling their bells and making loud animal noises.

"Their job is to scare away evil spirits," Judy said. "My boys are so afraid of them that they won’t even come to the ceremonies." She chuckled. "Probably they should, though."

Behind the four Crown Dancers was a fifth man, painted in white, wearing a white hood, with a two-foot cross attached to his head. He carried a triple-cross, sort of like the old Easter Seal logo as I recall

"That’s the Grey One," Judy said, nodding at him with her nose. "He is the one who has the power. People think that he’s just a fool, but he’s the truly powerful one."

The Clown carried something on a four-foot-long string that he twirled through the air. It made a loud buzzing sound like "Oooooooowwwwaaaaaammmmmmm" that reminded me of those signals the Aborigines of Australia use. Bull-roarers, I think they call them.

The Clown went out of the circle for a moment, and returned with the girl, her friend who stood with her, and the godmother. He herded them into the area of the Crown Dancers, and they all eight began to dance around the circle. I had a disposable camera with a flash in it with me, and as they came around toward us, I took a picture. The Clown ran over to me and shook his triple-cross at me, making sounds like an angry animal. The man next to me said, "If the tribal police see you take a picture they will arrest you and destroy your camera. This is a holy ceremony, not a spectacle for tourists."

I apologized and stuffed the camera into my back pocket. The Clown danced on, the Crown Dancers and the women in his wake.

I’d assumed that the Crown Dancers were like the musicians at an Anglo wedding: they worked for money. When I asked Judy about this, however, she looked appalled.

"Nobody even knows who they are," she said. "To be a Crown Dancer is a sacred thing, and after the ceremony they don’t bathe for four days to leave the sacred mud and markings on their bodies. They wouldn’t accept money for this and there’s no way to communicate with them because nobody knows who they are. You just hold an event, and they always show up. In the old days, they’d come down out of the mountains for things like this."

The dancers took the two girls and the godmother and danced them in a ritual fashion through a large double-arch made up of four pieces of willow, about twenty feet high, with boughs stuck from the top.

Judy leaned over and said, "This is the climax of the actual ceremony. We should leave now, as it’s going to get pretty wild and you may not be safe."

We walked to our cars and I drove back through the night, the sounds of the chants still echoing in my mind.

The next morning my alarm brought me up out of a long dream about the Apaches, how they were chased and hunted and how even today, even this moment as I write these words, white men are still trying to take away more of their land from them (specifically the University of Arizona with their telescope project, joined by other universities, the Max Plank Institute in Germany, and the Vatican).

I got up, showered and dressed, checked my messages on CompuServe, and left.

Driving through the desert darkness, I turned on the radio and found the station of the Navajo Nation, a few hundred miles to our north and west.

"Here’s our historical thought for the day," the woman DJ said between country-and-western songs. "When Columbus blundered by accident onto our lands, he claimed them and all our people and all our wealth for the Pope and the King and Queen of Spain. His first order was to assemble all the local Indians and demand that every person over the age of 14 bring him, the next day, one handful of gold. The next day, all those who came with less than a handful, or were unable to bring anything, were hunted down and one hand was chopped off. Thousands lost their hands that day.

"Then Columbus took as prisoners as many Indians as he could jam into the holds of his ships and sent them back to Spain to be sold at the auction block as slaves. Most died during the journey, as they were kept in the hold of the ship, awash in their own excrement, with food thrown down to them when the sailors felt like it, but those who survived made the trip very profitable for Columbus. He made several trips back to take more slaves and cut off more hands.

"This is the man we’re asked to honor on Columbus Day."

As Merle Haggard began to sing, I had to make an effort to unclench my hands from the steering wheel.


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