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The Road Man

Twenty-two years ago, a power failure on the Colorado River Indian Reservation spirited Nelson Fernandez into the world where men pray so fervently they rip the flesh off their chests.

Today, Fernandez lives in Phoenix and conducts ancient Native American rituals to help recovering junkies and alcoholics get back on their feet. But two decades ago, Fernandez was living in L.A. and did plenty of drugs and alcohol himself. Back then, this affable, ornately tattooed high school dropout and ex-con Mohave Indian pumped gas in a racially seething Watts neighborhood. Like many urban Indians who immigrate to big cities from reservations, he felt shut out of the dizzying Anglo universe that had pulled at him since he was fourteen. "I turned away from my people because I didn't like being sluggish," the outspoken Fernandez now says. "I wanted movement and motion. I wanted more. But I didn't have the tools to live in this society. Wanting something and not being able to get it was very frustrating."

Deciding to straighten out his life and to go to junior college, Fernandez returned home to the "Res" in western Arizona. (His name comes from his California Mission Indian father, whose family was dubbed "Fernandez" by colonizing Spaniards.) One day after he got home, the electricity sputtered out all over the reservation. He noticed that some of his neighbors were upset when they couldn't use their curling irons and electric mixers and hightailed it to the nearest motel.

The lemming-like dash to the motel made Fernandez realize that he himself was just "a Circle K Indian" who had become so hooked on the Anglo world that he simply couldn't survive unless a well-stocked convenience store was someplace nearby. He also realized that he really didn't know much about the spiritual values that had sustained native cultures for centuries. It became important to find out. He roamed the United States learning native religious ceremonies. He learned to pray the ancient way--by fasting on mountains and sweating in the sweatlodge's searing steam that shoots from sizzling hot volcanic rocks. For five years, he participated in the most sacred tradition of the North American Plains Indians--the sun dance. With his chest tethered to a sacred tree, he danced until chunks of pierced flesh ripped away and became his personal sacrifice to God. Today his chest is latticed with scars that are honored and respected by his peers.

Fernandez also learned to eat peyote, the "Holy Medicine," in highly ritualized Native American Church prayer ceremonies, kneeling for hours and hours before a circular altar of burning coals and wet sand. Eventually, he became a Road Man and now conducts the ceremonies himself. During all-night peyote prayer sessions, the Road Man guides the worshipers through the night. Symbolically, he is only a catalyst. When he is needed, he shows the road a person may take as the peyote leads to the Creator.

Ironically, the more rooted the young Fernandez became spiritually, the more comfortable he was in urban settings. He no longer needed alcohol and drugs. And that's the lesson he hopes more and more urban Indians will learn.

He doesn't mind teaching the same lessons to Anglos having a tough time fitting into their own world. He clearly annoys some Native Americans because he invites selected white people to Indian ceremonies--including all-night peyote prayer sessions. This is an especially touchy topic these days, because the Supreme Court is expected to rule momentarily on whether the use of peyote is protected by the First Amendment right to freedom of religion. But Fernandez continues to invite Anglos to share the religious experience. "I don't see colors," he says. "That's not the way I was taught."

NELSON FERNANDEZ IS 44 now, a tall, slightly stooped nearsighted man with a long black ponytail. He lives in Phoenix, away from his Indian wife and three children in Parker. He won't say much about them, except that he talks to his kids all the time on the phone and it's "very hard" to keep a long-distance marriage going. He moved to Phoenix several years ago because he wanted to make a decent living. He's a youth counselor at the Phoenix Indian School and a student at Arizona State University who hopes to graduate with a bachelor's degree in sociology next year.

He already has a diploma from a junior college, and he's been a substance-abuse counselor for years. He knows more about real-life social problems than the professors who drone on and on in his classes. But he needs the four-year degree to get a better job, and so he tolerates academia.

When he isn't working or studying, he often performs the ceremonies he learned twenty years ago. He occasionally runs the rituals on nearby reservations, but mostly he conducts them right in the middle of Phoenix at the Indian Rehabilitation Center, a nationally recognized nonprofit treatment center for Native American substance abusers. (See related story above.)

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Terry Greene