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.)

The center is headquartered in two old houses on the outskirts of the Roosevelt district. On certain evenings, young professionals sitting out on the porches of their remodeled houses might hear the haunting pulse of Nelson Fernandez's kettle drum. All sorts of people attend these invitation-only ceremonies in downtown Phoenix. There are usually a few Anglos with New-Age world views who are clearly intrigued with the Native American religion.

But many who follow Fernandez into the sweatlodge are recovering Native American substance abusers trying to learn how to make it in the city. These folks are only a handful of the 28,000 or so Native Americans who make Phoenix one of the largest urban-Indian centers in the country. But, like Nelson Fernandez in his younger days, they've had a tougher time than most switching from the reservation to the city.

"They are in a foreign country," explains Fernandez. "The fast pace at first causes utter confusion, it's like drinking a whole bottle of tequila at once." He ticks off the problems these immigrants face: They don't have the emotional support of their relatives, the financial support of their tribe. They don't have the education or skills to get good jobs. They feel shut out, because they don't understand how to play the game.

They forget about their frustrations at all-Indian bars like the Esquire and Ponderosa and Can-Can, and eventually many fall through the cracks and end up in jail or on Phoenix's streets, where roughly 20 percent of the homeless are Native Americans.

NELSON FERNANDEZ suffered the same frustrations as many who attend his ceremonies when he first came to Phoenix. His childhood on the Colorado River reservation, as he tells it, was idyllic. He shared his meals with his extended family in a huge hall, swam and fished for bass in the canals fed by the Colorado, munched on mesquite beans and listened to his grandmother's stories and legends. His teen-age years weren't quite so idyllic, though. He spent time in a juvenile center and a school for troubled boys for fighting and drinking. He wasn't angry about his early bout with the law, he says, "because I just thought that's the way things were." When he was eighteen, he moved into his father's house in Phoenix. Within months, he was arrested for breaking into a house in the Arcadia district of Scottsdale. He spent two years in the Arizona State Prison in Florence. "Those were the prehistoric days in penal history," he says. "We worked in a road gang, chopping cotton, picking peas and corn and tomatoes. We cleaned ditches and sewers."

Such trials have made him extraordinarily empathetic, extremely blunt and unconsciously controlling. Recovering Native American substance abusers don't always like him, and he knows it.

"A lot of people are afraid of me because I tell them the truth," he says. "I tell them the reason they are the way they are is because they don't do anything to help themselves." But being Indian in Phoenix isn't always easy, even for Fernandez. He knows that when he goes into a store he is scrutinized by clerks who think he's about to steal something. The way he figures, having people look at you like that is a little like a leg cramp. You can't let it get you down if you have someplace to go. ON SWEAT NIGHTS at Indian Rehab, Fernandez builds a hot fire on a little corner of land that backs into an alley. He throws whatever combustible he can scrounge into the fire--an old Christmas tree, a few fruit cartons, a bit of old butcher block. He spends hours of his free time preparing for the ancient rituals. He often jumps into his red Silverado pickup to gather mesquite firewood in the foothills of the Estrellas. He shovels sand for altars from an unsuspecting sand-and-rock company on the Salt River bed. He collects fragile black rocks for the sweatlodge from an old volcano just off the interstate that snakes toward Flagstaff. No one knows better than Fernandez that rocks, which decompose in heat and have to replaced frequently, must be picked with care. A poorly chosen volcanic rock--one laced with telltale goldish glitter--recently exploded in the sweatlodge. It split Fernandez's brow as though it were a ripe cantaloupe and sent him to the hospital for stitches. He says the people who picked that rock didn't check it carefully enough because they were "just plain lazy." But on this particular night, the rocks have been chosen by Fernandez. As people straggle in to the back lot of Indian Rehab, bums hang out in the alley, staring at the folks standing around in their bathing suits in the middle of winter, listening to foreign chants sung to the beat of a drum made out of a black kettle.

When the rocks are red hot, the first of the sweat ceremony's four rounds begins. Fernandez crawls on all fours into the sweatlodge, a low-slung circular willow-framed structure covered with tarps. Ten to twenty people crawl in after him and sit in a tight circle with their knees drawn up against their chests. After sizzling rocks are gingerly transferred by pitchfork from the fire outside to a pit inside the sweatlodge, Nelson Fernandez blesses everyone with aromatic burning cedar. He passes around tobacco rolled in a cornhusk and asks each and every "relative" to talk if they wish. In the anonymous dark, group therapy happens. People voice special frustrations: homesickness for families on the reservation, anxieties over employment, efforts to make it after being in prison for years, worries about final exams, anguish over global pollution and war, struggles to stay away from drugs or booze. Then everyone prays out loud for each other and the world in Navajo and Spanish and Mohave and Apache and English and Hopi and Pima. As the prayers become more intense, Fernandez slings water onto the hot rocks. The steam gets hotter and hotter with each slosh of water, until it is almost unbearable.

When the heat feels as if it's blistering the skin, Fernandez whoops, "Let me out of here!" and people dash outside into the icy comfort of the night. The sweat rises from their bodies and vaporizes into the cold air as planes overhead make their final descent into Sky Harbor International Airport.

THE RITUALS AFFECT each recovering drinker and drugger differently. Some say they gained the inner strength to stay straight in the sweats and think of Fernandez as a sort of catalyst who lets them get to know their spiritual side. But sometimes the people who say they got strong end up back on the streets. Others say they like watching from the outside but have no interest in crawling into the steamy cramped space.

Ken Thompson is 22 now, but he hasn't forgotten being sent to boarding school when he was little. From the time he was old enough to go to school, the Navajo-Apache child was shuffled from boarding school to boarding school until he eventually lived with his Baptist grandmother in Cibecue, on the Apache reservation.

When he was twelve, he started drinking. By the time he was thirteen, he was sent to a juvenile facility for stealing. He lived with his parents in Denver for a while, and "got worse and worse." He was into drugs at that time and was going to court three or four times a week for fighting and stealing. When he was fifteen, he dropped out of school and was kicked out of his parents' house.

He made it back to Cibecue and made a decent living driving logging trucks. "I'm all right if I stay on the reservation," he explains.

But he didn't stay on the reservation. He moved to Mesa in 1987. He committed burglaries and drank every night--Wild Turkey was his beverage of choice. He also consumed whatever drugs he could get his hands on; sometimes it was acid and sometimes it was crystal.

One night last May, he was stopped by police for driving his girlfriend's Monte Carlo eighty miles per hour over the speed limit.

He ended up in jail and went to Indian Rehab as part of a plea agreement.
The Native American ceremonies conducted by people like Nelson Fernandez don't interest him much. What concerns him more is trying to stay straight in the halfway house until his probation is over.

Then he figures he'll probably go back to the reservation.
Kevin Edwards, a 22-year-old Whiteriver Apache, is another who started drinking young. But the ceremonies pull at him, and, he says, give him strength.

Recently, Edwards signed up for Indian Rehab after being drunk most of his life and doing little else. He started drinking when he was nine years old because practically everybody else in his family drank. It was just sort of the natural thing to do. He drank Budweiser when he had money. Homemade beer when he was broke.

By the time he was thirteen, he burned down half his mother's kitchen while trying to heat a can of spaghetti and meatballs on the stove. His family sent him to a Christian boarding school in Cottonwood. He understood English but was so distrustful of Anglos that he usually pretended only to know Apache. And he kept drinking. When he first came to Indian Rehab, he barely spoke. But he learned to pour his heart out in the Talking Circle, an old native ritual that encourages each person to talk for as long as he wants while everyone else listens politely.

Soon Edwards decided to try the more intense sweats. He didn't make it through all four rounds on his first try, but a week later, he completed the ceremony. He even led a round, chanting passionately in his native Apache. Now he's feeling a bit more sure of himself. He says maybe after he gets his GED, he'll learn to be a meat cutter.

Urban Indians like Edwards who stumble into Indian Rehab are lucky to connect to their spiritual heritage while they're still young. That's the way a 36-year-old recovering cocaine addict we'll call Dan Jones sees things. Jones, a Pima Indian, requested his real name not be used because he doesn't want to shame his Mormon mother.

Jones, a high school dropout and former bouncer and bartender, spent much of his life shuttling aimlessly between his home on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa reservation, Mesa, Phoenix and jail. Along the line, he fathered several children by several different women.

"What I remember about the 1970s was Patty Hearst, when my grandfather died, and when Elvis died," he says. "That's it." He got down so low that at one point a traveling infection from a dirty needle ended up rotting a rib, which had to be removed surgically.

A few months ago, Jones finally hit bottom and decided to check himself into Indian Rehab. Like all residents, he attended the Talking Circle, which made him feel wonderful. "I always felt rested and fresh and I wanted to go out and do something positive. "I told Nelson about it, and he asked me to come to the sweat. He said I probably was a spiritual person, but that it was masked by drugs and alcohol. So I came to the sweat, and when it was over, I had a feeling that was warm and vast and strong. I know I won't take drugs anymore.

"Whenever I'm with Nelson, I feel his power. I know where to turn now."

NELSON FERNANDEZ managed to save up $600 a few weeks ago, so he and some friends drove to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas one weekend to spend the money on peyote. "It's a good investment," he said. "It's an investment in God."

Peyote is a hallucinogen harvested from a special cactus in the Rio Grande Valley. It's been used by Native Americans as an aid to prayer for about 10,000 years. The Medicine had been outlawed in the United States until 1978, when Congress passed the Native American Religious Freedom Act. Now, the estimated number of Native American peyoteists ranges from 100,000 to 400,000.

The federal government allows Road Men with special papers to haul peyote from the "peyote gardens" in Texas to their home states. But now some Indians fear the U.S. Supreme Court might outlaw peyote once again. The decision will come from a case involving two alcohol rehabilitation workers in Oregon who were denied state unemployment benefits because they had used peyote in a church ritual.

Some Native Americans are caught up in a sort of schizophrenic hysteria. On one hand, they pray passionately that the all-white Supreme Court justices will let them keep their Medicine. On the other hand, they don't want Anglos at their ceremonies, thinking their presence might jinx the court decision. Fernandez says he finds it all very amusing.

You get the feeling that he'll still use peyote in his ceremonies, no matter what the Supreme Court says.

IT'S THE SATURDAY after Fernandez returned from Texas with his load of Holy Medicine. He's arranged with a Pima friend we'll call Raymond to hold the peyote "Meeting" at Raymond's place on the Salt River reservation.

Early that morning, Fernandez and another friend, Stuart Resnick, speed out to Raymond's house to set up the ceremonial tepee. The meeting is to be in the tepee that evening, at about the same time the oldsters at neighboring Sun Lakes are getting together for a game of canasta. Resnick is a Jewish photographer from Philadelphia who says he finds the Native American religion far more fulfilling than his own. His girlfriend is a massage therapist named Ocotilla and she, too, participates in the ceremonies run by Fernandez. Both feel as disenfranchised from the Anglo world as many urban Indians. And yet they both know they aren't always welcome by everybody in the ceremony.

On this particular day, Resnick, who is a small wiry man, scampers up and down a dusty field, Keystone-Koplike, maneuvering the long blue-spruce poles that make up the tepee's frame. It is an unfamiliar tepee and plenty of trouble to put up. Resnick and Fernandez spend most of the day getting the tepee up and ready. "This thing was made in Montana and is just for show," Fernandez grumbles when the tepee is finally up.

Scraps of carpet are laid out inside for people to sit on. In the center of the tepee, a circular altar is carved out of the dirt floor. Inside the altar, Fernandez sculpts a quarter moon out of wet sand.

Late in the afternoon, a pickup full of oak arrives with a Navajo man named Darrel Smith, who credits his newfound sobriety to the sweatlodge and peyote Meetings that Fernandez introduced him to. He chops up the wood for the fire inside the tepee.

By eight o'clock in the evening, the tepee glows inside from the firelight. Road Man Fernandez sits down at his designated place. People from different tribes wander in, shake hands and settle on cushions around the rim of the tepee. They are wearing their best clothes. Several are recovering alcoholics, urban Indians who depend on the Holy Medicine to give them the spiritual strength to stay straight.

Eight Anglos, including Resnick and Ocotilla, sit on the floor a bit self-consciously. They know some in the room don't want them there. The tepee is so crowded that a latecomer has no place to sit. Raymond and his wife politely get up and leave so the latecomer can stay.

The Anglos don't budge.
After opening prayers, a bitter, dry powder is passed around the tepee in a little jar with a plastic spoon. People scoop it into the their hands, swallow it with the saliva they've collected in their mouths. They wash it down with a hot peyote tea passed around in a gallon-size jar. The ceremony is as ritualized as High Mass in the Roman Catholic Church. The idea is to use the peyote as an aid to prayer, and so people pray, kneeling for hours in one spot. All night long, the worshipers take turns chanting to the beat of the kettle drum.

Fernandez's face is neutral as the Anglos make one faux pas after another. One man who nobody seems to have invited takes too much peyote and spends most of the night with his head in the dirt. When he gets up to go to the bathroom, he vomits and barely misses the altar. He seems to have attended the meeting not to pray but to get high, which is a sacrilege.

Another Anglo named Tony, who comes from Los Angeles, sits with his feet disrespectfully thrust toward the altar, even though he's told by a more knowledgeable Anglo to tuck his feet behind him.

A woman named Juanita, who is part Indian but mostly Anglo and wants to examine her nativeness, rants on and on about how Native Americans are part of the lost tribe of Israel. People listen politely until she is finished, and then one man notes that her views don't quite square with his creation myths.

As the ceremony draws to a close, the Road Man blows his eagle-bone whistle. The worshipers go outside to greet each other and the morning, and then a breakfast is shared. Fernandez passes around a British Gorham silver cup. People stuff it with dollar bills.

Fernandez won't ask to be repaid for his $600 worth of peyote. The money collected in the cup will be deposited in the bank account of the local chapter of the Native American Church, in a sort of revolving peyote account. When money is needed for more Medicine, someone will check it out.

When it is all over, Dan Jones, the recovering cocaine addict, is close to tears. Later, he explains that the Medicine brought him face to face with his Creator, and he had been ashamed about all the people he'd hurt during his life. He says he knows now that the Holy Medicine will give him the spiritual strength to stay away from drugs.

People like Dan Jones say they don't object to Fernandez allowing Anglos into the Meetings. "I go to pray," says Dan. "I'm not bothered by white people there." But other Indians are annoyed by the Anglo visitors, and Fernandez knows it. "The conflict I hear native people talk about is encroachment. They say that our religion is the last vestige of who we are. I hear them say that. But what about intermarriage? If you say no white people can come to ceremonies, how do you know what your children's children's children are going to be? A child may be one-sixteenth Indian and still be brought up the native way. Are you going to shut him out? You have to be careful when you make laws based on the colors of people. That's my answer to the encroachment problem."

Even some Anglos worry about encroachment. Dr. Carl Hammerschlag, a Phoenix psychiatrist who served for twenty years in the Indian Health Service and authored a book on Native American healing called The Dancing Healers, says he regularly attends peyote meetings. Even so, he worries too many whites will crowd the Indians out.

"I don't think white people should be excluded," he says. "But my worry is we'll overwhelm the resource. My concern is great vans of people will be driving around the reservations looking for peyote meetings and barging into tepees. You can't walk into a peyote meeting and say `Okay, do me.'"

None of this bothers Nelson Fernandez, whose rituals helped him figure out who he was and gave him the strength to adjust to the Anglo world that he thought had shut him out. If the ceremonies helped him, then they can surely give other urban Indians the strength to thrive in a strange land. And if a few Anglos learn some tips on the way, then what's the harm? It's not up to him to be the gatekeeper of who can worship the Native American way.

"Those issues are God's, not mine," he says.

He is only the Road Man.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Terry Greene