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The Road Man

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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.

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Terry Greene