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The Road Man

Page 5 of 6

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."

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Terry Greene