Major Test of Faith #6: “Willy the Navajo New Mexico TeePee Elvis Presley Ceremony” – Summer 1992
As I was getting ready to write about this ‘Willie the Navajo’ experience I had back in June 1992, I suddenly realized that another possible reason that the Universe had guided someone to give me tickets to the Wavy Gravy 75th birthday benefit concert for the Seva Foundation (which I went to last night – Friday May 27, 2011 at the Beacon Theater, NYC) was to sensitize me to the plight of the Southwestern Navajo Native American Indians, as well as the plight of all Native Americans in general.
The lineup for the Wavy Gravy concert featured Jackson Browne, David Crosby & Graham Nash, Bruce Hornsby, Dr. John, Jorma Kaukonan, Ani DiFranco, Steve Earle, Steve Kimock and finally, Cree Indian and Native American Indian Activist, Buffy Saint-Marie.
Recognizing that the Universe might be preparing me to write my ‘Willie the Navajo’ experience through doing a little research on Buffy Saint-Marie’s career, I found a movie that gave me the exact sensitizing information I was looking for.
It was a movie called ‘Broken Rainbow’, which I ordered on DVD from Amazon.com and watched the day before the concert. The movie was primarily about the plight of the Southwestern Navajo Indians from the 1960’s through today.
One of the main actors translating Navajo dialect in the movie, was Buffy Saint-Marie.
The movie details how the United States Government systematically reneged on previous Navajo Indian treaties to pave the way for major US Mining, Oil and Gas companies to take over the Navajo land for massive profit.
As you’ll come to recognize when you read this ‘Willie the Navajo’ story, I was basically welcomed by Willie and his Navajo friends.
I did not feel an overwhelming sense of anger or resentment towards me as a white man, ‘gringo’ , ‘white Devil’, or ‘the enemy’.
Perhaps it was that Willie and his friends were able to see past the color of my skin and feel my soul.
Perhaps, as you’ll read in the story below, Willie was sensing that my spirit was being inspired by the dancing, flute-playing Hopi Indian deity Kokopelli, as he watched me singing and dancing wildly with my Ukulele in the middle of the road.
You can learn more about Kokopelli here: http://www.indigenouspeople.net/kokopelli.htm
Or perhaps Willie and his friends generally liked and felt a certain communion with hippies in general, and especially with the ‘Rainbow Tribe’ hippies who gathered at these annual and other more frequent ‘Rainbow Gatherings’ across the USA and beyond.
Indeed, there seems to be an ancient Hopi Indian prophecy that predicted…
“… (you will see) the emergence of the Rainbow Family…(where) many youth, who wear their hair long like my people, come and join the tribal nations, to learn their ways and wisdom….”
You can read about this Hopi Prophecy in Frank Waters ‘Book of the Hopi’. Here’s the link on Amazon.com
I included the following video clip of a Rainbow Gathering (Wyoming, 1978) in an earlier chapter, but it might be interesting to re-watch it here, since it has some interesting footage of a Rainbow ‘brother’ lecturing his fellow Rainbow ‘brothers and sisters’ about taking responsibility for the logistical and environmental dimensions of running a Rainbow Gathering, which clearly reflects Native American Indian values.
And finally, perhaps Willie and his friends actually knew Wavy Gravy and the Seva Organization due to all the help they had given to the Native Americans over the years.
Wavy Gravy and the Seva Foundation did specific fund-raising concerts to help Native Americans back in the 1980’s, calling the benefit concerts ‘Cowboys For Indians’. There were 2 of these concerts:
‘Cowboys for Indians’: May 9, 1987 | Austin, Texas, with:
David Lindley, David Crosby & Stephen Stills, Jerry Jeff Walker, Timbuk Three, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, Max Gail, Peter Rowan, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Wavy Gravy & Charlie Hill.
‘Cowboys for Indians’: October 14, 1985 | Berkeley Community Theater, with:
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Kinky Friedman, David Nelson and friends, Peter Rowan, Kate Wolfe, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Jerry Jeff Walker, Wavy Gravy and Bill Wah Pepah.
Intriguing name, ‘Cowboys for Indians’, huh ?
Here’s another video clip that you might enjoy watching. It features Seva Foundation’s founders Wavy Gravy and Ram Das at a Rainbow Gathering in Wyoming in 1978. Ram Das is the bald-headed, bearded man serving food, and Wavy Gravy is the clown talking about Earth People’s Park.
Anyway, let me get to my ‘Willie the Navajo’ story…
It was about a week before the Rainbow Gathering and I had been dropped off earlier that day at this New Mexico village square somewhere within 100 miles of Durango. I don’t recall the name of the village.
As usual, the Universe put at least $ 50 in my pocket from donations for my psychic readings that day in this village square.
I didn’t see a great place around this town to set up my tent for the night , so I decided to try to hitch a ride somewhere else since there was still enough light left for drivers to see me.
For an hour or so I quietly stuck out my thumb, but no one picked me up.
So out came my trusted Ukulele, and into the middle of the road I went, singing and dancing wildly, no doubt waking up the sleeping forest animals nearby.
This technique had gotten me a number of lifts before, like the lift I got with the Waldorf school bus that I described in an earlier section.
I think that certain drivers with a good sense of humor and sympathetic feelings for the hippy movement of the 1960’s, somehow understood my spirit, and also probably sensed my good-hearted and innocent nature as I sang to their cars with a big smile as they approached.
Still no one was picking me up this particular night, and it was getting darker and darker.
As I was strumming in the middle of the road, I saw that a man was watching me from a nearby bench and he had a wide grin on his face.
He looked Native American, was probably in his 50’s, was missing a few teeth, looked very undernourished being largely skin and bones, and he had many deep crevices in his highly wrinkled face.
But a radiant spiritual light shined through his eyes and his smile.
Although he looked harmless enough, there was always the possibility he had less than good-natured motives as he watched me intently make a fool of myself with my Ukulele.
Although I didn’t get the vibe from him that he was some kind of pervert and/or some kind of violent psychotic murderer, I am nonetheless from New York, and as New Yorkers, we learn at an early age that its always smart to be a little paranoid.
I did occasionally smile back at him though, acknowledging his clear enjoyment of my wild clown-like behavior.
Finally, after an hour or so of no one picking me up, and the sky getting darker and darker, the Native American guy got up off his bench and approached me.
It was nearly completely dark now, and there was not much of his face or body that I could make out as he approached me. No street lights anywhere near this tiny village square.
The one thing that I could definitely make out as he got within a few feet of me, was alcohol on his breath.
He stuck out his hand and told me his name was Willie and that he was a Navajo Indian.
He must have sensed some kind of Indian-friendly spirit in me, because almost immediately he said, “I live up this mountain in a TeePee with a few of my Navajo friends. Its about a mile walk up the mountain. How would you like to stay with us in our TeePee tonight” ?
Well I was thinking of setting up my tent right here in the village square since no other options had worked out and it was almost pitch black out, except for some moonlight.
But if I parked my tent right here in the square I most likely would be woken up in the morning by the local sheriff which might not turn out so good for me.
So here was Willie asking me if I wanted to spend the night up in the mountains in a TeePee with his Navajo friends.
Again, in a certain light, this offer might seem quite suspicious.
Once again my New York paranoia brought every type of psychotic scenario to my mind that Mr. Willie might be scheming.
If he was a pervert rapist murderer, how easy would it be for him to make me his next victim standing here in pitch blackness with me having no clue where anything was and no other people in sight.
But as I imagined this worst-case scenario, I felt the Universe whispering in my ear that Willie was safe and that his offer to put me up for the night in his TeePee was earnest.
As crazy as it may sound, I said ‘YES’ to Willie, and I followed him a few hundred feet away on the main road until we reached a small wooded trail leading up the mountain.
The only light we had was moonlight.
Willie and I chatted as we walked carefully up this primitive mountain trail.
Willie kept trying to scare me in a playful way, by telling me to watch this or that part of the trail. One part of the trail he said had a snake nest nearby, another part had a deep pit you could fall into, and another farther up the mountain was a favorite nighttime spot for bears.
He would laugh as he told me these scary things, kind of letting me know that he was really just playing with me.
The scariest trick he played on me came after we were about a half mile up the mountain.
We had been talking back and forth continuously since we started climbing the mountain, and his voice, the rustling of twigs under his feet and his vague silhouette in front of me lit barely by the moonlight, were my only sense of comfort on this completely foreign, isolated, dangerous and pitch black trail.
My heart must have skipped a hundred beats when all of a sudden Willie seemed to have completely disappeared.
Everything had stopped: his voice, the rustling of twigs beneath his feet, and the comfort of seeing his barely lit silhouette in front of me.
He was nowhere to be found.
Just disappeared in thin air.
I was imagining the worst as I started calling out his name repeatedly.
There were a number of normal human reactions that I could have had at this moment, including having a heart attack from sheer panic.
But once again, I felt an inner sense that I was being protected by the Universe, so I just relaxed, as crazy as that may sound.
About 3 to 4 minutes went by of pure silence, when all of a sudden I felt 2 hands grabbing my shoulders from behind and the laughter of Willie echoing in my ear.
Willie expected me to jump out of my socks with terror, if not collapse with a heart attack, but I barely reacted, believe it or not.
Willie couldn’t believe that I barely flinched.
Suddenly he got very serious and, patting me on the shoulder gently, and he said, “Come on my friend, we’re almost there”.
We continued up the trail for another 15 minutes or so until we came to a nice-sized clearing where this white TeePee stood, lit fairly well by the moonlight.
Incredibly enough, Elvis Presley’s voice could be heard through the TeePee canvas as we approached.
Elvis Presley ?
This scene was getting weirder and weirder by the second.
Willie announced himself from outside the TeePee and said he had invited a guest to sleep there tonight.
With that, the flap of the TeePee opened and a Native American woman poked her head out the flap, inviting us inside.
Inside the TeePee were 2 other Native American guys in addition to the woman who welcomed us.
The 2 guys were half asleep and although they didn’t really seem overjoyed to meet me, they nonetheless said hello and helped make a space for me inside the TeePee.
The scene inside the TeePee wasn’t exactly how I imagined it would be.
I suppose I imagined that there would be a mystical Navajo Indian atmosphere inside the ‘sacred TeePee’.
I guess I had gone to too many ‘New Age’ Native American- inspired ceremonies back in the mid 1980’s during my ‘metaphysical learning explosion’ days.
That was the ‘culturally ennobled’ version of Native American culture that I was exposed to in these New Age circles.
What I found inside this Navajo TeePee was anything but ‘culturally ennobling’.
A flashlight lantern gave me a good view of their living space.
In addition to the tin-sounding cassette player filling the TeePee with Elvis Presley songs, the smell of beer and cigarette smoke permeated the air, and dirty clothes were piled up between the sleeping mats.
In addition, 2 things that I immediately laid eyes on were the 2 extra large knives lying right in front of the 2 guys sleeping mats.
Willie saw me looking at the 2 knives and smiling, he ‘assured’ me that his friends wouldn’t harm me during the night, laughing as he said this. The 2 other guys also gave me a little smile, telling me not to worry.
Still, I knew that any ‘outside observer’ would think I was completely insane for taking my place on a sleeping mat inside a strange TeePee, with the lantern light about to be turned off, and 2 extra large knives sitting across the floor in front of 2 Navajo guys I’ve never met in my life.
And they were all clearly a little drunk from the beer, although with a very mellow buzz.
They offered me some beer, but I declined, telling them that I didn’t drink alcohol.
Despite there being a clear cause for me to be more than a little paranoid, still and all, I felt a strange familiarity with these 4 Navajo’s. As if we were all very close friends.
Perhaps we were close friends in another lifetime.
I think they felt it too, because there was a certain effortless flow of relaxed energy between us all, and no one seemed nervous at all.
In all fairness to them, THEY TOO were taking huge chance inviting a ME to sleep with them way up in the mountains.
I TOO could have been some kind of psychotic murder or thief, right ? Or just plain insane ! Wasn’t I acting extremely weird rocking and rolling with my Ukulele out in the middle of the road when Willie first laid eyes on me ?
But once again, there was no trace of fear in any of our eyes, voices, or spirits as we got ready to turn off the lantern and go to sleep.
Before they turned off the lantern and Elvis though, I heard a voice in my ear telling me to offer them all gifts.
What did I have to gift them with?
The voice in my ear told me to offer them my watch, my swiss army knife that was hidden in my backpack, some money I had made that day doing psychic readings, and some food I had in my backpack.
I handed the gifts to each of them.
They thanked me, then turned off the lantern and Elvis, and we all slept very soundly.
In the morning, we awoke to a gloriously majestic mountain vista and a beautifully clear day.
They had a fairly nice-sized campsite surrounding their TeePee, and we chit-chatted about nothing in particular as they cooked up eggs and hot chocolate on their fire pit for breakfast.
Before breakfast was served though, I asked them if they did any Native American prayers, ceremony or ritual before they ate, to express gratitude to the ‘Great Spirit’ or some other profound spiritual sentiment.
No, they said.
Again, I guess I had been to too many ‘culturally ennobling’ Native American ceremonies and rituals back in my New Age days in the Northeast.
They all looked at each other and shrugged at the thought of being so formal about waking up, eating, and getting on with their day.
I could tell that they were a bit humored by my idealized image of ‘Native American’ life.
Still and all, they saw that I had a spark of inspired energy in my words, and they all looked at each other and collectively agreed that it would be nice to have some kind of ritual to start the day with……..SO LONG AS I LEAD IT, they said.
Oy ! A Long Island Jew up in the New Mexico mountains, leading Navajo’s in an early morning prayer to the ‘Great Spirit’ !
“What’s wrong with this picture”, I’m sure I was thinking to myself at the time !
But amazingly my sense of being inadequate to the task disappeared immediately as I felt the calming push from the spirit world to stand up, take a feather in my hand, and lead the 4 Navajo’s in a beautifully inspired spiritual prayer of gratitude to the Great Spirit.
Everyone was moved.
Nothing too profound was on the agenda of my new Navajo ‘friends’ for the day, except to take the money that I had given them as a gift, and go down to town to the local Laundromat to wash their long-overdue laundry. Perhaps also, to buy some more beer as well.
I suppose I expected my new ‘friends’ to include me in their ‘incredibly fascinating plans’ for the day, but sad to say, they all basically said “goodbye and nice-meeting-you” as we all walked down the mountain trail and onto the village road.
Perhaps I was feeling a bit lonely being out there in the middle of nowhere, having had a fascinating experience with my 4 new Navajo friends.
But they needed to get on with their day and there was apparently nothing abnormal about them moving on with their lives and wishing me well on my journey.
Their departing smiles were warm and genuine.
Then they were gone.
And I stuck out my thumb once again.