Santa Fe. New Year’s Eve. The last day of 1995 began with sunshine but with signs in the sky on the horizon that snow may be coming. Forecast predicted it. All of us felt it was likely.
We spent the day getting prepared. Some last minute shopping, – an Indian Blanket for Ray and Nancy, a new Eddie Bauer bag to carry our purchases home, breakfast at the Plaza Café on the Square, – our last meal before fasting for the ceremony.
We all giggled and spoke about throwing up during the ceremony as we packed our bags in our rooms at the Posada ready for our flight home the next day. We would be spending the night at the Taos Pueblo at the meeting which would end sometime in the morning of the first day of the New Year 1996. A unique and auspicious end of the year and beginning of the next, – a most important and another big year coming as we make our way toward the year 2000.
We picked up some groceries at Wild Oats for the feast that would be held at the end of the ceremony the next morning and met Fidel and Beth Richards, his writer friend from Toronto who was staying with him over the past few months, at the deli in Tesuque. All of us, Virginia, Justine, Gareth, Beth, myself, and Fidel still a little nervous, laughing at everything and at what was coming, – and what was to come.
Fidel wanted to get away fairly quickly because it was snowing lightly and he anticipated it would be snowing more heavily in the north and wanted to get through the pass on the way to Taos while there was still light and before the snowstorm hit in force. It was about three-thirty in the afternoon when we left Tesuque on our drive to Taos.
We went through the high pass past the great rift caused by the Rio Grande in the middle of the snowstorm and probably just in time. When we reached Taos it was dark and still snowing lightly. We followed Fidel and Beth in their car out to the Taos Pueblo, navigating our way over narrow dirt roads, now covered with snow, through fields and around the Pueblo until we reached the home where several people who would be participating in the meeting had gathered. We were amused at one point when Fidel asked a tribal policeman in a four-by-four for directions to the peyote meeting.
The meeting was scheduled to start at seven o’clock. One of the people at the trailer home where we were waiting gave us some instructions and advice on what we might expect and how we should behave, what we should watch out for, and what we should be respectful of. Everyone we met spoke of it as a very extraordinary and personal experience and, as the elders advised, declined to speak directly or in any detail about what we might experience personally.
Just before seven o’clock we set out for the meeting, our two cars being guided out into the night under a dark sky with a now hazy moon shining through, the snow having stopped, by a truck being driven by somebody. We drove out over fields along two track roads to arrive in the middle of a large open space on a mesa overlooking the Pueblo and the town of Taos in the distance. The only dwelling in sight was the Navajo hogan in the middle if the field where the meeting was to take place. A large campfire was roaring outside the hogan next to the lean-to that housed bits of stuff that looked like it had been moved out of the hogan for the night. Several vehicles had already arrived and were scattered around the area.
I couldn’t help thinking what an extraordinary experience this was. About to participate in a peyote meeting, outlawed until recently in the United States and only permitted by the Native American Church, – in a Navajo hogan, at the Taos Pueblo, – on New Year’s Eve of a very important time.
Soon after we arrived, Peter, as we would later find out his name, completed building the alter-like fire pit in the centre of the hogan on the mud floor. He had made it from wet mud, a slightly raised platform on which the coals taken from the fire outside would be laid and replenished regularly throughout the night. He had built a rim raised above the platform on three sides creating a shape like the moon with the open part of the crescent facing the door of the hogan.
We were invited to take our places, sitting on the dirt floor on blankets around the fire. The hogan is an octagonal shaped structure made of logs and mud. One door opening to the east. No windows to the west. An adobe fireplace on the north wall warmed us.
The road man, – the elder leading the meeting, – welcomed everyone. His name was Jimmy and he was sixty-nine years old. He sat with his back to the north wall facing the entrance. On his left was the drummer. On his right sat Didi, the head of the family sponsoring or hosting the meeting. His wife and their baby and a second child sat a little further away, separated by several other people. The fire man, Jasper, Didi’s brother sat immediately to the right of the doorway where he could service the fire and let people in and out when necessary. The rest of us, about thirty five in number, sat around the hogan with our backs to the wall, forming a circle, – a human chain, not to be broken by anyone except as permitted, at appropriate times by the road man.
The road man passed tobacco and corn husks around the circle and told everyone how to wrap the tobacco in the corn husk for smoking. Fidel gave each of us some of his tobacco, special tobacco, to add to ours. The fireman made a lighter from a stick and passed it around the circle so that everyone could light and smoke their tobacco to cleanse themselves and the circle in preparation for the sacrament. Later, during the night, when someone wanted to give a prayer, they would roll more tobacco in a corn husk and smoke it as they prayed. When everyone had finished their tobacco, they laid the remaining portion upright and evenly placed against the outer rim of the fireplace alter.
The meeting started about 7.30 in the evening and lasted until about 9.00 o’clock the next morning. No one was allowed to leave, except for biological breaks and after asking and receiving permission from the road man. A staff with a rattle, an eagle feather, and a sage bundle was passed around the circle followed by the drum, – a pot filled with water with a hide tied firmly to the top, and those who wanted to would sing, – the person to the right playing the drum, – or standing and exchanging places with the drummer or someone else who could drum, – to accompany the singer. This continued throughout the night, – prayers were said, – stories were told, – traditions were recalled.
The peyote, followed by a large jar of tea, was passed around the circle three times during the course of the night. Cedar was sprinkled on the fire regularly, for a variety of occasions, – after someone was blessed, – when someone returned from the outside, – when a story of pain, or love, or hope, or understanding, was told, – when the air was to be purified, – when compassion was felt or needed, – when it was required or appropriate. The smell remains with me today, as does the taste of the peyote, – as I know it will stay with me forever.
An indescribable feeling of love, and connectedness held everyone in the gathering throughout the night, a connectedness with everyone in the hogan, with our families, with everyone in the world, with everyone who has ever lived, and with the earth. I can talk of it now, and know what I was experiencing and know what everyone else in the room was experiencing, because I am aware now of what I felt. At the time, my mind was not working. It was observing on what was happening. I was aware of what was going on. Aware of the time, my physical discomfort and my need to shift and adjust myself periodically, aware of Virginia and Justine and Fidel and Gareth, and everyone else in the room, – but I was experiencing something more, – a great deal more, – than I was conscious of at the time. And that feeling, – that sense of knowing, – is with me now, as it was then, – a greater sense of who I am and what I am part of, – of my part, – of the love that I felt from the people in that room, and of the spirits of others who are with us and of those who have passed on and are still with us, – and my love for them, as they spoke with gratitude, with love, with respect, with empathy, with hope, and with prayer, – for all people, – for all life, past, present, future.
The impact of the experience and my understanding of the experience has grown since then, – and I suspect will continue to grow. Now as I listen to singing and drumming, I have a different or fuller response. And I feel a part of it.
Twice during the night, once shortly after midnight, and once as dawn was breaking, a pot of water from the mountain stream was brought in, – bits of ice still floating in it, and was blessed and passed around the circle for everyone to drink from. And in the morning after the final prayers were said, and the last songs sung, – several of the women went out and brought in large pots, – one of water, one with corn meal, one with fruit, and one with venison mixed with raisins and nuts. The pots were passed around the circle for everyone to eat from, – to eat for all those in the world who were not able to eat, as well as to eat for themselves and share the food and the meal with the others with whom they had shared the night and the prayers and the experience.
It was the New Year, and when we rose and left the hogan we stepped out into the bright, brilliant, beautiful sun, – a clear blue sky, – a fresh crisp morning air, – and a beautiful land covered in the snow left the night before to add to the beauty of the day. We greeted one another, many of us for the first time, even though we had spent the night together. We hugged. We clasped hands. We wished each other well. We knew one another now and would forever.
We knew it was January 1, 1996, the start of a new year, a new time, and a new story.