Under Kokopelli's spell

American treasures: Kokopelli, the iconic Native American god of fertility.

Sand painting with natural dyes

The Grand Canyon.

The hot, dry blast of desert air hits you the moment you get off the aircraft at Sky Harbour International Airport in Phoenix, Arizona, in the US. Even the air smells different, after the fresh pine and coniferous smells of the east coast.

The landscape is barren. The tall and imposing saguaro cacti loom like sentries lining the lonely roads at night. If you are not careful while driving in the suburbs, you are in danger of running over a coyote that suddenly darts across the road. In the midst of the empty expanse, you have some houses, with cragged hills in the backdrop. The architecture here is different from the Victorian- or Dutch-style cottages of New Jersey or Philadelphia.

In a different land

While you may come across one of the tall, well-built members of the Native American community, most of them are rarely found outside their reserves spread across the mid-western and south-western States. However, there are enough Native American influences in the surroundings, including the homogenised American-style malls and petrol stations with a McDonald's or Taco Bell attached.

This is the land of Kokopelli. I have come looking for the real America, which, most say, does not exist. And, reasons the argumentative Indian in me, who is to define what real America is? A melting pot, no doubt, but there is a predominance of European flavours that go into that pot, leaving out some vital ethnic seasoning.

Long drives through parts of Arizona, California, New Mexico and Colorado have introduced me to a significant amount of Native American history.

In contrast, it is difficult to find such influences in a city like New York, where also the Native Americans lived once upon a time. That is, before they were killed or shipped out. So, if you are looking for any traces of Native American influence in this vast country, you will have to visit the museums. However, while the iconic Statue of Liberty symbolises an embracing immigrant culture, the Kokopelli too is as iconic as it is indigenous.

So, who is this Kokopelli, who is featured in every possible tourist souvenir — from mugs to jewellery? He is the Hopi Indian tribal god of fertility, who is also believed to be a rainman as well as the harbinger of childbirth. He is usually depicted as a humpbacked flute player with feathers on his head, and his image is visible all over the Red Indian belt in the US, and right into Mexico and large parts of South America. He lends his name to even shops and grills!

Sand healing

The medicine men of the Navajo tribe practised a form of sand healing in which they drew a painting on the sand and placed the patient in the middle. Sand from the painting was then rubbed over certain parts of the patient's body. The painting was then destroyed, symbolically curing the illness. Today, these sand paintings are considered a valuable art form. The hot, dry air in these parts, however, does seem to work magic on arthritic patients.

In Phoenix, I stayed at an urban village consisting of gated communities called Ahwatukee, which is derived from awe chuuke in the Crow Indian tribe's native language and means ‘land in the next valley'. There were countless Indian tribes with their innumerable customs and rituals in places such as Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, Idaho and Arizona.

Their dwellings are now preserved as heritage structures. The pottery and the rugs closely resemble those found among the tribal communities of northeast India. The Ahwatukee Foothills News is an influential source of information for the communities living in autonomous reserves. Interestingly, gambling is allowed in these Native American pockets, where ethnic art and craft fetches money as tourist attractions. Contemporary art too has traces of this culture, blended with Hispanic influences.

Who can visit Arizona and miss the Grand Canyon and Sedona, north of Phoenix? One gapes at America's natural bounty and the beautifully sculpted work crafted by wind, water and rain. The red ochre in Sedona leaves you spellbound and the Grand Canyon leaves you feeling small and humble. Again, all this was Indian country; the predominant Mesa tribe had lived along the Black Mesa, the flat-topped hill in the northeast of this State.

The region's rich minerals and metals were much sought after by outsiders. The simple life was soon overtaken by the ‘progress and development' initiated by the colonisers. You get glimpses of the old life in the adobe or mud houses, more common in Mexico. La Messila in New Mexico, too, has its fair share of such houses, which have stood the test of time.

Driving through these parts of the US takes you back to a time when humans communicated with nature for a complete life; the birds and rivers spoke to them and the sand healed them.

Published on March 10, 2011
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