You can learn a lot about America's indigenous culture-and about
yourself by taking a trip behind the scenes in Indian territory.
Spirit World- By Katy Koontz
A hellacious thunderstorm raged all around Robert Vetter as he
walked for miles, searching in the dark for the large rock he'd
marked earlier. The then-24-year-old anthropologist was on a spiritual
fast (sometimes referred to as a vision quest) in the Wichita Mountains
of southwestern Oklahoma, planning to spend the night alone in
the open wilderness without shelter, food or water, and praying
for spiritual guidance. Discouraged by the wrathful weather, he
had returned to his car three times.
What made him try again? "I thought, `If I don't do this,
I'll spend the rest of my life thinking that I should have done
it,"' he says. On his fourth attempt, he asked for a sign;
moments later, the headlights of a car rounding a bend illuminated
the very marker that had been eluding him.
Such serendipitous events are common on vision quests, Vetter learned
from Oliver Pahdopony, the last of the Comanche's medicine men.
Vetter met the old man three years earlier while doing field research.
And though their relationship started as a scientific one, it quickly
"My questions of him became more personal, and I began to
think deeply about his answers," Vetter recalls. "It
wasn't an intellectual exercise for me anymore."
Hence, the vision quest.
Pelted by rain and unnerved by the light show streaking across
the sky, Vetter finally arrived at his chosen quest spot. "Bolts
of lightning were hitting the rock," he says. "I was
scared out of my mind. But I'd heard that if you left a vision
quest, you would never get whatever you came for as long as you
lived." So he stayed for the rest of the night-and the experience
transformed his life.
"The next morning," says Vetter, "I felt lucky to
be alive." Although he didn't quite know what to make of the
experience at the time, he has since recognized that it was a turning
point for him. "In many ways," he declares, "it
was the first major step in what I consider my life's journey."
That journey instilled in Vetter a desire to introduce others to
such life-changing experiences. In 1987, he founded a tour company
called Journeys into American Indian Territory. Vetter and his
Native American staff take small groups of non-native people behind
the scenes in a hauntingly beautiful world most outsiders never
get to see.
Both the number and the exact locations of his trips vary from
year to year, but most last about 10 days; they all aim to acquaint
participants with members of different tribes, including the Kiowa,
Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Navajo, Northern Pueblo, Hopi, Lakota,
Apache and Iroquois. Because the families in several of these tribes
have "adopted" Vetter, he's able to bring his tour guests
along on visits to their homes. The visitors and hosts generally
end up just hanging out, playing with the kids, helping the women
cook or swapping stories with the elders. Lifetime friendships
Vetter sees his job as setting the stage for heartfelt communication,
and then getting out of the way. "I create an opportunity
for Indian and non-Indian people to sit shoulder-to-shoulder, and
see what happens," he says. "If we can learn about each
other's realities, things are better for everybody."
One visitor from New York City was so city-slick that he'd never
even seen a real cow. At a powwow in Oklahoma, he ended up conversing
with an elderly Native American dancer for hours about their respective
traditions, families and values. They discovered many things they
had in common despite living worlds apart. Before the day was over,
the old man had invited his new friend to look at and even
touch ceremonial objects he kept in a special cedar box.
For Vetter, that kind of cultural exchange is what his work is
all about-going beyond surface conversation to discover a deeper
connection. He experienced it himself when he first met Pahdopony,
who would later adopt him as a grandson and entrust him with stories
of his life. (Normally, personal stories go with an elder to the
One of the stories Pahdopony shared with Vetter was how he became
a medicine man. When doctors told Pahdopony he had cancer, he went
on a vision quest and encountered a fire-breathing being who healed
him. Later, he realized the being had also given him the gift of
healing others, which therefore became his spiritual responsibility.
Pahdopony is now dead, but his stories and guidance made a significant
personal impact on Vetter. "I draw strength from that other
world in dealing with things in this mainstream world," he
says. "It's given me a kind of awareness that maybe I didn't
Vetter's mission is to share that awareness with others. "The
earth is a source of wisdom and personal healing," he explains. "And
when things go wrong in the world of human beings, nature is an
(From Natural Health)