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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 turned spiritual.

"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."

bridging worlds

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 often result.

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 grave.

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 have before."

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 antidote."

(From Natural Health)