The White Man Who Fell Asleep in a Kiva
Once there was a white man, a vagrant, who wandered into the reservation at night. He was drunk and lost, and after walking around for awhile under the stars, he climbed into a kiva through the door in the roof and fell asleep. In the morning, some men from the village had gathered outside of the kiva to rehearse for the Corn Dance. They were dressed in feathers and bells, painted up for the occasion. The drumming began, and the men were in mid-dance when one of them noticed an Anglo face staring out of the kiva’s window.
Inside the kiva, the white man had awakened to the sound of drumming. He was hungover and disoriented. He stared out the window and saw the dancers. He thought he was hallucinating.
The men climbed down into the kiva and pulled the trespasser out. They escorted him to the edge of the reservation and sent him on his way.
Weeks later, the white man returned to the reservation and asked to see the elders. He apologized again for trespassing and then told an incredible story: he had been having the same dream every night for weeks. In the dream, he was being chased by wild horses. It was clear to him that the horses had leapt inside him and would not leave him in peace.
The white man was distraught. He could not sleep. The dream had taken over his waking life.
The elders went into another room to discuss the white man’s situation. After about fifteen minutes, they emerged to announce that they had reached a decision. They told the white man they could not help him, and they send him on his way.
I heard this story in 1997 from a Pueblo Indian from the Santa Ana tribe. That year, I was working for a private boys school in New Jersey, teaching religious studies courses. The school’s headmaster, who knew of my interest in Native American spirituality, had asked me to help him open an exchange program between our school and the Zia Pueblo in New Mexico. I agreed, enthusiastically. I sensed the adventure in his offer, an opportunity to study firsthand some of the things I had only read about books. Zia is one of nineteen Pueblo tribes in New Mexico, an Indian reservation that covers 27-square-miles of dry, hilly terrain in the high desert country near Bernalillo, on the drive from Albuquerque to Los Alamos. Just over six hundred people live here, and they speak a language called Keresan that is known to just 8,000 people on Earth, most of whom live on six other Pueblo reservations in New Mexico—Cochita, San Felipe, Santo Domingo, Zia, Santa Ana, Acoma, and Laguna. I made three trips to Zia between 1997-1998, and the experience fundamentally altered my perception, of both Indian country and the Anglo culture that surrounds It.
Initially, I was thrilled to hear the kiva story. I had just read Elsie Clewes Parson’s two-volume work, Pueblo Religion, and I had spent the previous summer traveling around the Four Corners region exploring ruins left by the Anasazi, who are the cultural ancestors of the Pueblo. As soon as I arrived on the reservation, I began asking questions about Pueblo religion and religious rituals, but my hosts were cagy and indirect. Their answers, when they chose to answer at all, were vague and even evasive. The kiva story made me think that they would open up and answer some of my questions about the spirit world. It was only later, after I’d spent more time with them, that I realized the story was not at all revealing about Pueblo religion.
With time to reflect, the story has taken a richness and depth of complexity for me. At times, it appears to represent the insurmountable gulf separating our cultures. There are aspects of the story that seem unfathomable to me. Why, for instance, does the story end with an afflicted man sent away to suffer? I have considered that perhaps this is the point of the story, that the elders can’t actually do anything to help the white man, because they are no more equipped to deal with his problem than a brain surgeon would be qualified to perform an exorcism. Maybe the message of the story is that we will never cross this cultural divide. We will never truly understand each other.
Decades later, I continue to ponder the kiva story. Like all good stories, it is unshakable and infinitely plastic, regenerating itself every time I return. I left the prep school for a new job soon after my last trip to New Mexico in 1998 and I have not been back since. The exchange program did not last long after I left. My life turned towards settling down—I married, earned a Ph.D. in English, bought a house in Georgia, and I am now raising a nine-year-old daughter. I do not have time for long trips to the Southwest anymore, but my imagination wanders back there often. It has become, for me, a palette for my own dreams.
I have wondered about the horses. I had always assumed that they were some kind of spiritual symbol, but lately, I’ve entertained a different conclusion. Maybe the horses represent the condition of our souls in the Western world—always moving, never satisfied, galloping at top speed in a frenzied herd towards … what, exactly?
Maybe it isn’t that complicated. Maybe for the Indian who told the story, the spectacle of a drunk white man falling asleep in a kiva is just funny.
Only recently has it occurred to me that this story was as an allegory through which I was meant to understand that I was the drunk white man stumbling around the reservation in the dark, climbing into places where I was not supposed to go, by asking questions about religion and spirituality. The Pueblo tribes have been fighting to preserve their culture for five centuries – first against the Spanish, who tried unsuccessfully to make them into good Catholics; then against an invasion of anthropologists, who used charm, deception, bribery, and even coercion to conduct their research; and more recently, against the seductive but corrosive influences of American popular culture. And then I arrive on the reservation, a nosy white guy who has read a few books on Pueblo religion and wants to know everything he can learn about the subject.
I am sure they had dealt with my kind before. My questions were transparent. They could see what I wanted. Maybe the kiva story was a subtle warning, a strategy for keeping me at bay: Don’t try to climb inside of our culture because we don’t want you there.
Pueblo country has seen its share of professional anthropologists who have wheedled, cajoled, charmed, and bribed their way into traditionally secretive spaces in order to conduct their research. In the early 1880s, a flamboyant agent of the Bureau of Ethnology named Frank Cushing pioneered “participant observation” by living at Zuni, joining the tribe’s Priesthood of the Bow,” and even fighting alongside the Zuni in a battle against the neighboring Navajo tribe. Most of the anthropologists who followed him used informants, paid and unpaid, to tease out protected (sometimes sacred) information from the Zuni and other Pueblo tribes. The Pueblo have had to learn how to manage these incursions. Some have been polite and well intentioned. Others, like the theft of 20,000 cultural artifacts and 996 skeletal remains during a U.S. government-led archeological excavation at Zuni in the early 1920s, have been devastating to the pride and cultural integrity of the Pueblos.
On the fringes of rigorous anthropological inquiry in the Southwest dwells a larger class of enthusiastic amateurs—the legion of cultural tourists like me who fill notebooks and sketch pads with their observations from the ruins at Aztec, Bandelier, and Chaco; who poke around the Pueblo reservations hoping to catch a glimpse of something ceremonial or “authentic.” We are all Cushing’s descendants, the white seekers who hang out on the fringes of Indian country, looking for a chance to push inside, restless with the desire to penetrate a mystery.
The Pueblo were quite sensitive to this desire. In my extended tour of Anasazi Indian ruins the previous summer, I had seen and photographed many long-abandoned kivas. At all of these sites, you could see them, circular chambers dug into the ground and lined with stones. These pits are all that is left of the Anasazi kivas. When the Anasazi occupied these villages centuries ago, each kiva had a flat, circular roof covering it, with a square opening in the top, through which a single wooden ladder protruded, at an angle, pointing skyward. A fire pit was usually dug into the floor, and there were benches around the sides. In the floor, was a small round opening, like a drain, usually about the circumference of a man’s fist. This is the sipapu, a symbolic entrance into the underground world through which the Anasazi believed their ancestors emerged into this world long ago. When I was staying at Zia, my hosts were quite clear: we were not supposed to take pictures of cultural places or activities. Maybe it was the taboo that made the modern functional Pueblo kiva so seductive to me, or maybe it was my intellectual curiosity, but I wanted to see what was inside.
There are two kivas in Zia; they sit at one end of a rectangular plaza lined with old buildings atop a low hill that overlooks the newer housing developments where most people live. When I was visiting the reservation in the 90s, no one identified these two buildings to me. I knew from my research that there was at least one kiva on the reservation, but I was left to guess its location.
Fifteen years later, I thought to use Google Earth to find them. I zoomed down from the planetary view of Earth, into the United States, and New Mexico, and finally Bernalillo, and I found Zia nearby—a cluster of houses strung along a few roads off of Route 550. I found the old village, and there they were, two roundish buildings with flat rooftops. In the satellite photo, I could clearly see the shadows cast by a single ladder leading down into each chamber. I had found my kivas at last.
Sitting at my computer in Georgia, I felt momentarily ashamed, as if I were a voyeur peeking through a forbidden window. When I was touring Zuni Pueblo in the 90s, I saw a sign outside of the visitor’s center that said “No Photography of Cultural Activities.” The sign had an icon of a camera with a diagonal line through it. I remember watching people in my group put their cameras back in their cases and stow them in their cars. They didn’t want to be seen even holding a camera. I could sense an obvious reverence and respect for cultural privacy; we all felt it. But the satellite makes it easy for me to disregard these boundaries, to go snooping where I’m not supposed to go. As is so often the case in Western societies, the technological power to do something creates the pathway for ethical acceptance of it.
If Google Earth had given me the ability to look through the roof, to gaze inside, would I have gone there? I’d like to think that I would not have, but perhaps the temptation would have been too great to resist.
I was in my early thirties when I visited Pueblo country for the first time, and I believed, as many intellectuals do, that I was entitled to learn new things. This sense of entitlement comes from a lifetime of being told that there are no limits on the acquisition of knowledge. In America, we apply economic metaphors to knowledge. We speak of the “marketplace of ideas,” evoking the broader sense of the “free market” in which our entire economic and social life exists. In the ideal, this marketplace of ideas is supposed to be free and unfettered, Laissez-faire in its orientation, unrestricted and unregulated. And so, everywhere we look, knowledge acquisition is promoted as a positive value in our society. Education is depicted as the key to self-improvement. Scientific and technological progress are revered. There is a burgeoning knowledge economy, and the raw material of knowledge—data—is now being “mined” and monetized almost without restriction.
Two decades later, I am a college professor, and I have abandoned my naïveté about the neutrality of knowledge. In academia, we sometimes speak of Socratic humility, the idea that real knowledge begins by first admitting that you know nothing, or next to nothing. But there is another kind of humility, equally important, that is far less accepted: knowing what you don’t have a right to know, or knowing that some forms of inquiry are coercive and destructive to cultures that do not share liberal Western values. If we want a world with real cultural diversity, where languages and small societies do not face extinction, people in the Western world must become sensitive to the brute force of their culture of consumerism, with its parallel laissez-faire theory of knowledge. Knowledge is power, and the desire to know something is so often quickly followed by the desire to transform, reform, or destroy it.
Daniel Vollaro is a writer and a teacher of writing who lives in the Atlanta Metro area. He is an associate professor of English at Georgia Gwinnett College, where he teaches composition, professional writing, and occasionally literature. His essays have been published in Adbusters, Boomer Café, Litro, Michigan Quarterly Review, Rise Up Review, and The Smart Set. Missouri Review recently published his essay “Mythopoesis” in May. Additionally, his fiction has been published in Blue Moon Review, Crania, Creo, Fairfield Review, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, Thrice Fiction, and Timber Creek Review.