“That’s why a lot of our people are willing to die. That’s what we are here for. To protect our sacred land,” said Roland. His voice thundered softly against the red canyon walls while morning light bursts through the cotton willows floating in the warm, morning breeze. The seeds are so numerous it looks as if snow is falling. “Give us strength to go through these times.”
Firewood from the cottonwood trees he chopped last winter burn ferociously under the clear blue sky, sending billows of grey smoke skyward. From a kneeling position alongside a tree log, he sets aside his bandsaw, pulls his broad shoulders back and lumbers to his feet. Roland’s dark arms glisten with sweat, hands soiled with powdery red earth from strenuous work in the field. Raising them skyward he offers up an inaudible prayer before picking up his deer skinned drum. His long black hair is streaked with grey. A simple ponytail is gathered with a piece of string.
Roland Manakaja, an elder in his native Supai tribe prepares himself for a midmorning sweat inside his adobe lodge. It’s Saturday, so that means Roland will perform a sweat ceremony for all who care to join him. The air smells of campfire with wafts of cannabis and sage.
Still praying to the heavens, Roland speaks in reverent conviction, “I don’t like it when a lot of these people enter our lands, disrespect our ways, that’s why it’s important to educate them, how we are; our heart is one with earth.” His leathery, scratchy voice is peaceful and quiet. His piercing brown eyes have gravity to them.
Constructed by hand with the help of his brothers, friends and children, Roland’s sweat lodge stands alone in a large field dotted with fruit trees along the perimeter. Roland has planted these, too; avocados, walnuts, peaches, pears, apples and nectarines. All said, more than 40 trees grow on his property with water irrigated from the creek. He is a man who believes in preparation for all things to come. For that is the Indian way.
A tapestry of colorful, heavy blankets cling to the willow branch ribs of the structure. Layered organically across the frame, they retain the steam released by the pouring of cold water on white-hot rocks transported from the fire via pitchfork.
Today is a special Saturday for Roland has invited his brother, nephews, children and long-time friend Craig Rubin to sweat with him.
Craig was only 5 years old the first time he visited the Havasupai tribe at the base of the Grand Canyon. His wealthy aunt was known as a traveler and had somehow convinced his mother to bring him down. “I was an adventurous kid, and in good shape, I think they thought I was a little hyperactive, maybe thought the adventure would do me good. Maybe tire me out,” Craig says with a wry smile.
Each summer that followed, Craig would visit Havasupai for two weeks. Over the years he grew emotionally connected with a people that barely spoke any English at the time.
That’s when Craig first met Roland. Barely 19, Craig had just struggled through a difficult few months of summer school while attending his first year of college.
He’d heard there had been a big flood that year due to heavy rains and most of the trails had been washed away down in Havasupai. Craig knew he had to help.
“I’d just had a shitty year of summer school and I really didn’t have the money,” said Craig. “We don’t need you they told me. But I thought, fuck it. I’m going anyways.”
Since he knew the area well, Craig drove around until he found a red dirt trail that would drop him into the canyon. When he finally arrived in town he insisted on volunteering with the Indian crews repairing the trails. He laughs as he recounts the stories of how the Indians would make fun of him for never having used a wheelbarrow in his life. They’d fill it up so heavy as to make him spill its contents across the trail.
“I was from Beverly Hills,” he says with a self-deprecating chuckle. Craig recalls working so hard that one night he fell asleep on the ground, too tired to even clear a space. He awoke with rocks embedded in his back, forming painful cavities.
As he was hiking out to return home, Roland approached him on the trail. Craig recalls him saying, “Hey, you’re that white man who helped out.” Subsequently, Roland invited Craig to his first sweat lodge ceremony after sharing a couple joints.
“That experience changed me,” said Craig. “Roland told me that day he was going to be a leader for his people and make better choices.” The next day Roland lent him his horse to ride out of the canyon.
It was that same year Roland began his journey down the ‘Red Road,’ a phrase the natives use to describe when an indian decides to live harmoniously with nature; to embrace the old ways, pass along the cultural traditions, refrain from alcohol and rely on the natural medicines.
Roland was just 32 years old and fresh out of prison for allegedly swinging a machete at a man while under the influence of alcohol.
“It was then that he realized he was going down a path that wasn’t right,” Craig says. “Now he teaches me the path.”
At the lodge, Craig and Roland take turns scooping scorching rocks into the dirt pit inside the belly of the lodge. The jagged rocks sizzle atop the damp, cool earth inside.
With preparations complete, Roland invites his special guests inside where he leads prayer and songs in his native Supai tongue. The lodge represents the womb from which all mankind are born. Symbolizing a spiritual rebirth, participants of the sweat enter backwards. After singing songs of praise for nearly 45 minutes, Craig and Roland exit head first, reborn and spiritually enlightened.
Drenched in sweat, they walk to the creek to cool off. As they return to the lodge, two pairs of wet footprints have left their mark on a red dirt path.