An email appeared in my inbox, it was an invitation to an international conference devoted to orality and myth in literature with special attention to the Indian writer Tagore. After reading my article – “The Hero’s Journey in James Welch’s Fools Crow,” my host expressed great regard for the essay and a wish to know if I would like to serve as a plenary speaker at the forthcoming conference to held at Shri Mata Vaishno Devi University in Katra, India. She explained that my paper had helped her to understand the mythic dynamics at work in her study of a local Hindu folk hero. The thought of travel halfway around the world was daunting enough and I’d be going to a region lacking habitat and residence for my spirit helper; but I had a conversation with my Dean, who readily agreed to fund the travel. Now I only had to prepare the address amid a demanding teaching schedule and within a short notice of two months.
As my departure commenced, I was heard to say: “Come my shadow go with me.” The shadow, an essential element of the soul within my Native heritage must not be left to wander aimlessly in search of its organic host – hence, we call it to follow when embarking on any long distance travel. One is hardly alive without his or her shadow. With twenty plus hours of flight time and a day lost in transition, I could hardly leave my shadow to aimlessness and myself unattended. There was a lengthy layover in London; hence a day room with a deep sleep eased my fatigue earned over the Atlantic. Once again, I called my shadow as I boarded the ensuing flight for Delhi and its connection to Jammu.
At the Jammu airport, I was somewhat confused when no one appeared to meet me; walking through the departure lounge, I collected my baggage and noted reference to the Hindu Shrine that leant its name to the university. It was the season of pilgrimage and a small desk was manned to guide the pilgrims but of course they knew nothing of the international conference so I pressed on out of the airport to pass a bunker with manned machine guns. There was a real military presence in this disputed province; still there was no one to meet me but I was warned by the gunner not to try and return inside to the terminal. As I looked about forlorn by the conditions, a military officer approached me and I explained my dilemma. Producing a conference announcement, he noted the telephone number and kindly called my host. As it turned out, I must leave the guarded airport compound exiting through an armed gate to reach the point where my driver was forced to wait my arrival. Doing so I was taken aback by the traffic and its aggressive use of the road. There were bicycles, scooters, motorcycles, tuk tuks, compact cars, SUVs, large buses and heavy trucks all racing along to a cacophony of horns sounding at every turn. Pedestrians were crossing without cautionary walkways and even ox carts and donkey wagons were in the mix. It all gave me a start, as I had never seen such frightful traffic patterns.
Taken to an SUV, I was left to wait while two other professors arrived from Delhi. A beggar approached and there was nowhere to hide so I paid my fare. Finally after a couple hours the others showed up and we set off into the traffic stream on our way to Katra. Though Jammu, I noted cows grazing here and there with everyone taking no notice whatsoever of them. Were these the sacred cows of India, I mused.
Around a hilly bend, a monkey scampered across the road with her orange behind swollen and bare; in heat I surmised while venturing to inquire of my colleagues about these creatures. They just chuckled as if it was an everyday occurrence – which apparently it was. We were climbing into the foothills of the Himalayas – high mountains looming in the background. The roadway narrowed with sheer drop offs on the outside pitch. Concrete barriers were in place to give some protection from the cliff side; presently I noticed a troop of monkeys appearing like little people sitting about the side of the road. Some took their rest upon the concrete barriers. With humanlike faces they made a startling sight eliciting pity for their needs. People were tossing them bananas despite the roadside signs reading, “Do not feed the monkeys.” A mother was clutching the lifeless body of her infant, the apparent victim of an auto accident. My heart ached at the sight of this pitiful tragedy.
Reaching a narrow one way mountain road, we turned off on our way up the plateau to the university. After some miles, we entered a stunning campus with vistas of the great mountains directly before us and behind the university buildings. Given to stay on the campus, I was thrilled with a second story room and its formable vista over a steep canyon and looming nearby mountains. As I settled in and began to compose my thoughts, a little bird came to the window by my desk thumping the grass with its beak for an apparent handout but I could not see how to open it so as to feed them. While they looked like many of the birds back home, there was something hoary about them; they were given to an unusual appearance to me but no less attractive. Leaving some crumbs for them on the terrace railing, I took my leave and ventured to the visitor’s center. There was a colleague from Idaho State University who had been partly raised in India; he kindly showed me the ropes and explained Indian food so that I might avoid the hot spicy items.
Breakfast consumed, it was time to make our way to the conference hall for the opening plenary session where my new friend was to present. There was an elaborate honoring of the speakers where we were each invited one at a time onto the stage, given introduction and flowers while subsequently being invited to light a candle flame. As I mused about lighting the fire and greeted my host, there was the irony of Columbus weighing heavily upon us – as Indian met Indian halfway around the world. My session was to begin the next day and I needed the time to finish my power point. Attended by a conference host I later entered an academic building that was graciously constructed with an open air concept; within its interior there was a courtyard featuring a grassy access to the sun. As I entered this quasi outdoor space, there was a monkey sitting on a yard ornament; he looked me in the eye with a knowing brilliance so that I was very taken by his clever appearance. Having travelled beyond the organic habitat range of my spirit helpers, I thought to appeal to this kindly elder. Greeting him, I declared in Pikuni (Blackfeet): “Oki Nyack, kimoki, kimoki, spumoki, spumoki.” Startled by my attention to this nature person elder, my host inquired: “What did you say to that monkey?” In response, I declared: “I offered him respect in hopes he might help me here were I am a stranger to the spirits.” “Thank you,” replied my host, “I must try that myself.”
As for my presentation, I had chosen to address the Native notion of the trickster – creator, fool, transformer, and hero –specifically the Old Man or N’api – dawn early morning light person – as known among the Pikuni (Blackfeet). It is the dawnbringer theme evoking irony in every vestige of its being. As I retired on the eve before my plenary address, I felt confident my talk would strike an accord with the audience. Sometime before dawn, the trickster aroused me and I watched as he danced the new day; it was I thought a particularly good omen. Later that morning as I told tales of the Old Man, there was glee in my audience; they thrilled to the stories and gave rapt attention to the social, moral, and ecological foundations that I detailed in my analysis. Hindu and Muslim alike were responsive; Hindu’s cited their dawnbringer – the one who had aroused me that morning – Rama, who pulls a light bearing chariot across the sky each new day. Muslims admired the moral and ethical connotations drawn from the stories, so that there was a real coming together “when N’api dances day” as my paper was titled.
Later making a new friend, a Christian Indian from Calcutta approached me expressing desire to know more; she was particularly fascinated with the animals within the stories for whom she had a special empathy. She subsequently embraced the Hindu pilgrimage and set off for the Vaishno Devi, shrine. As night drew upon us, a Muslim philosopher approached inviting me to join him in an evening stroll; I had admired his paper from the day before although it embraced the meta-narrative; he yet called for peace and universal good will among all peoples.
On the next day several scholars of local Hindu folklore and tradition approached me; they gave accounts of environmental ethics among their traditions and we enjoyed the fellowship of our shared heritages embraced in the conference. A scholar of Tagore reminded us of his insight while the master was writing into the night only to have the lights go out and then observe a luminescence in the dark mountain valley. It was a moonshadow that had grown in the night sky embraced by the mountain vastness; such gentle soft light had more than once awakened me during my stay at the Lakes Inside on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation where the massive mountains of Glacier National Park embraced the Old Woman – Kipataki or moon. The memory flooded back to me as I listened rapt to the speaker, a great Tagore scholar; he further remarked citing the writer’s words – “As I was working in the light of my room, there was a greater light at work in the valley outside.” A lyric of magical realism wafted through my mind: “Oh I’m bein’ followed by a moonshadow, moonshadow, moonshadow. Leapin’ and hoppin’ on a moonshadow, moonshadow, moonshadow.” It was a popular song that had filled the airwaves during my youth and I thought again there is nothing quite like the romance of moonlight.
With the new day, my stay was ending; clutching my bags, I joined the departure shuttle for Jammu and Delhi. Calling to keep my shadow in tow, the monkeys were again at the side of the road with a look of knowing and the cows continued moving aimlessly in search of grace; in this measure, we descended the foothills to catch our respective flights. There was a significant layover in Delhi, so I opted again for a day room while requesting the clerk to awaken me at eleven pm so that I could prepare and return to the airport for my two am departure to London. As fate would have it, there was no call from the desk, I simply awoke on my own but it was nearing twelve midnight as I did so. Dashing about the room, I dressed and gathered my things in a mad rush. Racing to the front desk, I gave concern as to why there was no call to awaken me as requested, but more importantly, I begged an immediate taxi for shuttle to the airport. Outside a car waited and the driver came pulling on his shirt while rushing out the side door of the hotel. As we loaded my things, I gave him every reason to hurry. We rushed through the night with little traffic to impede us and he seemed as frantic as I. Approaching the airport, he started to turn into the arrivals venue when I cried “departures, departures” so that he luckily made the right turn. Reaching the British Airways desk, the clerk with all due patience assured me that I would make the flight but I only felt time to relax once I made the boarding. Once again, I called out: “Come my shadow go with me” as the jet roared to take off.
Jay Hansford C. Vest is Professor of American Indian Studies specializing in Native American Religious Traditions at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. A Native American, he is an enrolled member of the Monacan Indian Nation and he is also a direct descendent of 17th century Pamunkey leader Opechancanough who took Captain John Smith captive as a murder suspect. In addition, he was given a name and ceremonially adopted as an honorary Pikuni (Blackfeet) by the late Joe Crowshoe of Brocket, Alberta in June 1989. Since 1980, he has taught American Indian Studies at universities in Montana, Washington, Arizona, Alberta, Minnesota, New York and North Carolina. Twice awarded Fulbright Fellowships, he was a 1992-93 lecturer in Bamberg, Germany and a 2005-06 Research Chair at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He has also held scholarly fellowships at the D’Arcy McNickle Center for the History of the American Indian, Newberry Library in Chicago (1995) and the Oxford Round Table for religion at Jesus College Oxford University in the United Kingdom (2008). With interests in Native American religious traditions, oral traditions, cultural studies, ethnohistory and literature, as well as, comparative world mythology, environmental ethics and the philosophy of ecology, his scholarship includes more than one hundred peer reviewed publications and more than one hundred formal presentations world wide. He is author of Will-of-the-Land: A Philosophy of Wilderness Praxis and Environmental Ethics (2011) and The Bobtail Stories: Growing Up Monacan (forthcoming).