Monday, June 11, 2007

The Death Journey of a Hopi Indian

J. Timothy Green, Ph.D.

In an article that appeared in this journal (Green, 1998), I pointed out that there are strong parallels between near-death experiences (NDEs) and shamanism, that an NDE had long been viewed as a shamanic initiation, and that NDErs might be among the best candidates for further training in shamanism, training now available in western society through the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. In a subsequent article (Green, 2001), a case was presented of a woman who sought out psychological treatment with the writer following a deep NDE. What became clear from her account was that her NDE had acted as the catalyst for numerous spontaneous shamanic experiences in the months and years that followed, despite the fact that prior to her NDE she had no interest in religion, nor spirituality, and had never heard of shamanism.
In the present article, I will describe another case study, this one the “death journey” of a Hopi Indian named Don C. Talavesva. This account is important because it sheds light on the issues raised in the two articles cited above and because it comes from a person who was born into, and lived most of his life, in an indigenous and shamanic culture.
Shamanism postulates three different but penetrating realms into which the shaman travels; the upper world, the middle world and the lower world (Harner, 1980). Shamanic journeys are at times very positive and at other times very difficult experiences (e.g. dismemberment journeys). Although negative NDEs have been documented (Greyson and Bush, 1993), the overwhelming majority of near-death episodes are very positive and would be described shamanically as upper or middle world journeys. Very few lower world NDEs have been documented in the literature to date. As we will see, Don’s NDE journey contains both positive and negative elements and would probably be viewed as a lower world journey.
The following account comes from the autobiography entitled, Sun Chief: The Autobiography of a Hopi Indian, first published in 1942 by Yale University Press. Don Talavesva was a Hopi Indian who was born in 1890 and lived most of his life in Oraibi, a settlement located in Arizona approximately 10 miles east of the Grand Canyon. At age ten, Don was sent to live at a boarding school run by Christian missionaries in Riverside, California. During this period--sometime between 1900 and 1910--he developed pneumonia which became progressively worse over a four week period. While hospitalized, and not expected to live, he reports having had the following experience:

Then I saw a human being standing by my bed in Katcina costume. He was well dressed in a dancing kilt and a sash, was barefoot, and wore long black hair hanging down his back. He had a soft prayer feather (nakwakwosi) in his hair and carried a blue one in his left hand--blue being the color which signifies the west and the home of the dead. He wore beads and looked wonderful as he watched me. When the nurses brought food he said, “My son, you had better eat. Your time is up. You shall travel to the place where the dead live and see what it is like.” I saw the door swing slowly back and forth on its hinges and stop just a little open. A cold numbness crept up my body; my eyes closed, and I knew I was dying.
The strange human being said, “Now, my boy, you are to learn a lesson. I have been guarding you all your life, but you have been careless. You shall travel to the House of the Dead and learn that life is important. The path is already made for you. You better hurry and perhaps you will get back before they bury your body. I am your Guardian Spirit (
dumalaitaka). I will wait here and watch over your body, but I shall also protect you on your journey.” (Talavesva, p. 121).

Don’s experience begins in some ways much like that of many modern NDEs with the experiencer knowing that he is dying and being accompanied by a spiritual being. In the passage below he also describes the lack of any pain, implies leaving his physical body and the presence of a tunnel, all commonly reported components of modern NDEs:

The pain disappeared and I felt well and strong. I arose from my bed and started to walk, when something lifted me and pushed me along through the air, causing me to move through the door, down the hall, and out upon the campus in broad daylight. I was swept along northeastward by a gust of wind, like flying, and soon reached the San Bernandino Mountains. There I climbed a corn-meal path about halfway up a mountain and came upon a hole like a tunnel, dimly lighted. I heard a voice on the right saying, “Don’t be afraid, walk right in.” Stepping in through a fog and past the little lights, I moved along swiftly, finally coming out upon a flat mesa, and discovered that I was walking near the old water holes out on the ledge at Oraibi! Very much surprised, I thought, “I will go home and get some good Hopi food.” (Talavesva, pp. 121-22).

The most obvious difference between Don’s account and that of many present day NDEs is the almost complete absence of a description of a bright light of any kind. He does report a tunnel, “dimly lighted,” and also ”little lights,” but these are not consistent with the overwhelmingly bright light that many modern NDErs report. Throughout his experience, Don never mentions anything resembling the brilliant light many NDErs have reported over the past 30 years.
On the other hand, the following aspect of the experience is entirely consistent with many NDEs and shamanic journeys during which the person finds himself at home, or with relatives, or other loved ones:

As I entered the door, I saw my mother sitting on the floor combing my father’s hair. They just stared at the door for a moment and then turned back to their interests. They didn’t say a word, causing me to wonder sadly. I walked about the room for a minute and then sat down on a sheep pelt by the stove to think. I said to myself, “Well, perhaps my grandfather will come and give me food. “After about an hour of silence, my grandfather did come in, stared at me for a moment, and said nothing; but he sat down opposite me and dropped his head as though worried. Then I thought to myself, “They don’t care for me. I had better go and leave them alone.” When I arose to leave they didn’t even look up or say good-by.
I walked out by the dry basin near the Oraibi Rock. There was a little stone walk on the rim of the dam. A large lizard ran along the ground and into the wall. As I drew near I saw peeping out from the rocks an ugly, naked woman with drawn face and dry lips. She looked tired, half-starved, and very thirsty. It was my old grandmother, Bakabi, my mother’s mother’s sister. Since she was still living, I didn’t know how her spirit could be on its way to Skeleton House; but I think my Guardian Angel placed her there to teach me a lesson and to show me that she was a Two-Heart. She said, “My grandson, will you please give me a drink?” “No, I have no water,” I replied. “Well, please spit in my mouth to quench my thirst?” she pleaded. I said, “No, I have nothing for you. Are you the one I saw as a lizard?” “Yes, my father is a lizard and I have two
hearts.” “Then I will have nothing to do with you, for you killed our sister!” I said. “I am one of those who are killing your people,” she answered, “but I am not the one who killed you. From here to the House of the Dead you will see people like me who can take only one step a year over a path of sorrow. Please let me go along with you. You have only one heart and will arrive safely.” “Never mind,” I said, and hurried along, for I had no time to monkey with a witch. (Talavesva pp. 122-23).

Witches, who the Hopi also refer to as, “Two-Hearts,” are believed to be people who often kill relatives in order to prolong their own lives, as well as causing many other types of mischief. Below, Don describes his understanding of witches or Two-Hearts:

I began to think about Two-Hearts and to review all that I had heard about them. I knew that they were a very unfortunate but powerful people, members of every race and nation, organized into a world-wide society in which they spoke a common language, and that they were about to postpone their own death by taking the lives of their relatives. I understood that Hopi Two-Hearts were leaders of this terrible society, that they held their underworld convention at Red Cliff Mesa northeast of Oraibi, and that Two-Hearts in Oraibi were probably the worst of the lot. I realized that that they were mean, fussy, easily offended, and forever up to mischief. I knew I had been careless, had spoken rashly, and had probably offended some of them. (Talavesva p. 120).

This component, seeing a relative or other person who is still alive, is very much at odds with present day NDEs. I am not aware of an account of a modern day NDE during which the individual reported seeing a relative or friend unless that person was, in fact, deceased.
As Don’s account continues, he encounters other Two-Hearts, ascends a series of steps, hears a bell, and comes upon another guide who tells him which of two roads he is to take:

I moved along quickly, touching the ground only in spots until I came to the west point of the mesa. Along this way I saw many faces of Two-Hearts who called out to for food and drink; but I had no time for them. When I reached the foot of Mount Beautiful, the Judgment Seat, I looked up and saw nice regular steps about twelve feet wide and twelve feet high, of a red color, and reaching like a mighty stairway to the highest point. I started to climb but seemed to float up on air, just touching my feet lightly on the top step. There a bell rang from the west side so clearly that I heard echoes out among the mesa walls.
As the ringing grew louder, I looked and saw a man climbing up the mountain from the west, dressed in a white buckskin, wearing a horn, and holding a spear and a bell. It was a Kwanitaka, a member of the Kwan or Warrior society, who watches the kivas during prayers and guards the village to keep out strangers and let in the dead during the Wowochim ceremonies. He came up to me but did not shake hands, because he was a spirit god and doing police duty directing good people over the smooth highway and bad people over the rough road to the House of the Dead.
He said, “My boy, you are just in time, hurry! Look to the west and you will see two roads. You take the broad one, the narrow one is crooked and full of rocks, thorns and thistles; those who take it have a hard journey. I have prepared this broad road for you. Now hurry and you will find someone to guide you.”
I looked to the left and saw a wide road sprinkled with corn meal and pollen. On the right was a narrow path about a foot wide and very rough. Strewn along the side were Hopi clothes that had been dropped by Two-Heart women who had received them from men with whom they had slept. I saw naked, suffering people struggling along the path with heavy burdens and other handicaps such as thorny cactus plants fastened to their bodies in tender places. Snakes raised their heads along the edge of the path, sticking out their tongues in a threatening manner. When they saw me looking at them they dropped their heads; but I knew they could bite anyone that
they did not like.
I chose the broad road to the left and went along swiftly, almost flying, until I came to a large mesa, which I shot up like an arrow and landed on the top. There I saw on my left summer birds singing and flowers in full bloom. Moving rapidly, I passed along the edge of Cole Canyon with its steep white walls which I had seen before on my way to Moenkopi. In the distance were twelve queer-looking striped animals chasing one another. As I drew nearer I saw that they were clowns (tcuka) who had painted their bodies with black and white stripes and were joking and teasing one another. The leader—who was one of the Eagle Clan which is linked to my Sun Clan—said, “My nephew, we have been expecting you. It is late and you must hurry. We think you will return, so we will wait here for you. Your Guardian Spirit is protecting you; but you must hurry. Your Guardian Spirit is protecting you; but you must hurry back to your body.. You may live a long time yet if you get back.”(Talavesva pp. 123-24).

In the following passage, Don passes a test by correctly deciding to have his hair washed with white suds and comes to the end of his journey where he witnesses the brutal fate of Two-Hearts:

Somewhat frightened, I sped along to the left, reached the top of the steep mesa, and sort of floated down. Before me were the two trails passing westward through the gap of the mountains. On the right was the rough narrow path, with the cactus and the coiled snakes, and filled with miserable Two-Hearts making very slow and painful progress. On the left was the fine, smooth highway with no person in sight, since everyone had sped along so swiftly. I took it, passed many ruins and deserted houses, reached the mountain, entered a narrow valley, and crossed through a gap to the other side. Soon I came to a great canyon where my journey seemed to end; and I stood there on the rim wondering what to do. Peering deep into the canyon, I saw something shiny winding its way like a silver thread on the bottom; and I thought that it must be the Little Colorado River. On the walls across the canyon were the houses of our ancestors with smoke rising from the chimneys and people sitting out on the roofs.
Within a short time I heard a bell on the west side at the bottom of the canyon and another one somewhat behind me. The same Kwanitaka who had directed me on Mount Beautiful came rushing up the cliff carrying a blanket and dressed in a cloak and buckskin moccasins as white as snow. Another Kwanitaka came rapidly from the rear, ringing his bell. The first one said, “We have been expecting you all morning. This partner and I have raced here for you. I won and you are mine. You have been careless and don’t believe in the Skeleton House where your people go when they die. You think that people, dogs, burros, and other animals just die and that’s all there is to it. Come with us. We shall teach you a lesson on life.” I followed the first Kwanitaka to the southwest and was trailed by a second who kept off evil spirits. We came to a house where we saw a Kwanitaka in red buckskin moccasin making red yucca suds in a big earthen pot. Near by was another Kwanitaka from the west in white moccasins making vapor to rise like a cloud. Then one of them said, “Now we are ready, take your choice. From which pot will you be washed?” I chose the white suds. “All right, you are lucky,” said the Kwanitaka. “It means that you may journey back along the Hopi trail and return to life.” I knelt down so that he could wash my hair and rinse it with fresh water. Finally, he said, “Get up and come along. We must hurry because time is going fast.”
The Kwanitakas led me southwest toward the smoke rising in the distance. As we drew near I saw a great crowd of people watching a fire which came out of the ground. On the very edge of the flaming pit stood four naked people, each of them in front of another individual who wore clothing. On the north and south sides stood a naked man in front of a clothed woman, on the east and west sides a naked woman in front of a clothed man. I could see these people as plain as day, even their private parts, but I did not know a single one of them. They had been traveling for a long, long time at a rate of one step a year, and had just reached this place. I noticed on the
ground paths leading from four directions to the hole. Near by I saw another Kwanitaka tending the fire in a deeply tunneled pit like that in which sweet corn is baked.

“Look closely,” said a Kwanitaka. “Those in front are Two-Hearts. They killed the people standing behind them and now it is their turn to suffer. The crowds of people have come from the House of the Dead to see the Two-Hearts get their punishment. Look!” Then he yelled out, “Ready, push!” The woman on the north pushed her Two-Heart into the pit and I could see the flames lap him up, sending out rolls of black smoke. Then the man on the west pushed over his naked woman, and the woman on the south shoved in her man, causing great volumes of smoke to rise out of the pit. Finally, the man on the east pushed his girl and the work was done. No Two-Heart said a word; it seemed they had no feelings. The Kwanitaka said to the people, “Now go back where you belong.”
“Now, my boy,” said the Kwanitaka to me, “come and look into the pit.” I stepped up close to the rim and saw an empty hole with a network of two-inch cracks broken into the walls through which flames of fire were leaping. In the center at the bottom were four black beetles crawling about, two carrying the other two on their backs. The Kwanitaka asked me, “What do you see?” “Beetles,” I replied. “That’s the end of these Two-Hearts,” said he, and the fate of all their kind.” They will stay there as beetles forever, except to make occasional visits to Oraibi and move about the village doing mischief on hazy days.”
The Kwanitakas then took me back over the course that we had traveled until we came to the steep ledge where the road had ended. I had stood there before, looking across the canyon to the opposite wall where people sat on their housetops. Now the canyon was full of smoke, and when we peered down I saw a gruesome creature in the shape of a man climbing the cliff. He was taking long strides with his shining black legs and big feet; an old tattered rag of a blanket was flying from his shoulder as he approached swiftly with a club in his hand. It was big, bloody-headed Masau’u, the god of Death, coming to catch me. One of the Kwanitakas pushed me and cried, “Flee for your life and don’t look back, for if Masau’u catches you, he will make you a prisoner in the House of the Dead!” I turned and ran eastward, while they pushed me along with their wands or spears so that I rose about six inches from the ground and flew faster than I had ever traveled before.
When I reached Cole Canyon the clowns were waiting for me, standing in a straight line facing west with their arms about each other, as children do in playing London Bridge. As I approached them at full speed, they cried, “Jump, Masau’u is gaining.” I jumped and landed on the chest of the leader knocking him down. They all laughed and yelled, seeming not to mind for clowns are always happy. They said, “You just reached here in time, now you belong to us, turn around and look.” I looked west and saw Masau’u going back, looking over his shoulder as he ran. Then the leader of the clowns said, “Now, my nephew, you have learned your lesson. Be careful, wise, and good, and treat everybody fairly. If you do, they will respect you and will help you out of trouble. Your Guardian Spirit has punished you so that you may see and understand. Lots of people love you. We are your uncles and will see that no harm comes to you. You have a long time to live yet. Go back to the hospital and to your bed. You will see an ugly person lying there; but don’t be afraid. Put your arms around his neck and warm yourself, and you’ll soon come to life. But hurry, before the people put your body in a coffin and nail down the lid, for then it will be too late.”
I turned and ran quickly, circling the mountains through the tunnel and over the foothills to the hospital. I entered quickly and saw my Guardian Spirit and a nurse at the bedside. He greeted me kindly and said, “Well, you are lucky, and just in time. Slip quickly under the cover at the foot, move up alongside your body, put your arms around its neck, and be still.” My body was cold and little more than bones, but I obeyed the command and lay there clinging to its neck. Soon I became warm, opened my eyes, and looked up to the ceiling and at the door transom. Nurses were about the bed, and the head nurse was holding my hand. I heard her say, “The pulse beats.” The head nurse said,” Sonny, you passed away last night, but did not cool off quite like a dead person. Your heart kept beating slowly and your pulse moved a little, so we did not bury you.” (Talavesva pp. 123-27).

Later the same day that Don returned from his death journey, his Guardian Angel made another bedside appearance to give him the following warning:

“Well, my boy, you were careless, but you learned a lesson. Now if you don’t obey me I shall punish you again, but for only four trials—then I will let you die. I love you, and that is why I watch over you. Eat and regain your strength. Some day you will be an important man in ceremonies. Then make a paho for me before all others, for I am your Guardian Spirit that directs and protects you. Many people never see their Guide, but I have shown myself to you to teach you this lesson. Now I shall leave you. Be good, be wise, think before you act, and you will live a long time. But I shall hold you lightly, as between two fingers, and if you disobey me I will drop you. Good-by and good luck.” He made one step and disappeared. (Talavesva , p. 128).

This type of warning, that a Spirit Guide might leave a person, is consistent with shamanic belief that holds that if a person does not act correctly, he or she may be abandoned by their Spirit Guide. This potentially could lead to a number of negative outcomes, including death.
We know that Don’s death journey was not unique in Hopi culture, because following his experience he told a chief about it. This chief was able to verify that others had told of similar accounts:

Chief Tewaquaptewa visited me in the hospital, and when I told him about my death journey he said it was true, for those were the same things that the old people said they saw when they visited the House of the Dead. (Talavesva, p. 129).

It is also mentioned that Don’s mother experienced a death journey, although an account of her experience is not described.

Don became involved in the Katcina dancing just as his Guardian Spirit had foretold. He described Katcina dancing as among, “the greatest pleasures of his life.” (Talavesva, p. 21). But Don did not become a shaman. And so an important point that needs to be acknowledged is that although an NDE is often seen as a shamanic initiation, it does not always lead to a shamanic vocation. Although Don was a young man at the time of his death journey, there is nothing in his account that suggests that he or anyone else considered him as a candidate for training as a medicine man or shaman.
Finally, Don’s experience did have a significant impact on him. At the time of the experience he had been attending a Christian school and had begun to give up to old ways of the Hopi people. In looking back on the experience many years later, he wrote:

“My death experience had taught me that I had a Hopi Spirit Guide whom I must follow if I wished to live. [Following the experience] I wanted to become a real Hopi again, to sing the good old Katcina songs.” (Talavesva, p. 134).

And in another place he wrote:

"And, of course, I could never forget how the snakes dropped their heads when they saw me on the death journey and how my Guardian Spirit restored me to life and promised to protect me. All these things were proof to me that the ancestral spirits approved of my conduct and wanted me to stay on the Hopis Sun Trail." (Talavesva, p. 207).


Although Don’s experience clearly can be classified as a NDE or a shamanic journey, taken as a whole, there are probably more differences than similarities in the content of his account versus the overwhelming majority ofthose of modern day NDEs.
Don’s experience begins with some of the same components commonly associated with modern NDEs, among them, knowing that he is dying, seeing and communicating with a spiritual figure, the absence of any pain and leaving his physical body.
But Don never mentions a brilliant light that is so often one component of modern NDEs. He does report going through a tunnel, but it is not one similar to the dark, tunnel-like area described during modern day NDEs. Nor does Don describe many other commonly reported components of present day NDEs such as a past life review or a garden of preternatural beauty. And he reports one component that is never heard in modern NDEs; seeing and communicating with a relative who is still alive.
Although Don reports, “the pain went away and I felt well and strong,” (p. 121) he does not report the sense of overwhelming peace, calm and painlessness that is so often present during modern NDEs.
Also, the vast majority of present day NDEs are overwhelmingly positive. In contrast, Don’s experience has a number of negative elements; the Two-Hearted woman and men he sees on the road, the men and women being pushed into a pit of fire and being chased by Masau’u, the God of Death.
But the most striking difference is that while the overwhelming majority of modern NDEs have been shown to not be influenced by personal beliefs, religious outlook, or other cultural or personal experiences, Don reports a number of components that are clearly aspects of Hopi culture. He sees witches or Two-Hearts, which is part of the Hopi belief system, and was described to him in detail by his grandfather and others during his childhood. He is chased by Masau’u, the God of Death, who is also part of Hopi cultural belief, and was also described many times to Don during his early years. During his journey Don reports seeing and being helped by a number of Kwanitaka who are members of the Warrior society in Hopi culture. And near the end of his journey, he encounters what he at first believes to be twelve deer, but turn out to be clowns (tcuka), yet another aspect of Hopi culture.
Very little can be extrapolated with any confidence from this one account to answer the question of why a NDE experienced by a Hopi Indian in the early part of the 20th century would be so different than the vast majority of NDEs that have been documented by researchers over the past 30 plus years. What can be said is that Don’s experience and, if his chief’s is right, Hopi Indians at the beginning of the last century were having NDEs, but those NDEs were more influenced by their particular culture and contained more negative aspects than NDEs reported in the last three decades of the same century. Why that would be so is something that has yet to be explained.


Green, J. (1998). Near-Death Experiences, Shamanism and the Scientific
Method. Journal of near-death experiences; volume 16, pp. 205-222.
Green, J. (2001). Near-Death Experience as a Shamanic Initiation: A Case
Study. Journal of near-death experiences; volume 19, pp. 209-225.
Greyson, B. and Bush, N. M. (1993). Distressing Near-death experiences. Psychiatry.
Harner, M. (1980). The way of the shaman. New York: Harper Collins.
Talavesva, D. (1942). Sun Chief: The autobiography of a Hopi Indian.
Yale University Press.

The writer would like to thank Mrs. Stacy Rindt-Hoffman for her help in reading and making valuable comments during the preparation of this manuscript.

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