The firelight reveals a whirl of brightly colored, masked Yei "spirits," dancing on the soft earth, their gritty rattles shaking in rhythm with each step. Intense singing rises as a prayer for the person inside the hogan, and a sense of mystical ancient healing hangs in the air.
Hundreds of Navajo are gathered for the Yeibichai, a healing ceremony, and Jo Harriet Haley stands among them.
"Native American spirituality and culture are rich with wisdom," says Haley, who leads small groups on pilgrimages to the lands of the Lakota Sioux in South Dakota and Wyoming and the Hopi and Navajo in Arizona and New Mexico. The pilgrimages are arranged through Sacred Places Travel, which Haley founded in 1995 as an outgrowth of her own search for a more meaningful life. "So many of us are looking to begin or continue our spiritual growth, and I've discovered that sacred travel to native lands can be a powerful way to find our best selves," she says.
Haley had worked for twenty years as a commercial trial lawyer before retiring and going back to school for a master's degree in pastoral ministry. She specialized in pilgrimage. "I had traveled the world for years--Nepal, Tibet, Australia, Turkey, Thailand, Bali--and had been taking my own spiritual journey all along. While I was studying for the degree in ministry, I realized that I needed to marry my lifelong love of travel with my interest in helping people, and that was pilgrimage."
Choosing the destinations for the trips was the next step. "It didn't take long," she says. "I knew from my studies that I needed to take people into a different culture, and I had been interested in Native Americans since second grade, because my teacher was a Hopi."
Haley traveled to reservations and started developing friendships with native people. It took several years to immerse herself in various cultures, but she gained a keen understanding of native customs and beliefs, she says, which she believes adds richness and depth to the spiritual travel she leads.
On a pilgrimage, she takes people to visit sacred sites; to attend native ceremonies; to hike, swim, and ride horses in natural surroundings; to hear presentations by native people on their history, culture, and art; to eat native foods; and to stay in rustic places where it is easy to connect with a simpler life. "It's an adventure," says Haley. "One minute you might be hiking Bear Butte, a sacred mountain, and a few hours later you find yourself chanting in a sweat lodge on Pine Ridge reservation. It can be very intense, but we also laugh a lot and remember that we're here to have fun."
Haley also engages her groups in activities such as yoga, meditating, and keeping a journal. She believes that this daily routine helps keep the mind and body balanced and in harmony.
In fact, for Haley, being in harmony is a big part of what these sacred journeys are all about--a way to bring mind, body, and spirit into alignment. "Sometimes that means getting outside ourselves, going somewhere we've never been, eating new things, having conversations with people who will light up our minds, looking at life in a different way and, most importantly, making the time for what we love even with our hectic schedules," she says. "That is how we grow."