In Kurt Leland's 2002 book The Unanswered Question, there is an account of a Hopi Indian's near-death experience which considerably predates the publication of Raymond Moody's Life after Life in 1975. It was Life after Life that brought the NDE to public attention and made it part of pop-culture awareness. NDEs reported before that time can hardly be explained in terms of New Age memes.
The NDE in question follows the standard pattern of many NDEs but with culturally specific elements. In certain respects it reminds me of the NDEs reported by Hindus in India. As Leland himself points out, the account both underlines the cultural consistency of the core features of the NDE and provides an example of cultural variations in terms of iconography and narrative.
According to a footnote in Leland's book, the account was written down twice – first by Mischa Titiev in 1932 and then independently by Leo W. Simmons in 1938. It was not published until Titiev wrote it up for a journal after seeing Simmons's field notes. The two versions of the story are apparently quite similar, though there were some minor discrepancies which Titiev discussed. I haven't read Titiev's article, so I can't say exactly what these discrepancies were.
Leland's account, which appears in Chapter 3 on pages 36–42, begins:
During the winter of 1907, at the age of seventeen, Don Talayesva was attending an Indian school in Riverside, California, far from his family on the Hopi Reservation. While grieving the death of a beloved older sister who had died in childbirth, Don caught a cold that lasted for weeks and turned into pneumonia. Toward the end of December, he apparently went into a coma. When he came out of it, a nurse said to him, "Sonny, you passed away last night but did not cool off quite like a dead person. Your heart kept on beating slowly and your pulse moved a little, so we did not bury you."…
When Don fell into his coma, he saw a spiritual being standing by his bedside. The being was dressed as a Hopi Kachina and carried a blue feather to indicate that he'd come from the Land of the Dead. The being announced that he was Don's guardian spirit and had been watching over Don for all his life.
After the spiritual being appeared, Don reports: "A cold numbness crept up my body; and I knew I was dying." The spiritual being affirmed this perception. But if Don were to follow his instructions, he would survive. His guardian would allow him to travel to the Land of the Dead and return so that he could learn the value of the life he no longer wanted to live after the loss of his sister.…
Don then found himself out of his body. The pain in his lungs that had caused him to spit blood disappeared. As Don reports, "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."…
While out of body, Don moved through a landscape he identifies as the San Bernardino Mountains. He eventually came to a "hole like a tunnel, dimly lighted." A voice invited him to enter. As Don reports: "Stepping in through a fog and past the little lights, I moved along swiftly."…
Leland observes that this part of the story matches the "tunnel experience" reported by many NDers. But instead of taking Don to an afterlife environment, the tunnel led him back to his reservation, where he saw his family. Though unable to make contact with them, he did communicate with his great-aunt, an elderly woman who was still alive at the time and who was reputed to be a "witch." Don was apparently quite afraid of this woman, inasmuch as witches were said to feed on the souls of young people in order to extend their own longevity.
The encounter with a living person is fairly unusual in an NDE, but perhaps in this case it can be explained by the great-aunt's purported status as a witch, which might allow her to move back and forth between the two planes of existence more freely.
In any event, she seemed to confirm that she was a witch and that witches faced severe punishment in the next life. Later, Don was to receive confirmation of this claim.
Next, he was carried to "Mount Beautiful, the Judgment Seat," where he met a being clad in white buckskin. This figure corresponds to the "being of light" encountered by so many NDErs. Don himself reported:
“It was a Kwanitaka, a member of the Kwan or Warrior society, who watches the kivas [underground ceremonial chambers] 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 now 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.”
Leland notes that there was no life review, but
the notion of judgment is implied by [Don's] presence at the Judgment Seat and his seeing the two roads, one for the righteous and the other for witches.
The Kwanitaka, or being of light, directed Don to take the clear and easy-to-follow path, which passed through a blossoming summer-like environment. Those traveling the other road, which was rocky and full of thorns, were struggling past a line of threatening snakes while carrying heavy burdens and enduring the penance of having "cactus plants fastened to their bodies in tender places."
In following the path indicated by the Kwanitaka, Don came across a group of Hopi clowns whose bodies were painted in black and white stripes. One of them greeted him as "nephew," because the clowns were related to Don by clan kinship....
He came to a boundary in the form of a deep canyon, which he identified as that of the Little Colorado River. The road stopped here. "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." Here was the goal of the Hopi soul's afterdeath journey – the place where the Hopi ancestors first emerged into this world from the one below it. This point of emergence is identified as being in the area of the Grand Canyon, which is why Don traveled through what appear[ed] to him to be actual geographical locations to get there.
But just as the NDer isn't allowed to cross the boundary – often perceived as a body of water like a river – because that would mean actual physical death, so Don himself didn't cross the Canyon. Instead, two spiritual beings, also identified as Kwanitakas, appeared and took him to a place where he experienced a ritual head-washing with suds from the yucca plant – another culture-specific element.…
Two earthern pots have been prepared for Don by two more Kwanitakas, one containing red, the other white, Yucca suds. He chooses the white suds. The Kwanitaka who washes his head explains that if he'd chosen the red suds he would have died. Choosing the white ones means that he'll be allowed to return to life.…
The first two Kwanitakas then take Don on a brief tour of the Afterlife in which he's allowed to witness what happens to the witches when they've come to the end of their long thorny journey, on which they are allowed to take but one step a year. Don comes to a large flaming pit used to cook sweet corn in. There he sees pairs of witches standing in each of the four cardinal directions. Each pair consists of a male and female, one naked and one clothed. The naked one, who had done harm to the clothed one, was being cast into the flames by his or her victim.…
In the pit into which they’re thrown, these Hopi sinners are turned into beetles. Says the guide: "Now that's the end, and these beetles will stay here until their time comes."…
What this means is unclear – whether they are doomed to remain in the pit until some final judgment is pronounced, or until they have expiated their sins, or until they are reincarnated, or… Who knows?
The next part of the story also has no direct parallel to standard Western NDE's, except possibly to some "nightmarish" or "hellish" experiences. Leland writes:
The Kwanitakas take Don back to the canyon edge from which he'd seen the village of his ancestors. He then perceives a terrifying figure, Masau’u, the god of death, who begins to chase him. His spirit helpers provide him with the support he needs to get back to his body before Masau’u can touch them. If Masau’u were to beat him in this race, Don would certainly die.
Though that part of the NDE is foreign to most Western accounts, the next part is quite familiar:
Along the way, Don encounters his uncles, the clowns, again.… One of these relatives tells him that it's not yet his time to die. This uncle then provides him with instructions for returning to his body: "Go back to the hospital and to your bed. You'll see an ugly person lying there; don't be afraid. Put your arms around his neck and warm yourself, and you'll soon come back to life.”…
Don did as he was told, including running back through the tunnel that had originally brought him to the Land of the Dead. He attached himself to his body as instructed. His guardian spirit was present to help him. He heard a loud buzzing in his ears… When he came to, he surprised his nurse…
Later, while recovering, Don receives another visit from his guide, whom the nurses can't see. The guide explains why he had his near-death experience and the kind of life he should live now because of it. The guide then departs. When Don exclaims over the sudden disappearance of his guide, the nurses tell him he's acting crazy.
In summary, this 1907 NDE, reported as early as 1932, contains most of the classic features of Moody's NDE's:
- the out-of-body experience
- the tunnel experience
- the encounter with a being of light
- the encounter with relatives (in this case the Hopi clowns)
- the idea of judgment (though not a life review)
- the decision to return, and
- the shock of re-entering the body.
There is also the nurse's claim that the patient was either clinically dead or nearly dead. In one version of the story, the nurse tells Don that a coffin had already been prepared for him.
On the other hand, the account also contains many culturally specific elements such as
- the punishment of the witches
- the two roads
- the ceremony involving yucca suds
- the god of death who pursues Don and
- the realistic, familiar terrain through which Don passes.
Centuries ago, the authors of the Tibetan Book of the Dead warned the newly deceased person not to be fooled by realistic but illusory images and beings who would appear in the early stages of his after-death experience. Don Talayesva's story reinforces the truth that lies behind this warning.
It appears that the afterlife experience, at least in its initial stages, is highly symbolic, and that the symbolism is drawn from the experiencer's expectations and cultural values. Devout Christians see Jesus, pearly gates, or perhaps the devil; Hindus report being carried off by Yamdoots, gods assigned to transport the deceased to the next world; and in this case, a Hopi Indian sees witches, Hopi clowns, and Masau'u, the god of death.