Malise Ruthven / Travel

Travels in Search of the Soul of America

Travelling in a battered camping van, Malise Ruthven set out across America in search of the manifestations of its religious spirit. 

The Divine Supermarket

Ruthven’s journey took him from the dark woods of Puritan New England to neo-Nazi cults in the Rockies; from Mormons and Snake-handlers to fundamentalist groups who challenge the teaching of evolution. The Divine Supermarket is his quirky and brilliantly-observed account of the journey, offering illuminating and humorous insights into the soul of modern America. Below, extracted from the book, Ruthven visits a Nez Perce reservation.

A priest had suggested that I should meet some Native Americans on the Colville Reservation in central Washington, north-west of Spokane. The drive was magnificent but somewhat daunting. The day was dull and overcast. The black volcanic cliffs abutting the artificial lakes made by the damming of the Columbia River created a world of seamless monotones, where nature had been taken over by geology and engineering. The cottonwoods and willows that grew in strips in the valleys looked precarious and vulnerable. I came upon Nespelem with relief. The landscape became more gentle, with pine forests and open, rolling pasture. Around the village human sovereignty – of the careless untidy variety one finds in Ireland or the Middle East – had reasserted itself. There were horses, dogs and battered cars wandering around the streets with no obvious purpose in mind. The houses, built by the government, had the cheap, standardised look of an army camp, but there was no hint of military order.

Father Dick Mercy wore the jeans, beard, open shirt and sneakers which seemed to be de rigueur among the Jesuits I had met. His manner was gentle and self-effacing. The Mission of the Sacred Heart was a modest building on two floors, with the chapel and vestibule downstairs, Father Dick’s quarters and offices above. The chapel was uncontaminated by the beauty of holiness: its walls were as plain as any Puritan meeting house.

At mass the next day, it being the Feast of All Saints, Father Dick spoke on the subject of death. He saw its heavy hand throughout American society – in the court system which passed death sentences on the poor, but never the rich; in the poverty and lack of opportunity which afflicted the blacks, Hispanics and Indians; in the perfectionist pressures that compounded failure with guilt. The Resurrection confronted the world with the spirit of life, the promise that death would be overcome.

‘The heavy hand of death keeps trying to push us around,’ he said. ‘Jesus keeps filling us up with hope. In some ways it’s not the kind of hope I would like, because He keeps saying: “If you stand up you’re going to suffer. But together, given the spirit and promise of resurrection we can confront the oppressors.”’

The congregation sat passively through this exposition of liberation theology. I wondered how much of it sank in. Most of them, I thought, would derive more comfort from Father Dick’s concluding remarks: ‘Jesus tells us it’s OK to drift, OK to fail, OK to be not perfect, to simply be as we are.’ Jesus was the friendly psychiatrist: ‘Relax,’ He said. ‘Bring Me your problems and I’ll make you feel better.’ It was the opposite pole from the stern, strenuous, perfectionist Jesus of the Puritan fathers and Mormondom. It was the Jesus with whom I, a sinning agnostic, could personally identify. I felt a breath of spiritual fresh air.

After Mass, Father Dick took me to the Nez Percé Longhouse, about a mile from the village.


The Nez Percé group at Nespelem are the descendants of Chief Joseph’s band who were forcibly settled there after their defeat in the Nez Percé war of 1877. Refusing to give up their tribal lands in Idaho, the non-treaty Nez Percés had fought a brilliant campaign, under Joseph’s leadership, which inflicted several humiliating defeats on the US Army. Chief Joseph’s courage and the chivalrous way he conducted the war, as well as the shabby circumstances of his final capture near the Canadian border in violation of a truce, made him a hero among white settlers as well as Indians. He was fêted by the citizens of Bismarck, Missouri, and received in the nation’s capital by President Hayes. None of this popularity enabled him to regain his people’s ancestral hunting grounds from the entrenched white settlers. But he did win his plea for exile in the same region after the government had tried to settle him and his people in the southern plains, where many of them died from the unaccustomed heat.

The Nez Percé revolt had been fuelled ideologically by the Dreamer religion, a messianic faith taught by the hunchback Prophet Smohallah in the middle of the last century. Though influenced by elements of Christian liturgy – particularly the Lord’s Supper – the Smohallah cult was radically traditionalist and anti-white.

The dreamers taught that Mother Earth, having been created perfect, should not be disturbed by man. Cultivation, or any other improvement of the soil, must be avoided. Everything that human beings ate must grow by itself. Any form of submission to white authority, in government, school or church, was sinful. If the Indians remained steadfast to these teachings and performed the appropriate rituals, a leader would arise in the east who would revive all their dead, expel the whites and restore them to their ancestral lands.

Some of the ritual, if not the teachings, survived in the Seven Drum religion as practised by the Nez Percés. Their longhouse, a large utilitarian square building with room for several hundred people, was divided into two rectangular halves, one for worship and the other for feasting. The former had an earth-covered floor at its centre, where the dancing took place.

The seven drummers were ranged in front of a stone fireplace where logs were blazing in accordance with the ritual. At one end, next to the bell boy, sat Joe Red Thunder, the current chief, a short, sturdily built man with short grey hair that stuck out from his head like the bristles of a boar. The other drummers looked stern and dignified, with portly figures and noble, craggy countenances. They wore jeans and embroidered jerkins bearing tribal emblems or totems. From above the mantel the handsome face of Chief Joseph presided over his people, with pleated locks, massive silver earrings and a proud, sardonic expression that testified to years of struggle and bitterness.

I took my place on the men’s side of the room; the seating opposite was gradually filling up with women and children. Nearly all were dressed ‘traditionally’ in cotton prints, moccasin boots and brightly-coloured shawls with tassels. Their shapes were matronly, but never obese. At a sign from the chief, the drumming began – a slow steady beat of even minims, like the opening bar of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. The tempo was absolutely constant; only the volume increased, as the dancing progressed.

The dance began with the children, who remained on the floor throughout the ceremony. On one side half a dozen boys were ranged in order of height, from a tallish teenager down to a boy of six. All wore coloured shirts, jeans and moccasin slippers. Facing them opposite were two little girls of about ten and eight, exquisitely dressed in tasselled shawls and knee-length moccasin boots. The taller girl was thin and aquiline. I named her Little Horse. The younger was a moon-faced beauty with two sunflowers in her hair, white boots and silver tassels on her bright green shawl. I named her Sea Wind, though her given name, I learned, was Camille.

The children jumped up and down to the drum-beats, with the springy gait of colts or lambs. The girls were perfectly tuned to the rhythm: Little Horse, especially, had a way of fractionally anticipating the beat which gave an eager fluidity to her movements, a gazelle ever poised for flight. The boys were much more ragged, the elder concentrating on their movements, the younger frequently bouncing out of step. Masculine gaucheness was ranged against feminine grace, compensating with superior numbers for its lack of skill.

For two hours the children danced, forming and re-forming on the earthen floor, the girls always leading, the boys never catching up. Sometimes they were joined by two or three matrons who would decorously circle the floor and salute the drummers, lending solidity to the dance, like posts supporting a trellis. Then the drumming would stop and a person from the audience, bereaved, crippled or just unhappy would deliver a tearful, halting testimony, invoking our prayers for an aunt or child, living or dead, an ailment or some other complaint.

After more drumming Chief Red Thunder halted the proceedings and made invocations in the Nez Percé language, which he translated into English for the children. But it was not the Almighty, or some remote, abstract Great Spirit, that made its presence felt; rather it was the spirit of the community itself which the drumming called up, creating a link with a past now lost beyond retrieval. There was no theology, and little moralising apart from the occasional enjoining of youngsters to keep the faith of their forefathers. It was tribal group therapy, a ritualised invocation of its collective childhood made with actual children as its focus, closing the generations in a single act of devotion, the tribe worshipping itself.

At the feast in the next room, Chief Red Thunder placed me opposite the drummers who had brought their instruments with them. The drumming continued for half an hour while the food was served by the women and girls. The boys sat next to me on the bench, learning to be waited upon. First the sacramental foods – water, salmon, elk meat, camas roots and huckleberries – were placed in disposable cups and bowls on the table. Then the other foods were ranged around them – cassoulets, hams, chicken, turkey, jellies, sweets, cakes and every other kind of supermarket junk piled into plastic bowls and paper plates till they occupied every inch of space on the table.

As our gastric juices began to work, the drumming continued, mocking the cavernous hollows of our stomachs. When – after what seemed an age – the drumming finally stopped, the chief gave the order to begin. ‘Water,’ he intoned, and we drank our ceremonial cup of water; ‘Salmon,’ and we reached for fragments of dried salmon from a small plastic bowl; followed by the commands for meat, roots, and berries. The sacramental foods, originally placed in small dishes in front of us, had become overwhelmed by the more substantial offerings, and we were hard put to dig them out. The fare seemed to mirror the gastronomic progression of the Nez Percé Indians from hunter-gathering to supermarkets and welfare stamps, from leathery, sinuous men and nymph-like squaws to the stout, overfed and under-exercised elders and matriarchs who filled the dining-hall. After we had gorged ourselves awhile the speeches began. A little girl whose sixth birthday it was smiled ecstatically when the cake – a giant confection of sponge with jello filling – was paraded around the hall.

Following Chief Red Thunder’s lead, we all relieved ourselves of dollar bills into a plastic bag the little girl carried for the purpose. I was introduced, and made a short speech of thanks. Then Virginia, a handsome matron with swept-back silvery hair, made a testimony, saying how good it felt to be at the longhouse among her people, despite the poor health she had suffered that morning.

‘I want you young ones to know that whatever you think about it now, you must carry on our religion, you must preserve it, for that’s what will give you strength.’

A thousand elders in a thousand American churches were probably delivering exactly the same message that very Sunday morning, using more or less the same words. But in this case, I knew she was absolutely right. It was not in the abstruse realms of theological discourse, the ambiguous truths of the Bible or in sanctimonious appeals to moral rectitude that the truth of her statement resided, but in the deep vibrations of the drums which from infancy must penetrate every ganglion of the Nez Percé child’s nervous system, every fibre of its being. The Seven Drum Religion found the parts that hymnals, liturgies, bible-sermons and even sacraments could never reach in the deracinated post-industrial world.

After the feast was over, there was more drumming and dancing, and then it was time to go home. One of the drummers gave me a ride in his truck back to the Mission. He had exchanged his tribal jerkin for a parka and had put on an ordinary baseball cap. I asked him how he would be spending the rest of his Sunday.

‘Watching the ball game on TV, just like everybody else,’ he said.

Sunday was Sunday, even for pagans. ■

The Divine Supermarket is out now.

Malise Ruthven is a writer and historian of the Islamic world. He has been a scriptwriter with the BBC Arabic and World Services and has taught Islamic Studies and Comparative Religion at the University of Aberdeen, the University of California and at Dartmouth. He is also a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books.

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