We live in a new country, with few places where the evidence of the distant past can be seen; when there are traces, they are seldom older than a couple of hundred years. The vast majority of our surroundings are quite new, and we live modern lives within that familiar context. So when Americans travel abroad, we often aim to see older places, cities and landscapes where traces of earlier eras survive. In first world locations, such as Europe, there is the strange contrast between the remnants of older cultures and normal modern life, not that different from ours. But sometimes we can experience not just the physical remains, but ways of life that are remnants of an older culture – perhaps in the food, customs, festivals, or folkways.
If we want similar experiences in our own country, the only place to go is the desert Southwest. The ruins of the ancient civilization there are the only widespread, significant remains of a pre-modern, non-European culture we have. But these ruins have been empty for over 700 years – the original inhabitants moved on – their descendants are no longer there. If we want to see the living, cultural descendants of this civilization, we can visit the pueblos.
As we wandered around the Southwest for seven weeks, we traced the migrations of the ancient native peoples through space and time. Our path wasn’t direct – we skipped around and circled back a few times to avoid winter weather in April. But their path was not very direct either, as they moved and their habitations evolved, partly driven by changes in the climate. There were early traces of inhabitation in pit dwellings, which then coalesced in the great center at Chaco Canyon. Chaco was abandoned, and the residents shifted into cliff dwellings, scattered over a wide area, but likely centered at Mesa Verde. The cliff dwellings were slowly abandoned too, and these ancient people moved south to the 21 different Pueblos, where they remain to this day.
Twenty years ago I had visited the Hopi Pueblo and been astonished. I remember standing on the edge of the cliff on First Mesa, looking across the desert to the San Francisco Mountains in a snowstorm and thinking, am I really in the United States in the 20th century? It was the most alien place I’d ever been, one where the history, culture, environment and language had nothing to do with the ones in which I lived, and it seemed bizarre that these people and I were now part of the same country; thinking of the US as an empire rather than a nation began to make a lot more sense. One of the major goals of this trip has been introducing Greta to very different ways of life, and life in a pueblo struck me as one of the most extreme outliers we could experience.
The Hopi reservation centers on the three mesas, (more accurately well-defined escarpments from one higher table land), completely surrounded by the Navajo reservation. The original villages were built on these mesas over 700 years ago, and have evolved over time – buildings come and go, and whole villages have disappeared too. The buildings are masonry, usually made from the local stone; when you look at one of the mesas from a distance, it is often hard to see where the native stone ends and the buildings begin, as here at First Mesa,
There is strong sense of the buildings being of the earth. Local stone, adobe, and trees for roof framing (which had to be transported long distances).
The Hopi have not allowed visitors to take photos in their villages since around 1907. As early visitors often came to witness ceremonies and dances, the intrusive taking of pictures disrupted the rituals, and the Hopi wisely banned them altogether. (In fact, they banned all recording – including sketching and note-taking.) While residents of all historic venues have to put up with tourists poking around, it was probably extremely annoying here, as the Hopi themselves were the subjects of the photos as well as their surroundings. So while I was somewhat frustrated by the photography ban (couldn’t they just let serious architecture professors take photos?) I respected their decision, and was frankly amazed that they had figured this out so long ago. So all the photos I have from the Hopi reservation were taken from long distances, well outside the villages from the highways below. However, the Hopi aren’t worried about earlier documentation (you can buy books of older photographs which show the villages quite well), or rigorous contemporary research (there is a project at the University of Redlands which is building three-dimensional digital models of the villages, including historic reconstructions).
We first visited Shongopavi on Second Mesa, driving through the newer areas on the outskirts of the village and walking in to the historic center. The houses are tightly clustered, one or two stories, sharing common walls. They surround small plazas, which are the sites of dances and ceremonies. The buildings are loosely rectilinear, but there is no rigidity to their location – there may be a more or less regular street wall line, but buildings set back various amounts. There are irregular passageways and alleys, and you simply find your way through the connections.
As soon as we arrived we were checked out by a few calm reservation dogs, who lost interest and wandered off. As we walked through one plaza, a young man named Benedict left his house and welcomed us to his village, explaining a bit about their life, and how he was working with youngsters to get them farming in a traditional manner. Eventually he asked if we’d like to buy some art, showing us some beautiful colored drawings he’d done of Hopi legends and spirits (kachinas). This established the pattern we’d find at all the other villages – many of the Hopi are artists, and make a living by selling drawings, and especially kachina carvings, to the tourists who come by. Greta and I are not really souvenir collectors (except for rocks and shells), but this was different; the work was really beautiful, and it also gave us an opportunity to talk to the artists themselves, who explained the meaning of their work and the processes they used. We met Robert on the other side of the plaza, a man of about my age who was watching one of his grandchildren. We were invited into his house, then we walked over to another house where he had more carvings stored. We ended up buying a lot of art on the Hopi reservation (and the other pueblos we visited), always from the artists themselves.
Talking to Robert was also our introduction to how the Hopi seem to feel about historic preservation. His house was a one-room masonry house, probably a couple of hundred years old, but it actually belonged to his wife’s family – the Hopi are matrilineal. Robert belonged to a different clan, and had moved there from another village on Second Mesa when they married. Robert remarked that his wife, as head of the clan, thought they should have a bigger, newer house, and she hoped to tear this house down and build the new one. We noticed that some of the nearby houses were newer, and often built of concrete block. I asked him how they felt about this, and he was unconcerned – it appeared that the physical house didn’t matter that much to them, but the location on the plaza did – that had been in the clan for a long time.
Again we wandered around quietly, trying to not intrude too much on people’s lives, although we did run into the only somewhat threatening res dog of the whole trip. As we passed a cluster of little kids, one small girl spotted the two palefaces in their big sunscreen hats, and excitedly called out, Hi cowboys! As we headed up towards the end of one small street, a woman came out of her house and told us we shouldn’t go that way, which was again something we encountered a few times. There are important ritual areas near the villages (especially some cemeteries) which should be avoided and certainly never photographed), but they don’t make a big deal out of it – no signs or barriers. They just politely but firmly say you can’t go there.
We also had a nice conversation with a high school boy who was weeding the plaza in front of his house in the photo above. He asked where we were from, and then asked what Oregon was like. I told him that we lived on top of a hill about the same height as his mesa from which we too could see mountains in the distance, but that our house was also surrounded by 100-foot-tall trees. He just stared at us in amazement. We then finished off the afternoon in a conversation with three guys who were probably high, and who had spotted us while driving by in their muscle car. They offered to show us around for $20, but I said we had already walked through the villages and were heading back to the motel. One pointed out that they could take us to forbidden places, such as the cemetery by the Corn Rock, and we could even take photos. I said we had been told that was explicitly forbidden, but he said it would be okay if we were with them. Eventually we negotiated a deal whereby they would leave us alone for $10, which seemed like a fair price for admission to their village.
The next morning we went to Old Oraibi on Third Mesa, where a much more respectable woman offered to guide us around, explaining the locations of the kivas, ovens, houses, etc. She pointed out the old mission church below the village (seen to the left in this photo) which had been burnt out in one of the not-infrequent revolts of the Puebloan people against the Spanish. Throughout the trip we became aware of the complex relationship between Puebloan people and the Catholic Church. It ran the gamut from devout Catholicism, to complete disavowal and a return to traditional practices, but many people seemed to fall somewhere in the middle, partaking in the traditional Hopi rituals while still attending the church.
In Oraibi we were also able to buy a Hopi staple, parched corn, from the aunt of our guide. Kernels are heated in a pot packed with sand, and the corn expands, but not nearly to the extent of our popcorn. It was somehow more satisfying and tastier than popcorn, and is taken along by the Hopi as a snack when they are heading out into the fields to work. When we mentioned this later on First Mesa, our guide was surprised to hear someone was selling this, and thought she might have to head over herself to track it down.
Walpi, at the end of First Mesa (about six miles from Second Mesa), is the oldest of the Hopi villages. We drove up a precipitous road to the top, then passed through the villages of Hano and Sichomovi. (Hano is inhabited by Tewa people, who have lived next to the Hopi for 600 years, but still speak their own language.) You must have a guide on First Mesa, so we met her at a small parking area before the narrow ridge into Walpi; if you pulled your truck a little too far forward you’d plunge a few hundred feet off a cliif on one side of the mesa, and if you backed up a little too far, you’d go off the cliff on the other side.
Beyond the narrow entry ridge, Walpi itself is just two streets wide, with one main spine of buildings up the middle, and a few other houses located on the east and west edges, along with the kivas and plazas. Around a half-dozen houses share each of the plaza areas.
No one now lives in Walpi full time; when I was there twenty years ago I met an old woman who must have been one of the last residents. The different clans own the individual houses, and they congregate there for important festivals and occasions. There were two young artists we spoke to, who were using what I believe to be the Fire and Coyote clan house as their studio, to the left in the picture below. It was a narrow room, with windows looking across the plaza and desert to the east, and windows in the opposite wall looking out to the sunset in the west. It was a mixture of very old masonry and newer renovations, and they had plans on how they were going to fix it up further, some of which had to do with the pleasures of sitting outside on the west side barbecuing in the evening.
The nearby Snake clan house had been damaged by fire when a propane stove was installed incorrectly, and it was being rebuilt. I was surprised to see that a porch section, where the floor joists had probably been four-inch diameter trees was now being constructed with badly-sawn 2x6s and Simpson joist hangers. The same lack of interest in historic methods and materials we had seen in Shongopavi held true at this even older location, perhaps the oldest continuously inhabited village in the country. I couldn’t figure it out – many of the Hopi are fine artists, creating carvings, pottery, paintings and prints, but this widespread focus on artistic production didn’t extend to architecture. It may be due to poverty – selling art to tourists brings income, whereas restoring a house accurately would just cost more money. At Ebey’s Landing on Whidbey Island, many of the historic buildings are on active farms, where the owners can’t afford to restore or even maintain them in an appropriate way, so a fund has been established to provide grants for preservation work. Perhaps an arrangement like that could work here – gifts and ticket sales to tourists might generate enough capital.
This contrast between the incredible physical location, and the lack of economic opportunity in that remote location was evident throughout the reservation. Many buildings were in an extreme state of disrepair, and selling artwork and handcrafts was clearly a major source of income for many residents. Many of the younger Hopi we spoke to had spent years off the reservation – working jobs in Phoenix or Albuquerque, or in the military. The problems of rural areas in America are magnified here – by a more severe climate, extreme isolation, and limited employment opportunities.
There are signs of growth and development – a new school, a medical complex, plans for a new commercial center down the road from First Mesa. But all of this redevelopment is down below the mesas – the population in the traditional villages continues to decline. There are real disadvantages to living on top of a mesa – lack of running water and other creature comforts, lack of privacy, small cold houses. The newer housing down below is fairly standard for detached American houses, although somewhat inflected towards a more traditional Hopi style. The development pattern is typically western American too – large lots with small houses surrounded by many vehicles. The traditional day-to-day life in a small village has mostly disappeared, revived only for festivals and special occasions. But even if they are living in new buildings below, the Hopi are maintaining their traditional life in many ways, in the landscape where they’ve lived for 700 years. Just staying on the reservation is in itself a huge commitment, not succumbing to the attractions of modern life in a big city. Perhaps this move down from the mesas is just the latest stage of the Puebloan people responding to changes in the environment – from Chaco to cliff dwellings to the mesas, and now into suburbia.
We stayed in the motel at the Hopi Cultural Center for three nights – there’s no camping on the reservation, and the nearest spot off the res was 70 miles away. It was another opportunity to talk to the Hopi, as the place wasn’t just full of tourists, and conversations with local residents in the lobby late at night (where the wifi was strong) were really informative. The Hopi have a devotion to their separate culture, which gets defined in many ways, large and even small: Arizona doesn’t observe daylight savings time, while the Navajo do, but the Hopi, wholly contained within the Navajo reservation, don’t. We started to pick up on the cultural distinctions which we outsiders don’t often hear about. They live between two very different worlds, and while maintaining their own society, still seem very open to the outside world.
The Hopi we met were all remarkably friendly and welcoming, willing to explain aspects of their culture to us, maybe because it was April and they hadn’t gotten tired of tourists yet. But the more we learned of the culture, the more clear it became that we would never really be able to understand anything about it in a deep way. I’ve been rereading Reyner Banham’s America Deserta recently, and at one point he observes that native culture is essentially foreign and completely incomprehensible to him – there is no way he could ever comprehend what is going on. I think this is true – the natives have to understand enough about the American mass culture to survive within it, but I can’t imagine being able to understand this culture without being part of it. The paradox is that this is the one place in the US where we can go to see a non-European physical environment, inhabited by the current members of that culture, but there is still no way that we can truly experience it except as foreign tourists. But even being able to witness it from the outside was very satisfying.
There was one cultural event which we only learned about at the last minute, and unfortunately had to miss. Sitting in the lobby before we left I spoke with one of several young Jamaican guys I’d seen around the night before. He turned out to be a member of a reggae band that was going to perform the next night at the events center on the reservation. I later spoke to the young woman at the front desk about this, and she said, yeah, the Hopi really like reggae. There would be two bands at this concert, and there would be a traditional Hopi dance in the intermission in between. I mentioned how I’d seen these guys the night before and how I could tell they were from somewhere else. She looked at me quizzically, and I said, I thought that maybe they were Navajo. She cracked up and said, no, couldn’t be, the Navajo just like heavy metal.