A Short Visit to an Ancient Land

Floating above a sea of Navajos, their traditional enemies, the Hopi make their homes on three high, improbable mesas that look out on seemingly the whole world. Like the Taos Pueblo, they have lived in these stone and adobe aeries in the sky while tending their corn, squah and sheep below for nearly a millenium.

We didn’t know any Hopi in the area but had visited the village of Old Oraibi many years before and thought we would wander around there. At breakfast in the Hopi Cultural Center we asked our waiter if there was anything going on and he told us about a women’s dance at the small village of Shungopavi, on Second Mesa.

We drove into the village, just a loose assemblage of mostly cinder block houses and a few old-time stone houses arranged in short haphazard streets.  A few women in ceremonial regalia were getting out of their cars near a kiva ladder and showed us where to park. It was very quiet. Two men were standing over a fire they had built in a barrel. No photography is allowed in any of the villages so Carol had to leave her camera behind.

Nothing seemed to be happening yet so we walked around, feeling conspicuously Anglo and touristy. We could hear voices in the houses but the streets were empty. As we wandered past another kiva out toward the edge of the mesa, a girl came running to tell us we were not allowed in that area.

“The dance will be on the next street,” she said. “You can go up on the roof.”

We followed her back through a narrow path between cement block walls to an empty plaza.

“You can go up there,” she said, pointing to a broken down set of stone steps along a wall on the other side of the street. It looked as if we would have to hoist ourselves up onto the roof from the last step which was about three feet below the roofline.

It was hot and we were dubious about going up on the roof of one of those ramshackle buildings so we sat on a banco for awhile until someone told us the dance was going to be one more street over.

All this time, there was almost no one around and certainly we were the only Anglos in the neighborhood. We passed through another narrow alleyway past a broken down wall to the next street where we found a group of schoolchildren gathered and along the wall in the shade, three adults sat on cinder blocks. These turned out to be two teachers who had brought the children, fourth through sixth graders, from a nearby school. The last person was a very old man, named Augustine, who was dressed in a jaunty red silk baseball jacket and baseball cap. He was hard to understand because he had no teeth. He told Wayne once that he was 89, then later that he was 85, and that he still tended his field of corn below the Mesa about a mile away.

While we waited for the dance, Augustine regaled Wayne, perched on a cinder block beside him, with stories of his life (including the healings he performed as a traditional medicine man) while Carol talked with the teacher named Gabe, a Navajo who had married a Hopi. A group of kids sat in the sand and we noticed that they were fashioning a little kiva of sticks and stones.

“Is it a feast day?” Carol asked Gabe.

“Sort of like that,” he said, “but not like in the Pueblos of the Rio Grande because we don’t have churches, we don’t have Catholic saint days. In fact, our biggest holiday is Rebellion Day, when the Spanish were thrown out in 1680. The schools all let out and we have a big celebration.”

We never found out what the dance was called or what it was about exactly but being the end of August we figured it had to do with the harvest. After waiting a long time,  about 75 festively-dressed women filed out and formed a circle before us. They had no drums or rattles, they just sang and moved in a slow sideways step around the circle, raising and lowering two decorated paddles with a sheaf of grass, that looked similar to wheat, attached.

After a little two women came out to join the circle. One seemed like an escort for the other whose face was covered by a headdress with long fringes. Before joining the circle these two set down in the middle of the circle two baskets holding apples, oranges and grapes.

The song continued until two more women came out wearing the same black and red woven mantels but also fox fur and feather headdresses perched high over their heads on triangular frames. As the other women continued dancing their circle, the two picked up the baskets of fruit and began flinging the fruit out beyond the ring of dancers. They did this with absolute stone faces, never looking to see where the fruit landed. At a cue from their teacher, the boys ran out and scrambled with each other to catch the fruit. When it was all gone, the women finished their song and filed back down the alley.

As we dusted off our bottoms and got up to go, Augustine’s nephew came to fetch him. He told us that it was supposed to be a real battle for the fruit and that anyone could try for it.

“Yeah,” he said, chuckling, “there used to be some real good fights.”

We found out later on the internet that the Basket Dance, performed by the Women’s Societies, marks the end of the ceremonial year. The dance we watched should have been full of chaos and competition but there were hardly enough men there to create that atmosphere. We wondered if the basket dancers would have thrown the fruit out if there had been no one there to catch it.

The village looks like a poor barrio from any country in Latin America but we were privileged to see a piece of an ancient culture that somehow persists today. Aside from the schoolchildren and Augustine, we were the only witnesses.

The Hopi do not allow photography in any of the villages but I took this shot from across the ravine of the ruins of a Mennonite Church that was destroyed by lightning in 1942. There are no Christian or Catholic churches in the Hopi villages today.

It was still early in the day so we drove back to Third Mesa to visit Old Oraibi, supposedly the longest continuously inhabited village in North America. Wayne said he thought that 20 years ago there were more houses made of flat red and golden stones. Now, many of the houses were made of cinder block.

Everywhere we went in Oraibi people were friendly. Many were selling arts and crafts from their homes. Carol bought a little painted rain stick and some blue, red and deep purple ears of corn drying in the sun to plant in Taos next summer.

We had some really great conversations in Oraibi. People were open and interested in dialogue especially about the big topics, things like prophecies and religion, about tradition and progress, about tearing down and building up. Stay tuned, we’ll be unpacking these conversations in our preaching and writing for a good long time to come.

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About Carol Mell

Photo Encaustic Artist
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