"No dances on third mesa this weekend," the unsmiling, middle-aged Hopi woman sitting behind the desk says.
It’s 7:30 A.M. in the middle of June and hot in northeastern Arizona. My husband Michael and I have already driven hours today to see the beginning of the Hopi dance, the event around which we’d planned our Southwestern trip. At the Hopi Cultural Center and Motel on Second Mesa, we stop for directions to the village where we were told the dance would be held.
“Are you sure?” I ask the woman as I rummage through my backpack for the notebook where I jotted the date only a week ago. “Someone I spoke with on the phone said we’d find one in Hotevilla this Saturday, today, that it was open to outsiders.”
“No, not in Hotevilla.”
“We’ve come from Iowa,” I say, as if
this will persuade her to volunteer more information. “Planned our trip around this dance. Could it be in another village?”
“Not this weekend.” The clerk’s eyes drop to the book open on her lap. We stand quietly and wait a few seconds, me jamming my hands in my pockets to keep from drumming fingers on her desk.
Maybe she thinks we’re gawkers, loud, offensively curious tourists, coming to the dances laden with video equipment and flashing cameras. Around the 1920s, white tourists invaded the area with cameras, their photo frenzy so intense when they mobbed the plazas during performances, the dancers could hardly move. Since then, the Hopi banned any kind of filming. And they’ve tried to stay somewhat closed—probably a survival technique to retain their identity and culture—another reason, perhaps, why the local people refuse to acknowledge, maybe even see us (but we’re not like those other louts, I want to say), why the woman behind the desk apparently doesn’t plan to look up again.
Early that morning, we left the lodge on the Navajo reservation where we were staying and drove south along two-lane Highway 191 towards Hopiland. Dusty lots dotted with scrubby brush and cows stretched out on either side of the seemingly endless, straight asphalt. The sky was bright blue, and cirrus clouds trailed overhead like horses’ tails. Plastic trash bags the color of the sky lined the roadside. Behind the bags, the buildings: Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church, Trinity Presbyterian Church, Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists—all within a mile of each other. Scattered among the Christian houses of worship, a boarded up Chinle Umber (the L missing from the sign), a few abandoned trailers, a turquoise and pink stucco building with the sign RESTORING YOUTH TO HARMONY (in English and in Navajo), the Department of Behavioral Health Sciences, Chinle Kindergarten Center, and the Navajo Glass Studio.
To the west lay the mesas, lightly veiled in a milky, rosy haze. Occasionally, behind fences of chicken wire, we saw a plot with a hogan, tiny adobe house, and a tepee, suggesting that more than one generation may have lived there. The Bush administration had dropped its first bombs on Baghdad less than three months before, and signs proclaiming, “We support Bush and our troops” were everywhere. American flags decorated windows of private dwellings and hung limply from the ubiquitous crosses in ditches alongside the road marking the sites of fatal traffic accidents.
Michael, driving, fiddled with the radio in an attempt to stay un-mesmerized, trying to find the Navajo station we listened to yesterday. Hearing the language spoken, soft and fluid, was a treat—even though, when the DJ translated into English, the subject, concerning various car dealerships in the area, wasn’t especially interesting.
“I can’t pick up the frequency,” Michael said, once we hit the junction with 264, where we headed west. “Sing something to keep us awake.”
So, as the dun-colored landscape merged with the charcoals of what looked like an ancient lava flow, but was the result of coal mining that stripped the land of vegetation, I sang the names of the first four of the twelve Hopi villages as they appeared on the map, east to west in a span of about seventy miles.
“Polacca, Hano, Sichomovi, Walpi…” I chimed, delicious cadences I wanted to wrap my tongue around as easily as I digested the food we’d been eating, dah dínülghaazh, “fry bread,” with béégashii bitsi’, “beef,” and naa’olí, “beans,” what the locals call a Navajo taco.
The majority of Hopi live in and around the pueblos on three fingerlike ridges jutting abruptly from the desert at the southern end of the Black Mesa in Arizona. Many of the residents cling to their traditions as surely as their pueblos cling to the six-hundred-foot rocky escarpments. Some are the oldest continuously inhabited villages in the United States. Here, though residents have adopted many modern ways, they still farm the same land and maintain many traditions their ancestors, the Anasazi, or Ancestral Puebloans, practiced more than nine centuries ago. In every Hopi pueblo on each of the three mesas is an open area intended for ceremonies and dances, and it’s to one of these villages we’re heading in hopes of experiencing the kachina dance we heard was taking place today.
Michael’s desire to see the dance stemmed from his passion for the Southwest and the Anasaszi. The Hopi are the closest living connection to the civilization he’s been studying on his own for years, backpacking for fun through remote canyons in search of remains of granaries and dwellings and drawn and chiseled images preserved in the desert heat. And he’s transmitted his enthusiasm to me during recent trips here together: “The Southwest is so open,” he says. “It just physically feels like you’re closer to something bigger than yourself.”
In part due to their geographic isolation, the Hopi weren’t consumed by the Spanish invasion of the high desert, and they provide the purest connection to pre-Columbian Native American culture we have. For Michael, their dances are one manifestation of this connection, and he thought that seeing a dance might help him gain some sliver of insight into the Hopi lifeway. For me, desire sprang from savoring the journey, the freedom of simply driving, and experiencing what I could of another culture away from the familiar and home.
The annual powwows we’d attended in the past, held on the Mesquakie settlement in Tama, sixty miles from our home in Iowa City, had given us the chance to see Native American dances. But their spell and meaning quickly got lost in the carnival atmosphere of us tourists, who often outnumbered our hosts and busied ourselves eating fry bread dripping with honey and buying trinkets made especially for the powwow, taking in the performance casually amid all the distractions. Easily accessible to anyone driving down I-80, the dances were advertised to the public well in advance. There was no quest involved in getting there, no mystery that couldn’t be uncovered by clicking on to a Website. The Hopi dances in Arizona were something else entirely. What that something was we wanted to try to begin to discover for ourselves.
As we turn to file out the door of the Hopi Cultural Center, our “thanks anyway” to the woman behind the desk sounds more upbeat than we feel. We walk the short distance to the restaurant for breakfast. The menu in both Hopi and English is extensive. We order sa kwa vi qa viki, “blue corn pancakes,” as delicate as gossamer, perfectly crisped bacon, and eggs over easy just enough—food that almost soothes our disappointment that we won’t find the dance. But when our teenaged server brings the check, Michael gives the question another shot.
“Are there any ceremonial dances around here today? Any that we’d be allowed to see?”
“Sure,” says the young Hopi woman. “There’s one in Moenkopi.”
I quickly scan our road map but can’t locate Moenkopi on the three mesas.
“Would you show us?” I wipe off the table with a paper napkin, place the map firmly on the linoleum table top, smooth out the creases.
She points to a dot well removed from the other villages. Moenkopi, as it turns out, is the only Hopi community outside the Hopi reservation, not directly on or beneath Black Mesa. Geographically, its residents live in an area set up for the Navajo.
“It’s about two hours from here,” our server volunteers. “You’ll still be able to see a lot of the dance if you leave now.”
Hydrated and nourished and ready to chase this experience, we thank the young woman and get back into our car.
In the Hopi language, Moenkopi means “running water all the time.” There’s a perennial stream here with a secure water supply, underground water available in natural springs or wells. But to my untrained eye, as we drive slowly through the upper segment of this village of six hundred, the town looks as arid as any place in Hopiland proper, all beige and tans, with clumps of brush growing among the rocks. We see nobody, not even a dog, as we wind our way past stone and plaster dwellings and an occasional dilapidated outhouse, looking for an open area where people might congregate for a dance.
Five minutes after turning off 264, we come to a fork in the gravel road. Divided into two parts, Upper Moenkopi, situated near the busy north-south highway, is more modern than the pueblo’s traditional lower section.
“Let’s follow this downhill,” I say. “That’s probably where a dance would be.”
The road gets steeper and narrower as we head downhill. About five hundred feet beyond where the road abruptly stops, we see why the streets are empty. Everybody is on the rooftops. In the car, with air conditioner off and windows down, we can hear chanting. The people on the roofs must be concentrating on the drama unfolding below, hidden from our sight.
We need to get out of our little Mazda 626. Find a parking spot for it and a spot for us on a roof. We circle the area, seeing a space on a ridge overlooking a hillside choked with garbage: not the pot shards and piled corn cobs of an ancient Anasazi midden, but contemporary litter—broken appliances, car parts, and cans. Below that is a fertile valley of green corn—the first burst of color we’ve seen all day.
Leaning against the houses are rickety ladders. We choose one, and Michael spots me as I place cautious, sneakered toes up, rung by rung, finally hoisting myself over the lip of the roof. I feel awkward and self-conscious and white and glance at the others on the roof for any sign that we’re trespassing. People of all ages sit in metal folding chairs or lawn chairs, some with young children in their laps. Others stand. Many hold open umbrellas to shield them from the blazing sun. We sit cross-legged on the hot roof, as close to the edge as we dare to get an unobstructed view. Nobody seems to notice the clumsy, middle-aged woman with curly hair and her nimbler, redheaded husband—at this point in the day, the only non-Hopi in attendance.
All eyes are on the dancers below, the air charged with a communal hush. Some forty men, each wearing a unique, brilliantly colored full-face mask, swing their bodies a half-turn right, half-turn left, chanting muffled under their masks. On the top of each mask is the figure of a bird, and below the mask, covering the dancer’s neck, a green ruff that looks like a nest, made from what might be spruce or cedar. Their grass skirts rustle with the steady stamping of feet. Moccasins reach to their knees and are adorned by little bells jingling softly as the dancers turn and sway.
Since cameras are prohibited, and fearing that note taking might also be banned, I force myself to focus. As the dancing continues, though, I need to have a name to attach to what I’m seeing. For me, to “name” is to call up a mental picture, and this is one memory I don’t want to fade.
Standing near me is a man wearing a black headband, long-sleeved shirt, and blue jeans, holding a little girl’s hand.
I rise, inhale exhale quickly and ask, “Would you mind telling me what dance this is?”
“Hummingbird dance,” he says, without looking at me.
Emboldened at finally punching through my diffident façade, I address him again. “What does the hummingbird mean?”
“Crop propagation,” he says, training his eyes straight ahead.
“The dancers are hummingbird kachinas then?” I ask. He nods yes, and I leave him alone, return to my spot on the roof.
In response to Michael’s raised eyebrows, I cup my hand around my mouth, whisper into his ear what the man just told me, and try to remember what I read about kachinas before the trip. These spirits (ka, “respect,” and china, “spirit”) or invisible life forces include spirits of the dead, of the plant, mineral, and animal kingdoms, of clouds, planets, and stars. While they’re on earth, they appear in the physical form of dancers, such as those in the narrow plaza below us. When mature Hopis dance a kachina dance, they believe they are the beings they personify.
The dancers’ masks are stored in the kiva: an underground, ceremonial, male-only domain and the center of Hopi life. The kiva’s physical structure represents the entire structure of the Hopi’s “multi-world universe,” with its ladder-opening through a hole in the roof that leads to the world outside and its hole in the floor, representing the Place of Emergence, that leads into the body of Mother Earth, the underworld where people are born. Every Hopi village has at least one kiva. Moenkopi has three.
If I live to be one hundred, I could never really understand the Hopi’s esoteric cosmology, kachinas, the symbolism of the kiva and the worlds it represents, or the ceremonies conducted there. But more than three decades ago, when I was first introduced to notions that didn’t spring from more circumscribed, rational Western thought, when I started studying certain Eastern traditions and finally felt as if I’d found a home, what spoke to me was simply this: humans must live in harmony with the natural world. All of it. Our vision isn’t limited to a fixed dot somewhere off on the horizon, in perfect Renaissance one-point perspective, but instead takes in vast vistas of space. And if we’re quiet and receptive, we can sense the workings of a universal spirit in that space, animating everything. The Hopi’s attention to this “cosmic pulse,” viewing all life as inexorably intertwined, allowing multitudes of kachinas, or messengers, to guide us on our evolutionary journey appealed to me intuitively.
Now, in the plaza, at the far left of the elongated circle formed by the dancers, two young boys appear to be learning the ritual, stopping every once in a while to study moves the others make. A dancer in the middle of the circle seems to be in charge, shouting unintelligible (to our ears) commands. He wears a full-face mask and is covered from head to toe in heavy, black velveteen, flowing around him as he weaves up and down in the circle, sometimes stopping to sit on a chair at one end. A little bulldog mix trots into the circle and marches back and forth with the man in black velvet. Another man with one long braid down his back, wearing jeans and a red plaid shirt, chants sonorously, tossing corn kernels at the dancers’ feet. Then, an older woman, bent over a cane and guided at the elbow by a younger woman, takes over his role, tossing corn and chanting. Once in a while, the pace changes and some of the dancers break away from the group, throwing gifts of fruit, roasted corn on the cob, and other vegetables to the people on the rooftops or lining the plaza. The younger kids in the audience run off to the edge of the plaza with their ears of corn and eat them as they watch the rest of the dance.
From our perch on the roof, we also watch the spectators sitting around the plaza. A woman in a wheelchair, bundled in layers against the sun, and wrapped in a bright shawl, gently moves from her waist, forward and back, eyes closed, rocking like so many of the oldest audience members, back and forth in their chairs in the dust, in a universal motion of people in prayer.
As the sun grows hotter overhead, and the paint begins to melt on the dancers’ bare torsos, the rhythmically pounding feet continue to stamp prints into the dust as feet have stamped for generations, each man’s identity given up to the hummingbird. We’ve crossed no visible boundaries, no oceans. But here, witnessing a part of American history about which so many Americans know nothing, we’ve been transported to another world. And though I’ll never comprehend Hopi beliefs and the complex symbolism in the few details I’ve pocketed like illicit pottery shards and placed in a secret basket to savor later, on the Hopi reservation and this outlying area, in a ceremonial context far removed from my ordinary life, I can sense the presence of something holy.
The troupe files out of the plaza, possibly to the kiva where they’ll rest between dances. With this break in the performance, my attention no longer held by the dance, I worry that despite my Coppertone SPF 45, I’m beginning to bake, turning into a husk in the dry desert sun.
“Do you think anyone would mind if we sat down there?” I ask Michael, nodding towards the patches of shade under the eaves of buildings lining the plaza below.
Michael descends first, holding the ladder while I lower myself to the ground. Across the square, we spot an empty bench in front of a building. As we pass a partially ruined house with crumbling walls, I hear a young voice.
“Will you help me get down?”
It’s been so long since anyone but Michael has spoken to me that I don’t react immediately, and stepping around a heap of broken glass and other debris, I continue walking towards the plaza.
“Will you help me get down?”
The voice is almost behind us now and more insistent. I stop and turn. Crouched on the ledge about eight feet off the ground is a small Hopi boy, maybe five or six years old.
“Will you help me? Get down?”
We glance around to see if there’s anyone else the boy could be addressing, and, seeing no one, rush to the ledge with outstretched hands. Together we lift the child down. He smells of the dust from the road that powders his bare arms, and tiny droplets of sweat bead his forehead. When he bends his legs to jump, a rip in his jeans reveals a dirty spot on one knee. Once on terra firma, the boy holds his right hand up for a high five, and we slap it in turn. “Good job,” we say, and he runs across the road into a house.
We sit in the plaza in the shade. The little bulldog that crossed into the dancers’ circle trots over, sits by my feet, and vigorously scratches himself. I tentatively pat the top of his head, the only place on his body not covered with cysts, and it’s then I realize that we’re actually part of this scene. If someone sitting on the roof were to lean back for a wide view, we’d be in her sights. By now a few other white people are in the audience, and Michael strikes up a conversation with a woman standing next to us. She tells him that her granddaughter—she points to the white woman sitting with a group of Hopi at the end of the plaza–-married a Hopi man who’s dancing today; otherwise, she wouldn’t be here it’s so damn hot. And as they talk, I try to figure out what it was about the encounter with the boy on the crumbling wall that allowed me to feel more comfortable and less an outsider in this place.
Our physical transaction was brief, but finally, I didn’t feel as if I was just taking taking taking—experiences, souvenirs, ideas and images for my writing. Though conspicuous in our whiteness, we were until that moment, nonetheless invisible. Until the boy asked for help, we were merely spectators. He saw us, acknowledged us as human beings, allowed me to imagine myself a participant, and—for a few fragile moments—to be part of his community. By helping him, I felt as if we’d given something back, however tenuous and small. When he clasped my wrist as he hopped off the wall, I was conscious of his weight—solid, reassuring—and I permitted myself the privilege to come into the plaza and take a seat under the eaves in the shade, closer to the dance.