A glimpse of the Hopi way of life

The Desert View Watchtower, a tall stone tower standing at the eastern point of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon was completed in 1932 by Mary Colter, inspired by similar Native American towers constructed in the past.  It offers a spectacular view looking out over the Grand Canyon. As one climbs the narrow circling steps that go from level to level, one arrives in large circular rooms, with unique Hopi art work on the walls.

There is a painting of a crane, who evidently has swallowed several fish, since they are lined up inside his throat.  On another wall, a birdman stands with arms outstretched and feathers hanging down toward the ground.

Another bird holds something in his talons, which he is eating.

A being who seems to have a beak and large claws, leans forward, standing in front of a white moon, if it is the moon.  A white pronghorn with elegant backswept horns stands on skinny legs.

The next morning, Ray Coin, who is with Sacred Travel and Images, and is giving us a guided tour of the Hopi lands explains to us that the Hopis migrated from a large area that extended east into New Mexico, north into Colorado, and westward into the Grand Canyon.  They were not one people, but were many peoples, and the word Hopi conveys the concept of a way of life; not the name of a tribe. It could be translated as “peaceful”.

The migrations of the Hopi people

When they could see that their way of life was in danger due to the advance of people who came from Europe and then moved across the American continent, the groups who were to become the Hopis came together on the rocky, barren mesas that now make up the Hopi reservation.  The land is dry and not great for farming, though Hopi farmers today eke out a living with dry farming by knowing what crops will grow and how to plant them on the desert land.  In any case, this was land no one else wanted, for the most part, and they were left more or less in peace to live there.  It is surrounded by the Navajo reservation, and there have been occasional land disputes among the two tribes.

The Hopis believe that they were among the first people to travel across the Bering Strait, the 53 mile wide gap between Russia and Alaska, over which many of the Native American peoples are believed to have crossed at the time when it was dry land, during the last Ice Age, when glaciers locked up part of the world’s oceans.

The Hopis say that they traveled the length of the Americas going south into South America, and they look to the Aztecs as being among their forbears.  One legend recounts that when the Aztecs were constructing their temples, monuments, and great cities, some of the workmen had a falling out with their bosses, and they left, heading north, to look for a land where they’d be free from mistreatment.

Hopi clans

Ray Coin has taken an informal survey of the number of Hopi clans and has found that there are 35 separate Hopi clans.  He stresses that not everyone has the same legends and stories, and there may be various perspectives on the history of the Hopis.

In the Hopi ceremonies, the different clans have various roles, and this maintains a society of harmony and good will,  where everyone has a part to play.  The society is matrilineal, and the children inherit property from the mother’s side of the family.  A child belongs to the clan of the mother, not the father.  And a child’s uncle, the mother’s brother, plays an important role in raising the child and imparting values.

The Hopi villages of Walpi and Oraibi, on the First and Third Mesas, go back to around 900 AD and are the longest continuously inhabited towns in North America.

However, the original picturesque homes are no longer there, having been supplanted by modern-day, framed houses. The people have few resources, and unemployment among the Hopis stands at around 35%.

A drive through the Hopi reservation along Route 264 is fascinating since the dry, remote countryside has a captivating desert beauty all its own, but a traveler will see nothing of Hopi life and culture without a Hopi guide.  Villages and other sites are closed except to guided tours.

Hopi guided tours

A Hopi tour guide is the only genuine way to access any of the Hopis’ rich and profound cultural heritage.  Their artwork is stunningly beautiful, and there are many contemporary Hopi artists doing beautiful work; weavers, painters, sculptors, and craftspeople.

Photos and even note-taking in the villages are not allowed, and the people, though welcoming, tend to be private and reserved about their culture, especially their spiritual traditions.  This is entirely understandable, since, sadly, a long trail of both well-meaning and not-at-all-well-meaning writers, anthropologists, and archeologists have popularized the Hopi culture, sometimes ridiculing the sacred beings, making fun of the religion, and distorting the meaning of truths they did not understand.

Many thousands of intriguing petroglyphs adorn rock walls on Hopi lands, but you will not find them on a map.  You can see them only accompanied by a qualified guide, and they are well worth seeing.

The Moenkopi Legacy Inn in Tuba City is a lovely hotel.  The Hopi Cultural Center, with its Museum, near the Second Mesa is well worth a visit.  The links below give the contact information to arrange a guided tour.

Interestingly, as Ray Coin, explained to us, one of the Hopi principles, is not to be first – not to strive to be the most excellent, the most outstanding, or the best in a given field – but instead to work together in harmony with others – to move forward together.

These people who make do with so little, who cling like a desert wildflower to their ancient cliffs, and who invoke with beautiful artwork the spirits who live in mystical, cosmic realms that we have long ago lost touch with, have another way of seeing things, rather like the way the wind itself might see things as it blows across the dry mesas.

For more information about Sacred Travel and Images, or to contact Ray Coin, click here.

A note of caution: Some Hopi ceremonies are open to the public. If the well-being of animals is important to you, you’ll want to ask if any animals or birds are to be used in a ceremony before you arrange to attend one.

Photos: Sharon St. Joan / These are paintings on the walls of the Desert  View Watchtower at the Grand Canyon.

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