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DESERT TIME -- A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST

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PART III:  SPRING

Chapter 19
Awatobi and the tota-achi Hopi Reservation, Arizona

Coulter and I have come back here to visit Alex Kasknuna, and this morning he brought us to the ruins of Awatobi. There are potsherds all over the place, each fragmentary design now a new design in itself. I trace the patterns with my fingers, turn the shards in my hands, not so much willing them to be whole as wondering about their use and about the hands that made and used them. Then I put them back in the dust and stones. I am acutely aware of where they belong. I am sure that the potters painted their glazes on with this same sense of balancing.

There are stripes, checkers, parallelograms inhabited by dots; variations on the zigzag, partial spirals, hooks, flecks, and fragments of large complex designs broken away. The glazes are all shades of cream, orange, brown, red-brown, rust, black, and gray. Some colors are chalky soft, others bright. There are finer clays and coarser clays, thinner and thicker shards. In tracing the patterns with my fingers, committing them to memory, I realize I'm repeating the strokes of the potters, the potters of the ruined town of Awatobi, and I am repeating them in part, not in totality, because the totality is smashed.

While we are walking there, it comes to me that people are moved to try, in one way or another, to define the meaning of civilization, perhaps because it seems to be the only thing we have achieved that other animals have not. And in defining anything one creates a boundary: on this side this and on the other side not-this, as all animals do in defining the bounds of territory. Mammals for the most part enclose extended families within theirs; coyotes and beaver patrol their bounds and scent them afresh, insisting on definition.

The notion of boundary is the oldest notion of life, it seems, one definition of life being this: the possession of an enclosing semipermeable membrane. When the integrity of the membrane breaks, life is over. Such a membrane encloses each one of our two billion-plus body cells, the semipermeability allowing some things in and walling others out. In varying flexible ways and sizes such a "membrane" encloses each of us, and then our family with us, then our community, tribe, nation, civilization, species. These are the ring walls of identity.

I've heard the boundary of civilization defined as cleanliness; as godliness (meaning the belief in certain myths and codified practices; of totems, in other words, and taboos). Others subscribe to the notion of a stratified society as the earmark of civilized beings, one in which there are aristocrats, politicos, artisans, and the downtrodden, or their equivalents; anyhow, a coherent and interlocking structure in which people -- strangers, even -- can live and relate in peace within collective city walls. Others prefer to point at inscription, the written word, as the symptom of civil life. Others point at art as the prerequisite.

These shards are remnants of the latter, I suppose, though not as that word is in use now by us. Artists nowadays sign their names to their creations; they expect what they create to be an object of emotional impact, more decorative than useful, more important than decorative. The Awatobi potters were not, I think, like that. Human hands not only made these pots but filled them, emptied them, cleaned them; used them, in other words, in the business of living.

***

A wind is blowing, hard, sending sifts of dust along the ground and tossing the silvery rabbitbrush like surf. While Coulter explores, Alex and I sit side by side in the shelter of a broken wall. He tells me that this village was deserted long ago, he does not know when. Or why. Or if he does know, he does not tell me. I am aware by now that some questions are impolitic, even dangerous, and I do not press him. Later, in books, I will find out that Awatobi was deserted in A.D. 1700 and has been empty ever since. Now it is a humpy landscape inhabited by hundreds of rabbits. Why so many rabbits ... perhaps half-collapsed hollows of old houses and kivas are readymade rooms for them, underneath. Like the English badgers that live in cellars of long decayed and forgotten Roman villas, they take advantage of human ruination.

Later I read this: in 1700, the men of other Hopi villages came at dawn and trapped the men of Awatobi in their own kivas, and threw burning branches in on them, and guarded the doors until all live sounds had ceased and the kiva roofs had collapsed in flames.

Then they took the women and children of Awatobi back with them across the plateau. On the way there was a quarrel about the divvying of spoils; some women and children were killed in the ruckus, but most were absorbed into other villages.

Since that morning, Awatobi has fallen into ruin and silence. Unless you know your way through the rutted tracks of the Hopi grazing lands, you will not find it.

***

The Hopi have a reputation for being peaceful, almost passive. They keep a low profile and keep to their way. They had this reputation from the beginning. The Spaniards had contact with them before the Mayflower docked at a rock in what was to be Plymouth, Massachusetts. They have this reputation now. They are secure in these mesas, in which they have lived as settled farmers for more than eight hundred years.

Physically they are different from the surrounding Navajo; shorter, stockier, finer featured, more closely related to the Aztecs than to the taller Athapascans of the north. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Hopi villages were a kind of Switzerland to other desert tribes; in those years, when Spanish governors and Franciscan ecclesiasts were busy with the work of subjugation, members of other tribes showed up as refugees on the Hopi doorstep. They were given living space, room to build, fields of their own. They were welcome, as all people of any faith are today, at the dances of the kachinas; the masked spirits of ancestors, animals, men, clowns. It is a tenet of the Hopi Way that these dances are good for everyone to see, that they are for the benefit of all people.

So: I am trying to understand what it was that stirred them to massacre their own kind and destroy their own village, and I wonder myself -- and it is my own wonder, from within my own cultural boundaries; I cannot inhabit any other -- I wonder if the raid of Awatobi was something like the trials of witches at Salem, or the burning of heretics at the stake, in Inquisition days. It was the burning of heretics, in point of fact.

***

The story of the ruin of Awatobi began on August 20, 1629, on the feast day of San Bernardo, when three Franciscans and twelve Spanish soldiers walked up the mesa paths into this village. It was the first Hopi village that Spanish priests had ever come to, and they fell on their knees in prayer. When they got up they resolved that the mission of San Bernardo de Awatobi would be grand, magnificent, for the proper enlightenment of man and the glory of God.

The Franciscans went on to other villages, too. They founded the missions of San Francisco in Oraibi, Visitas in Walpi, San Bartolome in Shongopovi.

They were not welcome anywhere. The priests, backed by soldiers, methodically destroyed Hopi altars and railed against Hopi customs and made the Hopi work to build the missions. Immense beams for the mission churches were dragged from the mountains tens of miles away. The ruts visible in the mesa stone of Oraibi were, the Hopi say, worn there by the butt ends of dragged mission beams. According to one book that I read, the Hopi word for Franciscan priests in those days was tota-achi, meaning a grouchy person that will not do anything for himself. It was a word otherwise used for cranky crones or spoiled children. It came to mean more than that. In the end, the tyranny of the tota-achi was too much to bear.

In the Pueblo uprising of 1680, the Spaniards were thrown out of the villages of the Rio Grande and out of Hopi country, too. Some missionaries were killed and the missions were razed, but that wasn't the end of it. That wasn't the end of it at all.

One day in 1700, twenty years after the Franciscans had been thrown out, Fathers Juan de Garicochea and Antonio Miranda marched back into Awatobi, having walked and ridden for many days from the capital of New Spain -- now Mexico City -- and once in Awatobi they fell on their knees and raised their arms in the air and preached and prayed and baptized the faithful all day long.

Terrible personal risk and terrific hardship and fanatical belief must have refined these two Franciscans to bright flames of pure zeal; the faithful of Awatobi were a fuse they set alight.

Their revival meeting attracted quite a crowd. There were some people in Awatobi whose conversion to Christianity had been genuine, years before, and who had hidden their faith all the years between, and who welcomed the fathers back into their midst.

***

Tapolou was the chief of Awatobi in those days. He was not among the Christian faithful. The glad response of his own people was more than disturbing; it was heretical. After the Franciscans went back to their home missions, to gather soldiers and materiel for a longer stay, Tapolou plotted with the chiefs of Oraibi to destroy his own town. The Oraibi chiefs managed the rest; rousing the warrior societies of other villages, coordinating battle plans, organizing the making of bows, arrows, heavy shields.

There was no place in the Hopi world for Christians who were loyal to the king of Spain. These were infidels, to be destroyed. The membrane had been breached. The infection would be cauterized and the breach would be closed.

Years later, Oraibi itself split in two over the question of whether or not their children would have to go to the white man's school. This was in 1906. It was the same question over again: our civilization or theirs. The anti-school faction walked out and formed the village of Hotevila.

Everyday life goes on here, now, without having changed much, in some ways, from the time of Tapolou. The Hopi Way is still the Way here. When you go to a Hopi village you have to sign in at the town hall and go through the village with a registered guide, and take no photos and make no sketches. You are treated, carefully and kindly, like a guest; a guest who cannot quite be trusted to behave too well.

The Hopi Way is like a desert shrub: the invisible roots are many times greater than the visible part. The leaves are small and the branches may be small, but the tenacity of the whole is astounding, it is durable and strong almost beyond belief.

***

Now, today in Awatobi, a flock of horned larks is flying and twittering and chipping; they rise singing over our shoulders in the wind. Now this is a humpy landscape of saltbush and rabbitbrush and tumbleweed, wildflowers and rabbit dung. The fine gray soil has the texture of ash. Away from the ruins is a nubbly yellow-silver sea of grass with junipers dotted like dark flames.

Picture a country with soil the color of cream and ochre. Add ring muhly grass like rough rings of just-tarnished silver. The far hills, rust and yellow, are freckled with juniper. The whole landscape is the colors of the potsherds, blurred and unresolved. I stare and stare at this country as one does at the horizon of the sea, or at flames of a fire. When I look at him, Alex is staring, too; and Coulter is standing looking out, with an orange jasper arrowhead and a black marble of  volcanic glass in his hand, the findings of an hour's forage among rabbit holes. He will leave them behind when we go.

"They belong here, Mom," he'll say.

He knows by now whose treasures they are.

***

Later, back at his house, Alex carves a kachina while I make notes on the day. The kachina in his hands is still attached to its natal curve of cottonwood root. He shoves the knife forward with his thumb and curls of wood fall away.

He is making a wolf doll to go with a set of antelope dancers. The wolf will have a white mask with two red eyes, a red mouth, a fur ruff. The antelope dance is a hunting dance; this wolf is the predator.

"How do you know how to make it, Alex?"

"I look at something and I soak it in. I remember it. Like a photograph. It's a part of me."

The wolf has high pricked ears, a long snout, a rattle in one hand and a bow in the other. One foot is lifted and the skirts flow back from the lifted knee.

"When I carve, I change the thing. It's how I feel it, from in here. I have to feel how it should be." He thumps himself on the chest.

Then he looks up:

"You remember those potsherds you liked, back there?" He tosses his head, meaning Awatobi. "A lot of those patterns, we still use," he says.

Then he says that a neighbor of his has begun making pots again. She started two days ago. She uses a round pebble to polish the clay smooth. Right now, he says, her hands are sore from smoothing pots.

And I wonder if my will to remember is as strong as his. If the coherence of my world is as strong as his. I did not wonder these things before.

Later, when I read the story, I can't forget that in Awatobi we were sitting in the ash of a heretics' pyre, that this was a price paid to keep a people whole.

I think: what happened to the natives of Massachusetts, the Wampanoag who gave baskets of corn to the Mayflower Pilgrims at Thanksgiving time? They were friendly, ameliorative, and willing, and -- except for a remnant few on the island of Martha's Vineyard -- they are gone.

Hands of the Kachina Carver:  The mask, the kilt, the leggings are taking shape, one foot is lifted in dance.

The border designs are taken from Hopi pottery, ancient and modern. Over time there seems to have been little change in the design elements themselves or in the earth colors used in the glazes, though every potter makes use of them differently and every pot is a unique creation. Since the elements have symbolic meaning, each pot is also a kind of poem, or statement.

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