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DESERT TIME -- A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST

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Chapter 5:  mesa
Shongopovi and Oraibi, Hopi Reservation, Arizona

At the edge of the mesa the corn is spread to dry on racks made of juniper wood. The racks are held off the ground by stones, cement blocks, an old chair, a truck tire, a broken pail. Far away are the dun outlines of mountains.

The air up here is like a copper-gold lens colored as if it were filled with pollen, but as dry and as light as the out-breath of a kiln.

I stare at the corn, every kernel is an amazing thing; streaked, bright, glossy. Alex Kasknuna waits for me to tell him what I'm doing with my nose six inches from a cob of corn.

"I've never seen blue corn before," I say.

"No?" and then he laughs, and it's a pleased laugh.

When we go on he walks a little ahead, though sometimes we go side by side. The houses are arranged in no pattern; they press together and stack on top of one another so that ways between and to them angle and curve and then open suddenly to plazas. The kivas in the plazas are square, not round, but are easy to recognize because of the ladders poking up. The ladders are made of whole trees tapering to gray points in the air.

The houses are as rectangular as blocks. Beam ends jut from their tops and these are layered with brush and then adobe. The squared stone of the walls has been chinked and then plastered. Some houses are abandoned, their windows boarded, their walls unrepaired. Here and there new houses are being built of cement block.

This is higher, paler country than the Navajo Reservation that surrounds it. There is sand and dust and monumental rock with sometimes a juniper, or a pinyon, or a high hollow filled with the blue-green-gray pelt of sage. On the mesas, the houses are the same color and substance as the land.

***

All the time we are here I'm aware of seeing through two sets of eyes at once.

"I am ... Hopi," Alex says. "Once, I considered myself a Baptist. Now I have found myself, my identity, my place on this earth."

In the dust streets time is of no consequence, the present has shifted; it's as if the present is of no consequence. The air is in continual shushing motion like air over mountaintops, and smells don't stay, but in whiffs they're here, the human smells: shit, roasting corn, soap, wetted dust.

Juniper smoke streaks the air. The juniper has been cut somewhere else and hauled in; whole tree lengths are piled against house walls, the thick boles torn and twisted and the bark fibrous. It looks like something once animal: dried baleen, chunks of mammoth jerky.

Sometimes there are coal-like heaps of dried sheep dung against the houses, too. The dung is in flattish gray slabs. To fire raw pottery in the traditional Hopi way you make a pile of juniper kindling and layer dried sheep dung over that. Broken shards are lapped on the dung like shingles, the raw pots are propped on there; more shards are layered on that and more dung on that until you have a dome of dung with pots at the heart. This burns slow and hot, for days. The shards protect the pots from most direct heat, but fumes do get in, unevenly, so pots come out streaked and clouded with oranges or creams as if they'd been airbrushed. Firebrushed is what they are.

***

Later we climb to Oraibi, on another mesa. Oraibi was established by the Hopi in A.D. 1150. It is the oldest continually inhabited village in North America. Here the streets are narrower, the houses smaller. From one comes the sound of a televised baseball game: high inside ball one. From another house comes the sound of chanting: hey ... hey ... ya ya ya.

Outside every house here is a stone bread oven. Neatly laid on the ovens are household things -- bowls, knives, cobs of corn, yucca leaves, bunches of herbs. Hanging on one adobe wall is a newly made yucca sifter-basket. Alex tells me that when he was a kid he used to watch his grandmother sift corn with a basket like that. She would toss the corn up and the chaff would blow away and the corn would fall exactly back. Alex smiles and shakes his head; it seemed like magic, he says, that the corn always fell exactly back.

There is more blue corn, newly harvested, drying on a rooftop. Again the colors: every shade of red and blue from blood to robin's egg, indigo through purple, French blues, lavenders, carmines, blue-blacks. No two cobs are the same. No two kernels are the same. The light gives the corn a white gloss as if it were made of material as durable as glass. Some cobs are as long as my forearm; the smaller cobs, twisted, lie still in their husks in the dust.

***

We've come to a spur of rock, the village having petered out. The most traditional of the Hopi still live on these mesas, Alex says. He says it quietly. Until a month ago Alex's friend Jerry had a girlfriend, a fiancee, up here -- not in this village, but over there on Second Mesa -- and her family called Jerry (not always in jest) pahana: meaning white man, meaning One from across the Water, the lost white brother; a word almost purely insulting, nowadays. Unlike Alex, Jerry speaks English as a first language and Hopi only haltingly, and he has what he calls "good manners," meaning pahana manners; but these were foreign manners to his fiancee's family and they teased him about that, so he was made to feel like a foreigner. Also, he would not move in with her family in the traditional way. Jerry insisted that he had his own life to live, that so did the girl, and that these own lives could not be lived under the traditional matriarchal roof; they needed a home of their own. The girl disagreed. So she broke off their engagement.

"What did Jerry do?" I ask.

Alex lifts his chin toward the distance, the land below, the scattered settlements of trailers and prefabs and government developments that lie between the mesas.

"He's been visiting the bootleggers. I've tried to help him. To tell him that is not the way. But he does not listen to me."

***

Sometimes Alex carves kachina dolls out of cottonwood roots, roots collected along the washes when rains have gullied earth away. The roots are seasoned for a time and then carved and painted and sold to traders or collectors, though he does give some as gifts; this is their original intent. The making of dolls is a traditional craft. For centuries Hopi have carved them for their children -- for girls for the most part, for a young niece or daughter or sister. The kachinas themselves are spirits of the invisible forces of life (china means spirit, ka means respect) and there are hundreds of them -- more than three hundred by an anthropologist's recent count -- representing animals, plants, birds, people, clowns, clouds, stars, rocks, and other things of the past and present and future. Some fall out of use; others arrive. They come to the villages in the winter solstice and leave after Niman Kachina, the Home Dance, at the summer solstice. Then they go back to their ancestral home in the San Francisco Mountains near Flagstaff. During the six months that they are with the Hopi many cycles of their dances are held in the villages, dances at which anyone is welcome; kachinas dance for the good of all mankind. The dolls are given as gifts during the Home Dance especially. The dolls are not sacred, they are dolls, which is why they are allowed to be sold at all -- but they are treasures.

Each one Alex makes is unique. Each piece of root that he takes up has its own character. He says that each doll is a form that he releases from the wood.

When he is not carving, or working with his family, Alex walks, on his own, for miles, at any hour, whenever the need strikes. He's been doing this all his life, since he can remember.

Last night he appeared in my camp in the canyon. One minute he was not there, then he was. He made no sound in the fallen leaves and he moved with that fast continuous glide which makes anyone nearly invisible in a mix of tree shadows, or anywhere, daylight or dark. Come now, I thought to myself then, wary of someone -- of anyone -- showing up in my camp in the dark; so, silent moccasins. Only these are workboots. The man in them is only a little taller than I, tough as wire, the color of cherry heartwood with a faint smell around him of wool and woodsmoke, beardless but with a grown man's lines in his face. The fact is that most people are clumsy and noisy when they move and that Alex is not, and when he appeared four feet off last night, I thought: not many people can move like that. Or, I still think now, like this.

He goes from stone to stone with a smooth gliding walk as if this were level land. The mesa out here is strewn with rubble; houses fallen long ago.

"Look." He bends down, picks and searches for a minute in the dust, then stands up again and pours a handful of things into mine: two pottery shards, feathers, yucca fiber, a piece of dried corncob. "Didn't you say that you found these things in Mesa Verde, too?"

***

Later Alex asks me:

"Can you read signs?"

We are sitting on rocks at the brink of the mesa.

"Signs?"

"I know some," he says, "oh, like birds, two birds just balancing and dancing together, you know, in the air, enjoying their life; that's a good sign. A hawk is a good sign. A hawk overhead even better. A hawk circling over your head, man, you are in harmony then! Foxes. Seeing a fox, especially if it has a mate, that's a very good sign."

We dangle our feet over the rim.

"I think I am close to the land," he says. "When I'm away from the land, I feel unhappy."

The village is half-hidden behind us, windowed blocks the color of mesa stone. Dust-colored valleys range below, dun-colored ground, eroded bones of farther mesas, arroyos striking into the plain like lightning bolts.

Below the mesas there are farm fields where desert scrub has been cleared away. There are plantings of apricot and peach and apple trees. The fields look like fields of dust, now, in the autumn, though the squash vines and tomato plants in them are richly green. The Navajo are the Hopi's best customers. The Navajo come right to the farms every summer and fall, in their pickup trucks, just as nomadic Navajo came to the farming Hopi a thousand years ago.

"You going to New Mexico tomorrow, huh?" he asks.

"Yes."

"What are you looking for there?"

''I'm not sure. I'm going to the malpais, the lava flows."

"Something interesting there?"

"I don't know. I've never been. That country is full of volcanoes. I've never been to one."

There's silence for a while. Then:

"You got country of your own? Your own land?" he asks.

I think about that.

"I have some land I own, where I had a farm once," I say, "but it's not my land. In the way that this is your land."

"Do you ever pray?" he asks.

"Sometimes."

Alex raises his chin and I follow his eyes: beside the path we came on is a polished barkless stick the length of my finger, one end wrapped with threadlike stuff. I didn't see it before.

"A prayer stick," Alex says. "Hopi always prays. Hopi believes in life," he says, and he laughs the same open laugh that has been with him all day long.

***

So, you went south, I think. It's as if time had folded on itself, centuries of pale stone and corncobs and pots not much changed, and here you are, not much changed, I think. Next to Alex I feel frail and loose, tenuous. I feel shaken, an odd unrooted stranger with a frail hold on life. Though by the time the sun sets I will learn that this is not true.

Later we walk up a canyon to the trickle of a spring. We sit with our backs against pinyons. We have bought a sixpack of Coke at the store and now we each drink the first one rapidly, the second more slowly, and nurse the third. The fizzed sweetness is blessedly cold, it washes the dust from my throat, from behind my eyes. We talk and fall silent, then talk again, starting anywhere about anything. The silences are filled with ease. The sun drops and the colors of things come back from the bleached day dust; the green of pinyon needles, the yellows of wildflowers, the blue of sky, the warm layers of the rock. The air clears like a washed window.

"Hey. Look," Alex whispers, pointing up.

"What?"

"Look!"

A pair of prairie falcons circles overhead. They dive, flip, circle, playing in the canyon air.

"Good God!" I whisper back.

"Yes," he says, "that is true."

We watch the birds dive, tease, dance, return overhead to begin the dance again.

"The falcons are good," Alex says, "they are dancing our harmony. see?"

"How do you know?"

"I know so." He grins. "You know so, too."

Rain over Hopi Mesas, Hopi Reservation, Arizona

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