Jayne Clark/USA TODAY
SECOND MESA, Ariz. – Micah Loma’omvaya is expertly dodging ruts on a narrow footpath-turned-wagon-trail-turned-barely-passable-road when he spots a rogue compact car with California plates parked off to the side. Soon its day-pack-wearing occupants stroll into view.
“They shouldn’t be here without a guide,” says Loma’omvaya, a Hopi anthropologist who also happens to be a guide. “This is a federal Indian reservation. We fought for it, and we have a right to control tours in it.”
Point taken. But as the wind-sculpted otherworldly beauty of Blue Canyon comes into view, it’s understandable what tempted the trespassers – and what compelled Sunset magazine to declare that if this spot weren’t in what it dubbed the “The Last Secret Land,” it’d be worthy of a starring role in a Ken Burns documentary.
The Hopi Reservation, 1.6 million acres of mostly raw wilderness, is home to 12 small, autonomous villages that pepper three high-desert mesas in northeastern Arizona. As a tribe, the Hopi have been protective of their traditions and ways of life – and their privacy.
But the opening of a native-owned hotel in 2010, and the creation this summer of an arts trail that leads to galleries and crafters’ workshops, signals a new openness among many of the villages. The driving motivation: economic development that, in turn, will keep tribal members here and, ultimately, help keep the culture alive.
Unemployment among the 9,500 reservation residents is at least 50 percent. There are few commercial enterprises save for small family-owned shops in which artisans sell their pottery, silver jewelry, baskets or carvings. There are no fast-food joints, no convenience stores, and the nearest Walmart is 130 miles away.
Mixed views of tourism
Tourism isn’t exactly new to Hopi. More than 50 years ago, the tribe opened the Hopi Cultural Center on Second Mesa, with a motel, restaurant and small museum. Still, as Loma’omvaya puts it, “The villages have a love-hate relationship with tourism. We’ve engaged visitors since the railroad came in. Hopis try to be the best hosts we can be. But we also expect (visitors) to respect our traditions and ways.”
At the far western edge of the reservation, the Moenkopi Legacy Inn & Suites near Tuba City incorporates Hopi designs and hues. Ponderosa pine beams span its soaring lobby. Hopi pottery symbols are woven into its carpets. Historic Hopi photographs adorn the walls. With a prime location on U.S. Highway 160 midway between the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley, the 100-room lodging has seen robust occupancy since its opening in September 2010.
“It’s exceeded our expectations,” says hotel manager Alan Numkena.
Still, the recession has been hard on core villages scattered along Arizona Highway 264, which cuts through the heart of Hopi. On a recent weekday, the village of Walpi, which for decades has admitted paying visitors accompanied by a local guide, is empty. The 900-year-old settlement is dramatically perched atop the narrow end of a 300-foot-high mesa. Though the last full-time residents moved out last year (there’s no electricity or water), families maintain ancestral homes to use during Hopi dances and ceremonies that occur almost monthly.
Dirt streets – really more like pathways – lead to a ceremonial plaza and traverse early 20th-century homes of sandstone and mud that appear as if they sprung organically from the mesa top. In time, they, too, will literally be blown away by the elements. Newer construction here, as well as in other Hopi villages, typically consists of unadorned cinder block, unpainted wood and manufactured siding, creating a rough aesthetic against a raw landscape.
A hand-hewn ladder poking through a hatchway in the earth signals the presence of a kiva, an underground room in which ceremonies related to Hopi spiritual figures, called kachinas (or katsinas), take place. There are five such subterranean rooms in tiny Walpi, though all villages have at least one.
Spirits are in the air
Some ceremonies, which feature masked dancers representing kachinas, are open to the public here as in other villages. But photography, taping and sketching are prohibited. Visitors checking in for Walpi tours see a posted 1992 declaration noting that outsiders are banned from most dances because of a Marvel Comics depiction of ceremonial kachinas.
“The kachina spirits really mean something to us,” says Walpi tour guide Kendra Huma. “They have their own personalities. We use them in our prayers, for healing, for rain.”
More recently, the Second Mesa village of Sipaulovi has created guided tours. And on Third Mesa, Oraibi (a village continuously occupied since 1100) allows visitors to wander around after checking in at the Hamana So’ohs gallery.
The new arts trail also puts visitors on track for studio visits with such artists as silver overlay jeweler Weaver Selina and his wife, Alberta, who weaves traditional baskets. At their Rising Sun Gallery on Second Mesa, Alberta is working on a coiled basket made from yucca she gathered, dried and dyed with colors derived from plants she collected. It’s a true from-scratch endeavor.
“Once they see all the work it takes, they appreciate the price,” she says. The baskets cost $385 to $2,500.
At her home in the village of Polacca, Rachel Sahmie sits before a wood-burning stove polishing her latest creation. She is descended from Nampeyo, the legendary Hopi potter who revived ancient designs in the late 1800s.
“The ancestors created these designs, and we give them our own interpretation,” she says.
Perhaps, but Sahmie abides by the old ways, digging her own clay, hand-coiling the pots and firing them on the ground with hot coals and sheep manure – which she also gathers herself. Her pieces fetch up to $6,000.
“I was born into this,” Sahmie says. “But it has to be something that’s in your heart. You have to have passion. That’s why Grandma and Mom said you can’t be lazy and be a potter.”
A private-guide program enables custom tours from arts-centric to nature-based, including hiking among the wind- and water-carved expanse of Blue Canyon.
Loma’omvaya leads the way to the ruins of an 1800s trading post and an early Indian boarding school. Little remains other than crumbling sandstone walls. Eventually, they’ll erode into nothingness.
But the Hopi will remain, he says: “Our culture is ancient. We were here before America and we’ll be here after America ... hopefully.”
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