Seventy-Five Miles from Nowhere
A beautiful, sunny, cloudless day in Arizona welcomed us as we drove toward the Hopi Indian Reservation, accessed by travel through the Navajo Indian Reservation. The scenery spectacular—flat land with buttes jutting up to lace the landscape with colors almost beyond description. We were on our way to volunteer at the Hopi Indian Mission School in Kykotsmovia, Arizona. I would be tutoring; my husband scheduled to do maintenance and repair. The sun began to set as we neared our destination and it cast eerie shadows over the buttes. As if to provide a backdrop to the grandeur, a distant mountain range with snow-covered peaks captured our attention.
There were no homes or any other signs of life until we approached the town and school grounds. There the colorful beauty turned to bleak desolation. Unexpected gusts rocked our fifth wheel, home for the next month. The few dwellings we observed resembled shacks. Car tires piled on top of the roofs served as protection against the constant wind. Later we would learn that most of these homes lacked electricity or running water. Locals draw water from a large central well, transported in water tanks in the back of dilapidated pickup trucks. Fire pits serve as stoves, and sunrise and sunset determine the hours of activity or rest.
Ahead a hand carved wooden sign indicated we had arrived at our destination—seventy -five miles from Flagstaff. We drove onto the school grounds and parked our rig in the designated site. Fine silt blew relentlessly to change the topography daily. It managed to bypass window casings to cover everything inside our recreation vehicle, which made dusting an endless chore. This area is called the land of little rain, as annual rainfall is less than two inches.
In addition to tutoring, I worked in the school library and I discovered much about the Hopi population from the librarian, Mrs. Dashi. Quite unlike the portrayal of Indians in movies and literature, the temperament of the Hopi is peaceful with avoidance of conflict. Hopi simply do not argue and will walk away to avert discord. The reservation has many clans and each clan is assigned items they are allowed to craft such as baskets, pottery, jewelry, and Kachina dolls. Each clan has specific patterns that identify their work. Mrs. Dashi belonged to the water clan.
In the Hopi culture women are in charge, and husbands are not permitted to do anything without the approval of the wife. Alcoholism is prevalent among the men. Upon marriage, the man moves into the wife’s home and assumes care of her parents until the couple can afford their own home. The Hopi tribe does not own casinos, and due to little work on the reservation handcrafts bring in most of the income. These handmade items are sold at the Hopi Cultural Center or in gift shops along the main road of the reservation. Due to the distance from a major town, tourism is infrequent.
One day we stopped at a gift shop and the proprietor spent considerable time telling us how the Hopi know when to plant and when to harvest. It has to do with the equinox. When the sun casts a shadow on a certain portion of a particular rock used to tell “time,” the Hopi know it is the season to plant. Likewise, this method is used to determine when it is time to harvest. It has been done this way for centuries. The main crops are watermelon and field corn.
If you ask a Hopi where they live, they will tell you first, second, or third Mesa. This is to let you know how far you will have to travel. A mesa, which is more extensive than a butte, means flat-topped ridge. Hopi homes do not have house numbers, but when you arrive at the specified mesa, you discover that since Hopis spend much of the day outside there will be someone to point you to the correct home.
Graduation day occurred during our stay and we were invited to a covered dish celebration at one of the student’s homes. We arrived to receive a gracious welcome at a four-room dwelling which had electricity and an inside stove. Women were at the stove making batches of fry bread, a flour-based type of fried dough, which is a tasty mainstay of the Hopi diet. Fry bread is served hot therefore the entire time we were there woman took turns at the pot to fry a fresh batch. As we filled our plates and sat at tables throughout an open room in the center of the house, we noticed the Hopi women stood against the wall. We learned that Hopi women do not eat until all guests have eaten. Even when you declare you are full they will urge you to have more, and they will not sit until convinced all guests have finished eating.
While we were there, we learned about a local favorite called the Little Grand Canyon. “It’s a few miles down the road. Just look for a windmill by a farm and go up that road,” we were instructed. One day after work, we set out to find this place. As directed, we came upon a windmill and we turned onto a dirt road sure we had misunderstood. However after a short ride there stood the canyon, exactly as described a hidden wonder of beautiful layers of colored rock. A miniature canyon that could rival the Grand Canyon for splendor stretched as far as we could see. It is poignant as the Hopi originally lived in the Grand Canyon before the government displaced them.
The Hopi, despite challenging conditions are an indomitable people we quickly came to love. They never complain; and in spite of their laid-back lifestyle, the tribe is decreasing in numbers. Only about 10,000 remain on the reservation. Because of the lack of work, many young people leave the reservation to find employment. The Hopi language is in danger of becoming extinct as few young people speak it.
The Hopi Indian Reservation is a contrast between extreme beauty and extreme harshness: a hidden gem unseen by most people. It left an indelible mark on us. Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco, but we left a piece of our soul on the Hopi Indian Reservation.