How did this phrase come about? Well, I must admit, it is not my phrase, but one that I have thought about for a very long time; my entire career as an archaeologist it seems, perhaps since childhood. How it came to be put onto paper involves the telling of a story. So here goes.
In a former life I was once an archaeologist for the National Park Service (NPS), duty-stationed at Flagstaff Area National Monuments, which actually encompasses 3 smaller Park units: Wupatki, Walnut Canyon and Sunset Crater. As an NPS archaeologist I spent a great deal of time finding, analyzing, identifying and recording artifacts from the past; the material culture left behind by my ancestors. As a person of Hopi descent, I (as other Hopi and Pueblo People), claim “cultural affiliation” to many of the prehistoric cultures found throughout the American Southwest (again, I will write more about many of these topics in future posts).
In short, I was working amongst the remains of my distant cultural relatives, removed by hundreds of years of time and a few miles as well.
Another task I had was conducting Ruins Preservation and Stabilization, which involves actively working to keep standing the many prehistoric structures found in our national parks and monuments. Think “Preservation”, but not complete “Restoration”. The former keeps the current condition and outline of the architecture intact, but does not seek to rebuild it to its’ former original look.
On one particular day at work, I and my crew of preservationists were working at Wupatki Pueblo when I happened to be visited by my Paternal Grandmother and Uncle. They often visited Wupatki on their travels to Flagstaff from the Hopi Reservation, which is 50 miles Northeast as the crow flies. My uncle also had an interest in archaeology, himself having worked on excavations in the local area.
But more importantly, they both, as did I, have a direct connection to Wupatki Pueblo through our respective clan lineages as our clan ancestors settled, built and occupied Wupatki Pueblo. The Hopi term for our ancestors is Hisat’sinom, The Ancient People. The science of archaeology uses other cultural designations such as “Anasazi”, “Sinagua”, “Hohokam”, “Mogollon”, “Salado”, “Fremont” and others. For Hopi People, the homes of our ancestors are not considered abandon or forgotten, they remain living entities in our history, forever occupied by the energies of those who lived there.
On this particular day I decided to put my work aside and accompany my grandmother and uncle as they walked the interpretive trail, and I read the trail guide out loud. At certain points my grandmother would interject her own theories and opinions about the remains we looked at. She recalled events from her life’s teachings and described the ways certain artifacts were used. She would point to an artifact in front of us and say, “See, this is where we learned how to do such things, and we are still doing it today.”
Whether my grandmother knew it or not, she was reinforcing the Hopi sense of place and meaning. The objects in front of us were not just “artifacts,” lifeless things that no longer had purpose. Instead, they belonged to someone—they belonged to the Hopis. The place, too, belonged to us, and it was our responsibility to be stewards for its care and protection.
Toward the end of the visit, the three of us split up as each lingered along the trail. Catching up to my grandmother, I heard her voice coming from around the corner of a block of rooms. I could barely make out the words she spoke softly in the Hopi language. At first I thought she was conversing with my uncle, but as I rounded the corner, I saw that she was alone, facing an open room. She smiled when I asked to whom she was talking.
Shrugging her shoulders she said, “Nobody, really. But I know that they are still here, listening and watching.”
Portions of this post originally appeared in the publication:
“Hisat’sinom: Ancient Peoples in a Land without Water”
Edited by Christian E. Downum. SAR Press, 2012.