Kyaptsi: Respect for Ancestral Connections

Confluence of Little Colorado and Colorado Rivers.
Confluence of Little Colorado and Colorado Rivers.

“When we visit the Grand Canyon and we come to this area…we just don’t show up empty handed. There’s great preparation that goes into coming down here….we bring offerings for allowing us to come through the passage of this place. As we make our way down here, there are several places that we stop and give these (offerings). We pray for all good things and humanity, great health and life, and abundance-ness from the rain, so that all living species and people throughout the world…can prosper from the growth. These prayers are placed at special areas, such as here (LCR/Colorado River Confluence)” –Hopi Elder.


Every year, a small, unknown number of Hopi people visit the Grand Canyon. Some stand on the rim and gaze into the canyon’s depths, some venture onto the trails and walk paths their ancestors first established, and some climb aboard boats and launch into the heart of the Canyon. No matter what their intentions or reasons for coming to the Canyon, for many of these Hopi visitors, to experience the Canyon is to tread upon Holy Ground where their ancestors dwell.

The journey they undertake is one of healing and remembering; to pay their respects and embark upon paths that their ancestors have followed for generations. They go with no fanfare, carrying only the prayers of their family and friends. They bring simple offerings, peaceful minds and humble hearts. They set off into the abyss and enter the depths. They enter the womb of the earth. For some, it is a return to visit old haunts they have known for years. For others, it will be an introduction, a brand new experience to learn and re-learn about themselves and who they are as Hopi People.

These experiences differ from individual to individual, the reality being that there is no one single Hopi perspective about the canyon and the river. Hopi society consists of a diverse set of histories, ideas, and beliefs. This has always been the case. With over 30 Hopi clans, distributed among 3 mesas and 13 villages, there are differences in how individual Hopis regard the canyon landscape. Just as the view changes with each bend in the river or with each layer of geology ascended or descended, the Hopi perception all depends on the cultural “ground” within which the individual is rooted.

Hopis at South Canyon.
Hopis at South Canyon.

Some Hopi clans have very direct ties to the canyon, often based in epic pilgrimages to places like the Sipapuni and Hopi Salt Mines. Other clans may have had very little interaction within the canyon, at least in the historical past. In addition, gender also plays a part in the degree to which a Hopi person experiences the canyon. Hopi females, as a cultural rule, are not advised to enter the depths of the canyon. This is due to the fact that while the canyon is considered “Holy Ground”, it is also a place of danger, which can manifest itself in the physical and spiritual realms.

Females, by their ability to birth, raise children and thus perpetuate Hopi culture, are cherished within Hopi society and thus are afforded certain protective status. To place a Hopi female in harms way, by means of entering the canyon, is considered a cultural taboo. Some may say this is a just another form of gender discrimination, but you must ask yourself, from which cultural “ground” is one making that statement? Nevertheless, Hopi females play an important role in maintaining the cultural connection with the Canyon as they provide the males with various traditional foods and prayers that are ritually offered prior to entering the Canyon. These offerings ensure safe passage not only for the Hopi men who venture down the river, but also include the non-Hopi boatmen and personnel who accompany them.

Female Headdress.
Female Ceremonial Headdress.

Thus the specific cultural knowledge a certain individual Hopi may have about the canyon depends on a wide array of factors. All that being said, I feel there is a general perspective that most, if not all, Hopi people have about the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. This perspective is evident even if a Hopi person has never hiked, rafted or visited the canyon at all. It is a perspective that is rooted within the overall ideology of Hopi culture, and applies not just to the Grand Canyon landscape, but all of ancestral Hopi lands (which includes all of the Southwest, parts of Mexico and further south, again depending on specific clan histories).

Within Hopi culture is the belief that the meaning of the past is what it contributes to life in the present. This belief underlies the inherent connection that Hopi people have with the landscapes of their ancestors. How this connection manifests itself, often daily, is in the cultural knowledge and traditional know-how a Hopi person maintains. This knowledge is evident in many forms within traditional Hopi culture; the crops we grow and eat, the homes we occupy, the tools we use, the art we create, the ceremonies we enact and the language we speak. All of which is really an accumulation of ancestral Hopi experiences, learned over countless generations

Within the canyon, and throughout the Southwest, are thousands of areas both natural and human-made that are imbued with a powerful sense of meaning and connection for modern Hopi people. Today, when a Hopi person visits such places, we don’t simply see the remnants of a by-gone era, we see reflections of who we once were and what we have now become. We witness the artistic and technical accomplishments of Hopi ancestors, and we recall the spiritual accomplishments of our ancestors as well. We are reminded that in order for the present generations of Hopi to flourish and prosper, we are dependent upon the gifts of our departed ancestors. Ferguson and Kuwanwisiwma write (2004),

Ancestral villages that have fallen into ruin are not dead places whose only meaning comes from scientific values. The Hopi ancestors who lived in these villages still spiritually occupy these places, and these ancestors play an integral role in the contemporary Hopi ceremonies that bring rain, fertility, and other blessings for the Hopi people and their neighbors throughout the world. ‘Itaakuku’ ­­–footprints –are thus a part of the living legacy of the ancestors, and they play a vital role in the religious activities essential to the perpetuation of Hopi society.

In essence, by acknowledging our ancestors existence, they acknowledge ours through the answering of our prayers. This understanding provides a continual connection between modern Hopi people and their ancestors. This connection is contained within the landscapes, wherein Hopi ancestors interacted with their natural environments, leaving a legacy behind that their descendants must now strive to continue.

Nankoweap Granaries.
Visiting Nankoweap Granaries.

For the fortunate Hopi males who venture into the canyon on annual river trips, sponsored by the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office through partnerships with the National Park Service, the Bureau of Reclamation and other agencies, there are opportunities to renew spiritual connections with ancestral landscapes.

Numerous ancestral Hopi villages and settlements are located along the great rivers of the Southwest and they continue to be honored in story, song and prayer. Some of the Hopi names include Pisis’vayu, an archaic term referring to the Colorado River, Yotse’vayu, “The Ute River” (The San Juan), Hopaqvayu, “The River of the Northeast” (The Rio Grande), Hotsikvayu, “The Winding River” (The Verde River) and Palavayu, “The Red River” (The Little Colorado), to name just a few. As attested to by these names and meanings, these rivers and many others continue to remain a viable part of the Hopi Cultural Landscape and serve to connect modern Hopi people to regions located far from the current Hopi Reservation.

Yotse'vayu: San Juan River.
Yotse’vayu: San Juan River.

Yet while these waters remain culturally important to the modern Hopi, historically there was little consideration of this continued importance to the Hopi and other tribes by modern politics and federal guidelines. Many decisions are made by politicians on how rivers in the Southwest are to be managed and used, but most, if not all of these decisions do not address the interests and needs (let alone the cultural relevance) of rivers to Native Tribes, including Hopi. However, there are some renewed attempts by the federal government to include perspectives of Native Tribes, particularly the Hopi, in current management strategies of resources in and along Southwestern Rivers.

Throughout the 1990s, the Hopi Tribe was involved in two research and documentation projects concerning the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. During the initial years of 1991-1995, the Hopi Tribe became among the first Native American tribes to request “Cooperating Agency” status in the development of the Glen Canyon Environmental Studies (GCES), which resulted in a comprehensive overview of Hopi history and culture related to the Grand Canyon (Ferguson 1998). In subsequent years, 1998-1999, the Hopi Tribe was again a “Cooperating Agency” in the development of the Glen Canyon Dam Environmental Impact Study (GCDEIS), a lengthy documentation and research project undertaken to assess the impacts of the operations of Glen Canyon Dam on the natural and cultural resources found along the river corridor. The work the Hopi conducted on GCDEIS built on the previous GCES and resulted in another report specifically documenting Hopi Ethnobotany perspectives and information (Lomaomvaya, Ferguson and Yeatts 2001).

Both studies were parts of a larger undertaking entitled the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program (GCDAMP), administered by the Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center (GCMRC), an entity of the United States Geologic Survey (USGS). Funding for both of the studies originated with the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) which operates the release of water from Glen Canyon Dam.

The work the Hopi groups conducted during these two projects was successful in showing the vast and complex set of knowledge that Hopi people still retain about a region that is located well outside modern reservation boundaries. But let’s be honest and say that political boundaries, such as the reservation, are quite arbitrary and meaningless for most Hopis. Our connections to lands have no boundaries just as our knowledge about these places traverses boundaries and wipes them off the map. The idea of a mental cultural landscape remains within Traditional Hopi Knowledge.

During these cultural trips, Hopi “researchers” (i.e. knowledgeable Hopi people representing clans, religious societies, herbalists, artists and farmers) spent considerable time documenting Hopi perspectives concerning cultural and natural resources found along the inner river corridor. Documentation came from various river trips, 5 in the first study and 2 in the second study, which were guided by Anglo river guides and other scientists from various agencies who were familiar with the logistics of getting to and from these sites. That isn’t to say the Hopis don’t have a lot to say about these places. Many of the Hopis who participate in these trips had indeed heard of these places through the oral tradition as passed down from their own elders.

Hill Top Ruin.
Hill Top Ruin Landscapes.

Thus they come with a wealth of cultural knowledge, which helps to bring the Hopi presence within the Grand Canyon from the prehistoric (a static archaeological perspective) into the modern era. Hopis have always stated we are a living culture. That is the knowledge about our history isn’t relegated to just the past, it lives in the present amongst the Hopis who retain and continue to use such information in our daily and ceremonial lives. Whereas strict archaeological perspectives portray ancestral Hopi lifeways as relegated to the “prehistoric”, Hopis view these lifeways as a continuation over time, constantly evolving with the interactions within our environments.

As a part of the Hopi research within the canyon, hundreds of ancestral Hopi sites, as well as plants and animals that hold central roles in modern Hopi culture were documented. So it comes as no surprise to the Hopi groups that remains of these plants and animals are also found during archaeological excavations conducted along the river. It proves that our knowledge of the natural world has traversed time, carrying on from one generation to the next. The concept of the living culture of Hopi shining brightly in the archaeologists’ excavation pits, yet more importantly, within the minds of modern Hopi people.

The Hopi term, Kyaptsi translates as “Respect”. Maintaining the living culture of Hopi requires respect, not simply saying the word, but putting action into the meaning. One way this is achieved is through the continued practice of Hopi culture, including the visitation and protection of ancestral homes such as the Grand Canyon. Only through these continued efforts will future generations of Hopi people have their own cultural ground to stand upon; providing them the opportunity to interact with their ancestral past as we have done since time immemorial.

When Hopi ancestors “emerged” into this world, they were among the first to experience the spirit of the canyon, establishing a presence that is a vital part of the history of this unique landscape. Thus the modern Hopi tribal presence within the canyon has helped show to the outside world what we have always known; We Are The Canyon.

We Are The Canyon.
We Are The Canyon.
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