Dawn breaks over a secluded canyon, spreading a sliver of orange light along the rim as a lone canyon wren welcomes the morning, singing another day into existence. As the light increases in intensity, it illuminates a sheer cliff face, revealing layers of geologic time; ancient cross-bedded sand dunes and million-year old ocean floors that contain the fossilized remains of creatures whose descendants now inhabit salty seas hundreds of miles away. The colors of the stone facade warm into a kaleidoscope; red, orange, pink, yellow, tan, brown, purple, each one blending into the other as if a giant brush of watercolors was swept across the surface. At the final moment of reveal, the sunlight works its way to the canyon bottom where at the last precipice of stone, an alcove appears. At first as an arch of darkness, then as its interior starts to glow with reflected light, the details of the alcove come into view.
Inside, a cluster of structures stands, some 2-stories tall, tiny T-Shaped doorways peer out into the world. Built of stone, mortar and adobe, the protruding roof beams begin to cast long shadows against the coursed masonry. The human occupants of this small village, the Hisat’sinom (“People of Long Ago”) are already beginning their day. Men collect their tools and set off to tend to fields spread out in the canyon bottoms or to embark on hunting trips on the mesa tops above. Women gather together, teaching their daughters the fine art of creating intricate baskets and ceramics decorated with the metaphors of their existence; clan lineages, epic migrations and silent prayers for moisture and long life. Here and there, children, turkeys and dogs fill the spaces with their cries, laughter and energy.
This canyon and beyond is their world. A brief moment of time in which they create an understanding that is embedded in the existence of experiences. Seasons pass and the revolutions of the sun, moon and stars signal times of growth, harvest, ceremony and celebration. Old ones are laid to rest with reverence, while young ones are welcomed in to fill the voids. All the while, the people continue on in their journeys, building upon knowledge of previous ancestors, each generation adding their own energies to a collective knowledge as they face an uncertain future.
All across the area known today as the Bears Ears, this scene plays out in canyons, mesa tops, and river bottoms in thousands of similar ancient villages. For millennia, the ancestors of modern Hopi people lived in this region, refining the practical know-how and spiritual energy that allowed them to not only exist, but thrive in a seemingly harsh environment. This knowledge and experience would be passed from generation to generation, ultimately culminating and expressed in the contemporary culture of Hopi people, reflecting a connection that spans thousands of years across hundreds of miles.
Eventually the revolutions of the earth out distance the early inhabitants, all that is left of their passing are their ancient homes, tools, textiles, ceramics, jewelry and images carved and painted upon the cliff walls. In some cases, the physical remains of revered family are interred within and around the structures, left as spiritual guardians of a holy space. These are the tangible remains of their existence, ones that we can see and in some cases, touch and feel with our own hands; while some are experienced in the relative comfort of museums, archives and research centers across the country.
Others, if we are lucky enough, are encountered in our own wanderings across the same landscapes the Ancient Ones once called home. Under the same sun, moon and stars they once gazed upon, we can hold in our hands the results of thousands of years of living within a natural world. For many of us, Indigenous and otherwise, this is still the case and we are afforded the opportunity to glimpse into their being.
Yet there is another aspect of this landscape that cannot be readily seen or touched by our human hands. This is the Spirit Of Place. It is expressed as the solitude of the evening sunset as the winds sigh a relaxed breath, the sudden rush of excitement watching a falcon pursue its prey across the grasslands, the overwhelming expression of humility as we gaze upon stars, planets and other celestial bodies in the dark night sky. All of these experiences are afforded us due to the landscapes of the Bears Ears remaning in a relative pristine condition. The open space of the canyons, mesas, deserts, forests, springs, streams and rivers remain connected to one another and to those wild things of earth, water and sky that call this place home. These landscapes are not broken up into islands of refuge, as is the case with so many areas due to the encroachment of human development upon the natural space.
This is the spirit the Ancient Ones also witnessed. Compelling them to record their expressions of those experiences upon the cliff faces, conveyed through the beauty of their arts and remembered in story, song and prayer. This is the legacy that modern Hopi descendants still carry with them. The connection to this ancestral spirit still resonates in the contemporary culture of Hopi people. It is a connection that transcends both time and space, so that as a Hopi person enacts their own ceremony, both public and private, they are recalling the hardships and accomplishments of their ancestors.
The history of Hopi people is recorded upon the landscapes of their ancestors. Thus the maintaining of Hopi culture is more than merely an act of writing down these events and places, it must encompass the actual preservation of those places where the ancestors dwell.
An important aspect of Cultural Preservation, from the Hopi perspective, requires that one be able to experience the natural settings of their ancestors; to be able to journey back to those places and see first-hand how their ancestors lived. To walk among the centuries-old homes where generations lived, to hold in their hands the pieces of art created by hands of distant relatives, to sit upon towering buttes and recognize landscapes that are recalled from prayer. For modern Hopi people, our oral histories contain the memories and essence of Hopi ancestors and these histories remain viable aspects of Hopi culture.
Being able to actually experience our ancestral landscapes aids in the understanding of what a “Cultural Landscape” really is. In an age when Indigenous oral histories are continually challenged as viable source information, at least for some in academia, the need to preserve our histories becomes paramount. This includes not just the oral histories, but the actual, for-real-life sites where our ancestors lived. Granting future generations of Hopi to follow their ancestor’s footprints across the landscape.
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.
The Bears Ears movement is about more than just preservation for preservation sake; more than drawing a line on a map to protect a fragile ecosystem from the development of the fossil-fuel industry. It’s about more than protection of archaeological sites from wanton vandalism or preservation of these sites for solely scientific purposes. It’s about the protection of Indigenous cultures so that we retain our ability to pass on our traditional knowledge to future generations. Protection of this landscape grants us the opportunity to share with the outside world that we are more than historical footnotes, to show that our connections to ancestral lands traverse distance and time. 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.
At the heart of this unified tribal effort is a call for Respect. Respect for a landscape that holds the spirit and essence of Indigenous history and culture. One can imagine that it is 100 years from the present day, at a canyon not unlike the one described in the opening lines of this writing. At the rim of the canyon, a few moments before the sunlight graces the sandstone cliffs from the eastern horizon, here stands a small group of unified tribal members. They have gathered to witness the same scene experienced by those early families. They have gathered to pay their respects, as a lone canyon wren sings the day into existence, to offer reverence and say to their ancestors, We Are Still Here.
For more information on how you can support this unified tribal endeavor, follow the link here: The Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition is led by Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni tribes and supported by 25 other tribes.