Spirit of Place: Preserving the Cultural Landscape of the Bears Ears

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Spirit Within

1200 A.D.

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.

Ancestral Hopi Pueblo. San Juan River, UT.

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.

Comb Ridge Sunset

 

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.

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3 At Rest: Hopi Ceremonial Regalia

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.

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Butler Wash Petroglyphs, UT

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.

Beyond Stone & Mortar: A Hopi Perspective on the Preservation of “Ruins” (& Culture)

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“Buildings too, are children of Earth and Sun”

~Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect

Throughout the American Southwest are thousands of prehistoric architectural remains that were once the homes, ceremonial centers and gathering places for the Indigenous peoples who occupied this vast geographic area. Ranging in size from pit-houses to large village and cliff-dwelling complexes, and including many forms and layouts, these structures represent the last 1,000 years of Southwestern Indigenous architectural skill. These sites, “ruins” as some call them, continue to serve as important and sacred places to the descendants of the original builders. Modern day Pueblo tribes such as the Hopi in northeastern Arizona and those residing in New Mexico, including the Acoma, Laguna, Zuni and Rio Grande River Pueblos, are all direct descendants from the ancestral peoples who built and occupied archaeological sites throughout the Southwest.

Many of these sites are now included in parks and monuments (federal, state, tribal, non-profit), serving to educate and inform millions of tourists from within the United States, as well as from around the world. As part of this educational platform, much of the architecture that remains at these sites has been excavated in the past, or is currently being excavated as part of ongoing scientific research. While these activities provide tourists with an up close and personal experience, as well as allowing current researchers access to new scientific data, these sites face continued preservation issues as they are unearthed and exposed to natural and human elements.

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Wall-fall rubble and accumulated sediments that once filled these sites as part of the deterioration process, also served to preserve and protect portions of the architecture from the ever present impacts of time and erosion. Much of the architecture that we presently see at major archaeological sites such as Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, Wupatki, Kawestima and many others is due in part to continuous, natural preservation that occurred over several centuries. Yet with their excavation, archaeologists and other researchers realized there was a need to find other ways to further preserve and protect the excavated architecture that remained standing. Thus beginning in 1891, with the preservation of Casa Grande Pueblo in southern Arizona, the “Age of Stabilization” was born and with it, came various preservation efforts, some involving partial or total reconstruction of the ancestral sites throughout the Southwest.

While much of this past preservation work contributed greatly to the scientific understanding of Southwestern prehistoric cultures, not all of it is beneficial to the sites themselves. Preservation efforts conducted during the last 100 years often used substitutes, such as Portland cement, steel re-bar and other modern materials as replacements for more traditional, organic materials. This use of synthetic materials by early preservation workers, many of whom were actually maintenance personnel supervised by field archaeologists, offered a seemingly long-term and easy solution to the deterioration dilemma. These materials provided the opportunity to stabilize prehistoric structures with minimal expenditures in man-hours and funds, resources that were and continue to be in short supply. Unbeknownst to the preservationists of that time, we now know that some synthetic materials are unsuitable for use in the preservation of prehistoric structures.

This is because some synthetic materials do not have the same technical properties as traditional materials used by prehistoric peoples. The most noticeable example is the use of Portland cement as a substitute in place of original mortars, which often were combinations of locally available soils, clays and tempers. Compared with these types of mortars, Portland cement is harder and less porous, thus it often acts to channel and trap moisture within interior wall cores that over time resulted in accelerated deterioration of original stone and mortar. In addition, modern cements are not as flexible or elastic in nature as compared with traditional mortars. Modern cements often have differing rates of contraction and expansion than traditional mortars, resulting in an architectural space in which the materials work against each other, causing increased structural deterioration and loss of original architecture.

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Aside from contributing to the accelerated erosion of structural elements of prehistoric architecture, use of incompatible materials within the preservation process also led to an alteration of the natural aesthetic and integrity of prehistoric sites. Cement mortars used in historic preservation efforts were often tinted with color additives to try and match the prehistoric mortars. Long-term exposure to ultra-violet radiation from sunlight has dramatically changed the appearance of the tinted cement mortar to a variety of colors, ranging from purple to pink tones. As a result of using modern cements, many prehistoric sites now exhibit qualities that are practically irreversible and give them an artificial look and feel.

For the average visitor who spends but a few moments touring these sites, it maybe hard to notice that there are on-going preservation concerns with the sites themselves. Aren’t “ruins” supposed to look like that? From the viewing space of interpretive trails and overlooks, these sites may look as if they have sustained centuries of deterioration with little to no effect. Yet for those who are actively charged with their care and preservation, the realization is that there are far more complex issues affecting the condition, appearance, and integrity of these ancient structures.

As a former Ruins Preservation Specialist with the Flagstaff Area National Monuments, which includes 3 park units, Wupatki National Monument, Walnut Canyon National Monument and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, I saw first hand these types of problems. Identifying and understanding the stabilization problems discussed here was a task that occupied much of my time. In addition, because I am a person of Hopi ancestry and a descendant of those who built this architecture, there was added importance for me to conduct preservation work that is not only effective, but culturally appropriate and respectful of the prehistoric origins of these sites.

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From a Hopi perspective, what can be considered as appropriate preservation methods? One “traditional” Hopi perspective believes that our ancestral Hopi homes should be left to decay in a natural state. Sites unoccupied for generations should return to mounds of rubble and soil, crumbling into pieces of disarticulated architecture, spewing out the material traces of Hopi ancestors. This is in line with a philosophy about the cycle of life and death; these homes and ceremonial structures having been borne out of the earth, “living” a life with their human occupants, only to return back to the earth. These homes and places of worship now only contain the spirits of those who built and occupied their spaces. The memory of a place and those who lived there is held within oral histories of their descendants. Thus it can be said that the very act of preservation goes against these beliefs.

So why do preservation work at all?

Looking at it from a larger perspective, some may say this question can be applied to all of Archaeology and Cultural Resource Management (CRM) work. That is, why should Indigenous descendants be involved in these efforts? In answering this question, many academics, both Indigenous and non, have produced a large body of research about the effects and relationships between Indigenous peoples and Western researchers that come to study them. To say the least, it is not always a reciprocal interaction. From the Hopi perspective, we have over 400 years of history on our side to attest to this fact. Yet, while it is easy to focus on the negative, and may even be necessary to facilitate moving forward, it is not the focus of this writing. Rather, I am asking if there is a “Common Ground” we can come to, at least in regards to preservation work. In seeking an answer, we must look for other ways that scientific research and efforts can benefit Indigenous cultures and their ancestral past.

To do so, I must look to other teachings from Hopi culture that state these ancestral sites are referred to as the “footprints” of the ancestors, physical proof of previous generations occupying vast tracts of the American Southwest and beyond. Included in this ideology of “footprints” is the material culture of Hopi ancestors; the ceramics, lithics & groundstone, textiles and burials. All of these were left behind to verify Hopi oral histories of our ancestral clan migrations across an ancient landscape; teaching future generations about Hopi longevity and of our covenant to be stewards of this earth for time immemorial.

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Hopi concepts of our ancestral history are both complex and varying. This is because each Hopi clan has its own understanding of their ancestral movements across the southwest and beyond. Not all clans moved in the same directions, at the same time, or with the same groups. As one Hopi cultural advisor explained, “…migration routes can be confusing because sometimes the ancestors started somewhere and then went in a circle and came back to where they started”. In addition, the specific cultural groups assigned to Hopi ancestors by archeologists – Anasazi, Sinagua, Hohokam, Mogollon, Salado, Fremont, etc. – are considered arbitrary within a Hopi perspective of the past. As Hopi anthropologist, Ferrell Secakuku simply but confidently reiterates, “To Hopi, these are ancestors they call Hisatsinom, the ancient people”.

Yet this Hopi designation for our ancestors does not have an end so to speak. Rather than viewing them as neatly defined cultures with specific territorial boundaries, Hopi people view their ancestors as being much more dynamic and fluid, with numerous clans, comprising the ancestral populations found throughout the southwest. Unlike “conventional” archaeological cultural designations that confine a group to a certain area based on material culture and assign them to a specific time period, the prehistoric, the Hopi concept of our ancestors does not imply that type of finality to their existence or presence. Hopi concepts about our ancestors evoke a connection that extends to the present that includes the added dimension of spiritual aspects embedded within the ceremonial culture of Hopi.

With this Hopi perspective in mind, is there a way to reach a suitable compromise in preservation work? From an archaeological view, preservation can mean maintaining the scientific value of a site for possible future study. From the Hopi view, applying our understanding that this architecture represents tangible landmarks of Hopi history, the maintaining of these sites affords this legacy to live on. Thus, ruins preservation enables more than preservation of architecture, but also promotes Cultural Preservation.

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Fast forward to the modern day, September 2015, as I and a handful of scientists and preservationists embark upon a multi-day river trip down the Colorado River in Grand Canyon. Our mission? To preserve the ancestral “footprints” of Hopi ancestors (as well as a few historic/anglo structures). I thought about this idea as our group made our way down river, from site to site, applying mortar and stone to homes that my ancestors once lived in hundreds of years ago. I distinctly remember sitting at the edge of the alcove at the granaries at Nankoweap, watching clouds cast shadows on the opposing cliff wall across the river. I thought about why I chose to be there, doing work which was counter to what “traditional” Hopi beliefs stated should be allowed to happen.

Hopi oral histories contain the memories and essence of Hopi ancestors and these histories remain viable aspects of Hopi culture. These histories can be reinforced through visitation of sites. Being able to actually experience the landscapes they occupy and seeing first-hand how and where our ancestors lived 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 scientists, 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.

At the heart of preservation work, lies an inherent act of respect; maintaining our living culture, while honoring our ancestors of a long ago era. Today when a Hopi person visits ancestral villages, 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, but 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. This is a concept which is based on the Hopi thought that the meaning of the past is what it contributes to life in the present. Thus I will continue to conduct preservation work.

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So where do we go from here? As Hopi people working in these fields, we continue to do as we have always done, that is, we do our work with our Hopi history and values always in mind. Through our work, both personally and professionally, we try and impart our traditional knowledge and information to our non-Hopi counterparts in a manner that is also respectful of our own personal and cultural boundaries. In doing so, we serve as human reminders that the people who toiled to build these monuments of stone and mud are not gone. We are still here.

With any luck, the errors of our era will be slight, and as we continue to learn from the past century of stabilization, hopefully those who come after us will learn and benefit from the work we do now. But in order for that to happen, the integrity of the architecture, both the cultural and scientific, must always be considered first. We owe it to our Hopi ancestors who originally built and occupied these places to respect their efforts, and therefore we must strive to present the truest form of their hard work and dedication. For if not by us, the people charged with their care, the Hopi cultural preservationists and specialists, then by whom?

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WANTED: Native American River Guides

San Juan SunRise.
San Juan SunRise.

In the oral histories of the Hopi Tribe, there is a centuries-old story that originates from the Snake Clan about the first river runner in the Southwest. This story depicts the adventures of a curious boy, named Tiyo, who wonders “where does the river go?” Determined to answer that question, Tiyo sets out with the prayers of his family, in a boat carved from a cottonwood tree, encountering new adventures and people along his river journey. He eventually discovers that the river joins up with the Pacific Ocean far from his homeland, and in doing so, becomes the first to raft what are now known as the San Juan and Colorado Rivers.

One of the rivers that Tiyo journeyed upon was the San Juan River, which flows through the Four Corners states of Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, where it slowly disappears into the huge man-made reservoir better known as Lake Powell. The San Juan River directly borders the Navajo Nation to the south whose residents use the water for fishing, livestock and irrigation for crops. To the north, the shores are largely controlled by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) with the exception of a few parcels of private lands.

The San Juan is a place of beauty, serenity and history. When you look to the shores you encounter Canada geese and great blue heron nestled among the tamarisk and coyote willows, and if you’re lucky, Bighorn Sheep. As you guide your boat over and through the river’s fast moving current, you float by huge petroglyph panels, prehistoric cliff dwellings and other features left by the Ancestral Puebloan people over 800 years ago.  The river and its shores have been witness to many events, from prehistoric farmers tending to their crops, to early Mormon pioneers settling the area, through countless modern-day river runners including Norm Nevill’s commercial expeditions beginning in 1936.

Ancestral Hopi Pueblo. San Juan River, UT.
Ancestral Hopi Pueblo.
San Juan River, UT.

Southwestern rivers are culturally significant to local Native American tribes, some of whose lands border these rivers. Seventeen of Arizona’s 21 Native American tribes have historical and cultural ties to the state’s rivers. They consider these waters, wildlife, plants and the thousands of cultural sites found along their shores to be sacred. In the Southwest, Native cultures such as the Hopi and Navajo (Diné) are often a large part of the interpretive stories that are told during commercial and private river trips.

However, this story is often told without benefit from actual interaction with Native people, who historically have not been a large or vocal group on the river (as opposed to along the river). Although numerous Native tribes inhabit lands along and near the San Juan and Colorado Rivers, their presence in the boating field has been minimal. Currently less than 3% of the 300-400 river guides leading passengers through these revered waters are Native American. Yet their ancestral lands and homes are literally found throughout river country.

This realization necessitated a way to address this issue and through that need, the creation of Fifth World Discoveries (FWD) was born. FWD is a Native non-profit organization whose purpose is:

To provide sustainable opportunities for Native and Indigenous people to foster stewardship and understanding of how the natural environment, Mother Earth, can be used as an educational platform for creating and maintaining traditional and contemporary tribal intellectual knowledge. These opportunities include activities that focus on mentoring and guiding Native youth and adults to be environmentally and socially responsible using traditional tribal knowledge.

A fundamental belief is that time spent outdoors learning and teaching with others can inspire, heal, forge strong bonds and provide opportunities for lasting experiences. All activities will be founded and based on the Native philosophies of respect and caring for the natural environment and maintaining cultural traditions and connections.

Future Native Guides, 2011.
Future Native Guides.

Additional goals of FWD (http://5thworlddiscoveries.org/) are to provide employment opportunities to an under-served population that are both rewarding and educational. The program encourages participants to continue their training and pursue future employment with river companies, non-profit organizations, and management agencies. In becoming licensed river guides, Native Americans enhance the river experience for commercial clients, fellow guides and outfitters by better educating them about the Native cultures found within the Southwest.

Perhaps of all the contributions that Native guides bring to the river industry, it is their ability to provide a perspective on their own cultures that is not only accurate, but up to date, that has the most value. Too often in this modern era, Native peoples are still viewed in historical terms, that is, as living relics of the past. The stereotypes of Native peoples often portrayed in popular media does very little to educate the average person about the current state of Native cultures.

While Native peoples still hold onto their traditional teachings and values, qualities that are rooted in their past, they also continue to evolve and find new ways of applying those qualities to the modern world.

Through careers as teachers, scientists, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs and now hopefully as river guides, Native peoples continue to contribute to not only their respective communities, but the outside world as well. What a guiding career provides is a new arena to apply those skills, as well as a new means of interpreting their relationship with southwestern rivers and associated ecology.

On The River.
On The River.

Program participant Katrina Claw (Dine’) states, “…contact (with the natural environment) is an essential part of being Native American. Without it, people tend to treat the earth like something to be used and abused. But if anyone has ever camped on the banks of a river at night, it is anything but inanimate. The Guide Training Program instilled a new kind of respect in me for nature and I was taught how to properly care for my own intrusions into it. I would recommend this experience for everyone, but most especially my fellow Native Americans. The economics, accurate representation, and protection of (southwestern rivers) depend on us.”

Thus the stories and insight offered by Native guides provides perspectives not only on their long and complex prehistory, but also their outlook on modern issues concerning the ecological management of river systems and natural landscapes. In doing so, Native guides offer first hand knowledge about their cultural heritage, while still proving that they are in fact, viable and continuing elements of the American Southwest.

The centuries old journey, first started by a young Hopi boy named Tiyo, continues on with Native guides finding their place within the modern boating industry.

  -Kwah-kway/Ahe’hee’ (Thank You!)

Ancestral Hand Prints.
Ancestral Hand Prints.

Portions of the article originally appeared in the Boatman’s Quarterly Review. Issue: 20(4)(Winter 2007-2008):8-10. Grand Canyon River Guides Association. Authors: Nikki Cooley (Diné) & Lyle Balenquah (Hopi).

For more information about Fifth World Discoveries and how you can be involved or help Sponsor our Program please contact Lyle Balenquah.

****This video is a bit out-dated, but gives a good overview of Program aspects.

Cultural Tourism: Are You A ‘Real’ Indian?

Monument Valley Panoramic.
Monument Valley Panoramic.

It’s 2013 and I’m leading a tour group through Monument Valley; what many consider a “must-stop” for any exploration of the Southwest. As I’m explaining the history of the area, another tour group listens in.

When I’m finished, one of them approaches me and asks, “Are you a real Indian?” I reply “Yes, I’m Hopi”. Head tilted, eyes squinting, he gives me the once over, then turning to gaze at the landscape, he asks “Where are the tipis?”

I assume he’s joking. He’s not.

Sadly, this is nothing new and I’ve learned to handle such situations. After a quick tutorial, this gentleman now has a different perspective about “real” Indians. Before leaving, he turns and asks “Just what kind of tour are you leading?” I reply “An educational one, Cultural Tourism”. Looking puzzled he asks, “What does that mean?”

Indeed, what is “Cultural Tourism” and how does it differ from your average tour or family vacation?

In a nutshell, from this author’s experience, Cultural Tourism is about learning. However this learning is taken to a new level, wherein the experiences are meant to give the individual a deeper sense of a culture different from their own.

Imagine a whirlwind tour of the Southwest, where only the most popular attractions are visited, sometimes for only a few hours at best. After a quick stop at the visitor center, perusing some interpretive signs and grabbing some pamphlets to read later, it’s off to the next destination. Not much chance for in-depth learning happening there.

From my perspective, Cultural Tourism in Indian Country, which includes more than reservation lands, involves a discourse between those visiting and those being visited.

It’s an exchange, a sharing of perspectives that allows the visitor to gain an understanding of not just the history of a place and its’ people, but a sense of their modern ways of life. It often occurs at a slower pace, perhaps spending an entire day in one location, or a series of days within a specific region.

During this experience you may partake in a traditional meal in a host’s home, or visit an artists’ studio where they explain the use of materials and meaning of ancestral designs. You might also spend a night or two camped out on a family’s ranch, learning about their personal connections to the landscape.

Cultural Tourism: More than a whirlwind tour.
Cultural Tourism: More than a whirlwind tour.

Cultural Tourism is also about empowerment, sustainability and yes, the “American Dream”, with a Native twist. It affords modern Natives the chance to showcase Cultural Pride, to boast of famous relatives and their children and grandchildren attending universities or in the Armed Services.

It allows the visitor to hear and see what a “real” Indian looks and sounds like; to see that our lives aren’t as romanticized and mysterious as popular media portrays.

To show that on many levels, we aren’t so different in the lives we lead. In the end, you may leave a few dollars lighter, but with a richer understanding of a culture not your own.

In future articles, we will explore the variety of tours that different tribes offer, what to expect, proper etiquette and how Cultural Tourism is impacting Native Communities.

Oh, and that gentleman from the beginning of the story, I gave him my card and in 2014, he returned with his family to experience a different kind of tour.

This article originally appeared on the website: http://www.visionarybusinessmag.com/