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.

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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.

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.