Hisat’sinom to Hopi: Establishing Cultural Affiliation in the Bears Ears Landscape

Hand Print & Sandal Design Rock Art, SE Utah.

As part of a 3 day hiking tour of archaeological sites in the Bears Ears National Monument (BENM), I was asked to share a personal perspective based on my experiences as an archaeologist, outdoor guide and person of Hopi descent. When it comes to the Bears Ears, issues such as preservation archaeology, tourism and Indigenous perspectives all converge upon the landscape, setting the stage for conflict, but also collaboration. While archaeological research of the Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa regions is on-going, the study of Hopi connections to these areas and the associated archaeological cultures is currently limited and lacks detailed examination by Hopi advisors.

I often pose the question of how is Hopi connected to these prehistoric groups from distant lands? What is the continuity between modern Hopi people (and other Pueblo groups) and the ancestral cultures of the Bears Ears? Seems like a valid question, given that the modern day Hopi reservation lies over 200 miles south of this part of Utah. What are the woven strands of culture that ties us back over time and space? I recall a prior conversation with a gentleman about the popularity of having one’s genetic background tested. Provide some DNA and you can see in neat percentages and cool graphics just where “your people” come from. There are a whole lot of people interested in learning more about their ancestry and heritage. Understanding your origins matters it seems.

I wonder what my percentages would be if I were to be tested? Would my test results show a pie-chart with one solid color, labeled “Hopi”? In fact, just who am I as a Hopi person? Deeper into my family history there are memories of distant lands my ancestral clans occupied prehistorically. According to this knowledge, if I were able to conduct a DNA test of myself using archaeological culture designations, I would guess my Ancestral Puebloan pie-chart slice would be larger in comparison to the Mimbres, Salado and Sinaguan slices. These cultures being representative of various geographic areas my ancestral clans once occupied and therefore, I am of these places as well.

Two Perspectives of Culture: Archaeological and Hopi (Graphic Courtesy Archaeology Southwest).

Through a Hopi lens, the perspective of “prehistory” here in the Southwest is seen as fluid and dynamic. Rather than foreign concepts such as “Ancestral Puebloan” or “Sinagua” as predecessors to modern pueblo culture, Hopi sees Moti’sinom and Hisat’sinom; cultural concepts that encompass over 2,000 years of ancestry. According to Hopi oral tradition, many clans occupied the Four Corners area, including that of the Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa. These clans brought with them various sets of knowledge that would be incorporated into Hopi culture; ceremony, medicine, technology, language and arts. The end result being the development of what we now identify as “Hopi”. The tracing of that cultural evolution is reliant on both oral tradition and the tangible evidence found within archaeological contexts.

Ceramic Spiral Applique, Circa 1100 A.D.

One Hopi perspective views the archaeological record as metaphorical “footprints” of Hopi ancestors, substantiating Hopi oral histories about clan settlements and migrations. Within Hopi culture is the belief that the meaning of the past is what it contributes to life in the present. This belief underscores the “cultural continuity” between modern-day Hopi and 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.

Based on this traditional view, Hopi people firmly believe that some of our ancestral clans are represented in the archaeological record of the Bears Ears. Parts of this ancestral history, the invisible strands of genetic code and the visible evidence of material culture, subsequently made its way into the modern expressions of Hopi people. Proving this requires continued consultation and fieldwork with knowledgeable Hopi advisors. Fortunately there are opportunities for future, collaborative Hopi research, including iconography found in textiles, rock art and ceramics, as well as discussions about agricultural traditions. One interesting area of study is the idea of return migrations or perhaps pilgrimages, by more recent Hopi people. This is evident by the satisfying discovery of Hopi Yellow Wares on Cedar Mesa and surrounding areas. Faint “footprints” in the sand leading back into a recognizable landscape.

This is the meaning that Hopi people find in the Bears Ears region. Experiencing ancestral sites within natural surroundings gives us both insight and reflection; insight into the lives of our earliest ancestors, and reflection on the migrations from Hisat’sinom to Hopi.

Bears Ears Landscape

Culture Relative to Homeland

An interview from 2014 with Jack Loeffler (Santa Fe, NM) talking about Hopi connections to Landscapes, Culture & Sustainability. Originally appeared in Green Fire Times, 2014 (Santa Fe, NM).

Tusayan Black-on-White sherds. Black Mesa, AZ

JL: How do you perceive culture relative to homeland?

LB: Culture relative to homeland is a big idea. Homeland is something that is always in the back of my mind. I’ve been fortunate to be doing a lot of archaeological survey work beyond the political boundaries of the reservation in areas Hopi consider to be their true homeland. People have asked me to draw maps of what is a homeland for Hopi, and I find it difficult to connect the dots and say this is the boundary. I’m always more inclined to use a dashed line or some symbol that indicates that it’s ephemeral, in a sense. When I’m out doing my archaeological survey, I see the artifacts, the assemblages that our ancestors used, and in a way that signifies our homeland. As a Hopi person out there in the landscape you really get a true understanding that our homeland extends across the Four Corners region.

As a culture, you really have to be cognizant of what our ancestors were doing. My father and I have been out during the hunting seasons. When I come across an archaeological site, as an archaeologist what interests me is scouring the ground and seeing what kind of artifacts are there. I look at the pottery, I find arrowheads, projectile points. You find room habitations. I go back to camp at the end of a day of work or a day of hunting and I talk with people. My father will look at the artifacts I show him and he’ll say, “Just think. They survived out here with far less than we have now.” And in that sense, they knew more than we do. Could we transport ourselves back 800 years and survive as they did with what we would term primitive tools? At the time, that was the cutting edge of technology.

Wupatki Landscapes

There’s a deep spiritualness in just sitting in the woods, sitting on a hill, watching the sun rise, watching the sun set, watching it go across the sky. Unfortunately, we’re not exposed to that on a daily basis. I go to work, I go to the office; I’m in an enclosed space. But I’m really fortunate that, in some of my other work, I’m able to be a daily part of what nature really is and get a true sense of experiences of Hopi ancestors that have led us to be where we are today in the world. It’s a real deep thought process. It’s one of those things I’m always rehashing in my mind.

I recently came back from working on a survey project over in the Walapai country west of here a couple of hundred miles. During this project, we came across artifacts that showed they were living in a different lifestyle compared to what we find here around Flagstaff or northern Arizona in the Four Corners region. They’re still Hopi ancestors—that’s how we perceive them. But how did they come to that type of technology? How was it that they viewed their own world perspective that directed them to become who they are?

So it’s a broad landscape in terms of that concept of culture as homeland and how we relate to the environment, what we take from it, these experiences and how we use them in our modern-day lives to kind of direct how we live now.

Grand Canyon Vista

You talk about the commons, about borders, but those borders are arbitrary in some sense. We’re all a part of these landscapes, whether we’re Hopi or Anglo or Walapai, Navajo, Zuni or whatever our ethnic background is. We all have impacts in some ways on these landscapes. Through my archaeological work you see that. There’s a lot of research about how prehistoric peoples changed their landscape and what can we learn from some of their mistakes.

Chaco Canyon has been used as a prime example of landscape change initiated by human interaction on a wide scale, and how the impacts prehistoric populations were having on the landscape led to their demise, so to speak. What can we learn from that? That’s one of the things Hopi stresses a lot in our teachings, that there are a lot of good things that came from our ancestral history: positive values and philosophical ways of thinking. But there are also some negative lessons we have to own up to and take responsibility for that will teach us.

Colorado River Springs

How are we as modern Hopis and as a society going to interact with our environment? For me, that’s where culture as homeland comes in. I get to see this huge landscape across the Southwest. I get to see how prehistoric peoples were living in landscapes separated by two, three, four hundred miles. They all had to understand that they had to live within their means. In some instances, they didn’t live within their means, and that caused turmoil and chaos and caused things to go wrong for themselves and their society. You tie all of that together, you bring all of these different examples within the Southwest of prehistoric cultures experiencing good and bad changes, and I think that’s what Hopi is trying to remember. So there’s a lot tied into that idea of culture as homeland. That is the common foundation that we all have to live by, I think.

JL: I’ve got a question apropos of that. You have a deep, deep sense of your home culture, Hopi culture. You also have a pretty profound sense of—how to call it—monoculture, which is fast turning into global culture. Can you characterize what you see as the differences between the two points of view? There are probably more than two points of view.

LB: Well, I guess in some ways Hopi culture is what I’ve been taught, and it has kind of instructed me as to how I should live. It’s about that concept of sustainability, knowing what your limitations are as an individual and as a society, as a group of people living in a specific area. You look at Hopi culture; we’ve come to understand that we live in a desert environment. That understanding means that we have to live a certain type of lifestyle that doesn’t push the limitations of the environment. You look at our farming lifestyle, what we’ve been able to achieve with our agricultural products, most importantly corn. The corn is a direct product of us living in this desert environment. It’s well known that Hopi have strains of corn that are drought-resistant, grow well in desert environments and are suited to the types of soil we have.

Then, with that come all of those philosophical ideas of understanding. We all hear that term now—“water is life.” That’s part of the basic foundation of Hopi cultural perspective; it’s one of them, there are multiple. I think that the landscape dictates how we structure our world view and come to terms with where we choose to live. Take Phoenix, for example. You drive down the valley and get past Black Canyon City, and immediately, within five, 10 miles, you start to hit all of the outgrowth, the subdivisions that are popping up. How are they going to be able to sustain those communities, not only with water, but just in terms of basic resources?

I don’t know if people really understand the limitations they’re pushing in certain environments. I think there’s a contrast there in terms of how Hopi have viewed understanding our limitations versus a monoculture or dominant culture relying on technology to see them through. As we all know, technology will only get you so far, and it comes down to human ingenuity and perseverance to see you through some of the harder times.

That sense of having a spiritual basis ties into that as well. You really have to have faith, not so much in the technology, but in your own understanding. As Hopi, we understand where we live. We live in a desert. That sets our boundaries. Does the rest of society also have that boundary, or are they just kind of living in a bubble that they keep blowing bigger and bigger and hope that it’s not going to burst? I think that’s one of the basic differences I see between Hopi versus the outside dominant culture. I think maybe there are always a few people who realize the imminent danger of what’s going on, but they are few and far between; their voices aren’t heard, and progress is always put ahead of sustainability.

I see that at home as well. Even as Hopi we have to be cognizant of our own progress in terms of development. We have limited resources. Unless some worldwide catastrophe happens, we’ll never go back to those days of the ancestral sites I visit. We’ll never be living in those types of conditions, unless we bring it upon ourselves. So we’re in an almost cyclical way of thinking. Are we just holding onto certain things, the good parts, and forgetting some of the negative changes that were brought upon us by our own actions? We have to learn to apply these broad philosophical ideas of how to live to our modern way of living.

I think that a lot of people for a number of years have looked to Hopi as a model of how to live sustainably. If we can do it in such a limited environment with limited resources on a small scale, maybe those types of examples can be applied to the larger global society. And it’s not just Hopi but all of those indigenous cultures around the world that have learned the hard way. We didn’t have the technology we have now. Whatever the Earth provided is what we lived off of. We weren’t able to coax more from it. So I think as a Hopi, and listening to other Hopis talk about how we’re supposed to live against how the modern society lives, that’s one contrast I can see in terms of using one as an example to help the other.

Lyle Balenquah has a Master’s degree in Archaeology from Northern Arizona University (NAU) and rows his raft down the San Juan, Green, and Colorado rivers. Bioregional documentarian Jack Loeffler and his daughter Celestia Loeffler’s recent book is Thinking Like a Watershed.www.loreoftheland.org

The link to the original Green Fire Times article can be found here

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

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.

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.

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.

Walking The Line at Nayavu’waltsa: Preservation of a Cultural Landscape (Intro)


In the Hopi language, Nayavu’waltsa is a place name, meaning “Clay Gap Place” and refers to the region known as Black Mesa, located in Northern Arizona. This mesa of the high desert is a geologic uplift of the much larger Colorado Plateau which covers a large area of the 4 Corners region; Southeastern Utah, Western Colorado, Northwestern New Mexico and Arizona. The Northern edge of Nayavu’waltsa ends abruptly, looming several hundred feet above the valley below and from a distance rises like a dark shadow; a vanguard of time, space and culture.

If you were to stand on one of its many vistas and look North, you would catch far-off views of Monument Valley to the Northwest, the snow-capped peaks of the San Juan Mountains in Southwestern Colorado and to the East, the landscape fades into the Chacoan homestead of Northern New Mexico. Surrounded by pine and fir tree forests, if you turned to the opposite point of the compass, the land gradually slopes away to the Southern escarpments of Black Mesa, some 60 miles as the crow flies. The vegetation transitions to juniper, pinyon pine and sage brush flats where eventually you find the Hopi villages, perched atop mesas where we have lived for over 1,000 years. Here, Nayavu’waltsa ends and gives way to the Little Colorado River valley, with the outline of Nuvatak’yaovi, the San Francisco Peaks, on the horizon, rising to 12,000 feet in elevation.

It is in this landscape that finds 6 archaeologists, 3 Hopi tribal members and 3 contractors, who for 8 days have been conducting archaeological survey up on Black Mesa. We have endured the still stormy spring weather that is common in Northern Arizona. Facing rain, snow, hail and lightning, turning the ground into a slip-sliding mess of clay, true to its Hopi name. This first session was our introduction to a landscape that many of us as archaeologists have heard, read about and studied in our academic training. It is a fabled land in archaeological history. An origin and stronghold of a prehistoric culture first known by the foreign name of “Anasazi” (a word of navajo language) and now re-labeled as “Ancestral Puebloan” (a term that still lacks the true reflection of who these people were, and who they later became).

Black Mesa Crew, 2016. Photo by Michael Terlep.
Black Mesa Crew, 2016. Photo by Michael Terlep.

This is ancient land of Hopi ancestors, the Hisat’sinom, “The People of Long Ago”, inhabited since Time Immemorial we would say. The science of archaeology states that human use and occupation of the area extends back 10,000 years. Back to a time when Hopi ancestors were pursuing mega-fauna such as mastodon, bison and other large game, hurling spear points as long as my hand at these great beasts. Although the traces of those times are difficult to discern in the archaeological record, the spirit of that history continues to be felt as one gazes out on the distant horizons. I wonder if those very early people would recognize this land as it appears now? In between the mega-hunters and today, many other Hopi ancestors have passed through and lived upon this landscape, leaving behind the traces of their existence.

One of the more unique aspects of the Hopi ancestors who lived here, are the ceramics they created, beginning as early as 500 A.D., over 1,000 years ago. Pottery types such as Tusayan Corrugated, Tusayan Whitewares, Polychromes and many others can be traced to this region and nearby areas as a “birthplace”. Here the early potters refined these various styles which would become synonymous with Black Mesa and were traded far and wide across the Southwest.

In our survey work we come across numerous outcroppings of clay, of various colors and textures. During our lunch and dinner conversations, we wonder if these sources were once gathered by Hopi ancestors in making their pottery. We encounter the broken sherds by the thousands, some showing experimentation of style and design, mixture and variation as these artisans developed what would become the “diagnostic” or tell-tale signature of these ceramics. As one of my fellow archaeologists stated, “these families were creating these styles, there were no rules, they could do whatever they wanted”.

Generations later, descendants of these early potters would migrate hundreds of miles south, to the deserts of central and southern Arizona and New Mexico. They would take with them their designs and techniques, lending their genes and creativity to the birth of a new culture, the Salado. There they would establish new villages, developing yet another set of ceramics, Roosevelt Red Ware. After a few generations, these groups would once again migrate, this time back north to Hopi and Zuni, completing their migrations (a topic for yet another blog).

Black Mesa Ceramics
Black Mesa Ceramics

The immediate purpose of the Class III archaeological survey we are conducting is to identify and record the “footprints” of Hopi ancestors; ceramics, lithics, architecture and any other tangible evidence found within the archaeological record. The area we are working in is located at the far northern edge of the Hopi reservation (approx 1.6 million acres). The survey section is an area approximately 2,000 acres and is leased by the Hopi Tribe to Peabody Western Coal Company, which has been strip mining coal in the Black Mesa area for well over 40 years. In fact, the presence of large coal deposits are what give Black Mesa its name.

The overall purpose of the survey is to provide data for inclusion in a future Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). An EIS is meant to be a “full disclosure” public document, and will determine whether or not Peabody can continue mining operations in this section. This area is one of the last within Hopi leases, while other lease areas exist on Navajo Reservation lands, literally across the fence. Although the ultimate decision has yet to be made about future mining in this area, it is no secret that Peabody covets the coal deposits in this area, despite their recent plunge into financial bankruptcy. Thus there is subtle, yet noticeable pressure to have this survey completed and the EIS process begun.

Black Mesa Landscape.
Black Mesa Landscape.

Some may argue that it is necessary to allow Peabody to continue mining on Hopi lands, given that a large portion of the Hopi Tribe’s operating budget relies on the royalties generated from mining activities. If the mining stops, where will the money come from to keep the Tribe afloat? They may argue that it is an example of Tribal Sovereignty at work, showcasing this as a process of Self-Determination. In one sense, this is all true.

While I do not wish to delve into the economic outlook of the Hopi Tribe (at least right now), I will agree to a point that this is one example of Self-Determination & Tribal Sovereignty. Yet from my perspective, this example is an out-dated one, relying still on outside influences and decision-makers to bring about the results. Energy entities such as Salt River Project (SRP), Navajo Generating Station (NGS) and Peabody Western Coal Company all have a hand in this process and in one way or another, use their political and financial resources to influence the outcomes.

Natural seams of coal and other mineral deposits found near the surface.
Natural seams of coal and other mineral deposits found near the surface.

However, and let me be very clear on this issue, this survey is not about granting “clearance” to allow continued mining. In the first place, that is not what Cultural Resource Management is about. There is a mis-conception that archaeologists somehow wave a magic wand and grant the “OK” for a project to move forward. Nothing could be further from the truth. What we do as archaeologists is provide real in-field data and information to enable decision-makers in government (in this case the Hopi Tribal Council and other elected officials) to hopefully make informed decisions about proposed development. Yet as archaeologists, at the foundation of our training and intentions, we carry a philosophy of preservation and protection, which can have various manifestations and results (more on that in later postings).

GPS unit showing transect lines
GPS unit showing transect lines

As the rain, snow and hail fall around us, we walk survey transects, spaced 15 meters apart, looking for the footprints of Hopi ancestors. In addition to these prehistoric signs, we are also looking to identify the more recent and modern evidence of Hopi use. This land is a living part of Hopi culture and as such, there are places that remain actively used; shrines where offerings are deposited, gathering areas for minerals and plants, and trails that are remembered in history, song and prayer. These we record as Traditional Cultural Places (TCPs), a designation that seeks to encompass their meaning beyond the science of archaeology. Included in this documentation is ethnographic information collected by knowledgeable Hopi persons representing various clans, societies and villages. Thus our field survey combines not only archaeological data, but that of the “living culture”, providing a dual perspective that strives to be holistic and respectful of Hopi ancestors and their modern descendants.

Ancestral Cairn Marker.
Ancestral Cairn Marker.

As we continue our survey work, I hope to present not only insight into our discoveries, but I also to use this as an attempt to provide for a greater call to preserve this cultural landscape. We are all too aware of the negative side-effects of strip mining; contamination of groundwater, loss of wilderness, the erasing of Indigenous histories off the map. If mining operations are allowed to continue, not only will we lose the rich archaeological and cultural history, but also the immense bio-diversity found in this area, including pristine forests that are hundreds of years old.

Ultimately, as we prepare to head off for another 8 day field session, I view this and future blog posts as one way to educate the reader on what we stand to lose. That if anything, beyond our culture, this maybe the only “thing” we preserve in our lifetimes that we pass onto future generations. Only time will tell….

Storm on the Horizon
Storm on the Horizon

For additional information see: https://orionmagazine.org/article/the-black-mesa-syndrome/

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



“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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.

Beyond The Hunt

In honor and hopes of the forthcoming hunt….

Early Sunrise.
Early Sunrise.

It was the last day for me to hunt. In a few more hours I would have to pack it up and go home. Back to the daily grind of work, bills and watching the days fly by, another day older. For the past 3 days, I had been chasing cow elk through the woods of Northern Arizona, battling the wind and rain and wearing out my boots in the process. In other words, having the time of my life that only a hunter could fully appreciate.

Yet with all the effort I had put forth, miles covered it seemed, the elk would not cooperate. Glimpses of tan hide, a twitching ear, or moving legs was all that they showed me during that time. I kept thinking back to the opportunity I missed the day before, an easy 50 yard shot, but dark branches above the elk’s head gave the impression of antlers. I had hesitated a few breaths, staring down my scope trying to figure out whether this elk was fair game, or was instead, a small 3 x 2.

For a tortuous few seconds, I scanned that elk, rubbing my finger against the trigger guard. Suddenly, in one smooth motion the elk spun around and was headed downhill at full speed, revealing her to be a nice, young cow. A deep breath, and a chuckle to myself, and I shouldered my rifle and headed back to camp. The time for this hunt seemed to fade to fast.

So here I was, my last day to redeem this hunt. I was up early and headed to an area just south of where I had missed out on the cow the day before. I pulled into a clearing and sat there, watching the black night sky turn a faint gray as the sun began its’ return. I got my rifle and gear, exited the truck, stretched my weary muscles and began my way into the junipers. The cold air made me bristle and a soft wind moved through the trees. To the south of me rose the steep northern flanks of a large mesa uplift some 300 feet high. Numerous canyons and ravines cut the northern face, and they were overgrown thick with brush and dark forests.

I was soon sneaking through the woods, peering around tree trunks; raising, lowering myself so that I could see under and over tree branches. As the morning sun broke the far horizon, the early light illuminated the tree tops, turning them a glowing orange for a few brief minutes. Rather than soak in the moment, the event seemed to me as if a reminder of how little time I had left in this hunt. Determined to cover ground, I quickened my pace.

After I covered a hundred yards in less than a minute, I had to tell myself to “slow down”. It was advice my dad had given to me before as I was sometimes too eager to see what lay over the next ridge. I took a deep breath and slowly stepped forward with my right foot. SNAP! broke the twig under my boot. In that same instant, the sound of breaking tree branches and hooves on rocks exploded somewhere ahead of me. A small clearing in the trees showed me the herd of cow elk that were again, headed away from me at full speed. “There goes my one chance” I thought to myself, shaking my head in disbelief.

Elk on the Run.
Elk on the Run.

I sat down on a stump and waited until I could no longer hear the herd smash their way through the forest. A small nut thatch chided me from above. I sat there, thinking of my next move, the vapor of my breath slowly drifting off. “What now?” I thought. Should I return to my truck and move further down the mesa edge? Perhaps I should just go home and watch the football game and be lazy? Sounded good, but I’d never forgive myself for wasting the little time I had to be out here. After 20 minutes or so, I began my second journey that morning to redeem myself, and this hunt.

Changing my direction a bit more south and a bit more uphill, I soon found myself skirting a semi-open ridge top. Various shrubs and thick oak grabbed at my jacket and I considered moving back down off the ridge into more open country. But I continued in the same direction. Repeating my mantra, “slow down” over and over in my mind.

Eventually, the vegetation opened up and I could see off into the distance. The sun was well up by now and the blue skies stretched away to the far northern horizon. From where I stood, I could see past the dark outlines of cinder cones of the San Francisco Volcanic Field, 20 miles away. Beyond those, I could see the far off mesas and plateaus of the Hopi Indian Reservation, my homeland, some 70 miles distance.

Distant Landscapes.
Distant Landscapes.

As the air warmed, I took off my pack, removed my jacket and sat down on a large limestone slab, looking at the distant landscapes though my 10X binoculars. As I sat there, I glimpsed down at my loose shoelace that needed tying. I leaned over and that’s when I saw it. An arrowhead. Black volcanic obsidian reflected sunlight as it contrasted with the white limestone rocks that surrounded it. I picked it up and noticed that it was completely intact. Barely an inch and half in length and half that in width, it was the type categorized by the discipline of archaeology as a double side notched point.

Working as an archaeologist myself in the Northern Arizona Region for 10 years, I had seen numerous and varied types of projectile points found on surveys and journeys across this terrain. Many of these points had specific uses, the size and shape made for use on specific game. This type was used to tip the dangerous end of an arrow, and when it was first made, it was sharper than a modern surgeon’s steel scalpel. Its existence showed that prehistoric Indian peoples once roamed this same area, pursing the ancestors of the elk I now chased. Being a Native American of Hopi descent, I was pretty sure that this point was made by my ancestors, the Hisatsinom, or People of Long Ago, over 800 years previous to my time. They were the first to occupy this landscape and during those prehistoric days, they survived and prospered in this harsh environment, enduring some hard times here and there.

Pieces of the Past.
Pieces of the Past.

Holding the point in my palm, I wondered who the ancient hunter was who dropped it. I could imagine him, clad in buckskin that he tanned himself, carrying a bow made of oak, strung with twisted sinew that launched sumac arrow shafts tipped by black obsidian. In my minds eye, I could see this hunter, moving stealthfully along in moccasins, peering around tree trunks, silently praying for a successful hunt. In contrast, here I stood. A modern “savage”, clothed in synthetic camouflage and armed with the latest technology that was a reflection of the modern world I lived in. Who had it better I wondered?

People often ask me why my family hunts. The answers can be pretty obvious, such as providing us with natural, dare I say, “organic” meat, in addition to other materials we use, antler, hide, hoof, feathers, etc. Yet there is another reason why I hunt. Being out in the wilderness I actually feel more alive, more of a participant in my natural world and the natural cycles that occur there. I once asked my dad “why do we hunt?”

Sitting on the edge of the mesa, starring out over a landscape dotted with grassy meadows, surrounded by stands of aspen and fir, with cumulus clouds building on the distant horizon, he remained silent while pondering this question from his son. After awhile he sighed heavily and spoke, “I guess I hunt because out there is nature, things living, things dying. I want to be a part of nature, just as our ancestors were”.

Hunting is definitely a large part of our Hopi culture and history. Knowing that my ancestors hunted in some of the same areas I now hunt, I do feel closer to them. I sometimes wonder how much they would recognize if they were standing next to me looking out over the landscape. In some instances, they are closer than one would think.

I thought back to another experience in which I stood before a petroglyph panel depicting a classic hunting scene; a hunter with bow drawn, and a small line indicating the flight of an arrow towards an antelope. What struck me wasn’t so much the scene itself, but the manner in which the figures were represented. The hunter was puny looking, his bow fragile and his arrow struggling to maintain flight. The antelope in contrast was huge, a sure giant of the animal kingdom, towering over the quivering hunter. I thought to myself that this scene depicted only one thing, it depicted the truth. Hunting is not easy. It requires great skill, strength and a whole lot of luck and prayer. The hunter who made this scene knew the score, and he knew it all to well. Yet, like modern day Hopis fasting and praying for a successful hunt, this hunter too left his prayer pecked upon the stone wall. I walked away, wondering if he had killed.

The Hunt.
The Hunt.

I began to scan the ground for other signs of human passings. “The hunt could wait” I now thought as I ejected the cartridge and put my rifle down. Reverting to the archaeologist in me, I moved methodically, randomly, all the while with my eyes glued to the ground, looking for what I knew was there. Soon enough, my eye could pick out other forms of prehistoric “trash”; sherds of brown and gray pottery, broken bits of grinding stones and flakes of obsidian, chert and quartz. These flakes were produced by making projectile points like the one that so easily distracted me from my hunt.

After examining each bit of evidence up close, I slowly took a step back from what I was looking at, and then fully realized what lay around me. An entire archaeological site materialized before me. I could see the scattered outlines of small rooms here and there, more trash, and a large upright basalt rock that had a smooth flat side. Upon further inspection, this stone turned out to be the beginnings of a large grinding stone that was to be used for grinding nuts. It was left here, perhaps to be completed upon the return to this camp the following year, only to be forgotten. This camp was probably a seasonal home, used in the summer and fall as a base from which men could embark on hunts; where women gathered and collected the natural bounty found in these forests, and children, turkeys and dogs filled the spaces.

Ancient Walls.
Ancient Walls.

All told, I “discovered” several other grinding stones, big and small, pottery with various painted designs and few more projectile points. I took a few pictures and after about an hour of inspecting the site, or perhaps it was two hours, I felt that my curiosity had been satisfied and I began my way back to where I had left my rifle and pack. By now, the sun was right overhead and I figured that it was okay to return back to my truck, having gotten some satisfaction from my little side trip into prehistory. Before I left the site, I remembered to pay homage to my ancestors who had once called this land home. Tough, resourceful people if you ask me.


I found a little clearing in the site and took out a small leather pouch from my pocket. This pouch contained white corn meal. Simple offerings. Taking a pinch, I said a prayer. To no one in particular, to the sky, to the earth and to those I pursued on this hunt. I asked for success and prayed that perhaps the spirits of my ancestors would hear me and grant me my wish. Satisfied, I stood and returned to get my gear.

Making my way down the ridge line, the traces of my ancestors grew less and less until eventually, I could see no more. Still, the last thing on my mind was “hunt”. I was still thinking of what I had just seen. I paused and stood silent, scanning the forest around me, my breaths slow and steady, muscles relaxed.

Just then, somewhere ahead of me, a slight snap of a twig and a flash of brown hide revealed an elk, a cow, moving up and away. As my eyes adjusted, I could see more elk fading in and out between the trees, kicking up dust that drifted like smoke. They were no more than 75 yards from me, the wind in my face concealed my scent. They didn’t notice me as I crouched, shouldered my rifle and brought the scope to my eye.

Rock Art depicting a kill.

My breath quickened, my heart beats drummed in my ears as I settled in to make my choice. There were three cows immediately in front of me, moving in single file. Some more moved along the ridge behind them, out of sight, but I could hear them. I needed to make a choice and make it quick before they disappeared into thicker brush. Looking through my scope at each elk, I made my decision…no…no…yes. Its now or never I thought as I clicked off the safety, which seemed 10 times louder than it should. Loud enough for the cow I had chosen to stop, turn her head, and look in my direction. She looked at me, or through me it seemed. Right down the scope to my eye. I was sure she saw me. We locked eyes in that instant, my one magnified eye, blinking at her two brown eyes.

Slowly, she faced forward again and took a deep breath and exhaled. In that split second, I wondered if she knew what fate had been chosen for her. I settled the crosshairs and took my own deep breath, squeezing the trigger with instinct. She never moved as the rifle thundered. I wondered if I had missed. After what seemed an eternity, but was more like a second, she dropped to her knees and fell to her side. I crept closer and saw that she was fading, fast. I knelt by her head as her breaths grew soft. I reached out and touched her forehead, talking to her, thanking her. Under the boughs of a fir tree, we stared at each other, my two brown eyes blinking at hers, which soon grew dull and stared straight ahead.

After I calmed down, I again took out my leather pouch and “fed” her spirit, placing the cornmeal upon her mouth and nose. I said a small prayer of thanks, of humility, of respect, and then got ready to finish the job that had started 3 days earlier. Time to finish this journey and redeem the hunt. As I took out my knives to begin the task of dressing her out, I thought to myself again, “slow down”.

Silent Prayer.
Silent Prayer.

A couple hours later, I arrived back at camp. I found my dad, sitting in his chair around a small fire, reading an old hunting magazine. I walked up to him and quietly asked, “You ready to do some work?” A quick glance from him at my blood stained pants and bloody hands and a wide grin split his face. He jumped up and shook my hand, all the while saying “Alright Kid!” As we drove up to retrieve my elk, I retold the story of that morning, of the spooked herd at dawn, of the archaeology site, of the prayers I said to our ancestors. He listened intently and nodded in approval as I concluded my tale.

I led him to the spot where she fell. My dad took out his own leather pouch and left his own offering to her. Together we prayed and gave our thanks. Together we labored to get her off of the ridge, almost 300 pounds worth we would later find out. We struggled, moving inch by inch until finally, she rested in the bed of our Dodge. We sat back, silent, but smiling for a job well done.

A year later, I still think of the experience at my ancestor’s camp. I think about how the short time I spent there allowed me to “slow down” and appreciate what was around me, beyond the hunt. I like to think that my ancestors did answer my prayers that day, acknowledging my existence, as I acknowledged theirs.

Even though I was not lucky enough to get drawn for a hunt this year, I still intend to return to that place this fall and give thanks for what was given, for what was taken. To pray and ask that in due time, I will once again pursue these noble animals as my ancestors had done. Till then, the elk steaks will satisfy our hunger, and the story of that journey, will have to satisfy our souls.

Mule Deer Antler Shed.
Mule Deer Antler Shed.

Portions of this article appeared in Bugle Magazine: Journal of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

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.