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/

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.

Face-to-Face: 25 Years of NAGPRA

On the approach of the 25th anniversary of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), I wanted to reflect on my personal experiences in dealing with and implementing NAGPRA with the Hopi Tribe. This is not meant to be a technical, legal or political analysis of the Act, there are other resources available if one wishes to learn more.


November 16, 1990.

This was the day that the Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed into law. At the time, I was 15 years old and had no idea that this law existed or what its’ implications would be on my life and the lives of my fellow Hopi people. Fast forward 16 years…

In the summer of 2006 I find myself in the backcountry of Mesa Verde National Park and I’m staring into a large trench which holds the remains of over 2,000 individuals. The bones of my ancestors lay before me and I’m trying to comprehend the situation as a whole. It is overwhelming to say the least and I’m wondering what I got myself into. This is one of the largest reburials conducted in NAGPRA history and is my introduction to the whole process.

I had recently started working with the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office (HCPO), the formal governing body of the Hopi Tribe that deals with all matters of Cultural Resource Managment (CRM), including Archaeology, Anthropology, Ethnography, Linguistics and in this case, NAGPRA. As the new Archaeology Program Manager, I was given the assignment to help coordinate and carry-out this project, along with numerous individuals from the National Park Service (NPS), Museum Specialists from the State of Colorado, various agencies and other tribal representatives.

The Hopi Tribe, as a formal entity, had assumed the lead in this endeavor. This was based on established “Cultural Affiliation” with the prehistoric human remains in question. Establishing that affiliation is a long and complicated process; much like going to court, any tribe who claims affiliation with a set of human remains must “prove” this through several lines of evidence. The Hopi Tribe, in conjunction with Hopi elders, archaeologists, museum specialists, physical anthropologists and historians, had met this challenge sufficiently. It was an endeavor which spanned many years. Let’s leave it at that.

Back to the task at hand.

So just where did these remains come from and why were we re-burying them? The majority of the remains came from within the established boundaries of Mesa Verde National Park. Either as part of past archaeological excavations (deliberately removed from the ground) or through natural forces, such as erosion or as “inadvertent discoveries” – perhaps unearthed by accident through trail maintenance or other NPS activities. In anycase, these remains, like so many others throughout the country, had ended up in boxes, given an accession number and stored in warehouses or in some extreme cases, put on public display (as one unfortunate individual who was encased in cement to mimic an excavation and placed inside a glass case).

Cataloged Artifacts (not actual NAGPRA items).
Cataloged Artifacts (not actual NAGPRA items).

The bottom line was that these individuals, women, men, teenagers, children and infants, were no longer in their final resting places. In most cases, only fragments of them were left, partial skeletons that were once a living, breathing human being. Some of them were originally buried with “grave offerings”; pottery, jewelry, textiles, baskets and other “gifts” to carry with them into the after-life. These items were placed back with the individuals, as best as could be determined.

The identification process of these individuals is an extremely tedious task, requiring the expertise of archaeologists and physical anthropologists to examine each set of remains to determine gender and age; categorizing them into groups which would aid the reburial process. When it came time for reburial, the actual process was conducted according to cultural procedures set forth by which ever tribe assumed the lead. Thus the reburial was carried out and in one day, we re-buried over 2,000 individuals.

Since that day, I have been involved in half a dozen reburials with as many different federal, state and tribal agencies. Other Hopis, always males, have been involved with many more, since the dawn of the NAGPRA age. How and Why do I choose to be involved in this process? I can only speak for myself. I do not claim to voice the feelings or emotions of the other Hopis and Indigenous people who are involved in this aspect of NAGPRA.

Hopi Consultation Team. Comprising elders, archaeologists and ethnographers.
Hopi Consultation Team. Comprising elders, archaeologists and ethnographers.

It can be a difficult choice, there are cultural and personal boundaries we have to face and ultimately cross if we become involved. When I first told my family that I was going to be conducting the reburial at Mesa Verde, they objected to it and tried to change my mind. They were afraid there could be negative consequences, physically and spiritually, as a result of my involvement. They worried that I was not adequately prepared, at least from a cultural perspective. It’s not so much a cultural taboo or superstition in regards to handling human remains, but more of a concern that there could be other consequences that could affect my inner well-being.

While I respected their concerns, I viewed my participation as necessary, as a way to correct the wrongs of the past. Perhaps I was also a bit naive about it all, not fully understanding the implications of my decision. Yet it was that thinking that I needed to do something, which compelled me to participate. As an Indigenous person involved with the field of Archaeology and other aspects of CRM work, I have always felt that it is important to acknowledge the past history between the sciences of Anthropology, Archaeology and Indigenous people.

It has not always been respectful or beneficial and the Hopi experience has been no different. However I feel that by choosing to be involved in these fields, also requires my participation to make some positive changes. I think those of us who choose to be involved all carry the idea, that it is our duty and responsibility to respect and protect our relatives from a distant era. Thus I continue to re-bury the remains of my ancestors.

There are a myriad of emotions and feelings that I encounter while doing a reburial. I am often physically and emotionally exhausted at the end of the day. I have learned to hide my emotions while I am working, which can be a difficult task. I remember the first time I unpacked an infant from the storage box and placed it within the burial trench. Unexpectedly, I felt tears roll down my cheek and I had to compose myself. The thoughts of my own daughter who was the same age as this child crossed my mind. Through blurred vision, I gently arranged the fragments of skull and bones, placing alongside a small ceramic bowl and turquoise pendant she had been buried with. This emotion still occurs occasionally but I have learned to deal with it.

Other times I am left with surreal visions; such as countless skulls, all lined up facing east, waiting for their chance to greet the sun once again and continue on in their final journey. Or another time I took a skull out of the box and saw that this poor fellow had an obsidian projectile point embedded in his eye socket. He had died from his injury and it reminded me that at times, our history could be violent and unsettling.

I experience frustration and anger from time to time, wondering why my ancestors were treated with such disrespect to be labeled with a number and placed in storage boxes. Their final journey disturbed and their souls left uneasy. But those emotions are not welcome, at least during the actual reburial. They will resurface in me at a later time. Of course I am far from happy, but it is best to keep working and focus on getting the task done.

I sometimes talk to the dead as I’m laying them out. I hold them face-to-face and ask them who they are. I reassure them that we are there to help. I let them know that no further harm will come to them and they are free to go. Other times, during a long reburial, I say nothing and work in silence, hoping that we can finish before the sun sets. I drink or eat very little while I am working, taking short breaks to clear my head and talk with the living.

I am appreciative of those that come to assist us. Usually there are only a few Hopi or other tribal representatives involved, some from other tribes. Nowadays, that number grows smaller as people age and are no longer physically able to do the work. This type of work is not one that other Hopi males are eager to get involved with, for their own personal and cultural reasons. For now, there are only 2-3 of us who continue to do so. So be it.

But there are others who come to help; archaeologists, museum specialists, maintenance workers, trail crew and volunteers, from various agencies. Their extra hands help to unload boxes, unpack the remains and if needed, place the remains within the trench. According to Hopi belief, only males are allowed within the actual reburial pit (one of my uncles who is also involved in these efforts, jokes it is because Hopi males are expendable).

I don’t consider this to be morbid work. I have never been squeamish about bones, human or not. When I think about it, I guess I was destined to do this, but there is nothing glamorous in it. Again, I view it as an individual responsibility. What I take from it, or rather what I hope is gained, is a sense of peace for all involved. Not just for those we are reburying, but for those of us who remain. The Living. The Dead. Hopefully we can all rest easier.

One of the more amazing aspects of this whole ordeal are the personal items that are buried with an individual. Intricate jewelry that they wore with pride. Ceramics of all types, plain, decorated, imported and the one-of-a-kind. Shell, stone and other materials that came from distant lands. It showed that their lives were not all labor and toil, that they too had the opportunity to enjoy the better times of life. They contemplated their place in the universe, reflected in their art. They spent time with their families and friends, caring for one another in life and death.

Shell Necklace (not an actual NAGPRA item). Photo Credit: Dan Boone/Ryan Belnap, Bilby Research Center, Northern Arizona University.
Shell Necklace (not an actual NAGPRA item).
Photo Credit: Dan Boone/Ryan Belnap, Bilby Research Center, Northern Arizona University.
Turquoise Mosaic. Photo Credit: Dan Boone/Ryan Belnap, Bilby Research Center, Northern Arizona University.
Turquoise Mosaic (not an actual NAGPRA item).
Photo Credit: Dan Boone/Ryan Belnap, Bilby Research Center, Northern Arizona University.

I have to remind myself not to admire too much. That these items are no longer meant for this world, and so I place them alongside their owners and thank them for the chance to glimpse into their world. I also have to remind those who are helping in the reburial that this is not the time or place for in-field scientific analysis. I know this can be difficult for some of my archaeology colleagues, losing pieces of the past and with them, their scientific potential. I remind them that time has come and gone. Let us respect what needs to be done and move on.

When all is said and done, I say a final prayer to my ancestors. I ask them to be at peace. “Go be with your relatives who are waiting for you”. We leave offerings and conduct a cleansing ceremony for all involved, smudging ourselves in juniper smoke, washing away any negative feelings or emotions from the day. With final handshakes, the work crew disassembles and departs. I am usually one of the last to leave.

I never go directly home after a reburial. I find a secluded spot to camp out for the night. I build a fire and sit staring at the flames, watching stars in the night sky, slowly releasing the remainder of my emotions from the day. I reflect on the days activities and concentrate on bringing myself back to this world. I wonder if what we do really corrects the mistakes of the past. Will there indeed be repercussions for my involvement? Only time will tell.

I may never know who these people were in real life, we only cross paths in our journeys to our own final destinations. Yet I am thankful for their presence. They are the giants on whose shoulders I stand upon. The meaning of the past is what it contributes to life in the present.

I fall asleep knowing I will awaken to a new day and see in the eyes of my own children, the spirits of my ancestors.

We Are Still Here.