Low, bruise-colored clouds faded into black in the cool spring desert of northern Arizona, and a fire set amidst a ring of soft-hued stones lapped at the proud, impassioned features of an Indian named Vernon Masayesva.
Masayesva was scratching with a stick in the dust in the yard behind his one-story cinderblock home. He sketched a circular diagram to help explain the importance of water to the traditional Hopi way of life. “Water teaches us how we must live,” he said. “Its story is as small as cells and as big as the heavens above.”
Masayesva became animated as he spoke, his voice rising with emotion and ebbing into whispers, his features shining in the orange glow of the firelight. As syllables flowed from this proud man’s tongue, the bruise-colored sky faded completely into night. There was a stillness to the place that felt older than the present moment, the whispers of an ancient people echoing in the inaudible softness of the wind.
“We’re taught that our ancestors, moti sinom, journeyed through three worlds. We believe Black Mesa is the final destination of our migrating ancestors. Here, on the southern fingertips of Black Mesa, our ancestors met Ma’saw and agreed to help steward the land in return for permission to remain here.”
I was standing among a circle of fifteen or so law school students who joined environmental law professor Charles Wilkinson for passage across the Colorado Plateau. Wilkinson has authored books on the controversies of this culturally-rich landscape, and he worked earlier in his career as an attorney for the sovereign nations of northern Arizona. Wilkinson has enjoyed a long friendship with Masayesva, who opened his home and barbecue pit to us that night in March 2006.
Our ten-day educational pilgrimage began in Boulder, Colorado, but threaded some of the West’s most barren desert vistas. The journey included the oil-shale-rich Ute Indian Reservation near Durango in southwest Colorado and Mexican Hat on the banks of the San Juan River where meandering goosenecks reveal sedimentary layers showing geologic time on a scale defined in the hundreds of millions of years. From Mexican Hat, we turned south toward the Navajo and Hopi reservations. Later we would travel farther west still, our journey culminating at the foot of the Kaibab Plateau on the north rim of the Grand Canyon.
The Hopi Indian Reservation is entirely within the boundaries of the much larger Navajo Reservation, the United States’ largest tribe in both land and population. Together the two reservations occupy more than 28,000 square miles of Arizona desert, from the flooded canyons of Glen Canyon, most of it now inundated by Lake Powell, to Flagstaff and Winslow in the south. This is country with famed monikers like Painted Desert, Monument Valley, Defiance Plateau and, indeed, Black Mesa. To those of us with white skin they’re merely unimaginable vistas: mesas, buttes and curvy canyons, pastel-colored rocks that undulate in distances difficult to ponder. But to many Indians who live there, and have for thousands of years, they are sacred, the central pillars of a spirituality that extols harmony and balance above use or application.
At Masayesva’s home, we were in the Hopi village of Kykotsmovi on Third Mesa, one of three topographical fingers that extend south from the much larger mass of Black Mesa, a plateau rising more than a thousand abrupt feet above the surrounding red-rock desert to the north. But the mesa’s southern slopes list gently and, as they do, give life to springs that form into rivulets that have carved the spaces between the mesa’s fingertips. The Hopi have long relied on Black Mesa’s springs and its vast underground aquifer, the center of the palm in the celebrated Hopi water symbol, to farm and raise livestock in harmony with Mother Nature’s offerings. Oraibi, a village near Masayesva’s home, was founded sometime before 1100 AD, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the United States.
“Our belief, our science, says that in the beginning was water. Next was land. With help from Father Sun all life came to be,” Masayesva said. “Our ancestors were shown three simple things: an ear of corn, a gourd of water and a planting stick. They were instructed to create a sustainable society using these three things. This was the beginning of the fourth world of the Hopi.”
Black Mesa represents the earth center, Masayesva said. Beneath lay untold riches, which if used creatively with corn (mother), water (lifeblood) and planting stick (technology) will sustain future generations of Hopi children.
“We believe the Black Mesa handprint represents the spirit of Pozanghoya, a weaver. Together with his twin brother, Paloqaawhoya, echoer, they work to keep the earth in balance,” Masayesva said. “We believe all waters – the aquifers, the springs, the lakes, the rivers, the oceans, the rain, the snow – are joined together. All work in harmony to sustain life.”
The aquifer breathes, he said, when it rains. It exhales at its springs.
But for thirty years Black Mesa has been at the center of a debate that pits modern society’s energy consumption and material wealth against traditional ways, and Hopi culture has been divided by the disagreement.
(For more of this story about the Hopi Tribe of northern Arizona and other insightful stories from the American West, check back in January 2013 to purchase Western Perspective.)