Unfolding the Map
William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) sees Oraibi, one of the oldest communities in North America. The Hopi are a people extremely rooted to their place. In this post, I'll examine what that may mean both in their context. I'll also speculate on the lessons our modern society can learn from them. Click on the thumbnail of the map to match Oraibi to your sense of place.
"Clinging to the southern lip of Third Mesa was ancient Oraibi, most probably the oldest continuously occupied village in the United States. Somehow the stone and adobe have been able to hang on to the precipitous edge since the twelfth century. More than eight hundred Hopis lived at Oraibi in 1901 - now only a few. All across the reservation I'd seen no more than a dozen people, and on the dusty streets of the old town I saw just one bent woman struggling against the wind. But somewhere there must have been more."
Blue Highways: Part 5, Chapter 2
Oraibi, Hopi Reservation
All of the current pueblos of Arizona and New Mexico are very old, with roots that stretch back to the 11th or 12th century, and many abandoned villages and towns throughout the Southwest attest to older settlements that go even farther back.
There is some dispute among the pueblos as to which pueblo has the oldest continuous settlement in North America. The first pueblo I ever visited was Taos Pueblo, when I was on vacation in New Mexico in 1999. They claimed that they had the oldest continuous pueblo settlement in North America. Naturally, I took them at their word - I didn't know anything about them at the time anyway. However, after I moved to New Mexico, I visited Acoma Pueblo and they claimed to be the oldest continuous settlement. They even prefaced their assertion with "Taos will tell you that they are the oldest settled village in North America, but...". The tour guide at Acoma said that Taos was abandoned for a few years, while Acoma always had some residents, thus Acoma was the oldest. And now that I've done a little research, the Hopi settlement at Oraibi also makes a claim for oldest continuous settlement in North America. Which is true?
The answer probably is that we can't truly know, and to me it doesn't matter much anyway. That these settlements are old is unquestionably true. They were established for hundreds of years by the time that the Spanish arrived at Zuni Pueblo looking for the seven cities of Cibola. In what almost seems to be a hilarious case of trying to get an unwelcome guest out of the house, the Zuni people, after the Spanish were disappointed to not find a gleaming city of gold, told the conquistadores that there was a cluster of seven cities farther to the northwest, thus sending them to the Hopis. The Hopis were willing to consider that the Spanish fit into their mythology of the return of the Pahana, the long lost white brother to the Hopi people, but soon became disenchanted when all of the expected signs and symbols of the Pahana didn't materialize through the Spanish.
In the Hopi mythology, the Earth Caretaker spread the people far and wide but told the Hopi that after a period of migration they would, upon viewing a giant star, establish a village named Oraibi. The location of the village would then be where the Hopi became a prosperous people benefitting forever from their surroundings. The Hopi are therefore very tied to place. In fact, all the pueblo tribes appear to be very connected to their surroundings. Unlike a lot of Native American tribes, which were nomadic or semi-nomadic and followed the game that sustained them, the pueblo peoples rooted down, built dwellings, and dry farmed. In one section of this chapter of Blue Highways, LHM writes that he's not sure how the Hopi live in such a "severe land." A trip to Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, ancient ruins of the ancestors of the Hopi, or Bandelier National Monument in the same state, or Mesa Verde in Colorado, or Walnut Canyon in Arizona, seems to only reinforce this mystery. These places today are very dry and hot. The answer is twofold. First, the climate was a little wetter back in the time that these places were being established. However drought and climate changes occurred that severely affected the ability of those communities and in some places led to the abandonment of many settlements. Second, the people perfected the art of dry farming. Dry farming is farming without the use of irrigation - the dry farmer learns to farm where there is little natural rainfall, saving a surplus in abundant years for those years that are lean. Unless there is severe drought, dry farming can sustain small communities. By subsisting on agriculture, a people must become attached to their chosen place because it is the soil and the climate that will sustain them.
Oraibi is also the locus of the return of the Pahana, the lost brother of the Hopi upon whose return they expect to gain much wisdom from what he will teach them. The Hopis have been awaiting the Pahana for some centuries - he was prophesied to return sometime in the 16th century. Many contenders, first Spanish and then American, who have visited the Hopi have not proved to be the Pahana. However, this belief in the Pahana's return also ties the Hopi to their place. If they leave, how will the Pahana find them?
Finally, Hopi ceremonies and traditions further bind them to their place in the universe, though as modernization continues, traditions die out. According Scott Peterson, in his book Native American Prophecies, the traditional ceremonies of some Hopi villages have disappeared, though the Kachina ceremonies have remained in all villages. This may be a sign of koyanisqatsi - a loss of balance in the world. Such a sign may signal the imminent return of the Pahana, and perhaps the dawn of a new world.
Most of us in one way or another are tied to place, whether it's the home where we grew up or where as adults we make our meals, lay down to sleep and raise our families. Some of us "light out for the territories," to quote Mark Twain, in order to find a place that we are pointed toward that we hope will be our physical, mental, and spiritual home. Some of us await the day, on a personal level, when we will be visited by inspiration or the answer to our inner questions about ourselves and our lives: a revelation or, perhaps, our personal Pahana? Some of us await the arrival of a prophet or a Messiah or some other spiritual leader who will purify the world, elevate those of us who are elect and create a new one out of the ashes. On a more mundane level, we go about our daily lives, doing what we need to do, some more successfully than others, and in the end we hope that our lives are meaningful to one or to many. We cultivate our salaries, others' wisdom, personal learning, understanding, others' love and assistance. We hope to store up a surplus of those things for the lean years. When life gets out of balance, we suffer. Some of us remain in our pain and misery. Those of us with insight and courage strive to put the world back into balance and our lives right once again.
The Hopi, perched on the edge of mesas in the desert, have much to teach us about ourselves and our societies through their beliefs and their prophesies. If we don't heed their lessons, however, we benefit anyway because, as Peterson writes, "the practice of Hopi religion is considered to be absolutely essential for the survival of everything on earth....That is why Anglos and other visitors have traditionally been permitted to view many of their ceremonials which are held throughout the year. Because the Hopi dance and pray for everyone."
The Hopi stand large for the burden they take on for the rest of us. It's not often that a whole culture advocates with the cosmos for the well-being of all their fellow humans. The Hopi do it every day. For that, and for myself, I thank them.
This group came to mind as I was doing this post. The San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble (SAVAE) did a an album called Native Angels, which was music written in the Aztec language, in many cases taking Christian themes. It has the distinction of being some of the first Christian music ever performed in the Western hemisphere. While the Hopis, to the frustration of missionaries, never completely converted to Christianity, the language of this music is Nuahatl, the language of the Aztecs and related to the Hopi language.
If you want to know more about Oraibi
Next up: Hotevilla, Hopi Reservation