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Going to Hopi

From: Journal of the Southwest
Volume 55, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 119-129 | 10.1353/jsw.2013.0001

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

I am Telling a Story

The dancers wore masks, painted turquoise, white, black, and red, that covered their heads. They had snouts, and arrays of iridescent feathers above their foreheads, evergreen sprigs tied to their legs and arms, and evergreen wreaths around their necks. They wore white skirts, boots, red sashes across their painted chests, and bells around their ankles. In their hands were gourd rattles. And this is where the description runs out. I was witnessing a kachina dance, and it was beautiful, and otherworldly, and evanescent. Now I am unable to recover the experience in my memory; it refuses to take form and emerge in words. I may have discovered a place out of time, but it is more likely that I was a ghost there, silent and drifting lifeless among the living. Now, like a spider spinning filaments around an irreparable tear in its web, I can only tell a story with emptiness at its core.

It was the summer of 2000, and I had just finished my first year of graduate school in Chicago, where I was studying cultural anthropology. Interested in cultural representation, I had an internship at the Anasazi Heritage Center, an archaeological museum run by the Bureau of Land Management in southwest Colorado, twenty minutes from Mesa Verde National Park. Poised at the northeastern corner of the Southwest, I ventured out each weekend to explore a geography of ruin. The remains of Ancestral Puebloan settlements are scattered all over the Colorado Plateau, in canyons and beneath cliffs and on mesa tops. I gained an appreciation for ancient masonry, and, like an impressionist, quickly realized that sometimes the only difference between ugliness and beauty, between the mundane and the sublime, is light. Late afternoon sunlight transformed ruins and high desert landscapes. In that light the world was ethereal and perfect. This was the Fourth World into which the Hopi emerged, just right, the world where they learned to be true humans. Some weekends I skipped the archaeology to hike and camp in national parks and monuments, but even then the human past was petrified everywhere. I also made excursions to experience living cultural traditions. My visit to the Hopi Reservation in Arizona was such a trip.

Kachina dances, which follow an annual cycle and mark the coming of the kachina spirits among the Pueblos, had assumed the status of anthropological fable in my imagination. But I was well aware that white tourists and anthropologists had been invading the Pueblos, disregarding people’s privacy and misrepresenting their lives, for more than a century. So I was terribly self-conscious about visiting the reservation, let alone attending a dance. My boss, Suzan, who had some experience in the art of visiting Hopi, gave me some information and helped orient me. Wear long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, she said, don’t talk to anyone unless they talk to you first, never take any photographs or make any sketches. Desperate to be a respectful guest, I followed all of Suzan’s guidelines and read and reread all the etiquette advisories. Once I arrived at Second Mesa, I did not know what to do, where to go, or what was happening. When I finally figured out where the dance must be taking place, I parked my car and awkwardly followed a family up the steep hill to the village. It was midmorning in late July and I was hot and nervous in all my clothes.

Each day after work I walk back to the house the museum bought for its summer interns. There are four of us living together, strangers. The museum sits outside the town of Dolores on Highway 184, but we drive twenty minutes to Cortez to do laundry or buy groceries at Walmart. We don’t know anyone who lives around us and rarely even see them.

I sit out on the concrete porch in the late afternoon and watch the cars go by on the highway. I am reading The Grapes of Wrath and appreciate this time when the world is still. The mesa in the distance takes on a dusky hue as the lights in Cortez below come on. Sometimes deer come...

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