Einstein on Hopi

 Einstein, in that totally UN-Hopi headdress, was a welcome and respectful visitor to Hopi

In 1989, I sent this article to Cultural Survival Quarterly, a magazine devoted to the issues that continue to challenge indigenous cultures worldwideSome things have changed--I'm no longer married to my Hopi artist husband, for one.  And the little "doll' I mention is now 25-years-old.  But the sentiments expressed and the events that inspired them are still relevant.  I hope you'll find it both entertaining and thought-provoking.

  “HEY CHIEF!" the sun-reddened, gray-haired tourist called, approaching my husband's kachina doll booth.

It had been a great day at the big Indian Market so far. But I had a feeling…

"Hey!" he called again, grinning. "What time is it chief?"

My Hopi husband lifted his head and set aside his carving knife.  

I had a barely controllable urge to take it up and brandish it in the greenhorn's flushed face.

"Got any idea what time it is?" he asked - again.

"Sorry," my husband said, patiently. "I forgot my watch."

"Hey!" Whaddaya mean? I thought you Indians could tell time by the sun!" the greenhorn guffawed. Cracked himself up, the old boy did.   He'd probably been waiting all day to do that to someone.

My husband smiled... and returned to his carving.

I don’t know how he does it.

He's used to it, I guess. He goes to these things a few times a year with his friends, and they all seem remarkably good-natured about episodes like these.  He says if you're going to go there and ask people to buy your work, you have to be patient with them.

And I try. I really do.

But you get these Indian art "Lovers" who come up to the booths and tell the Indian artist what "real" Indian art should be:

"I mean... it's nice, but I own my own shop and I know!  You can't sell that kind of kachina anymore!  This year they want `em with clocks in their belies.  You got any with clocks in their bellies?"


So, I stay home now.  It's just as well.  For one thing, our two-year-old cannot sit still all day in the sun and the crush of gawking art "enthusiasts."  And if one more gaggle of blue-haired grannies in madras bermudas comes grinning up to her and asks me, "Is this little doll for sale?" they're going to have to call the riot police.

Someday, I'm going to walk up to a white woman with a baby in her grocery cart and cry, "What a darling little white child!  Is he a full-blood?  May I take his picture?  Could you stand over by the Wonder Bread, please?   My Hopi friends will just die when they see this!"

Unwanted guests in Their Own Homeland

I hate to sound so bitter. But the longer I live in Indian Country, the more I realize why my Indian neighbors say they feel like unwanted guests in their own homeland.

Even in Arizona, which is probably the "center of the universe" to more tribes than any other state, when I write down our address at some little border town store or other I get the blank stare, the wild questions, and the mandatory, "Oh, the Hopi reservation. Innat in Oklahoma or something?"

This from people who live about an hour's drive away.

They're quick, in these little towns, to borrow "Indian" names for streets and schools and restaurants and bars and stores.  But they forget to ask some important questions about what they're borrowing. And so very often the names and artifacts they display are sacred, not meant to be seen in public.

It's no less annoying when the wild questions come from farther away, though. Recently, a film crew for a German public television station visited one of our schools and, upon discovering a real live medicine woman in its midst, inquired whether she might "do one of her ceremonies for us" to be shown all over western Europe.

I doubt your priest has even been asked, "And please if you don't mind, could you just do... what is it? Your... little Mass thing for us in a few minutes here?  Could you wear perhaps your little costume and.. Well, whatever your wear!"

Even the venerable Smithsonian Institution has acted, until recently, with incredible arrogance concerning scared artifacts of many tribes and cultures.  They insist that they have kept the pieces they acquired through "various" means to safeguard them - as if the tribes concerned were incapable of doing so.

They underestimate the depth of the tribe's reverence and actual, ongoing spiritual use for these items. Whole ceremonies, in some cases, have been discontinued because the sacred items necessary to complete them are being "safeguarded" elsewhere.

This year, succumbing at last to decades of protest, the Smithsonian reluctantly returned thousands of artifacts and skeletal remains to their tribes. Locally, when two masks long held "captive" in the Smithsonian were recently returned, the entire village turned out with tears in their eyes to "welcome" them and "feed" them their native corn meal, as if they were long lost children.

This is not unusual.  A Hopi friend, discussing her horror at seeing a mask displayed in the window of an art gallery, cried, "They had it stuffed with paper.  I was so sad for him -he'll suffocate like that!"

If it is difficult to empathize, let me illustrate this way.   When did you last see a "Jesus Christ's Tap," a "St. John the Baptist Motor Inn," a "Juda's Place" in your local telephone directory?

Have you eaten under a "Golden Crucifix?" Or driven between the legs of a statue of any religious figure to get into a shopping mall? What would you reaction be if you did?  I did see "Pope-sicles" while the Pontiff was in Phoenix once, and I was equally dismayed.

As the Smithsonian incidents prove, those who know very little are annoying, but it is those who profess to "know" and "love" Indians who can be the most patronizing - and misinformed.   I once locked horns with a famous rock star-activist who had kicked off a particularly wrong-headed crusade to do with the so-called “Navajo/Hopi land dispute”  by recording a special song and video.

He was incensed that I would question his knowledge -- I only live in the area in question.

"Well, I thought all Native Americans considered themselves brothers!" he cried. "I didn't think they believed in owning land!   Wouldn't it be better for them to forget these territorial squabbles and join together for the good of all - I mean, it's just a ploy by the feds to divide and conquer, right?"

“Sure,” I thought, wondering what a native of France might say if I walked up and said, "Hey French, German, Russian British - what's the difference?  You're all white, right?  What do you need all these different countries for?  Just…play nice, ok?"

Actually, it might be kind of nice.  But I dare anyone to go up to a Parisian and say it - and live to tell the tale.

To be honest, the Indians in my neck of the woods don't help matters much. They have a strange sense of humor. And what they don't actually know about their own traditions they make up for with incredible panache.

Consequently, there are things like they tony Sedona resort, which the owners named with the help of a Hopi friend. The owners asked for a Hopi version of "beautiful place"; what they got was "beautiful thighs."

The guy who helped them come up with it may not have known that himself. But I suspect he did – that’s actually an old strategy used to kinda keep people from knowing too much. But it results in a lot of uncomfortable and even sad situations.  And some mutual animosity.

Some tips for Bahanas

To alleviate some of this animosity, for those planning a trip to Hopi Country - I won't speak for any other tribes and I won't guarantee that even my facts are unimpeachable - here are a few basic tips for bahanas ("white people who point at things, walk into people's houses uninvited, and talk too much" - my translation):

1. You don't wear your bikini top and cutoffs to High Mass, Right? Then don't wear them to katsina (yes, that’s how it’s really pronounced: kat-SEE-nah) "dances." They sound and look like fun - some Native Americans think humor and laughter are as good as or even better than solemn prayer and encourage lots of both even in some of their most sacred ceremonies.  But they are serious and sacred business. You can wear casual clothes and even jeans, but expect to be frowned at and lampooned by the "clowns" at the ceremonies, too, if you show too much skin or seem really unkempt or unclean.

In fact, women who arrive too scantily or provocatively clad may receive "playful" sexual advances by the clowns who take over the plazas between katsina dances throughout the day.  When one red-faced, bikini wearing woman asked why she had been singled out, the clown shrugged and said, "Well...you looked like you were down to your underwear, so...I figured you were getting ready for me."


2. "Hey, what dey doin' dere?" Remember that Oscar brown, Jr., song about the quizzical kid?  That's okay at the zoo, not in the plaza at Hotevila.  Don't point and ask questions about the masks and other things at katsina ceremonies.  Just as your kids don't "know about" Santa, many Hopi youngsters don't know "who the katsinas really are," and there are very important religious reasons why.

Rule of thumb:  Don't ask anything.  If you have questions, you might get a chance to ask someone after the dances.  If not, buy a book.  The main thing you should know about Native Americans is that they talk more to those who don't ask than to those who do.  They appreciate your discretion when you just stand quietly and watch, and will volunteer - most of the time - to tell you what's going on if you wait and just go with the flow.

3. Along these same lines, you cannot take pictures or make audio or video tapes of the ceremonies.  I have the most heated arguments with visiting friends about this one.  "It's a free country!" they tell me pointedly, citing freedom of the press and just about every other law they can remember from grade-school history.  But the point is that Indian Country contains many sovereign nations in which the laws you are accustomed to might not apply.  Say to yourself, "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore," or, “When in Rome,” if that makes it easier to grasp, and act accordingly.

And a special warning:  For the same reasons mentioned earlier, if you break out your video camera or sketch pad, the police will take them.  Police are now invited to park outside the actual ceremonial areas and to circulate among the crowds both to keep order and to make sure outsiders understand that these events are not to be recorded.  If you put your cameras away, fine.  If you don't, they'll be confiscated and you'll have to go pick them up on your way of the res.  No kidding - and no exceptions, unless you have been given permission by the tribal government and the village chief beforehand.

The ceremonies are sacred, despite the rather festive feel they have.  And too many outsiders have taken pictures and videos and created unauthorized, and often very lucrative, movies and books from them.  Worse, having seen them, people who are not Hopi or even Native begin trying to do the things they've seen, which is the height of disrespect, though most would tell you they meant only to "honor" Hopi culture and spirituality.

You cannot "try on" a culture like a costume.  These ceremonies are not meant to be sold or imitated.  And many of the things that could be photographed or filmed on these days are simply not meant to be seen outside of the plazas.  So even if one villager allows you to take a picture, it should probably stay in your private collection and left otherwise unpublished.

4. The seats in front of the houses are for relatives; ditto for the blankets on the edges of roofs.  If there is a ceremony, please do not sit there.  Stand, quietly, with the crowds, and if you are invited to sit by a family - and Hopis can be quite friendly about this - sit in the back few rows, not up front. The kids sit up front and the elderly sit behind or with them.

5. I don't think too many people walk across your front lawn to ask you if you'd like to sell some of your lawn furniture or if you have any leftovers you'd let them sample.  Those quaint little sandstone houses are not museums.  People live in them and they don't want you wandering in asking if they have anything for sale - unless you see a sign in the window that says they have crafts for sale, of course.

A Final Word

I am always most amused by people who express dismay at how "modern" everything is out here. They're chagrined that people have trucks and TV sets and washing machines.  Some villages still refuse indoor plumbing and electricity because the installation of these modern marvels disturbs the earth and air - you don't mess with Mother Nature around here.

But most people have all the modern conveniences and revel in them - how would you like to spend your whole morning, after waking long before dawn, on your knees in front of a stone trying to grind enough cornmeal to make bread for three meals a day?

So that corn is still sometimes "hand-ground," but often it goes through the meat grinder first.  And that famous corn pudding the bride used to stay up all night watching as it baked in a pit is now placed lovingly in mom's crockpot to steam overnight.

These women sometimes bake 50 loves of bread and dozens of pies and cakes, while preparing enough food to feed a whole village, every week. There's some kind of ceremony every weekend, and I say, if they use a few short cuts, fine.

The days when a woman almost expected to miscarry once or twice from the work heaped upon her as a new member of the family trying to prove her worth and repay the village for all her wedding garments and such, are, thank God, long gone.  

Life was hard.  And nobody misses that part of the "good old days" around here.  Would you?

A wealthy Hopi artist friend once told us the story of a local businessman who invited some white entrepreneurs and their wives up to the res to talk about helping some of the less fortunate of his tribe start their own little businesses.  Or…maybe to just give scholarship money for the kids to use if they made it trough high school - that sort of thing.

They were thrilled to be invited to the remote desert reservation, and even seemed to be looking forward to the dubious landing their chartered plane would have to make out in the middle of nowhere.

And so the Indian businessman was somewhat surprised at the subdued reception he received when he stepped out of the cloud of dust raised by his Mercedes-Benz sedan.  But pretty soon, he figured it out. And he knew exactly what to do.

Smiling his biggest smile, he ambled up in his expensive cowboy boots, stuck out a hand to the first visitor - a blank-faced man who seemed almost reluctant to touch him - and said, "Mule wouldn't start."

I don't know how they do it.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.  (But…I wrote it, and they said I could use it.)


Views: 185

Comment by Arthur James on May 10, 2014 at 2:15am


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