Journey to the Four Corners with Bioneers Indigeneity Program,
DAY 4, NAVAJO AND HOPI FOOD AND FARMING, PART II
Alexis Bunten, Bioneers Indigeneity Program
This blog series is to share our week-long journey to the Four Corners region to experience first-hand amazing work undertaken by our partners with from the Colorado Plateau Intertribal Conversations Group, and inspired by our collective efforts to protect the Rights of Nature.
Anything said in this blog series reflects my personal interpretations of the 2017 Kinship Journey to the Four Corners, and does not reflect Bioneers Collective Heritage Institute, or the opinions of the wonderful people I traveled with.
Day 4, we woke up after our last night at the Hopi-owned Moenkopi Legacy Inn and Suites and had an early breakfast. I was impressed with the mission of the hotel, which is to education visitors on Hopi art, culture and history. If I weren’t on my own tour co-organized with our partners at CPIC and intercultural gathering members, this hotel definitely would have been my starting point to explore Hopi. Brochures and information about how to experience the rich Hopi culture were located throughout the expansive hotel lobby, decorated with beautiful Hopi 2 and 3-D pieces. Staff were also well-equipped to connect visitors with authorized tour guides, and artists demonstrated their work in the lobby area. Overall, I was impressed. I noticed signs all over the hotel about the “Hopi arts trail.”
HEADS UP: YOU AREN’T GOING TO SEE ANY PHOTOS OF OUR VISIT TO HOPI. We kept our cameras to ourselves out of respect for Hopi cultural privacy.
I wondered about the famously “closed” society of the Hopi. How do the Hopi people reconcile self-determination and economic empowerment with cultural protocols to protect traditional knowledge? Prior to visiting Hopi, I heard that the Hopi religion permeates everyday life. Family and farming are very important, and that the Hopi people made a deliberate decision to protect their way of life and culture from negative outside influences generations ago, after early contact with European settlers. Prior to working at Bioneers, I served in a consulting role learning alongside a Hopi project having to do with protecting cultural and natural resources. Speaking to the Hopi project leads, I got the impression that Hopi lands have been deeply threatened by mining (done illegally by circumventing the consultation process now mandated by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples). I also learned from that project that the Hopi people have a lot of knowledge and talent, both “traditional” and via Western higher education.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the Hopi developed a tourism infrastructure that respectfully encourages cross-cultural interaction. Tourism dollars are a way for Hopi to stay and work at home in their villages, but they must be balanced with the Hopi need for cultural privacy. This was handled well by the Hopi Arts trail marketing, and signage all over the Hopi Villages, which clearly marked where visitors can and cannot go.
As we drove eastward along a cliff out of Tuba City, I looked down at a verdant valley full of corn, that opened up to more desert-like terrain. After about 45 minutes, we arrived in Bacavi to visit the home of Ruby Chimerica, a CPIC gathering member, who Cara and I had met in November 2016 at the Indigenous Peoples’ Gathering for Healthy Communities and Culture. Located on the 3rd Mesa, Bacavi is a “progressive” and one of the newest Hopi villages, we learned, established in the early 1900s after an internal split among Hopi at old Oraibi, the founding village and inhabited since at least 1100 BCE.
Ruby’s home was cool inside, a nice contrast to the searing heat of the day. She had a lot of space for visitors on her large living room couches. In one corner of the room, a long wooden bench was covered with natural materials that Ruby had gathered over the year for her weavings. Family photos lined the walls and were set out on the coffee table along with books. Katsina dolls hung throughout the walls. I wondered which katsina was for whom and what they protected. I imagined that different dolls were given to different grandchildren, with a meaning just for them (I’m sure I have no idea the significance of the katsinas on the walls, but that’s how I read it). At the far end of the living room, an old-school reggae video played on a tube television. “The Hopi love their reggae music,” Deon whispered to our group as Ruby disappeared to the kitchen for a minute.
Ruby told us about her life, her weaving, Hopi food. She was very careful not to reveal anything spiritual or private in keeping with Hopi protocols. We could all relate in one way or another to Ruby’s personal stories about life’s ups and downs. I loved hearing about her childhood playing in the village canyon where the natural springs, gardens and fruit orchards once grew. The aquifer under the springs had been used up and diverted away to transport coal, and now the village no longer maintained the accompanying gardens.
Ruby served us blue corn mush, a slightly different take on the corn mush we had the day before (I swear, just like wine, you can taste the terrior in the mush’s sweetness and flavor undertones), and Hopi tea made from local plants. This was my third time drinking local tea so far on this trip and I was starting to worry that I would miss its cool, earthy, sweetness when I get back home to California. I had an intuition as we were about to leave Ruby’s house that we had made a good impression on her, and I knew that my group all wanted more time with her. I pulled Ruby aside and whispered, “This might sound strange, but would you like to join us in Sedona this weekend? I think we might have an extra hotel room with your name on it…” (It was true, I had booked an extra hotel room that wasn’t “spoken for.”) Ruby said yes! Later, she told me that Sedona was one of her favorite places to visit.
I felt right at home in the rich, lived in feel of Ruby’s home, because it reminded me of some of my own family members modest homes, walls lined with art and pictures of family. Bacavi is exactly like the Alaska Native Villages I am familiar with, just “Hopi-fied.”
After we left Ruby’s house, she led us to the edge of the canyon to send our prayers down into it for the village’s springs to be rejuvenated. We could see for ourselves the landscape of Ruby’s happy childhood stories, only now, the eden-like green garden oasis was no longer there. The hillside terraces not maintained with crops to feed the whole community as they once were. The trees in the orchards looked thirsty, and in need of a trim as their sad leaves drooped. As I closed my eyes, I could almost taste the juicy, spring-fed peaches of the olden days that they Hopi are well-known for in their corner of the world. Seeing this whole way of life destroyed because the water was lost to mining broke my heart.
Ruby joined us for lunch at the Restaurant at the Hopi restaurant and Cultural Center, where of course, we ran into a Hopi leader, Leonard Selestewa, Hopi traditional farmer and environmental activist that Indigeneity Program Director, Cara Romero and I had met a few months earlier at the Los Angeles workshop, “Sharing Indigenous Farming Wisdom in a Time of Climate Change,” that we co-hosted with CPIC a few months earlier. The food was surprisingly delicious considering how far off the beaten path we were. Perhaps best of all were the blue corn fry bread that was even breaking the gluten-light members of our group—it was that worth it!
After a visit to the Hopi Cultural Center and the many artists with vending tables on sight, we bid farewell to the Hopi Reservation, and headed west off the mesa to our next destination, Tolani Lake Enterprises, Inc. whose mission is “to cultivate healthy, safe and prosperous communities by strengthening food, water and economic systems for our Native communities in the lower Little Colorado River Valley, empowering our youth and promoting Native cultural knowledge.”
I had heard of “food deserts” before, most mostly within an inner-city context.
The original “lake” bed namesake of where we were at had long been dried up, its water sources diverted elsewhere in times past, and the village was surrounded by flat, scrubland for miles around. The antidote to a food desert is food sovereignty, or the ability for a community to provide for its own food needs.
We learned about the organization’s food sovereignty efforts to develop a working farm that can provide healthy, organic, locally-grown food to nearby schools and hospitals instead of importing lower quality foods from the outside. In two short years, Tolani Lake Enterprises (TLE) has planted a small orchard, planted fields of fruits and vegetables, established a greenhouse and a hot house. Through this small farm demonstration/education project, TLE has conducted community workshops to teach locals farming techniques, while selling produce at a 50% reduced rate to supermarket prices. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that local Navajo youth seem to really enjoy working on the land.
I was so inspired to learn about what had been accomplished in two short years with a few staff members, two of whom are on their “post-retirement careers.” If a couple of people could coax this desert to produce a variety of crops in a sustainable way, which meant also establishing water catchment devices and installing solar, teaching others as they, themselves, learned along the way, then we should all be able to grow a little of our own food in our backyards, or even back rooms. Yes, TLE even had a back room inside their building, growing herbs and peppers. I left with the hope to imagine how health and wellness could be improved if every village on the Navajo community were able to become 100% self-reliant for fresh produce, and a vision of how this dream is also a model for our urban food deserts across the United States.
After we bid our friends at TLE goodbye, we headed out towards Sedona, our final destination for the journey. About 30 minutes into our drive, just before the flat desert gave way to the rolling hills, then mountains to the west, we were greeted by a beautiful rainbow, which many of us interpreted as a sign that we experienced a welcome visit to Navajoland. (Later, we discovered that several of us in separate vans independently made the same meaning of the rainbow.)
For millennia, Sedona has been regarded as a very sacred site by many of the surrounding Native tribes. “Only, there isn’t one special ‘secret vortex place’ with all the power,” one of our Native hosts admitted to me. “Non-Natives don’t understand that ALL of Sedona is that powerful.” Sedona was so powerful to the Yavapai Apache people, that they only came here to this sacred site for certain reasons, and could not live here year round. It was their territory, that they stewarded and had rights to, but they didn’t have settlements here. So when the settlers came here, they just took the land. Because they did not see any Native settlements, they assumed it was Terra Nullius for the taking.
After we checked into our hotel in Sedona, we met together for dinner with members of the Colorado Plateau Intertribal Conversations group, who would be with us over the rest of the long, Labor Day weekend.
We were joined at dinner by Carletta Toulousi, with the Havasupai Tribal Council, came back by popular demand (we wanted more time with this amazing tribal leader after we met her the evening of our first dinner, three nights before), Carletta’s beautiful daughter, Sunny Dooley, a Navajo culture bearer revered far and wide for her mesmerizing stories, and Alvin Dahozy, youth leader at the organization, Rez Refuge, who is also my friend and collaborator with Bioneers Native Youth Leadership Program. We were all tired after the long day, but still had a great time getting to know each other, telling stories, and laughing over a good meal. After dinner was over and I checked into my hotel room, I think I probably fell asleep before my head hit the pillow.
I coerced Indigeneity Program Director, Cara Romero, to take more selfies with me after we came down from the mesas. We did not consult each other on our coordinating sun glasses, but we did agree that some of our similar fashion choices were born out of nostalgia for the 1990’s.