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In northern Arizona's Hopiland, an ancient culture lives on

The Hopi keep the old ways alive on three mesas in arid northern Arizona

A ferocious wind fell like a pack of hounds upon the village of Old Oraibi, flinging clouds of dust around stone houses perched on the cliff's edge.

An old woman struggled to carry a basket of cornmeal up an alley as ragged dogs took shelter by a trash can. Prehistoric potsherds skittered across the road.

"Maybe we should get back in the truck!" my guide, Gary Tso, called, trying to be heard over the roar.

We were exploring this lonesome village of about 75 that can trace its origins to 1100, making it perhaps the oldest continuously occupied community in America.

Once the largest, most important village on the Hopi reservation in northeastern Arizona, it's now a crumbling relic rooted to a mesa that juts like a ship's prow over the desert.

I began writing.

"Please don't do that outside," Tso said.

"Do what?" I asked.

"Take notes," he said. "People will get nervous."

We ducked inside a dark house with hanging rugs separating the rooms.

Geraldine Sehongva, an elderly woman with a gray ponytail, greeted us warmly. A glass case near her kitchen held pots painted with dyes made from wild spinach. Each bore the insignia of her roadrunner clan.

She spoke of her work and past life as a schoolteacher. As time moved on and others moved out, Sehongva stayed behind. Now she's the last potter in Old Oraibi, the end of a vaunted line.

The winds eased and we ventured out. I spied a pair of magnificent golden eagles tethered to a rooftop. The Hopi are permitted to gather the feathers for ceremonial purposes.

"The birds are considered part of the family," Tso said.

When they reach maturity, the eagles are ritually sacrificed, their spirits freed to carry prayers to the Creator.

As I watched the great birds watch me, I wondered whether this might be the most mysterious place in America.

Link to the past

The Hopi, whose history stretches back 10,000 years, are perhaps the least assimilated, most reclusive Indian tribe in the nation. Their ancestors built the cliff palaces of Mesa Verde, Colo., and the Great Houses of Chaco Canyon, N.M.

The Hopi say they sprang from a gash at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and migrated here, to the center of the spiral, or the center of the universe.

Today that universe consists mostly of three slender islands of rock encircled by the Navajo Nation. The Spaniards called them First Mesa, Second Mesa and Third Mesa. The inhabitants call it Hopiland.

The Hopi have long been leery of outsiders but have recently begun to see the economic benefits of limited tourism on their reservation.

As something of a closet anthropologist, I found this to be great news. For me, the Hopi are a direct link to America's ancient past. If anyone knows the secrets of that murky world, they do. So in June, I drove 11 hours from my home near Denver to explore the center of the spiral.

However, upon arrival on the rugged Hopi mesas, I encountered sign after sign telling me no photos, no sketching, no note taking, no deviating from main roads, no knocking on doors.

When I met Tso, my guide, I asked about those restrictions. He said I could discreetly take notes but not photos inside villages.

"We say no because we finally can," he said. "For years, outsiders forced their way into our homes to record us. Photographers used soldiers to force people to submit to photos. Anthropologists forced their way into our religious ceremonies. They all wanted to see the 'last real Indians.'"

Tso is as real as it gets, a former Marine brimming with information and eager to share. We headed for Dawa Park, a canyon with thousands of petroglyphs dating to 750 BC.

As we drove across parched tablelands, Tso told me that as a Hopi, he was constantly striving to achieve an attitude of harmony, compassion and absolute self-control.

Then he recited the Hopi creation story.

"We believe that all humanity migrated up from inside the world," he said. "The humans were wicked and had destroyed their other worlds, but a small group emerged from a sipapu, a kind of wormhole, into this world, which we call the fourth world."

Tso talked about kachinas, demigods that control natural phenomena such as rain. For a people who farm without irrigation, rain is life. The mere mention of it set Tso banging on his steering wheel and singing in Hopi.

"Hopis don't sing about love," he said. "They sing about rain."

We arrived at Dawa Park with its towering red walls covered in petroglyphs of snakes, bighorn sheep, stars, solar calendars and flute players. There were carved spirals depicting the Hopi migration story. Ancient potsherds littered the ground.

One petroglyph showed a woman with a broken neck, possibly a ritual sacrifice.

We left after an hour and drove past a cemetery with rocks covering the graves. The Hopi believe people become clouds when they die. And clouds bring rain.

Spiritual life

The road climbed steeply to the village of Sipaulovi, which is guarded by fortress-like walls, a defense against the Spanish.

The Spaniards arrived in 1540 seeking gold but ended up trying to convert the local tribes. Some Navajos later became Christian, while fewer than 5% of Hopis did, Tso said.

Wherever we went, I saw tall ladders protruding from rectangular, subterranean kivas, the heart and soul of Hopi spiritual life. Religious practices are secret, passed on orally and held tightly.

To understand how seriously the Hopi take their faith, consider Awatovi. In 1701, Hopi warriors fell upon the village, one of their own, slaughtering the men and taking the women and children as spoils.

Their crime? They had converted to Christianity.

The ruins of Awatovi stand silent today, off-limits to visitors and rarely discussed.

"No one goes there," Tso said. "There is still a lot of shame over what happened."

But the Hopi I met lived up to their full name — Hopituh Shi-nu-mu, "the peaceful ones."

One of them was Duane Tawahongva, a silversmith who lives in a trailer with expansive views of the desert. Tso brought me to see him work.

Half a dozen playful, feral dogs lounged in the dirt yard, far different from the emaciated mongrels I'd seen on other reservations.

"Why are they so happy?" I asked, holding one in my arms.

"They're Hopi dogs," Tawahongva said, as if that explained everything.

I went inside and watched him take a square of silver and drill, hammer and melt it into a beautiful medallion shaped like a howling coyote.

I asked why people were drawn to the Hopi.

"People tell me that we are the best tribe for holding on to our culture," he said, smiling. "They see us as real."

Later that afternoon, Tso dropped me off at the Hopi Cultural Center on Second Mesa, which houses a museum, a restaurant and the small motel where I was staying.

The tour was finished, but I was hoping to watch a kachina dance at the village of Hano. A Hopi had told me earlier that I could attend.

I showed up, but tribal police had closed the entire mesa to non-Indians.

I retreated glumly to the nearby Tsakurshovi Trading Post, where I found Joe Day.

"The Hopi are very ambivalent about tourists and very private about their spirituality," he said with a shrug. "Some pueblos are more open than others."

Day, 70, is a Midwesterner married to Janice Quotskuyva, a Hopi, and living on the reservation. Their gallery is crammed with kachinas, books, CDs featuring Hopi reggae — reggae is big here — and the famous "Don't worry, be Hopi" T-shirts.

He led me to his home a few yards away on the edge of a mesa. It was cool and inviting, a jumble of Southwestern artifacts and a hangout for often baffled visitors.

"People from all over the world drop in for advice on the rules and how to act," Day said. "This isn't Disneyfied, with signs everywhere. Our job is to orient them."

Pueblo revolt

Leon Natker, 60, of Albuquerque, breezed in.

He discovered the Hopi as a boy, courtesy of "The Golden Book of Indians." Now he's getting a doctorate in anthropology.

"When I read about the Pueblo Revolt and how they threw out the Spaniards, I instantly fell in love with them," he said.

The Hopi and other pueblo tribes routed the Spaniards in 1680, burning their churches and killing the priests. All but the Hopi were reconquered.

By now, the heat of day was giving way to balmy desert breezes. I returned to my motel, stopping by a small gift shop on the way. I told the woman inside of my failed attempt to watch a kachina dance.

"That's why it's not raining," she said gravely. "They made you leave. People are clouds, and the more clouds, the more rain."

I took a walk in the desert that night, trying to figure out how the Hopi had survived here.

Then I recalled something the silversmith had said.

"It's hard to live here, but we learn through difficulty," he told me. "You have to be compassionate and truthful to survive here."

Compassion and truth as essential elements of survival.

Now that was a revelation.

It may also be the greatest secret of Hopiland.

***

IF YOU GO

THE BEST WAY TO THE HOPI INDIAN RESERVATION, ARIZ.

From LAX, US Airways and American offer connecting service (change of planes) to Flagstaff, Ariz. Restricted round-trip airfares begin at $279, including taxes and fees. It's 92 miles to the reservation from Flagstaff.

WHERE TO STAY

Hopi Cultural Center, Milepost 379, State Route 264, Second Mesa, Ariz.; (928) 734-2401, http://www.hopiculturalcenter.com/directions. It sits in the heart of the reservation, with a restaurant, a small motel and a museum. A single room cost me $95 per night with decent Wi-Fi.

Moenkopi Legacy Inn & Suites, 1 Legacy Lane, Tuba City, Ariz.; (928) 283-4500, http://www.experiencehopi.com/hotel.html. More upscale, with rooms about $120. You can arrange tours from the hotel as well.

WHERE TO EAT

Tuba City, about 45 miles away, has the greatest variety if you want to drive.

Spider Grille, Milepost 381, State Route 264, Second Mesa, Ariz.. Sits in the desert and looks like a cross between a tent and a shack but serves outstanding burgers.

TOURS

You can try to tour Hopiland without a guide, but you will see more and be regarded with less suspicion if you hire one. Some villages, such as Walpi, won't let you in without a guide.

Left-Handed Hunter Tour Co. (Gary Tso), Second Mesa, Ariz.; (928) 734-2567, or cell (928) 206-7928, lhhunter68@hopitelecom.net. Tso charges $210 for one person for a full-day tour and $160 for a half-day tour. Prices vary depending on the number in your party.

Other tours and guides can be found at Experience Hopi, (928) 283-4500, http://www.experiencehopi.com/tours.html.

TO LEARN MORE

There are countless books about the Hopi, but I like "Pages From Hopi History" by Harry James and the "Book of the Hopi" by Frank Waters.

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