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martyd | May 01, 2009 01:10 PM

Imagine a water conference focused not on fluvial geomorphology, hydraulics, creek restoration, riparian grazing management, stream bank erosion, non-point source pollution, cumulative water resource impact assessment and the like, but instead on water as a mysterious, magical, extraordinary substance.

That’s what former Hopi chairman Vernon Masayevsa had in mind when he conceived “Braiding Through Water: Weaving Traditional and Western Sciences and Knowledge,” a conference held in Flagstaff, Ariz., last month.

In Hopi, water is life and energy, the connecting power that links living beings, islands and continents, and earth to other planets in the cosmic sea. To employ water as a mere commodity – as, for example, Peabody Energy did when it used the pure water of the Navajo Aquifer under Northern Arizona’s Black Mesa to make coal slurry – is to take the wrong path. In 1998 Masayevsa formed the Black Mesa Trust to save the dwindling aquifer, claiming the company had taken so much water that washes and sacred springs on Hopi land had begun to run dry.

“At first we had to play the game according to their rules,” says Masayevsa. “And there was no way for us to win (that way). So we asked the water and the water said: Bring the fight to your territory, talk about water as the ancestors talked about it. So we went to our ancient traditions and knowledge, and that was when Peabody could not fight us.”

Peabody’s mine closed in 2006, but not before the company “used up 700-800 years worth of water in 35 years,” says Masayevsa. “Now we feel obligated to share our knowledge with the rest of the world.”

So Masayevsa invited a panel of scientists, scholars, tribal elders and artists to explore such topics as “thinking water,” “living water technology,” and “water journey instruction.”

Moderator Leroy Littlebear – a Canadian Blackfoot who was once the director of Harvard’s Native Studies program – invited “Grandmother Water” to take an empty seat on the panel, and panelists responded by addressing water directly as a living being.

The conference – which drew several hundred people including students from Hopi High School and Northern Arizona University -- began with a water ceremony and a prayer to the six directions, followed by an explanation of the Hopi Prophecy Rock by Jerry Honowa, Keeper of the Pipe of the Tobacco/Rabbit Clan at Hotevilla. The upshot is that if humans don’t learn how to live sustainably, we’ll be destroyed, and the end isn’t far off.

“In the Hopi context, we’re at the 11th hour of the 4th world. All around us are signs of pretty serious problems. Abrupt climactic changes, economic meltdown,” says Masayevsa. “I wanted to use the prophecy rock as a model and water as the medium for a dialogue. In Hopi, you learn to live within what you’re given. Fresh water is finite. Instead of learning to live within limits, within the water gourd, humans are using it recklessly, unwisely.”

Only 2.5 percent of the earth’s water is fresh, and nearly 70 percent of that is locked in glaciers – now melting at unprecedented rates into the salty sea. With a persistent drought, Lake Mead at half its capacity, Las Vegas hiring “water cops” to track down lawn-watering violators and residents of Anaheim drinking recycled sewer water, many participants saw the conference as an opportunity to learn from the Hopi.

“I’ve been to a lot of workshops, conferences and meetings about water,” says Alan Hamilton, a clinical psychologist and president of the advocacy group Rio Grande Return. “They’re technical, policy-oriented – not like this, where we’re really trying to look at water on a deeper, metaphoric level.” Hamilton finds it helpful to apply the “core nature of water” to his clinical work. “Water wants to move. When humans get stuck, in response to trauma, out of a desire to be in control – that’s the basis of so many issues that people bring into my practice. If we trust and allow ourselves to move, we’ll find health and meaning in that.”

Perhaps the star of the conference was Japanese photographer Masaru Emoto (made famous by the film What the ##*!!# Do We Know), who displayed images of water crystals that had been exposed to different words and music. A crystal from a water bottle labeled “you fool” was unformed and chaotic. A crystal from a bottle labeled “love and thanks” was perfect, like a diamond brooch with six delicate points, and the crowd responded with ooohs and aaahs. Showing a diagram of a water molecule on a large screen, Emoto says, “There are two kinds of energy in the world: giving and taking. Oxygen is love, and hydrogen is gratitude.”

For attendee Mona Polacca, a Hopi who lives on the Colorado River Indian Reservation in northern Arizona, the conference offered a sense of pride and “a strong boost of hopefulness about my work with water. Generally people use western science as a validation. At this conference the Hopi view of water validated the work of Emoto and others who were presenting from a traditional perspective.”

Tom Sisk, professor of ecology at Northern Arizona University, says the conference felt like a bit of an assault on his occupation. “It’s a human thing to practice science,” he says. “Real science is humble, we know we don’t know. We test, then repeat, we use filters and checks.” He defended the tunnel vision that often afflicts scientists (“It reveals things, a whole universe we usually don’t see”).

But Masayevsa doesn’t see the conference as an attack on western science. “What Hopis know about the nature of water, the cosmos, the earth, is in parallel with what scientists are now finding out,” he says. “For example the Hopi saying, ‘Everything is in vibration,’ is now being borne out by quantum mechanics. The idea that water has memory, too, may now be confirmed by science. One student said she was really surprised about how much our ancestors knew about the nature of the earth.”

 More scenes from the Braiding Conference:


“Water has a language we need to learn,” said Jennifer Green, director of the Water Research Institute of Blue Hill, Maine, who has spent the past 30 years working with flow systems. “Everything water does is a footprint of its nature. When you see a form, you can sense its movement.”

Hopi painter and muralist Michael Kabotie talked about his encounter with the water serpent, a powerful deity in Hopi cosmology, who spoke to him during a low moment “in the drunk tank. I heard the voice and it said, ‘Keep it simple, keep it humble. Everyone knows you’re an asshole.’”

The panelists addressed the question of where humankind had gone wrong with water. Responses varied widely, from Yaqui health practitioner Angelita Borbon (“When a way of life became a religion”) to Hopi physicist Phillip Duran (“When mankind started doing the work of nature”) to Navajo artist Shonto Begay (“When we stopped singing and dancing to keep ourselves in balance”).


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