Two tribes, two religions, vie for a place in the desert

  • Just before their arrest, Hopis feed one of the eaglets taken

    George Hardeen

TUBA CITY, Ariz. - Few Navajos or Hopis can remember a year like this. Nine months and no rain. No grass. Big winds. Shrunken livestock. Dying wildlife. The toughest, most drought-resistant corn on the continent almost strangled by thirst.

A year like this means something to these people, and it's not good. But it's something understandable, almost comprehensible, a part of prophecy. This is a time long foretold, and an inevitable portent that they must be more vigilant in their ceremonies and spirituality.

Easier said than done. As the Navajo and Hopi tribes call for spiritual unity among their people, the political differences that have separated the tribes in recent decades - aside from cultural differences that have always existed - are beginning to creep into their religious lives as well. The equanimity of mind so necessary to the success of their religious doings is being disturbed.

For the Hopis, the greatest affront came in May when Navajo police arrested two Hopi tribal officials and nine Eagle Clan members. The Hopi men were on an eagle-gathering pilgrimage and were returning to their vehicles with two golden eaglets they had just brought down from a cliff nest when they were met by a Navajo officer who had come to check their permit. Soon, five other police vehicles arrived, and the officer in charge announced that everyone was under arrest although they would not be taken into custody if they cooperated.

Given the religious nature of their quest, the Hopis were not about to resist. But all of them were obviously disturbed at seeing the baby birds confiscated and handled by people who not only knew nothing about them but appeared unsure and afraid of them.

Hopis have complained for years that Navajos harass them during eagle gathering and other pilgrimages which take them across Navajo land. Often, Navajo officials deny it. For this reason, the Hopis asked me to accompany them as a journalist in case something occurred.

There was nothing my presence could do to prevent the police from carrying out their orders, which they did courteously and professionally. But my story and tape of the arrest played the next morning on both the Navajo and local public radio station, hours before Navajo President Albert Hale stated, incorrectly, that no one had been arrested.

Hopis are the only Indian tribe in the country permitted by several federal laws to take live eagles from the wild. It's a spiritual act performed by specified clan members each spring. And while these Hopis had a valid U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permit, they did not obtain a Navajo permit to gather the birds on Navajo land.

Their federal permit required them to get the permission of the landowner, in this case the Navajo Nation. However, all that had been done was to give the Navajos 24-hour notice of the eagle gathering, as had been agreed to by the leaders of both tribes earlier in the year.

For the Navajos, this was an issue of sovereignty rather than religion; they say they must be allowed to control any resource on their land. To the Hopis, precedent and federal law should ensure their right to gather eagles at cliffs and buttes visited by their grandfathers and great-grandfathers long before the government allocated land to the Navajos, long before Navajos migrated to the area.

But the arrest was a first, and it ended in compromise. The federal judge who drafted it allowed the Hopis to gather up to a dozen eaglets under escort by Navajo officials, and to document the birds taken for the Navajo Fish and Game Department.

Clearly, it bothered the Hopis that they were not allowed to take as many eaglets as they could find. The Navajos, meanwhile, viewed the ruling as upholding their sovereignty, even though for years they've thwarted Hopi control over the 1.8 million-acre area called Hopi Partitioned Land. There, hundreds of Navajos continue to resist federal relocation.

Within weeks of the eagle-gathering arrests, a Navajo woman living in the area known as Big Mountain but now part of the Hopi Reservation was visited by two supernatural beings. She described them as made of turquoise and white light, with faces covered in corn meal. One she recognized as Talking God, said to be a messenger between the Holy People, the pantheon of Navajo gods, and humans, the five-fingered ones. The woman who saw the gods is of the Tobacco Clan, whose people, it is said, have the ability to learn an entire Navajo ceremony in a single night.

These Holy Ones told her they had come to ask where all the people had gone, for no one was leaving offerings of corn pollen and stones at the sacred places anymore. The visit lasted only moments. But when the two vanished, in their place the woman found four moccasin footprints with corn pollen sprinkled across the depression in the sand. Immediately Navajo medicine people, called hand tremblers, verified the visit as real; within days the site became a shrine visited by thousands of Navajos from as far away as Canada. The tribal government gave employees a half-day off and rented a bus to make a pilgrimage.

Navajos say such a visit comes in response to a natural disaster such as a drought, which results from their falling away from traditional practices like rising with the sun to pray. The visitation was considered so spiritually significant that neither the Navajo Times nor the tribal radio station, KTNN, would report it so as not to profane it. Yet news coverage was hardly necessary; the entire tribe seemed to know about it instantly, and the people kept going there by the hundreds for weeks.

But Hopis joked it was no more than a UFO sighting or possibly yet another ploy on the part of Navajos resisting relocation to reclaim the land awarded to Hopis by Congress some 17 years ago. Hopi Chairman Ferrell Secakuku visited the woman at her isolated hogan and said he believes she is sincere. Like many Hopis, he remains skeptical about Navajo religion, believing that what religion they have was appropriated from Hopis and other pueblo people hundreds of years ago.

I am in the middle of all this. Although I'm white, my wife is Navajo, our kids' first language is Navajo, and the only religion they're familiar with is Navajo. My wife teaches them that security is measured not by a bank account but with a stack of hay for our horses, a pile of wood and coal for the stove, and the summer's crop of corn all steamed and dried and ready for the grinding stone or winter cooking pot.

The dos and don'ts of Navajo culture are second nature to them: They're supposed to sit quietly during summer rainstorms like the animals and insects do; whistling at night may summon something they don't want to come; only grandma or our daughter, who has not yet had her puberty ceremony, may go into the cornfield at daybreak to tap corn pollen from the tassels into a basket.

With changing seasons come changing stories that can be told only in that time of year. Each phase of the moon has its name, and each phase of life weaves effortlessly into the next phase if the right thought and planning is there. Whatever Navajos do, from chores to play, combines responsibility with some aspect of what my wife refers to simply as "the teachings."

Perhaps because I'm white, and certainly because I'm a reporter and have a need to understand, Hopis have also taken me into their counsel, so that I would understand what to write about and what to leave alone. It began years ago with the late Abbott Sekaquaptewa, a former chairman and brilliant mind whose death a few years ago still pains me. He'd summon me to his cluttered office, and, looking like any other old Hopi farmer in his white undershirt, talk to me for hours about Hopi life, duty and religion. I could hardly keep up with the complexity, and my few recordings of those sessions are now treasures.

After he was gone, my friendship with Ferrell Secakuku, the current chairman, grew. We've ridden down highways in his old pickup, wondering if we'd make it back home at all. We've hiked the Grand Canyon to lush springs to place prayer feathers and smoke his tobacco, as I listen to him pray in Hopi. He tells me what's important to Hopis, and I find myself in the improbable position of telling him what's important to Navajos.

While eagles are sacred to all native people, Navajos and Hopis view them differently. To Hopis, they are brothers to be brought home, raised, fed fresh-killed meat daily and ultimately sacrificed for Home Dance, when the kachinas (Hopi gods) return to their home on the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff in July.

The downy feathers of young eagles are taken to be made into pahos, or prayer feathers. Light as a wisp of smoke, or of breath, these fine feathers carry Hopi prayers to the spirit world and are essential to every aspect of Hopi religion, every ceremony. Longer feathers become the clothes of the kachina dancers. The bird is buried in an eagle cemetery with all the reverence accorded to any member of the family.

It's unthinkable to Hopis that anyone, particularly Navajos, would interfere with the sacred duty of Hopi eagle gatherers to seek and bring home eagles. But Navajos don't understand this. Navajos are supposed to leave eagles alone. They're to be revered. The eagles, like other wildlife, come from the Holy People and have power that is not to be interfered with.

To both tribes, eagles were among the first beings to appear in this world. But the Navajos simply want these golden eagles that the Hopis seek to be free - or at least for the Hopis to gather them elsewhere than on Navajo land.

Hopis counter that these buttes and peaks are their shrines, generations old. If an eaglet is not there waiting for them, they do not go to another clan's shrine. Yet each year, the eagles are there, and if they were depleting the population of this threatened species, they argue, they would have been gone by now.

So during religious ceremonies when everyone's minds, Navajo and Hopi alike, should be tranquil and focused on religious purpose, a conflict with no clear resolution grows more acrimonious. Religion spells out precisely what members of each tribe should do, yet they're obliged to obey the order of a white federal judge in order to comply with at least a portion of their religious dictates.

Perhaps it's not really that different from replacing the donkeys and horses that used to carry Hopis to these remote buttes with the pickup trucks they now use. Now they have to learn to co-exist with their expanding neighbors, the Navajos, as they and their corn have learned to survive the harsh environment of little rain.

August will bring the Hopis' snake dance, a ritual which specifically seeks rain. Navajos always know the day the Hopis conclude weeks of prayer with the plaza dance and release of live snakes to carry their messages to the underworld.

The Navajos know from across the land, because dark clouds gather in the afternoon. Through the distance you can see the rain fall, and then smell it, and then feel it when it finally arrives over your own cornfield. That's when you know that, despite the politics, the Hopi kachinas and Navajo Holy People want all their people to survive.

George Hardeen writes from Tuba City, Arizona.

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