Drumming the Land, Whistling the Wind
For many, the Southwest is a mythic landscape. Because of the sparse vegetation and relatively thin air, the eye can see far, sometimes as far as a hundred miles if indeed the air is clear enough. Mountain ranges are visible from every vantage, each with a distinct silhouette that becomes familiar if one lingers long enough. After years of wandering through this landscape, the ranges and waterways provide geographical coordinates that allow the wanderer a true sense of place. If one is born within it, it is homeland. If one is born into a culture that is indigenous to this landscape, the coordinates have an intrinsic meaning that extends deep into the sacred.
The Southwest is spotted with thousands of shrines, some manmade cairns, others natural geophysical formations that commemorate mythic moments of cultural recollection. Many of these shrines have profound spiritual meaning for those who are culturally native to their respective habitats, and thus provide windows into the sacred nature of landscape. Mountains and hilltops, waterways, caves, and land formations provide geo-mythic coordinates that align both culture and the individual with the spirit of place. Thus homeland is far more than real estate to be turned into money. Homeland is a composite of living organisms that includes flora, fauna, rocks, water, and air, each with its own form of consciousness accessible to medicine people, shamans, or practitioners of the sacred whose very languages are deeply attuned to the nature of homeland. The land is to be treaded upon lightly and with great respect because it cradles the community of life in which indigenous human cultures have gained membership. Each cultural homeland is part of the larger, subtly ever-shifting mosaic that is the Southwest, itself part of the bioregional mantle of the continent.
Aridity is central to the cultural consciousness of those indigenous to the Southwest. There are waterways that provide riparian areas alluring to humans and wildlife, however rivers, streams, and arroyos are widely separated by spans of desert or near desert. The Hopi people of what is presently known as northern Arizona live in a vast patch of apparent emptiness. Their villages lie on three southern promontories of Black Mesa, known as First, Second, and Third Mesas. A few springs have nurtured their communities throughout much of their cultural recollection. The Hopi village of Oraibi is considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited human community in what is now the contiguous forty-eight United States. Their mythic history provides them with the story of their arrival in what is now their cultural homeland.
Vernon Masayesva has spent many years as a teacher and superintendent in the Hopi schools, and has served as the chairman of the Hopi tribal council. As a youngster, he listened carefully to the traditional teachings of the late Hopi elder David Monongye, who imparted to him wisdom revealed through the lens of mythic perspective.
David also instilled in Vernon the importance of maintaining the integrity of the landscape of Hopi homeland. I was privileged to spend a great deal of time with David Monongye, who asked me to call him evava, which means “elder brother” in the Hopi language. During the early 1970s, David and I, with other Hopis and bahanas (non-Hopis), tried unsuccessfully to stop the ravaging of Black Mesa, which continues to be strip-mined to provide coal for the Navajo Generating Station that produces electricity to pump water from the Colorado River to Phoenix and Tucson as part of the Central Arizona Project.
Vernon Masayesva carried on the battle and was able to finally halt the pumping of water from the ancient Pleistocene aquifer beneath Black Mesa that serves the meager springs that make life possible for the desert-dwelling Hopis. This pristine water was used to slurry coal to yet another power plant in Laughlin, Nevada, that until recently provided much of the electricity for lighting arrangements in nearby Las Vegas.
Upon occasion, I've camped near Vernon's cornfield. I recorded him telling of the emergence of the Hopi people into this world:
We followed the big Colorado River, and spent hundreds of years traveling up the river until we finally came up to the top. There is a point about three or four miles east of the Big Colorado, on the banks of the Little Coloradoa very sacred site we call “Sipapuni,” which is our emergence. It is our umbilical cord that connects us to our motherland. They [the ancestors] discovered that a person was already living there, because they found foot tracks. So they spent probably many years looking for this person, until they finally found a man working his cornfield. They approached the person and had a dialogue with him. You know, like, “Who are you?”
“I am Massau.”
“Is this your land?”
“No, it is not my land. But I take care of it.”
Then the question, “Can we stay here with you?”
And Massau said, “That is not up to me. That is up to you people.” And he told them to look around. “What do you see? You don't see rivers, lakes. It is barren land. So it is a hard place to settle, and to build a permanent civilization. It is poor, and yet it is rich. So if you decide to stay, that would be your decision.”
So they finally agreed that they would stay.
So Massau says, “Then you have to help me steward this land.” And they agreed to a covenant. So we decided that we would live with Massau, help steward the land, live according to his law.
Massau said, “You have to fulfill your destiny. And if you live according to the laws that I have given you, you will be blessed. You will live a long time.”
The Hopis were allowed to settle permanently. They were then told to migrate in all directions, and not to come back to the same place where they met Massau until the wise ones said, “Now is the time.” And the reason for it was to establish communities all over the Southwest. This was done in expectation of more people to come. So, in anticipation of this group of people, Hopis were told to set up villages, which then becomes our history book. We will leave writings on the walls. We will learn from those writings, which clan was there, which direction they were moving.
Now, if you fly over the Hopi land, you will see the western boundary. It is a snake. It is a river. It is called Colorado River. Then toward the south, another river. That is the Little Colorado River. And then it ends up on a mountain range. “Chusca Mountains” we call it now. Then a river snakes north [Chinle Wash]. And then it reaches another river, the San Juan. Then the San Juan joins the big Colorado River. Now within this area, Hopis call it “the plaza,” the heart-center of the world, literally. Because Hopis were told this is where the last stage of the civilization will be played out. And that is why to Hopis this region is very important.
The way I was taught, Massau gave us a gourd of water, an ear of corn, and a planting stick. Life revolves around these three things. Corn represents our soul. The gourd of water is our connection to the creator. The planting stick is a tool, technology. We have to use technology to keep the environment healthy, keep connections to creator strong, otherwise technology will go off on its own, will replace God, which means there will have to be a cleansing.
It is thought by some archaeologists and anthropologists that Athabascan cultures entered the Southwest from the north as recently as within the last six hundred years. The Athabascans are divided into tribal groups of Apaches and Navajos, the latter's nation now completely surrounding the Hopi Nation. Relationships between the Navajos and Hopis have been strained through the centuries, although traditional members of both tribes have collaborated in defense of Black Mesa, a landform sacred to both cultures and regarded by Navajos as the body of the female mountain.
According to the 2000 Census, there are well over 250,000 Navajo Indians and about 12,000 Hopi Indians. In the mid-nineteenth century, Navajos numbered only about 7,500 and had been forced to march as a tribe to Bosque Redondo, and four years thereafter back to their homeland, a dreadful page in history known as “the Long Walk.” In spite of the Indian wars of the nineteenth century, the parade of Christian missionaries of various persuasions, and every attempt to eradicate their language in the Bureau of Indian Affairs' boarding schools, the Navajos were able to remain aligned with their own complex religio-philosophic system, which includes many mythic entities whose presence is celebrated in ceremony, song, and winter tales.
Al Largo is a Navajo whose mother's hooghan, or house, is located near the Continental Divide in west-central New Mexico, where the family has run sheep for generations. One night, Al and I were ensconced near the banks of the San Juan River, whose waters flow out of the San Juan Mountains westward through the heart of the mythic landscape, and have carried me in my small raft many times through its exquisitely beautiful canyons to the songs of canyon wrens and the cries of peregrine falcons. That night, I turned on my recorder and listened to Al tell part of his story:
My friend Roy Kady is a Navajo weaver who has spent his life in the area around Teec Nos Pas in the northeastern corner of the Navajo Nation. He once took me to the hooghan where he grew up a mile or so south of the San Juan River. As we sat in the hooghan, Roy lighted his medicine pipe, and with the smoke of sacred tobacco, he blessed the hooghan, me, my recorder, and himself. It was in this homeland that Roy herded sheep and learned his Navajo lifeway from his grandfather:
So in our offerings, in our prayer, we always start with the beautiful language, which is [phrase in Navajo]. From here on, may it always be beautiful. And that's why you name the four mountains, the four directional mountains, because that's where we acquired the language. And they're placed in the mountains. That's why we go to these mountains and we make offerings to them on a yearly basis, to continue that.
To the east we have Tsisnaasjini', which is Blanca Peak, and in your early morning offerings, when you say Tsisnaasjini' you're saying, “In beauty may you surround me with a protection of a rainbow belt to protect me on my track, my daily track or in life.” When you say Tsoodzil, which is the south mountain, Mount Taylor, you're saying, “Also give me the beautiful language of turquoise to give me the ability to communicate what I have to communicate today. May my words be all beautiful.” And then our west mountain is Dook'o'oosliid, and when you say Dook'o'oosliid you say, “From the tip of the peak of San Francisco, may you always have this beam of light to light where I'm going, whether it be day or night. May that beam always be bright for me so that I know my path, where I'm headed.” And then when you say Dibe Nitsaa, which is the northern mountain, Mount Hesperus, you're talking about the sacred sheep that we all know is the backbone of the Navajo society. That is a very sacred animal and that's why our fourth sacred mountain is named Dibe Nitsaa. With that we're strong. The reason why sheep are so importantin a lot of our traditional stories that are told about all the monsters, it was the sheep, the bighorn sheep, that was the sole survivor of all poverty. Everything that has to do with poverty, the bighorn sheep withstood every test, even with the lightning gods. They've tried to strike him down, to cease him. But the bighorn sheep always survived and was the only animal to do that. And that's why the northern mountain stands for that mountain. It's the mountain that gives us strength. It's the mountain that is our protecting mountain. It has a lot of strength, and then that's why it's called Bighorn Sheep Mountain.
Thus, the four sacred mountains spoken of by Roy Kady mark the geo-mythic parameters of Dinetah, the Navajo homeland. These are just some of the sacred mountains whereon mythic history was enacted. There was also the birthplace of Nayanezhghani and Toda Dischinii, the twin heroes of the Navajos who slew many of the monsters. To this day you can see the twins standing guard as geophysical entities throughout Dinetah. Just as the landforms are sacred, so are the plants and animals, and each has an associated story or song. By knowing the stories and songs, and praying in the language of the Diné, the Navajo People remain spiritually affiliated with the biotic community of their homeland.
South of Dinetah, beyond the Mogollon Rim, is the homeland of the Tohono O'odham, the desert people who have lived in the Sonoran Desert since time out of mind. The Sonoran Desert is the most luxuriant desert in North America, and probably in the world. The area is inhabited by the Tohono O'odham, whose culture evolved as their habitat evolved over millennia from wooded grassland to rich desert characterized by great columnar cacti, mesquite, palo verde, ocotillo, and other vegetation that grow in wide basins whose horizons are silhouetted by mountain ranges. Wildlife abounds and some may be dangerous to the unwary. Thirst is ever a factor. Rain is always welcome.
My old friend Camillus Lopez is a respected lore-master among his people. I have visited and eaten with him and his wife, Mary, in their home, as we all have in mine. Over the years, he has told me many stories and sung many songs that recall the geo-mythic and bio-mythic lore of the Tohono O'odham. Listening to Camillus speak imbues the listener with a profound sense of the sacred nature of homeland and its denizens:
When the first flood came and destroyed the people, I'itoi [an O'odham deity] had created the flood, so he put himself in it. And Coyote, he knew he was going to die too. So he made a raft with reeds tied together, and he was going to sit on that. And the turkey buzzard flew up to the top of the sky and grabbed up onto the top with all the other birds. They grabbed onto the sky and they hung up there. So when the big rain came it flooded the whole place. And they [I'itoi and Coyote] were floating there for many days. And they had made a pact that whoever came out first would be called the Elder Brother. So they floated for many days. After the water had subsided, the waves weren't moving anymore. Wherever they slept wasn't moving anymore. That woke them up. And the Coyote came up first. And I'itoi came up at the Baboquivari Peak. I'itoi made a home there at Baboquivari in that place where he had landed. And that's how his house was then. So then after, he decided to look for Coyote.
Coyote had been looking for him for a while. And he was yelling out, calling out to see if I'itoi was still alive. And then way over there I'itoi heard it and then he called back. And then they kept calling back and forth. And then they met some place. And when they had met at that place, I'itoi had pronounced himself to be the elder brother, even though Coyote had made it first. But I'itoi doesn't talk like us. He talks backward.
Camillus goes on:
The great thing about him [I'itoi] was he was one of the creators. He was the one that created O'odham/Hohokam, the ones that were here before. And he is the one who was the greatest medicine man of all. He had the greatest power. But he is not treated apart from O'odham. Just like in other cultures, they have their gods. In O'odham, I'itoi lives among us. He is one of us. And he is still herelittle stories are told about him doing stuff even today. There is a lady I met, just recently, that said that I'itoi came and tickled her heel. And so she turned around to kick what she thought it was, and here was I'itoi. So she chased him out to catch him. And he took off, and she couldn't catch him. Little green man. But he is one of us. He is not removed from us. He makes mistakes like we do. He has human emotion, everything. And the way that it is described, he is a little man, greenish in color. And he has long hair. The reason he is green, the way it was described to me by my grandfather, was that when kids play in the grass, they will get up and their trousers will be green where they were playing in the grass. And I'itoi, when he did stuff, people would chase him down. And he is a little guy. So he ran through these bushes really fast. And they [the bushes] would slap him. And as he is running really fast, it started turning his skin into a greenish color because that is how he travels is he runs fast through the bush. So running through the bush turned him to green. So that is why he is green.
Danny Ortiz is a Tohono O'odham elder. One morning shortly after sunrise, he and I sat in the desert sand west of a palo verde tree. Danny had sung a song celebrating the sacred quality of life in his homeland. He then told me something of the traditional ways of his people:
One of the things we never bother is the owl. We have a lot of respect for the owl. People used to say in the old culture that when we die our spirit will come back in the form of the owl. Everybody respects the eagle. We too have that respect for the eagle. We say that it is the most powerful of all the bird-people. The feathers are used for different things. A medicine man will keep a deer's tail for a curing ceremony. If we do something wrong to certain animals, we might get sick later on and would have to have a curing ceremony. The medicine man would use a deer tail, the owl feather, or even little carved figures to imitate the horny toad or other figures.
As children we're told to leave certain things alone like the horny toad. We always had respect for the horny toad. We never picked it up. We just left it alone. Even like the woodpecker. We never bothered the woodpecker. They would scold us as children if we threw rocks at the saguaro like little kids do. They would say, “Leave the person alone. You're hurting the person.” I didn't understand. I didn't know as a little kid, but now I know why they said that. Because there is a story about how the first saguaro came to be, came from a person.
Even the rabbitafter we cook it and eat it, we're told to wash our hands for a certain reason. Things like that we have respect for. The things that we planted, we had to pray, we had to sing, we had to dance and do a ceremony to bring the rains. And that's why the saguaro fruit is very important, because from the fruit we make the syrup. Each family donates some of the syrup to the ceremony house where this brew is made. I don't compare it to beer, it's not that potent. After it ferments and sits in the roundhouse for two days and two nights, we drink it. It's a ceremony we go through. Again, it's all the call for rain because the Earth needs the rain. The plants need the rain, the desert animals need the rain. And of course, we as people need the rain. When the rains came, the monsoons, that's when we planted. We got our water from the rains. We grew our squash, our beans, our corn. You see, all those things we ate back then, we were eating healthy and we were active people. Before the coming of the horse, we walked, we ran across the desert, and we kept ourselves healthy that way by being very active and eating healthy. But through time that has changed.
East of the Continental Divide is the Río Grande Valley, a great rift in the surface of the earth that has largely filled in with soil and sediment. The rift is particularly visible in the Taos region of New Mexico where the Río Grande Gorge slices deep into the landscape.
For centuries or even millennia, Puebloan Indians and their ancestors have lived in this region creating communities, many of which, though now physically abandoned, still have enormous spiritual significance in Puebloan life. Puebloan communities loosely line the waterways of the Río Grande watershed as if having grown from the earthly landscape. Although different languages and dialects are spoken in respective Pueblos, there is a prevailing sense of the spirit of place that is common throughout.
My brilliant friend Rina Swentzell is from the Santa Clara Pueblo, one of the six Pueblos where the spoken language is Tewa. This Pueblo is situated along the western aspect of the Río Grande several miles south of the confluence with the Río Chama. Many years ago, Rina invited me to visit her mother, Rose Naranjo, at Santa Clara and record her singing Tewa children's songs. Another time, I sat in the living room of Rina's home and recorded her as she revealed her thoughts:
The spirit moves through the water. A word that we have for the source of life is O-po-wa-ha, the water-wind-breath. It is there in the water and in the wind that we can see the spirit, that we can see life moving. It is there where the life force is visible, as well as in the clouds, of course. We don't take the life force and put it in a superhuman being, as Christians do with God. That already begins to show us the focus on human beings when you put the life force in a superhuman creature. We keep it within the trees, within the water, within the wind, within the clouds. And we are to move through that context of the water and the wind, and breathe the same breath. We are breathing the same breath that the rocks do. That the wind does. That gives you a totally different feeling. This is it. There is no other reality. We don't go to heaven. We don't leave this dirty world to go to a golden clean heaven. We are here. This is it. This is the world. It doesn't get any better than this. We can't take care of it if we think that it is a place to be shunned, and that we have better things to look forward to. And we can't walk respectfully where we are at this moment and take care of things, and touch things with honor, and breathe each breath. That is what that water-wind-breath is about. It is “My goodness, I can breathe it in and I become a part of this world.” I mean in no uncertain terms I am a part of this world that I live every second because I breathe it every second.
And then the earth is covered with the sky basket. And you are talking about the marriage between earth and sky. That is exactly what they are talking about. The father and the mother. But it was not in terms, so much, as male and female as it was father and mother, which is a very different concept. Male and female then become included within father and mother. And that is a very different meaning than, say, the male sky and the female earth, which brings in a real explicit kind of sexuality, which the Pueblo people weren't so much interested in, as [they were] in the parental nature of mother and father, within which creation happens. Because it is only when the male and female come together as father and mother and [produce] children…that creation really happens. This is the creation right now because those two have come around us. In that sense then, Pueblo people talk about community as having mothers and fathers and children. The notion of having people who are responsible and nurturing and caring about the entire context that one lives in, it is that kind of model. That was taken from the way they saw the cosmos as being structured. That's the way the cosmos are ordered. It is within that context that we live.
Songs and stories spoken and sung in languages that express oral traditions cradling cognition among the many cultures indigenous to the American Southwest are meant for the ears of those who hold cultural membership. The myths that provide cultural reason-to-be reflect intuitive response to geophysical and biological characteristics of homeland. They imbue the landscape with a sense of the sacred in the minds of traditional indigenous peoples. These mythic perspectives might seem alien to the minds of outsiders whose worldview may be dominated by economically oriented application of science and cyberculture, yet flavored with recollections of the biblical book of Genesis, and tinged with a bias generated by a military-industrial-political complex felt in every quarter. Yet, to my mind a penetrating message is revealed that is of paramount importance:
The Earth is our planetary homeland. It is part of the ecosystem of our solar system. We are part of the continuum of life that is privileged to abound here. We provide a vehicle for a form of consciousness that continues to evolve here. Our evolving consciousness presents us with the capacity to embrace myriad points of view concurrently, and thus follow intellectual and intuitive paths to understanding the flow of Nature, at least in part. We share membership in the community of life. We are part of the whole that includes the microcosmic through the macrocosmic. We are genetically equipped to intuitively recognize the sacred nature of all that exists, and to mindfully contemplate our presence as part of the infinite fabric of the universe.