Ancestral Hopi Presence in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

An earlier version of this writing appeared in Archaeology Southwest Magazine, Volume 33, Nos. 1 & 2.

Like many landscapes throughout the American Southwest, Hopi people maintain a cultural connection with the region now designated as part of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). From a Hopi perspective, we believe that it is our ancestors who, in part, once dwelled within the canyons, up on the mesas and plateaus, ultimately leaving tell-tale signs, metaphorical “footprints”, that verify their existence upon the land. Within the GSENM, these include numerous villages, shrines, pottery sherds, stone tools, textiles, and rock art left behind by Hopi ancestors, as well as their deceased, who remain as spiritual guardians of this holy ground. We recall these ancient histories within epic clan migrations that speak of our ancestors traveling across large geographic regions of the southwest.

Hopi people do not define our ancestors that occupied the GSENM area by modern archaeological concepts such as “Fremont”, “Virgin Anasazi” or “Kayenta Anasazi”. We acknowledge that these definitions provide useful tools in illustrating differences and similarities amongst past cultures, and the “stuff” they created or used. Archaeologically, movement of ancient peoples within GSENM has long been recognized, with various theories offered as to the why and how these movements occurred. Hopi relies on analogies found within our clan structure to also show these same ideas, albeit through more of a “braided stream” metaphor that is fluid and dynamic. Hopi ancestors moved around, and they were also sedentary, sometimes occupying shared landscapes, other times dividing clans only to re-join one another in different regions, perhaps generations down the line. All this being part of a purposeful plan, playing out over a wide geographic area, encompassing thousands of years, according to a set of preordained instructions.

Traditional Hopi knowledge states that many ancestral clans lived and moved through the area of GSENM. Among these include the Badger, Fire, Flute, Snake, Sand, Greasewood, Reed, Horn, Bearstrap, Spider and Katsina (Bernardini & Kuwanwisiwma, 2006). Each of these clans has their own oral histories about their physical and spiritual connections to this landscape, as well as surrounding regions, including 9 Mile Canyon and Range Creek to the North, Toko’navi (Navajo Mt.) to the South, Cedar Mesa and Hon’muzru (Bears Ears) to the East. After centuries of migrating and living in various regions for periods of time, Hopi ancestors made their way to the Hopi Mesas in Northeastern Arizona, resulting in a “coming together of the clans” and bringing the idea of “Hopi” into fruition.

Within these migrations Hopi ancestors learned the skills necessary to survive in a harsh desert landscape and developing the complex ceremonies and religious beliefs that we still practice to this day. Knowledge would be accumulated; medicine, technology, architecture, language, arts, celestial understandings to track the seasons, and ultimately, the development of agriculture. We believe this farming tradition heralds a cultural development that would put us on the path to becoming “Hopi”. The idea of “Hopi” is more than just a designation of a people, but a way of life, reflected in the acceptance that corn and other crops would be the foundation of our being. These traditions remind us of the humble beginnings that our ancestors first sowed, meticulously developing a cultural lifeway through hardship, cooperation, humility and purposeful prayer.

Yet we are also reminded that at times in our history we have strayed from these teachings, causing imbalance amongst ourselves and the natural environment. Harsh lessons that showed we are not the masters of this world, that there are greater forces that need to be respected and cared for. These are the cultural understandings we remember and carry with us as Hopi people as we interact with our ancestral landscapes. They are packed into our consciousness and serve as guides as we encounter the footprints of our ancestors. These teachings also provide a unique cultural lens in which to view this ancient past.

Original artwork, Lyle Balenquah.

We have always stated Hopi is a living culture. Meaning that the knowledge about our ancestral history isn’t just the “past” but lives in the present amongst the Hopi who retain and continue to use such cultural teachings in our daily and ceremonial lives. We view our ancestral and present-day lifeways as forever connected. Within Hopi culture is the belief that the meaning of the past is what it contributes to life in the present. This belief underscores the “cultural continuity” between modern-day Hopi and our ancestors. How this connection manifests, often daily, is in the cultural knowledge and traditional know-how a Hopi person maintains. This knowledge is evident in many forms within traditional Hopi culture; the crops we grow and eat, the tools we use, the art we create, the ceremonies we enact and the language we speak. All of which is really an accumulation of ancestral Hopi experiences, learned over countless generations.

Maintaining these cultural connections is not only carried out through recounting oral histories, prayers or songs. These connections also involve a physical interaction, oftentimes carried out through actual visitation or pilgrimages to ancestral villages and shrines, such as those found in the GSENM. Archaeological evidence shows that this practice of return migration has occurred in the more historical past within the GSENM and surrounding areas. This is illustrated through the satisfying discovery of Hopi Yellow Ware ceramics on the Kaiparowits Plateau (Geib et al, 2002, Fowler et al, 1959, Lister 1964). These ceramics are only made on the Hopi Mesas during a time period (A.D. 1300 – Present) that post-dates when much of the GSENM was already vacated by Hopi ancestors. For these ceramics to show up nearly 200 miles north of their manufacture, indicates either long-distance trade and/or return pilgrimages by Hopi descendants. Perhaps an individual or small group of Hopi people returning to pay respects to remembered landscapes, villages or shrines spoken of in clan histories. I believe in the latter!

Hopi Yellow Ware ladle found in SE Utah. Photo courtesy Edge of the Cedars Museum. Blanding, Utah.

Thus, in contemporary Hopi culture, it remains important that not only these specific cultural “footprints” be protected and preserved, but also the associated landscapes that are imbued with spiritual energy that is vital to the connections we strive to maintain. As modern Hopi People, we continue to visit the landscapes that our ancestors once dwelled in. We come as any other visitor, excited to experience this unique region and explore its’ rivers, canyons, and mesas. Yet, as this brief writing illustrates, Hopi people come with a deep appreciation of history and belonging. We have our own sense of inquiry and we welcome any opportunities to learn more about this area through appropriate and respectful study conducted in cooperation with scientists and researchers.

Hopi participation in formal research has indeed yielded important insights about ancestral lifeways within GSENM. Field work conducted by knowledgeable Hopi individuals and researchers has helped to inform and guide archaeological studies, offering culture contexts to answer questions such as; How were certain artifacts made or used? What are the symbolic meanings of images found in rock art, ceramics or textiles? How were they able to grow corn and other crops in a seemingly arid landscape? Where did they go and why? These and many other questions find useful analogy and sometimes concrete proof within the perspectives offered by Hopi knowledge. These are proud moments, validating what we feel in our hearts and minds as Hopi people; that our history in this landscape is long and complex.

Original artwork, Lyle Balenquah.

3 thoughts on “Ancestral Hopi Presence in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

  1. Pingback: Ancestral Hopi Presence in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument — From The Earth Studio | Coyote Gulch

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