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THE BASKET DANCE AT OLD ORAIBI

SATURDAY

“I just can’t believe it, David.”

 “Well, maybe I can get them to pay me for it.  At least, it makes the dinosaur tracks stand out.  That should be worth something.”

 “No, I mean it.  I’ve been up here dozens of times and never seen it rain.   They pray for rain up here.  Now you come up to the reservation with me twice, and both times it’s pouring!”

 “Well, I mean it, too".   The last rainmaker I knew of had been hired by the city of San Diego about 100 years ago and he barely beat the tar and feathers out of town.  "But this contract could be for services rendered.”  I was grinning at the thought of Indians hiring a “pohana” to bring rain.

Given my wish, though, it wouldn’t be raining.  We had been up to Oraibi 3 weeks earlier and it had looked abandoned.  Felt abandoned.   In a village over 1,000 years old, the distinction between those hand built stone houses still standing and those in stone-jumble on the ground had blurred in the rain.  The few Hopi we had seen couldn’t dispel my impression that this place was used up, and had little left to offer but memories.  On the way home, at the urging of a crudely handcrafted sign, we had pulled off Hwy-160 to see the dinosaur tracks.  More stone memories.  But at least the rain had made the dinosaur tracks stand out.

SATURDAY NIGHT

Michele and I were headed back to Oraibi to watch the Basket Dance, an annual Hopi tradition celebrating the end of harvest where anything extra was re-distributed to help everyone make it through the tough winters.  We were the guests of Pep Taylor, a friend who was next in line as matriarchal head of the family hosting the dance this year.  We were supposed to be staying at her home that night; but a late start, Payson prime rib and the rain had made the motel in Winslow look good.  The room wasn’t much, but the mattress felt good and I went to sleep thinking “if it would just stop raining…”

SUNDAY

 Want to make your problems seem small?  Put yourself on a mesa in the middle of 40,000 square miles on a day so clear you can see it ALL.  Now start pointing.  Petrified trees and dinosaur tracks over 200 million years old.  Dormant volcanoes over 12,000 feet high; next to that crater where a meteor struck about 50,000 B.C.  You’re with people who have a history going back 10,000 years, in a village over 1,100 years old, doing the same thing they did 1,000 years ago.  What was that you said about the bare spots in your lawn?

 We got to Oraibi and, boy, was I wrong.  This place is NOT abandoned.  At least a thousand cars were parked every which way along the road leading in, with a dozen more coming every minute.  We would never find a place to park as close as a mile, much less find Pep’s house.   No street names, no house numbers.  Michele drove right down the main road, entered the village, stuck her head out the window and asked.  Amazing answer from the first person we queried.  Park in the yard right here!  Knock on the door, right there!  Come in!  Sit down and eat!

Twenty people in a thousand square foot home but everything was neat and clean. Table for 6 piled high; corn, homemade bread, mutton stew, roast beef, potatoes, beans.  Long arm everything, and talk from everywhere.  I’m going for seconds when I realize that no one else but those at the table are eating, and every other seat but mine has changed people.  No TV tray in the living room here.  Eat only at the table, wait your turn, and we had been invited to the head of the line.  Sheepishly, I got up and a man who had been there before we arrived joined his wife and baby at the table.   A couple of small grins told me I had caught the drift in time and things were cool.

The learning experience started then and would be reinforced several times throughout the day.  You do as you will, but the Hopi are a distinct culture, they are proud of it, and will not change it.   In this case, their tradition of hospitality and non-confrontation had put the onus on me not to abuse it, but they had been watching.   If I had proved oblivious here, they would have let me continue in my ignorance and I would have left that day as I came; a spectator to events I had not yet begun to understand.  They have been there for 10,000 years and expect to be there until the end of time.   Come here with the provincial idea that you are the “American”, and you will absorb exactly what that attitude allows.   Nothing.

After eating, Pep went with Michele and I down to the main courtyard where the basket dance was being held.  Michele has been interested in Native American values for decades and holds the Hopi in the highest esteem; so she and Pep were discussing things I couldn’t track.  Rather than disrupt their conversation, I was just soaking in the atmosphere.  Only later did I learn that Pep’s presence earned us a privileged vantage point on the roof of a stone house that must have been hundreds of years old.  I was too amazed that the roof could hold the 100 or so people on it.  My first thought?   “Man, these people can build!

My next thought was smothered by the assault on my senses and sensibilities.

A courtyard about 125’ by 75’, worn down to bare rock by hundreds of years of feet and defined by the walls of 10 or so stone houses that were all that old, too.  Thousands of men and boys jammed in the courtyard, and thousands of women with their daughters and small children on top of, and in some cases literally hanging off of, the roofs.

 In the center of it all, a circle of somber, slowly dancing women dressed in traditional Hopi way of red, white and black shawls, arranged in a progression from most elderly (age indeterminate) to the youngest of only 5 or so; all in synchronized motion with beautifully crafted baskets held in front of them.

 In the center of the circle, a huge pile of goods.  Food, candy, steel pots and pans, glass containers, pillows, handmade blankets, kitchen utensils, soap, toilet paper and virtually every household item you could imagine, along with a few of the highly prized handmade baskets and exquisitely painted pottery items.  A few teenaged Hopi girls, also traditionally (but differently) garbed, tended the pile. 

 They would gather a laundry basket full of items, and make forays out into the crowd; which parted like the sea before Moses to allow their passage.   Their job was to throw all the items on a non-partisan basis into the crowd.  Sometimes, they would fake one way and throw the other.  Sometimes they would just fling basket and all into the air.  Pillows, food, blankets, etc. along with steel pots and pans, glass containers and pottery items worth hundreds of dollars each flung with mad abandon into the courtyard and to the roofs above.  With the mad scramble for each and every item, I thought surely someone would be trampled.   Surely that baby will fall out of that woman’s lap from the roof. Those kids looked willing to run right off the roof, chasing something so insignificant as a box of spaghetti.

 But in the chaos, a strange protocol was observed.  Try like hell for everything, but no fighting; and once someone possessed something they had it, and no one would take it away.  I saw a 200-pound man cede possession of a thousand dollar basket to an 8-year-old boy because he had a better hold on it, when he clearly could have taken it away.  And after every tussle, no matter who got what, everyone laughed.   Even if the item fell to the ground and shattered (as half the pottery did!), everyone laughed! You could put your item down, turn away and leave it unguarded, and no one would think of taking it.

 This went on for hours, and only once did I see this spirit violated.  One man snatched a small basket out of the air, and another man grabbed it as the first man brought it down.  The second man was unwilling to let go, and immediately the atmosphere around them changed.  I was witnessing instantaneous shunning.  It took about 5 seconds for the space and silence to grow around the guy before he realized what he was doing.  He let go and you could see he was ashamed.  But as soon as he did what was right, the crowd closed back in and all was as before.

 Think about it.  Recognition of wrong, trial by jury of peers, conviction, repentance, restitution and rehabilitation all in 10 seconds!  Compare that to our system where the same process could take months, and no one would be happy afterward.

Once, a beautifully painted pottery bowl came flying up to the roof almost directly towards Michele.  Rather than use her superior reach to grab it, Michele (thinking to be the polite guest) stepped aside so one of the young children around her could get it.  Predictably, it fell to the roof and shattered.  We found out later that this had been Pep’s way of arranging a gift for Michele to thank her for pitching in to help earlier at the house.  Rather than being impressed with her politeness, there was bafflement that she had not joined the spirit of things.  We had been invited in, hadn’t we?

At one point I asked Pep the origin of this free-for-all.  Her answer implied both the pacifist and matriarchal nature of Hopi culture.  “Sometimes, we just have to let the boys play hard, it’s kind of an outlet”.

In another instance, a young girl was preparing to throw, from inside the circle, a basket containing the last of the items to the crowd.  It had to be apparent to the women who made the circle that she couldn’t clear their heads.  The women never even flinched, though, when the basket struck one of them in the head.  “The circle must remain unbroken”, Pep informed me.

 The whole day was like that.   Scenes you could see nowhere else at an event our leaders wouldn’t even allow to take place.  “It would be unsafe”, they would say.  “It would be unfair”.  “There aren’t any mechanisms to control the crowd.”  “Not enough sanitary facilities” and “those buildings can’t hold that many people.”

 And maybe they would be right.   We might not be able to hold such a celebration: but the Hopi can.   No muss, no fuss and everyone goes away happy and smiling at the end of the day.

 On my first trip to Oraibi, I had thought it was used up.   I was wrong.   Seeing it come alive, I realized it was just well used.  The echoes I had heard of memories past were not muffled, but amplified by scenes of the present.  I will carry that perspective to every Native American site I visit from here on, inhabited or not.  And maybe I will see and hear more of what is there.

 

Map of Arizona.jpg (55174 bytes)

Map of Arizona

 

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Map of the reservations and Four Corners 

 

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