by Christopher McLeod
In late 1994 I spent a week in the Hopi villages showing film and photographs I have gathered during 15 years of exploring the remote canyons of the Four Corners area. Inspired by stories of Pueblo clan migrations and pulled by the incredible beauty of canyon country, I have come upon hundreds of village sites, kivas and panels of mysterious messages carved in stone.
Images of these ancient petroglyphs flashed on the screen as I presented a slide show to a group of Hopi elders in their thousand-year-old village. They gazed at rock writing left by their ancestors as the clans migrated in spirals toward the heart of the Colorado Plateau. One image lingered on the screen as the elders spoke in Hopi for five minutes, discussing what they saw. Martin Gashweseoma of Hotevilla spoke for another five minutes, walking to the screen and pointing at one figure after another. There were birds, squiggly lines, giant spirits wearing headdresses, bighorn sheep and a cross inside a circle. After Martin had finished, I asked what was said. His interpreter said cryptically: “It tells a migration story.” The silence that followed said: some things cannot be told. This went on, image after image, long into the night.
During one photo I particularly like, I asked Martin the meaning of handprints with spirals in their palms. He replied, “That says: ‘We place our hands on this land to claim it as our own, and we go in search of the Great Spirit.’”
The next morning I sat eating breakfast in the kitchen of Fermina and Thomas Banyacya, who has been spokesman for the traditional Hopi leaders since 1948. We discussed the slide show and the meaning of the petroglyphs that mark the Four Corners area. Fermina said, “They’ve known from long ago: ‘They will come to take your land.’ So they were to ‘Point to your flags.’ The rock writings are our flags.”
We are guardians of this land, she said. It is the home of Massau, the Great Spirit.
I’ve been hanging out in that kitchen on and off for 17 years, talking, listening, laughing, and waiting. A lot of waiting. As the coffee brewed my mind raced with pent-up questions. Will a film do any good? What are the right stories to tell? Why should the Hopi help Euro-Americans understand sacred sites, the relationship of prayer to land, the importance of making offerings? Where and when can I interview Thomas?
Instead of my filmmaker’s agenda we discussed family, the corn harvest and the upcoming dances. Fermina and Thomas got up and headed into Flagstaff to do some errands. Silence echoed through the house. I sipped my coffee and listened to the ticking clock. These things take time, happen in their own time. I’ve waited for years. I can wait some more. Why do I feel that I must be doing something, making something happen, all the time? I took a deep breath and waited some more.
There was a knock at the door and in walked Dale Jackson, a Hopi from Oraibi, the oldest continuously inhabited town in North America. “Want to go have a look around the old village?” he asked.
A few minutes later we were picking yellow flowers for a medicinal tea called hohoysi. There was a rock shrine that opened to the east, in the middle of a corn field. We said silent prayers and Dale instructed me how to make corn meal offerings to the spirits protecting the field. As we walked toward Old Oraibi, he pointed out the “mother of all animals” shrine. “She lives here,” he said, “rabbit, deer, bear – the mother of all of them.” We say a prayer and offer corn meal once again to a small bush distinguished only by the weathered eagle feathers tied to it.
On the edge of a mesa Dale showed me an ancient pictograph of seven square boxes with crosses inside and poles sticking up. He said, “It’s a prophecy showing railroad cars, telephone poles and electric wires.”
Dale pointed to the south. “My grandmother and grandfather are buried out there. I can feel the presence of their spirits now. They are here listening to us. I miss them.” His voice wavered. There were tears in his eyes. “I feel strong here, I feel good.” I look down. Pottery shards lie all around. “Oraibi is your land too,” he says as we walk. “We all come from here.”
We walk a long ways to an east-facing rim and a place Dale describes as a resting place for ceremonial dancers. A flat, low stone wall runs north to south in a curve and I imagine a row of masks waiting as the dancers rest – kachinas sitting in a circle on a stone bench around the fire, smoking and praying. There are some ashes in the center of the fire pit, and some partly burned sticks. “This is the place where Massau had his fire when we first came here,” he says. I am tingling. We sit in silence for a long time.
Some things we may one day get to film. Some things we definitely will not.
A year later, November 1995, I return with a film crew hoping the time is right for an interview with Thomas. We wait for days. Thomas is tired from ten days of traveling but says that if and when he feels rested we can do an interview. Dale takes me on a scouting trip to select a site for the interview and because it is near the village of Hotevilla we need to ask Martin for permission. He is weaving when we arrive and his wife serves us tea.
We reminisce about his journey to meet with the Dalai Lama in Santa Fe in 1991, which we filmed. Until that time, Martin had been custodian of an important stone tablet. He shows us a drawing of the image on the stone tablet. It is a hand with two circles around it. I ask what it means.
“Massau is still pushing his hand down on this land.”
Next morning we set up our camera at the edge of Third Mesa. Thomas says a prayer invoking the power of the four directions, asking permission to be there. He offers corn meal to the wind. In the camera’s view, over his left shoulder, is a sacred site.
“The Hopi were led into this area by ancient people. Massau, the Great Spirit, met them here. He gave all the instructions how to take care of this mother earth, to keep it in balance. It is from the heart of each individual – because each human has a spirit, a soul. It is prayer, fasting, meditation, singing, dancing that keep this land in balance. The old people say that the Great Spirit told them that.”
“There are four sacred mountains in this Four Corners area marked by shrines built on them a long time ago. This is a spiritual center, the heart of mother earth. They said we must leave this in a natural state. If we rip up this earth for money and jobs and a good time we will suffer a great many dangerous things that we ourselves create. But if we leave this area in a natural state as the Great Spirit made it, just leave it that way, and hold it by prayer and ceremony – from Taos, New Mexico, to Laguna to Zuni and down to Hopi. We all go through ceremonies every month. That is how we keep this land in balance. Not just this area but the whole world.”
After 45 minutes, Thomas is tired and we wrap. Of 15 questions I had hoped to ask, the first three were answered. I realize this is to be a series of interviews at various locations. The story is telling me how it wants to be told. We plan a road trip for the spring to Chaco Canyon and the Black Mesa coal stripmine, where there are 2,100 archaeological sites, of which 800 have been destroyed so far.
Two days later the road trip has begun. Thomas is to give two talks on Hopi prophecy at the Whole Life Expo in Las Vegas, and we go along to videotape his presentations. All goes well – except for the unavoidable, mind-numbing scenes in the casinos. Slot machine madness. Can there be any other place where people are more disconnected from the natural world?
“Koyanisquatsi,” says Thomas, “life without spirituality, life without sacredness.”
On the final evening we drive Thomas to a dinner downtown. The infamous lights, powered by electricity from Black Mesa coal, hum and blink and beckon. We get an amazing shot of Thomas, wearing his traditional red headband, walking through the neon canyons. Security guards stop us on the sidewalk and say we cannot film. Thomas grumbles: “I do not like this place.”
In the hotel lobby, with slot machines ringing and quarters pinging, we rewind the videotape to have a look. The $50,000 camera eats the tape, abruptly ending the session. Days later, back in San Francisco, we find we can salvage just seven seconds of the shot of Thomas walking. However, the interview scenes at Hopi and in Las Vegas are pristine.
There is a pictograph panel in southern Utah called the Processional Panel. It contains a large circle with long lines of people extending to the four directions. These are people who have found the center of the world. There they stand, century after century, waiting.
Loggers in a Sacred Grove
by Christopher McLeod
At a summer fire ceremony in a meadow beneath the snowcapped volcanic form of Mt. Shasta, Florence Jones, 87-year old medicine woman of the Wintu people, announced her retirement. She took off her eagle feather headdress and directed two of the people she had chosen to succeed her to put their hands inside the band of the headdress and vow to continue the ceremonies that had been passed “from generation to generation on down to me.” From my seat among 200 people gathered in a circle around the fire, I watched Florence begin to sing a song to close the ceremony.
Suddenly, I heard a loud “swish-swish-swish” to my right. Looking over I saw a whirlwind swirling across the meadow, moving straight for Florence. It moved into the circle of people, with the center of the whirlwind a few feet behind Florence. Her hair blew around her head and she steadied herself against the intense wind. The umbrella over her chair shook furiously and a second umbrella a few feet away that was shading another elder was blown upwards and inverted in the wind. Men scrambled to secure the umbrellas as Florence continued to sing. Slowly, the whirlwind passed on and entered a wall of trees whose green branches shuddered as the gust hit them. The wind died as it reached the trees. Its strongest surge was around Florence.
I closed my eyes for a second to insure that I was awake, sober and sure of what I had experienced. I saw no one in the crowd acknowledge the whirlwind. There were no exclamations, just calm and quiet – as if things like that happened every day.
Later, I visited Florence at her camp to discuss a new crisis: trees had been cut in a nearby sacred grove. She was particularly upset because she had visited the site with logging company officials and received assurances that they would avoid the grove. “Those trees are like family to me,” she said. “It’s like cutting off one of my arms.”
“Did they cut them out of ignorance or do you think it was intentional?” I asked.
“They looked me in the eye and promised not to cut them,” she replied.
We set a date for a trip to the grove. Then I asked her about the whirlwind.
She said, “The spirits don’t want me to retire.”
Two weeks later, a crowd was gathering at our designated meeting place – an archaeologist from the California Department of Forestry (CDF), three men from the logging company and four Indians. When our caravan pulled up, the crowd swelled to 16, including Florence and her attorney, Claire Cummings, all of us there to inspect what was left of the sacred grove.
We introduced ourselves. The company forester, Dan, a short, serious man in a blue company hat, looked embarrassed. He said it was his fault that the trees were cut. He had marked them all with blue paint: X-ing out the previous marks that indicated “cut this tree” and painting the word “NO” on both sides of the trees. He had also marked the whole area – which Florence had told him was a men’s ceremonial fasting area – with a series of pink ribbons tied to tree branches to identify the grove as an archaeological site.
Tall, thin Will said it was his fault that the trees were cut because he didn’t read the amendments to the timber harvest plan that Dan wrote after the site visit with Florence. Will had taken over the project from Dan and he failed to have the legally required meeting at the site with the logging crew the company had hired to cut the timber. He said when he drove by the site with the logging foreman he mentioned the flagged area and the trees that shouldn’t be cut. But his memory was vague. At any rate, the bottom line was that the two chainsaw-wielding crews that tore through the site must not have seen the pink flags. He said he was “real sorry.”
Steve identified himself as Will and Dan’s boss. He said he had come to make sure things got worked out and made right. He said he was authorized to make commitments for restoration of the site.
We agreed it was time to go up and assess the damage. Florence stirred in her chair and stood up. Her face was tight and she looked angry.
“I have something to say,” said Florence. Looking at Dan, she said: “I want to know why you lied to me. We went up there and you promised that you would not cut those trees. Those sugar pines are sacred. I told you that. You looked me in the eye and said you would leave those trees alone, the big ones and the little ones. Now I feel like a person who had two children but now I only have one. It hurts my heart. You lied to me and I want to know why. This is my sacred ground.” She looked at each one of the men, slowly. “That’s all I have to say.”
The men hung their heads and apologized again and an awkward silence descended upon the encircled group. It was time to drive up and see how many of the trees had been cut.
At a small waterfall near the road, Florence signaled she wanted to stop. She had the loggers and the archaeologist line up in a row in front of her and told them of the spiritual importance of the gurgling water. “Now I’m going to pray,” she said, “and I am going to listen for the Great Creator to come through the water to see if you are forgiven for desecrating our sacred place. I’m going into a trance to wait for the Creator to give me an answer.”
Florence closed her eyes, and after a long silence her head shook and her eyes popped open. She said, “My answer is: granted for all four of you. You’re forgiven. I hope you will understand the Indians’ religion from today on. I thank you. You are all blessed.”
Continuing up the dirt road through the forest, there were dramatic glimpses of Mt. Lassen to the east and Mt. Shasta to the north. Florence told stories about bears, mountain lions and rattlesnakes she had encountered here during the years when she was learning to be “top doctor” of the Wintu – 38 years of studying plants, beginning with a long, solo pilgrimage at the age of ten.
“I trained with the old Indian top doctors.” said Florence as we bumped up the rough road. “We have to know all the sacred places, sacred springs, sacred trees, sacred mountains. We have to know that and walk it. When I was ten years old I walked all by myself – that’s our religion – I walked that trail from Mt. Shasta from where the river comes out of the mountain, all the way down to the mouth of the McCloud River. I never slept. I walked night and day to get down to the mouth of the river. I met bears. I met everything on the trail and I never had a fear in my body, because I was born spiritually.”
We arrived at the logging site. Up a dirt embankment was a row of sugar pine trees with blue lines around them and “NO” painted on their bark. Directly behind the sugar pines, about ten feet away, three big Doug Firs had been cut, even though they were clearly within an area marked by pink ribbons. Four other smaller trees had also been cut. One big sugar pine near the edge of the grove had been cut, as had a four-inch diameter sugar pine that was growing next to one of the big trees with “NO” marked on it. Looking north past the massive stumps was a dramatic view of Mt. Shasta – a direct visual connection from one prayer spot to another.
Dan said, “I flagged off the property line with pink ribbons.” Pointing to a big stump at one end of the grove he said “That should have been left. That’s a sugar pine.”
“Was it marked?” someone asked.
“I can’t remember specifically marking that,” replied Dan, who had earlier said he had painted “NO” on two sides of all of the trees within the flagged area.
“There is no reason he wouldn’t have marked it,” said Steve. “He flagged the whole thing and it’s such a small area.”
The state forester asked about the small trees that had been cut. Dan explained that the little trees were crushed as the big trees fell.
Marvin, one of Florence’s four designated successors, asked, “How many trees were marked ’NO’ in here?”
Dan said, “We figured there were 25 trees in the flagged area and eight were cut.”
Florence stayed by the cars because the embankment was too steep for her. After we gathered and described what we had seen, she continued her explanation of why what the loggers had done to the ceremonial fasting site was a violation of Wintu traditional religion.
“I used to be able to walk up there before they cleared this whole area,” said Florence. “Now I can’t. I told you this is a sacred place. I don’t want any small sugar pines trees cut down, because they are going to take the place of the big trees when they get old. This is how it was from generation to generation. These big ones were young trees then when the old folks came here. Now they are 80 years old. When they get old and tall then the younger trees take these old sacred trees’ place, year after year, from way back until now. But you cut the young sugar pine trees. That’s what hurts my heart. That is against our rules and regulations in the Wintu way. We have the young trees take the old trees place. Then they are the sacred trees.”
The company men offered to replant some small sugar pines. “If you do that, I think that is very good of you,” responded Florence. “Just so long as another sugar pine grows up when those big old trees go where I am going to go.”
When there was nothing more to be said, we got into the cars and headed further up the mountain. As the sun began to sink toward the horizon we reached the top. We walked a trail out of the forest into a clearing with a view down to the McCloud River and the Trinity Alps to the west. Florence took the three company men over to a gray rock at the end of a grassy clearing.
She said to them: “This is where I make contact with the Great Creator and where I have ceremonies to heal my people. One at a time I want you to go up on the rock and pray. When you come down tell me what you felt up there.”
Dan took off his hat, glasses and watch and went up on the rock. He knelt down. There was a long silence. I wondered what was going through these three men’s minds. I imagined each of them to be Christians. They seemed respectful towards Florence and remorseful that the trees had been cut. But praying on a rock and getting in touch with their feelings in front of a band of Indians and their activist supporters was definitely pushing the limits of their experience.
Dan came down and apologized for causing Florence pain. He spoke in muted tones. When he was finished, Florence said “That’s what I wanted to hear.” She took his hand in hers and held it, and smiled.
Will stayed up on the rock a long time. When he came down he looked at Florence and said: “I am not a very spiritual person. I feel sorry for what we did.” When he was done she thanked him and took his hand.
After the other men had taken their turns on the rock, Florence said, “I wanted you fellas to come up here to see what I had to go through to protect my people and to pray for all people. This is what my heart wants. It is very important to me.”
Driving back down the mountain, I wondered whether the loggers had jumped into their truck and called their day’s experience witchcraft. I don’t think so. It felt to me like their souls got stirred up there on top of the mountain, stirred by an old woman who seems like she is not ready to retire.
One criminal misdemeanor charge has been levied against the logging company, and a non-criminal administrative action may be lodged against their forester. The total fine in the case is $500. The lumber from the three Douglas Fir trees and one sugar pine that were cut from the sacred grove is worth an estimated $20,000.
The company has done the promised restoration work at the site and is negotiating with Florence’s attorney, Claire Cummings, for permanent legal protection of three Wintu sacred sites that are on land owned by the company.