If the Springs Dry Up

by Christopher McLeod

It was a frosty, October morning in Flagstaff as the Project Lighthawk twin-engine Cessna took off and soared toward the San Francisco Peaks. Yellow aspens and green ponderosa pines glowed in the red light of the rising sun. Soon, we were leaning out of the plane’s open window, filming images of the White Vulcan pumice mine, which is eating into the home of the Hopi kachinas to make stone-washed blue jeans.

Walking that same ground a few days later with Hopi elder Dalton Taylor and Lee Wayne Lomayestewa of the tribe’s Cultural Preservation Office, we filmed bulldozers scraping away the seventy-foot layer of topsoil, trees and archaeological sites that covers the bright white deposit of volcanic pumice. Looking down into the mine pit it seemed like we were looking into a pot of money. With the giant machines beeping incessantly behind him, Dalton pointed out the mountain peak where he offers prayer feathers at a Hopi shrine and said, “The people who are mining are only looking at the dollar. They don’t care what they destroy.”

Mine manager Darryl Lindsey countered, “This is Forest Service land. This is not Indian land. If you go back to the Indian wars against Euro-Americans—I don’t want to sound cold or bitter—but they lost the war.”

Later that afternoon we stood wearing hard hats, gazing at a pyramid of white rocks, in a surreal scene on the floor of the mine. Dalton and Lee stepped up to the pumice pile and began handling the dusty, milky stones. They spoke softly in Hopi. Then they began to rub the white rocks against their blue jeans, over and over, grinning and softening us all up with their humor.

A day later and 100 miles to the northeast, we descended into Blue Canyon with former Hopi Tribal Chairman Vernon Masayesva. At the canyon’s headwaters, the Peabody Coal Company is pumping 3,000 gallons of pristine underground water every minute to move coal through a slurryline to a power plant 273 miles away in Nevada. As a result, many Hopi springs are drying up.

Sitting by one of the depleted springs, Vernon gave an answer that you simply can’t shrink to a 20-second soundbite: “The Hopi concept is that the underground aquifer is a life system. It is connected to the ocean, bahatiwakatsi, a living organism. In our view they are interrelated, just as your body consists of many parts neatly put together to make you function. Your toe is not separated from your ears. But western hydrologists in this situation have done precisely that. They say the aquifer is isolated from the springs. Hopi are saying they are all interconnected, and the underground water and the plants suck in the rain. They attract the rain. The aquifers are a living, breathing organism. They are related to the sea and the clouds, because the Hopi say when every living thing dies, they join the cloud people. We rise from our graves as mist. And that’s true: you can’t destroy water. You can freeze it and boil it. So it is true: we join the cloud people, and we travel with them up to the mountains. We come down as rain or snow. Then we take our long journey back home, to the ocean, to the underground aquifers. We go home, we rest, we come back again. Western science has this same version except the ‘we’ is disconnected totally from the phenomena, the cycle. ‘We’ have no part in it.”

After the interview, Vernon showed me a book of historic photos that included a 1902 image of a spring in the village of Mishongnovi. In the photograph, men stand around a small pond. One is playing a flute; others are singing. A flute ceremony is underway. “That spring is drying up,” said Vernon. “The priests who are responsible for it are very concerned. I think you should get a shot of it and interview them.”

“That would be great,” I replied. “But I know we aren’t allowed to film in the villages, and it would be inappropriate to ask, wouldn’t it?”

“No,” replied Vernon. “I don’t think so. It’s an important story.”

Twenty-four hours later we were standing next to the Mishongnovi spring with two Hopi elders, examining a copy of the 1902 photo and comparing it to the very low level of the spring today. The 20-foot diameter pool of water has shrunk to four feet in diameter—and there was a lot of rain this past summer. After getting several shots so we can compare how the water level is dropping, I asked Archie Duwahayeoma and Garland Lomayaktewa if they would talk on camera about their concerns. Down by the water, Archie said, “This is a sacred, sacred, sacred spring. It is dying. We want Peabody to stop taking our water.”

After an hour of shooting, I looked up. Along the rim of the spring moved the red and blue rooftop lights of a police car. “Cops,” I said. “We’re busted.”

A head popped over the edge of the spring and surveyed the scene. The short-haired Hopi policeman looked perplexed. His job often involves stopping photographers and film crews from expropriating Hopi images without permission, and surely the local phone lines were buzzing with reports of our presence at the spring.

“Everything okay in there?” he asked.

Archie and Garland nodded casually, said a few sentences in Hopi that included the words “Peabody slurry line” and the police officer nodded and walked away.

I couldn’t believe that we were being allowed to film something so near the heart of Hopi culture. Things simply don’t happen quickly at Hopi, and my understanding is that filming in a village is off-limits. Clearly, everyone is concerned about the water. Twenty-two years of slow, methodical work, of listening and sipping coffee and laughing and waiting, had led us to that spring. It’s an honor and a responsibility to be trusted to tell this story. As we packed up our gear, the Hopi segment of the film felt finished.

In our interview, Vernon Masayesva said, “The Earth is a sacred place. Every step you take you are on sacred land. There is no other planet like Mother Earth. That is the way we view it here on Hopi. We don’t point toward that mountain and say, ‘That is a sacred place.’ We point toward that mountain and say, ‘That is a shrine.’ And it is—either for the kachinas or the eagles or various religious organizations. They all have their shrines, places where they go to deliver their prayers. Those shrines are like the doorway to the spiritual world. There is a danger in designating specific places as sacred because that means outside of that boundary it’s not sacred—you have separated this from that. Once you do that you make it easier to exploit land. If you draw a boundary around San Francisco Peaks and say ‘this is sacred,’ miners will have no problem mining outside of it because it is not a religious shrine, it is not sacred. The sacred part is over here, everything outside is not, so it’s okay.”

How do we translate this worldview to PBS viewers? How do we integrate these ideas into language that mainstream environmentalists will understand?

So many environmental issues seem divorced from “sacred land,” but are actually integrally related. The stresses brought on by pollution and population pressures can be mitigated by contemplation in silence, and recognition of the sacred in everyone, everything, everyplace. Sustainable economic development models can recognize sacred places. Ecological restoration can also restore the spirit—of self and of place.

The roots of the environmental movement lie in sacred land. John Muir loved the Sierra, “the range of light,” with a spiritual passion fanned by his knowledge of Miwok traditions. The struggle for preservation of biological and cultural diversity increasingly recognizes our debt to indigenous elders who seek to preserve and teach us about language and song, plant knowledge and place name.

History is being rewritten in ways that recognize the value of connection to place and the implications of a person or a people suffering the loss of their homeland. These trends offer the hope that our film will spark a dialogue in the new millennium that can help us heal our relationship to the land, and learn to better respect the life ways, worldviews and land claims of indigenous cultures.


A Prophet is Gone

Twenty-two years ago, on my first trip to Hopi, I stood outside Thomas Banyacya’s house, looking east toward Second Mesa and a dazzling blue desert sky. As Thomas and I talked, a gentle rain began to fall, though there were no clouds in sight. “This is good,” Thomas said, putting his hand out to feel the rain. In that moment, a long friendship and working partnership was formed. I have never met a man with such insight, patience and dedication. His many renderings of Hopi prophecy helped countless people understand the importance of striving for spiritual balance amidst the distractions of technological society.

Last winter, I spent a day out in a Sierra Nevada storm with winds gusting to 150 miles per hour. Snow was whipping wildly and the trees were dancing. When I got home, I received a phone call. Thomas had passed away on the previous morning. After 89 years in this world, he has traveled to the other world and become a kachina, taking the form of the cloud people, still working to bring the blessings of rain and snow to a thirsty world.

Thomas was a tireless translator for traditional Hopi elders—men and women Vernon Masayesva refers to as “renegades” who woke the people up to many of the threats to Hopi land and life. Thomas was a controversial figure at Hopi because he constantly traveled the world and interacted with anthropologists and movie stars, with elders from other cultures and reporters from the media. In the complex world of Hopi politics he was always walking a fine line, fulfilling a responsibility he assumed in 1948 to warn the world of the dangers of atom bombs and uncontrolled materialism. A bright spotlight often shone upon him, making him more conspicuous than some Hopi comfort levels could tolerate. But I think Thomas changed the world with the message he delivered, and he will be remembered as a carrier and translator of a critically important prophecy. —Christopher McLeod

Are We Doomed to Repeat Our History?

by Malinda Maynor

For a time while working on In the Light of Reverence, I was teaching in American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University. On the first day, I always asked my class, “What do you know about Indians?” My non-Indian students enthusiastically shouted out responses like “Cleveland Indians!” “Pocahontas and John Smith!” “Indians hate pollution!” “Indians are very spiritual!” “Indians are war-like!”

They quickly realized that most of their knowledge was generalized myths and stereotypes of noble/savage Indians. We explored why these notions comprised the bulk of Indian images and by the end of the semester most students understood that Indians are not marketing tools, nor are they noble or savage victims. Indians are just people, like everyone else. It seems like an obvious conclusion, but why did it take so long for my students to understand?

As we worked on editing early versions of In the Light of Reverence, my students’ voices rang in my ears. Such simplistic notions would lead anyone to think that Indians can’t be real, or—as most American history books teach it—they’re gone, their cultures unsuitable to “modern” society. As the images of bulldozed shrines, New Age rituals and vandalized rock writing began to coalesce in the editing room, I realized that my students came to class with assumptions that were informed by the same worldview that says it is okay to bulldoze a shrine for gravel, or imitate a Wintu healing song for spiritual fulfillment. In a sense, bulldozers represent the confiscation of Indian lands and New Age ceremonies represent the appropriation of Indian cultures and religions. Ultimately, thinking Indians are noble is really no better than thinking Indians are savage—both views support the notion that Indians are dead and gone and our country’s tremendous cultural and material wealth is open and available to anyone, for any purpose. Such a worldview doesn’t respect the human and non-human life that makes our existence possible, and it teaches students everywhere that their main duty is to care for their own physical and spiritual needs, without regard for who or what they may be damaging.

It is obvious this way of thinking hurts American Indians—the addictions, suicide rates and violence in Indian communities is evidence of its destructive power. What is less obvious, however, is how this worldview hurts non-Indians. As my students and I discussed the differences between the appearances and realities of Native Americans throughout history, it became clear that these myths and stereotypes informed their beliefs about themselves, and their own history and society.

For example, the version of frontier history my students learned taught them to identify with the “cowboys” in American myth—the Indian fighters, the intrepid, violent heroes. Too often this stereotype conveyed that their ancestors were consumed with hatred, when in actuality American frontier families often cooperated with Indian families. In fact, many thoughtful Americans loudly opposed the treatment of Indians, even in the early years of European settlement. But my students had a hard time believing that cowboys and Indians weren’t always on opposite sides of the fence. With such an incomplete picture of where we come from, how can we move forward with a sense of mutual respect and compassion?

Thinking about American Indians only in terms of positives and negatives results in a faulty understanding of our common history, and as the old saying goes: “Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.” We are currently in the throes of human and environmental violence, a situation that arises from our inability to peacefully co-exist with diverse peoples and the natural world that surrounds us. Such co-existence will remain a futile dream as long as we can’t honestly recognize who we are and where we come from.

It benefits all of us to have a full understanding of the worldviews that comprise our nation and the problem-solving strategies that those worldviews offer. American Indians aren’t particularly savage or noble, we’re like everyone else—concerned with the same issues of human health, happiness, suffering, survival and justice. We also contribute a respect for life and land that can’t be learned by copying our ceremonies or watching a movie. Myths and stereotypes prevent many Americans from seeing the complex and challenging approaches that American Indians offer for our mutual co-existence. Every day those strategies aren’t discussed, we endanger our own survival.

Staff Thanks

1999 has been an incredibly successful year for the Sacred Land Film Project: in addition to gaining public television completion funds for In the Light of Reverence from ITVS, we completed shooting at Mt. Shasta and the Four Corners, edited a rough cut of the film, and enhanced our outreach efforts through our website. Toby and Malinda would like to thank our filmmaking partners for making it happen:

Writer and mother Jessica Abbe, for her valuable insight and eloquence in writing and structuring our rough cuts; Editor and Videographer Will Parrinello, for his tremendous sense of humor, his guidance, and his expert abilities with our digital editing system and behind the camera; Sound Recordist and Cinematographer Andy Black, for his thoughtful aesthetic, his flexibility and loyalty to our work; Development Director Ivy Gordon, for her unfailing support and passionate dedication to the challenges of fundraising; and, Web Designer Kevin Rardin, for guiding us through new technological territory and increasing the visibility and range of our project.

Two new staff members have recently joined us: Ami Capen, our Assistant Editor and Associate Producer, studied film and anthropology at UC Berkeley and has worked in the independent film community for the past four years as a freelance editor and in various aspects of documentary production. She recently directed distribution at Les Blank’s Flower Films. Volunteer Intern Eve Eisenberg recently graduated from Duke University with a degree in Literature, and has come to the Bay Area to explore independent filmmaking with the Sacred Land Film Project.