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Into Hopi Country

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Evelyn Fredericks, our Hopi guide, is a small, energetic woman who walks like a New Yorker on her way to a meeting as she leads our little group on a tour of a remote canyon with fantastically shaped rock formations. As we gawked at the rocks (which reminded most of us of various foods ranging from mushrooms to buttercream frosting) Evelyn told us about the history of the region and gave us a little insight into Hopi culture with it's matrilineal landholdings and tight clan structure.

2010-12-08-Canyon.jpg

The Hopi reservation is an island in the middle of the huge, sprawling Navajo reservation that covers much of Northern Arizona. About 10,000 Hopi live in twelve villages associated with three mesas.

Anyone can drive through the reservation on highway 264 and look at the high desert landscape with the small agricultural fields carved out of the sand where the Hopis grow corn, squash, melons, and beans using a dry-framing technique. But if you want to visit the villages, the best way to do that is to hire a Hopi guide. The Hopi seem particularly private and do not, as a rule, want to be photographed or even have pictures taken of their villages. You can, however, ask permission to photograph individuals.

Evelyn took us to her grandmother's house -- Evelyn's clan (bamboo clan) house -- in Bacalvi, a Second Mesa village, for lunch. Beverly, Evelyn's cousin, lives in the grandmother's house, a low-slung flat-roofed adobe house that faces the plaza, which is used for ceremonial dances. Beverly invited us to the table and served us a delicious succotash made from hominy and a couple kinds of beans; bowls of neon-yellow cold squash; somiviki (fine blue-corn flour mixed with water and sugar then wrapped in cornhusk); fry bread, yellow watermelon; and Hopi tea (brewed from greenthread or thelesperma filifolium). Beverly said we might want to sweeten things up and put a big basket of splenda, and jars of sugar-free honey and regular honey on the table. "We mostly use splenda these days," she said. "Because everybody has diabetes."

2010-12-08-Hopilunch.jpgBeverly's sister Linda came over and brought some Hopi plaques she had been working on. Linda makes these flat, woven baskets from rabbitbrush stalks she gathers in the fields and then splits and dyes vibrant colors. She showed us a notebook of about a hundred different plaque designs she weaves. We went to her house across the plaza and she brought out a remnant of an old plaque she thinks her great-great grandmother wove -- she just found it along with some big grinding stones while digging out behind her house.

After lunch Evelyn took us to First Mesa and the village of Walpi, which is now used mainly for ceremonies. First established about 1100 years ago, Walpi is very much off the grid and as you walk along the narrow street surrounded by houses and kivas jammed together you can catch glimpses of the 300-foot drop that lies just behind the structures. Thin, winding paths crisscross the sides of the mesa and I thought they were for sheep until I saw a young boy running along one.

"Oh yes," said Evelyn. "The Hopi are known for long-distance running." And I watched as the boy came up on the mesa, ran past us, then disappeared over the side of the cliff.

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See www.experiencehopi.com for information about the Hopi reservation and for a list of approved Hopi guides.