‘I pray the Hopi way won’t become a way of the past’

The Hopi people have lived on our homeland in northeast Arizona since ancient times. Our village of Oraibi dates to 900 A.D., making it the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America. Native American scholars regard the Hopi Tribe as among the most traditional of all American Indians.

Many of the 7,000 Hopi people on our 1.6 million-acre reservation still live as did our ancestors, residing in modest sandstone houses in 12 villages, tending to small fields of corn, squash, beans and melons and participating in ceremonies and religion rituals dating back centuries before Spanish and Euro-American settlement of this country.

The religious beliefs of the Hopi people are based to a significant degree on Nuvatukyaovi, the majestic mountains north of Flagstaff non-Indians refer to as the San Francisco Peaks. Nuvatukyaovi, which in the Hopi language means “place of snow on the peaks,” is home to the Katsinam, spirit messengers who during the growing season drift as clouds from the Peaks and descend on my homeland, bringing rain, guidance and spirituality to the Hopi people.

The entire Hopi Tribe depends on the blessings and teachings of the Kastinas. Virtually all Hopi people are initiated into Katsina societies. Our ability to maintain Nuvatukyaovi as a sacred home of the Katsinam is integral to our way of life. It is as crucial to my people as the blood that runs through our veins.

But our way of life was severely threatened last March, when Coconino National Forest approved an expansion of its special use permit issued to the Arizona Snowbowl, allowing the ski resort to expand its facilities. The permit will enable the resort to use reclaimed wastewater to make artificial snow.

The decision was devastating, not only to the Hopi Tribe, but some other 300,000 Native Americans with 13 Indian tribes, all of whom regard Nuvatukyaovi as sacred to their culture and spirituality.

A hearing on a request by the tribes to remand the permit back to the Forest Service for reconsideration will be held Oct. 6 in U.S. District Court. The Hopi and other Indian tribes will argue that expansion of the Snowbowl and the use of reclaimed wastewater to make snow will cause irreparable harm to the traditional, historic, religious and cultural integrity of the Peaks.

But I do not believe formal court briefs can adequately express the gravity of the situation. I do not believe anyone but the Hopi people can truly understand the social, psychological and cultural impact snowmaking on the Peaks will have on my people.

The environmental impact statement filed by the Forest Service in connection with the decision to expand the special use permit acknowledges the Peaks are “the spiritual essence of what Hopis consider the most sacred landscapes in Hopi religion.”

“(The) ceremonies associated with the Peaks, the plants and herbs gathered on the Peaks, and shrines and ancestral dwellings located in the vicinity of the Peaks are of central importance to the religious believes and traditions that are the core of Hopi culture,” the report states.

But the environmental impact report does not detail the depth of the emotional and psychological harm snowmaking would have on the Hopi Tribe, its villages and individual Hopi people.

The use of wastewater to make snow goes completely against Hopi belief that Nuvatukyaovi, as home to the Katsina spirits, is the natural embodiment that brings rain, snow and moisture to bless all of life. I fear those blessings may now be in jeopardy.

The Hopi people are stunned that the federal government, which has trust responsibility for the Hopi and other native nations, would allow the desecration of the religious believes of the Hopi and 300,000 other Indian tribes so that less than 20,000 could ski the Peaks. How could federal officials be so callous?

As Cultural Preservation Officer for the Hopi Tribe, I have worked hard to establish a government-to-government relationship with the Forest Service based on trust and mutual understanding. I have for years consulted with local, state and federal officials on projects that may affect Hopi culture.

There are many laws that govern such projects, including the National Historic Preservation Act, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, the Antiquities Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

This decision hurts me, personally, because it is so disrespectful of all that the Hopi people and all Native Americans hold sacred.

The ruling also could not have come at a worse time. March is the midst of the Katsina ceremonial cycle, when Hopi people were entering village kivas (ceremonial chambers) to communicate with the Katsina spirits, to pray for a good life for all people. It was difficult, in light of the decision, for us to focus on our ceremonial tasks. My people stepped into the kivas with hearts heavy with sadness.

Along with other Hopi religious leaders, I will continue to make pilgrimages to Nuvatukyaovi to deposit sacred prayer offerings and to gather plants for ceremonial purposes. But the peace I have long sought is gone. There is a great imbalance in my life. I am deeply troubled by the Forest Service decision to harm Nuvatukyaovi and to treat the Hopi people and our religion with such callous disregard, so more people can ski. I worry about what the United States will feel entitled to take away from me next.

I pray now that the Katsina spirits will not abandon their home in the Peaks and, in so doing, abandon the Hopi people. And I pray that the Hopi way of life will not become a way of the past.

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