We leave Flagstaff on the I89 direction North. Soon we see the sign for the Sunset Crater and Wupatki, but today we are heading further up in the Navajo country. Shortly after Cameron we cross the Little Colorado River, theatre of many migrations over two millennia of Native American history.
We turn off East, toward Tuba City, named for Tuuvi, a Hopi Indian who converted to the Mormon faith. A small sign shows us the way to the Dinosaurs footprints. A young Navajo man welcomes us and gives us a guided tour of the prints: mind-blowing, 65-million-year-old tracks on the red rocks and sand. He explains the discovery, and that in due course more prints will appear as erosion does its work. We understand the sanctity of the place, and the due regard to time’s work: no hysterical digging here! On the horizon we see a green line following presumably a river bed: there is water there for sure, and the guide explains that farmers have been cultivating corn and other plants there for a thousand years. For $100 we could have an extended guided tour of the Western Navajo Reservation. But today we want to continue our exploration further East. We thank him, leaving a gift of $40, and after a long look at one huge footprint, we resume our voyage.
We are now travelling on Highway 264 in the direction of the Black Mesa. Traffic becomes rarer, mainly the occasional pick up trucks. We miss the Gold Mine canyon (no sign!) and soon we see the settlement of Old Oraibi. We are in view of the Third Mesa, in Hopi country. We pass the Second Mesa, and we drive up to the Hopi Cultural Center, it is lunch time already.
After we have sampled some delicious Hopi cooking, my partner Gorgeous goes negotiating with the lady in charge of the gift shop. After half an hour of diplomatic exchange, always cheerful, we receive authorisation and detailed instructions for a visit to the ancient village of Walpi on the First Mesa. Our guide, Chucky, will wait for us there.
We drive past the I87 junction, admiring the new Hopi Health Center on the South side of the Highway. We drive over Wepo bridge and shorty afterwards turn left toward the First Mesa villages. We drive slowly and carefully through Tewa and Sitsomovi, children wave at us, we wave back. We park the car on the gap, just before the village of Walpi. Our guide appears, we exchange greetings.
The site of Walpi, at the tip of the First Mesa is a wonder: high above the plateau, with 360 deg. views all round: to the North toward the Navajo Reservation and the immensity up to Utah, to the South toward the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest (which we will visit the following day.)
In sober words, and with smiling eyes, our guide explains the village, its old houses (most of them it turns out were built in the 17th century.) He points out the patient works of maintenance to repair roofs and walls, visible on several houses. Some of the carpentry must be more than ancient. The village is immaculate: wood and stones, under the cloudless blue sky. The guide points out a steep staircase going down to the ground far below. Occasional fences protects pedestrians from falling off the street which is circular around the village. We see ancient stone ovens, clearly still in use. We see a well! We are told about the kivas, the underground ceremonial chambers much mentioned in the tradition, recognisable by the long pole merging from the opening. We are told about the kachinas, the Spirits and their representation, in ceremonial dances and in the special sculpted dolls, that are one Hopi speciality.
The village seems deserted, but it is not as we soon find out. Our guide points out his house, and we soon arrive at the Plaza, the center of village life, social and ceremonial. Walpi is special and the plaza the center also of a deep mystery: the Sipapuni, or, traditionally, the place of emergence from the Lower World. We are told that when time comes, boys are sent to the desert to collect snakes. They are then to spend the night before the ceremony, in the kivas, with the snakes. The medicine men ensure no-one is hurt, even if a snake bites! Our guide undertook the rite as a fifteen-year old and still smiles about it…
We are shown the Sipupani, in the center of the plaza, where all tribes, including our own, came from. Is there an opening? Or the symbol of it? This is the special meaning of Walpi, and the reason why, twice a year, for the arrival and departure of the Spirits (in their own migration from and to the Sacred mountain white people called the San Francisco peaks, near Flagstaff) the main ceremonies are held in Walpi. Hopis are summoned nowadays by the Hopi radio station and the Internet. Our guide has spoken to the village chief before our arrival: we are authorised to take a picture of the plaza: awesome!
We slowly continue our walk: then our guide knocks at the low door of a small house. We are invited to enter. The room is spotless, strangely light despite the size of the very small window, and immediately its owner introduces himself. This is the workshop of a master carver of kachinas. A wood stove is burning but the room is cool. On a low table we are shown a collection of beautiful kachinas. One tall sculpture represents the gods and dancing ceremonies, with the village at the base, two eagles surveying the scene: a marvel. Our guest explains that it took him ten years to carve. Other kachinas represent spirits and dancers, there seems to be a kachina for all occasions. We see a beautiful dancing Butterfly maiden, dressed in the customary dress of the Butterfly dance: a delicate and beautifully coloured doll – what a present for a young daughter (we negotiate the price, and both of us feel good about the transaction.) The craftsman explains that such a doll is used for the education of the girls, to teach them the ways of the Hopis, their role and responsibilities.
We could listen to our guest for a long time, but we have been in the village for two hours already! We thank our guest and guide, who makes sure we are back to our car.
Slowly we drive back through the villages, children wave, we wave back. Our minds are full of images from this magic village. We take the I87 southwards, in the direction of old Homolovi, and the modern Winslow. The three os us are now four, with the Butterfly maiden, silent and smiling.
Image: the plaza at Walpi, First Mesa, courtesy of the Walpi village chief, and our guide Chucky.