Notes from a Hopi Reservation, an American Story

Summary: A brief story of the perseverance of one man, in his life and with his demons on a reservation in Arizona, casts a useful light on the efforts of our school communities to come to grips with at risk kids. Among other lessons: keep them within our circle and expect the long run.

The land is dry, the existence rugged, the vistas enormous, the clouds like flotillas in a capacious blue sky. Mesas alternate with broad sage colored valleys. Erosion by water and wind over millennia reveal the local geologic history in the ascension of the mesa over the valleys – cliff bands of reddish brown in multiple shades alternate with crumbling rock, tans and even greys and off whites. Stunning country.

Against this landscape my wife and I visited Hopi villages of northeastern Arizona perched like Masadas on finger edges of Black Mesa, the better to defend against Spaniards, the encroachment of the Navajo, and assorted marauders, from ancient time to the present. Over the course of a thousand and more years, the same culture, the same villages, continuously have occupied the setting for five hundred generations relatively untouched by modernity until the last seventy years.

It is also a third world here in the midst of the self-satisfied plenty of the larger culture. In the ancient villages there is little to no electricity, no running water, outhouses suspended over the edges of the cliff. Many reside only part time in the ancestral location, and otherwise have descended to the valley, where modern utilities and other conveniences are available.

A considerable percentage of these folks at the same time still seem deeply immersed in the old spiritual traditions, the homage to the seasons, to Father Sun and Mother Earth, the planting of corn, the pulse of belief in a world of spirits and the rhythms of the natural world.

This suspension between very different worlds reminds me of my many former students, themselves immigrants or the sons and daughters of immigrants, and the many individual ways they managed the challenging transition between cultures, some families with more success and grace than others. Most are torn; in embracing one culture something is lost of the other.

I think there are also echoes in the Hopi story of the equally perplexing transition for any child born of poverty who seeks by personal resources to rise into the middle class.

A prototypical American story from the Hopi villages is worth relating for what it tells us of at risk students, the drive of those who make it, and the demons that in the lives of diligent people are turned to advantage.

Gary was our tour guide for the day of visits to the rock tan and crumbling three old villages of First, Second, and Third Mesa; he told the contemporary story of the Hopi through his own life story. Son of a Navajo man and a Hopi mother, he began life in his mother’s village, by both cultures’ matrilineal tradition. Friction is ageless between Hopi and Navajo, so it is to be expected that Gary should embody that friction in his anger and his brawling, ragged ways, sensing himself a target but early defending his spirit. He is also intelligent and apparently enough attentive to his studies to earn “diversity” entry to a private high school in Phoenix which services an international upper crust. Here he rubs elbows, as he puts, it, with people for whom “failure is not an option,” and not even a concept, which he admires and seems to inhale as a life lesson, but remembers vividly the emotional amputation from family of a fellow Anglo student who fell short of those expectations.

Restless, Gary joins the Marines and spends time in the Middle East, sees combat, is visited in his memory by the screams of children. PTSD joins his earlier demons; he has a period of dissolute behavior, but is taken under the wing of an elder Hopi, his grandfather, who does not mince words. “You are always angry….” Later an uncle is to play a similar role.

At the time of his telling, Gary is I would guess in his mid-forties, early fifties, a father with his deceased wife of four children with whom he remains family. In the intervening years he has raised these kids, and begun and sustained a successful Hopi cultural tour guide service. As he puts it in a self-deprecating chortle, “I have become a capitalist piglet!” He, too, lives on Hopi lands, but no longer in the village in which he was raised. By his tale he seeks life within the ancient traditions, yet also has turned his life in them to commercial advantage.

What are the lessons to be drawn from his story in this severely beautiful land that might be tailored to our work with other ragged youth?

Most obviously, Gary has been mentored to self-command and finally individual American success, ironically by a communal culture in the person of Hopi elders, members of his own family. He has been nurtured rather than excluded.

Moreover, the transformation has taken place over years, not the mere semesters of school think. Think longer term irrevocable commitment. Head Start, for example, finds its relevance not in short term skill improvement, but in the incubation of long term self-sufficiency.

Then think self-sufficiency over succeeding generations, generational escape from poverty’s persistent cycle.

What makes one person persevere, yet another capitulates? Within the Hopi cradle the dysfunctional brawler harbored the mature businessman. How is faith in self transmitted, how is it born? How do we build schools, how do we construct cultures that will cultivate in just such a manner?

These are questions well beyond surface skill development.


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