A People in Place

Author: Jake Page


A great man died in Tucson, Arizona, not long ago. He was Emory Sekaquaptewa, a member of the Hopi Eagle Clan. He was a friend of mine, and as I read the future we will all share to one degree or another, I think of Emory and what his life and circumstances might have to teach us.

Briefly, Emory’s life included growing up on the arid Hopi Reservation in northeastern Arizona. Life for a boy growing up there in the 1930s and ‘40s was much the same as it had been for centuries. Even as a boy, Emory had some serious responsibilities in a society that existed by the practice of dry-farming, producing corn, melons and beans out of what strikes outsiders as an extended sand trap. After school he would run several miles to his family’s fields and do some weeding or chase away the ravens, and then run home for dinner.

Traditional Hopi culture was Emory’s element, but he was deeply curious about the world beyond. He became one of the first American Indians to attend West Point. The Eagle Clan’s role is to stand between the Hopis and the outside world, which makes them warriors of a sort. A medical matter caused him to leave, and he finished undergraduate work at Brigham Young University. Then it was two years as an Air Force officer, followed by a law degree from the University of Arizona.

Over time he became a linguist and noted research anthropologist. In his 34 years of teaching at the University of Arizona, he sparked the creation of Hopi Dictionary/Hopiikwa Lavaytutuveni, the first English-Hopi dictionary produced by Hopis. It lays out the rules of Hopi grammar, creates a Hopi orthography, defines some 30,000 words, and puts them in sentences in Hopi and English. This great tome is, in effect, an insider’s Hopi ethnography in dictionary form.

Early on, Emory also established the Hopi Appeals Court and became its chief justice, a task he continued to perform until weeks before his death at some 78 or so years of life. He had to interpret the laws of the United States in such a way as to accommodate the profoundly complex Hopi worldview. He also was deemed an Arizona Indian Living Treasure for his exquisite work as a jeweler and silversmith.

Emory considered all his talents to be, in a real sense, the property of the tribe. He was part of a group of people, some 10,000 strong, who have developed a unique culture over the millennia in order to survive in extreme aridity and with the normal complications of human nature. Hopi live in 12 villages, most of them on the edge of three mesas in northeast Arizona. Each village has its own traditional government and dialect. An elected tribal government came into existence in the 1930s and is empowered particularly to deal with outside entities like Arizona and the United States on secular tribal affairs.

The Hopi clans
Hopi society is structured by a clan system, and some 30 clans exist. Each clan was accepted originally into the Hopi tribe because it had some useful ceremony or secret way of doing things—mostly bringing rain or providing needed ceremonial items. Today the tribe cannot function properly without all the clans doing their own secret thing in the course of the long ceremonial season. Thus every Hopi person is essential to the overall well-being of the tribe.

Many of the Hopi ceremonies, in particular the famous snake dance and the plaza dances of the katsinas, are on behalf of all creatures of the world. The katsinas are nature spirits (and also ancestors) who exist in many forms, one being moisture—rain, the dew on a corn plant, even the dot of saliva in the corner of a person’s mouth as he laughs. It is as one or another form of moisture that your ancestors visit you, perhaps arriving over your corn field to provide one of the few timely rains the Hopi corn needs to flourish.

The Hopis (and many other tribes of American Indians in our midst) stand among us as a reminder of the value of a self-contained community over a wayward, centrifugal individualism. They exemplify the richness and sinews of tribal life. And Hopi culture now has a far better chance to continue into the future than existed before. The Hopi language no longer depends on the memory of old men and women as so many other American Indian languages do. It is now a written language, able to keep the old ways alive in the modern world, and to keep the language alive and growing, written and oral.

The creation of the Hopi Dictionary was Emory’s way of making Hopi—the culture and the language—sustainable into the future.

Today we talk a lot about sustainability. It is the grail so avidly sought by engineers, environmentalists, philosophers, political theorists, vegans and other goody-goodies, organic farmers, many scientists and even some non-mainstream economists. But we don’t have much by way of models, real visions, in front of us to lead us to sustainable societies in the future.

There is in fact a certain romantic wishful thinking about the idea of sustainability. Sort of like the old ideas exemplified by the once famous Whole Earth Catalog, growing your food in the woods, heating rain water in barrels with the light of sun. This might have been sustainable for a small group, but not for societies. That whole-earth hippy concept simply won’t work. Most people don’t want to live like that even if there were enough land for everybody to try.

This world now operates at its most economically revved-up at an enormous net energy loss—like that Mexican tomato we insist on eating out of season. We have survived these long-running energy losses because petroleum—which is to say plants that died about 400 million years ago in what is called the Carboniferous Period—has been thought of as endlessly available, and burned up as if there would be no tomorrow. There is a limited amount of these 400 million-year-old dead plants still below us, and we are on the downside of pumping them out of the earth. In other words, that party is essentially over.

By 2050 it is said, 9 billion people will exist on the thin crust of this planet—3 billion more than today. That is half again as many people as now. How will we all be fed and watered?

Water, in fact, may well be the limiting factor in the centuries ahead—not technology, not good will, not the harnessing of the sun via solar panels, wind generators or even nuclear fusion, the creation of our own little suns here on earth, God spare us. Just water, that most amazing product of oxygen and hydrogen which is the essential ingredient of all of life and virtually all industrial efforts, not to mention such humble work as that performed by sewers. Desalinization of salt sea water sounds great, but at what energy cost?

Food is also a problem. Developing agricultural plants that grow in sea water holds out some hope, as do other ingenious schemes that forward-looking realists are in the process of developing. Another example is rice that can be (and is) grown without flooding rice fields. It saves water, but it also grows more richly. But these are stopgap measures, it seems to me. We may well have already used all good arable lands, leaving poorer lands—poor soil, poor water supplies, poor locations—±to feed those 3 billion extra people. And we need to figure out how to make all this sustainable by 2050. In 40 years?

Food and population
The gloomy philosopher Thomas Malthus said in the 18th century that population growth would inevitably outgrow food supply. We may reject starvation and disease as the outcome for humanity, but millions upon millions of humans have already died of starvation and easily preventable diseases, and there is not in place now a believable plan to handle 9 billion humans. We have no vision of where we should head, what human society should look like in 40 years or 100.

Hungry Africans are already poaching wildlife from parks and refuges—not to sell for their aphrodisiac value but for desperately needed food. Uncounted millions of people, dispossessed from their homes by war and pestilence—our old companions here on earth—are seeking new places to live. Where are they to go? Wherever they go there are already people there.

It is unlikely that the world will avoid what amounts to ecological wars breaking out—local squabbles over daily resources like water that could well escalate into tribal or larger hostilities that could then escalate into regional wars between nations. Some say they have already begun—these being in addition to religious and ethnic wars as in Darfur.

All of this of course will be accompanied by that other horseman, disease. Tropical disease vectors are already moving pole-ward in many parts of the world, and new lethal viral diseases are evolving rapidly. Texans will be infuriated to find they have contracted malaria in their backyards.

Anthropologists and historians tell us that rapid social upheavals have always been accompanied by disease and war. Nothing on the horizon suggests that this is going to change.

What then shall we use for models, destinations we might be able to reach to ameliorate the squalor in which a billon people already live, and the squalid wastefulness in which other billions now live? Will we at some point—‚probably after a lot of collapses, including population collapses, and tribulations of the soul and body—need a path back to some form of the modest, community-based, local sort of life to be found in such out-of-the-way places as the land of the Hopis?

The Hopis, like virtually all viable tribes, are wary of change but not always hostile to it, happily accepting tools and ideas that are helpful to their view of a proper life. Hopis drive pickups now instead of mules, and some have hybrid cars. Many of them go to college. They have television sets and many of them use the Internet and listen to music on CDs. And read and learn about things like physics.

The Hopis hold on with main strength to their still wholly viable traditions of being Hopi as opposed to anything else. They retain the benign dances of the katsinas, whose generosity the Hopis admire and always aspire to equal. Generosity, after all, is the human antidote to the world’s failure to provide a free lunch, and all tribal people know this.

If all signs of American civilization suddenly one night were to vanish—poof!— the Hopis would almost certainly go back to all they used to do before Europeans showed up. They would be living their fundamentally unchanged cooperative, sustainable and modest style of life, enmeshed in a worldview that is coherent, complex and self-contained, doing fine without TV and the Internet. And were he alive at such a startling time, my friend Emory, who loved cars and many other things available to him as an American, would happily and wisely be helping guide the Hopis on to their clearly seen, re-simplified, old/new destiny.

Shouldn’t someone important around here be thinking about that sort of thing?

Jake Page and his wife, Susanne, a photographer, produced the lavishly illustrated book HOPI in 1982, representing the first general photography allowed on the reservation since 1910. A 25th anniversary edition will be released in November 2008.

Photo of Emory Sekaquaptewa by Susanne Page.