Sunday June 7th – The bright, desert sun illumined the rich, desert earth of the area known as The Little Painted Desert in Northeastern Arizona. I had traveled the stretch of Interstate 40 many times during trips to the flashing lights of Las Vegas, Nevada and visits to southern California never veering far off the road that connected me to those destinations. My first trip was in 1969 along Rte. 66 before the Interstate Highway System created I-40. In 1969 tourists from the East visited “Indian” stores advertised on billboards at the edge of the highway blocking the view of the surrounding landscape. The stores were full of the cheap trinkets carried home as souvenirs of the trip to the Wild West. In addition, one could see Indian performances reminiscent of the Buffalo Bill traveling rodeo shows of the early part of the century.
It wasn’t until I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico that I became familiar with the ancient history hidden off Interstate 40 along the lands of the Navajo and Hopi people – the descendants of the ancient cliff dwelling people known as the Anazasi people, a corruption of the Navajo word Anaasaai, meaning Ancient Ones or Ancient Enemies. This term is not the preferred designation of modern Puebloans who live in the area today.
By the time Coronado came to the region in the 15th Century looking for the Seven Cities of Gold, the Anazasi people had mysteriously disappeared and new cultures of the Navajo, Hopi and other Pueblo people had been established. The Navajo and Hopi are the only cultures that have remained intact – relatively free from westernization. The Hopi is the purest culture, having been left alone to its ancient practices high upon the Black and Second Mesas in northern Arizona and never having gone to war with the Americans. After Kit Carson allowed the Navajo to return to their home in Canyon De Chelly in the 1860’s, the Navajo negotiated a peace treaty that returned these lands to the Navajo shepherds.
Since that time, the Navajo have prospered. Navajo need for more grazing land and water has created recent conflict with the peaceful Hopi. And the Navajo, with the support of the United States government and Peabody Coal Company, have been slowly encroaching upon Hopi land for mineral and water rights. The Hopi, however, have been able to preserve much of their ancient culture and spiritual practices high in the cliffs of the Second Mesa. On this pleasant, sunny day in June, a friend and I veered from Interstate 40 at Winslow, Arizona onto State Road 87. Our intent was not to experience any more “kicks along Route 66” but to travel this “road to nowhere” for a trip into New Pangaea.
In describing the western landscape, many who have been there describe it as “miles and miles of miles and miles.” Traveling on an empty two- lane highway with low lying scrub brush and flat desert sand on each side made the road seem to disappear into the cloudless, blue horizon. No traffic and an unobstructed view helped to delineate the beautiful colors of the rippling red soil and gray, gravel rock that provided an apron to the huge rock formations that suddenly appeared sporadically along the way.
There was a bell shaped rise in front of purple, snow capped rocks whose color changed with the position of sun’s light from dark red to pink, and finally a white ribbed apron flowing down into a flat, green bottom. The green of the desert shrubs was especially brilliant due to the recent rain that had not only cleared the air but nourished the roots so close to the surface. We stopped at a state park to take a picture of this “eye candy.”
The park was operated by the Navajo who own this land. We saw two stoned columned shelters for two picnic tables. Gang graffiti in red, blue, black and white reminded us that people live in the area. On the two portable outhouses, we saw the sign of the Navajo – two broken arrows with one going up and another going down. This was the symbol we had seen on the Indian Casino set off I-40. Other signs of inhabitants included fenced off land, telephone and power lines, periodic ranch houses and school bus shelters. We also saw some broken beer and whiskey bottles along the road when we stopped to take yet more pictures.
Periodic groups of sheep and cattle indicated this was grazing land. Although the highway to the Second Mesa was sixty miles long, the time passed quickly as we were absorbed by the beauty of the landscape. Highway 60 ended at the approach to Second Mesa. Looking up and seeing adobe houses built into the brown mesa brought home to me what the pueblo culture must have looked like when Coronado and the Spanish missionaries first came to the area.
There was a cluster of FEMA looking buildings at the end of the road. There were also some adobe cottages whose yards were filled with piles of old furniture, new mountain bikes and the ever present trucks. We saw some satellite dishes to indicate 21st Century technology. We parked in the gravel lot that served the cluster of federal buildings. On the Sipalovi Activities Center we saw the sign indicating the four Klans of the Hopi. The hand painted sign consisted of a hand with each finger painted with the animal connected to each Klan – a snake, gourd, bear claw and tarantula. The offices were closed but flyers outside described various programs available to the people, especially youth and elder nutrition programs. A woman in a black SUV drove into the gravel lot. She was most helpful, telling us that the village we wanted to see was indeed atop the high mesa. She also told us there would be dancing in the village center that day and we could attend with no trouble. Thus began the highlight of our sojourn into New Pangaea.
We traveled the winding, dirt road to the top of the mesa. Suddenly, we were driving along a road with adobe houses lining the path, one after another. There were people walking everywhere and parking was sporadic and uncontrolled. The thing that struck me was how quiet it was despite the throng of men, women and children walking to the village square. We parked in a spot where we thought we wouldn’t be locked in and joined the throng, moving into the center of the village. At the village center, we saw openings in the adobe floors with ladders disappearing into them. These were probably the village storehouses. I also thought one of them must be where the very private, spiritual ceremonies were held.
As we approached the center, we saw chairs surrounding the “stage” which was no more than a flat, open area. There were also chairs set atop the roofs of the houses. We found a seat on a flat bench surrounded by chairs, sat down and quietly waited for the dancing to begin. Although almost every chair was filled and much of the audience included children of all ages, the behavior of these children amazed us. They sat quietly next to their mothers, many of whom had brought baskets of food that they deposited in the stage area before being seated. In front of us was an elderly village lady. She had the exquisitely lined face of wisdom as she sat shielding her eyes from the bright sun with a resplendent, green and yellow wrap that sparkled in the light.
We sat and watched with her as people began bringing in basket after basket filled with fruits, vegetables, baked sweets and bags of popcorn. There were corn, squash and apples and oranges. Some of the apples filled boxes from the state of Washington and the parade of food continued throughout the ceremony. Much of the food was carried into the center by men who had obviously bathed themselves in mud. They were shirtless and many had English phrases on their backs. At last the dancers came from somewhere onto the stage. I was breathless.
A parade of about twenty masked dancers made a circle around the baskets of food. Their faces and bodies were covered entirely by hand made regalia obviously passed down from generation to generation. The gray wool tunic and “skirt” were adorned with red and black symbols that matched those on the full masks that forbid any recognition. I could tell that some of the dancers had family in the audience by the slight gestures they made in certain areas at different times. That was the only communication that came from these dancers.
Some of the dancers had Klan insignias on parts of the leg that was exposed, but all wore jingle bells on the left ankle and round turtle gourds attached to the right knee. These made the only noise when they began a rhythmic dance done by stamping the left foot in time to the drumming by the masked “musicians” whose regalia appeared to be for women, although they, too, were entirely covered. No one spoke as the dancing continued. Two men in black tunics appeared at the middle of the circle and began dancing as the surrounding dancers kept time.
These dancers performed some sort of initiation ceremony for a young male whom they brought into the circle. He was wearing jeans and had on untied tennis shoes. As part of the ceremony the solo dancers bent down and tied his shoes. He then joined them in their dance. As the dancing continued the mud baked men walked around the circle dropping dust onto all the participants. After the initiation the “female” musicians left the circle and the remaining participants began throwing fruit, candy and popcorn into the audience. These were directed toward the children. Once again, I marveled at how the children caught their gifts freely without other children in the area trying to catch them. The children held their gifts without opening them for the rest of the ceremony. Then the dancers turned to the women.
One dancer brought an armful of vegetables and gave them to the woman elder in front of us. Then, something astounding happened. One of the dancers held out a huge zucchini squash and offered it to me. I signaled “me?” silently and he shook his head “yes.” I accepted with gratitude and humility. Then I noticed that the women with families started receiving bags of fruits and vegetables. Although food was continuously being given away, the amount of food in the circle stayed rather constant, as more and more continued coming in. This reminded me of the Iroquois legend of the cornucopia basket.
The Iroquois believed that the Great Mystery who lived in the heavens above supplied all creatures below through a funnel shaped cloud. The small opening at the top created a vacuum through which food flowed freely. The food continued to flow only if the bottom stayed empty. That’s why their food baskets used in their harvest were shaped like funnel shaped clouds – a reminder to keep the food flowing by keeping it empty.
The masks worn by the circle dancers also reminded me of the Iroquois masks of the False Face Society that kept disease and evil spirits away from the society’s homes. I felt as though I were, indeed, experiencing a New Pangaea. Eventually, the dancers handed my male companion a box of fruit. His reaction reflected the western cultural beliefs that it is not right for those who have plenty to accept from those who, at first glance, have much less. He was hesitant to receive it, but I encouraged him to take it. He finally accepted the fruit after his efforts to give it to the young family next to us failed.
One of the best things we received was a delicious cookie that had green and yellow icing. The spiral shape reminded us of the spiral carvings we had seen on the lava rock in Petro glyph National Park on the West Mesa of Albuquerque, New Mexico. One of the legends of this carving is that it portrays the entrance of the Ancient Ones from the center of the earth and their circular journey from birth to death.
A group of women approached the bench on which we were seated and indicated that we needed to move. We did so without hesitation and walked back to our car. The drive back to I-40 as well as the rest of the drive from Arizona passed quickly as Carl and I shared our thoughts about what we had just experienced. In my efforts to connect with ancient cultures and what was once Pangaea, I had found the origins of a New Pangaea. This filled me with enthusiasm and hope as I returned to my 21st Century world filled with the challenges brought about from polarization and our lost memories of what we once were and can be again.