The Last Secret Land

By Fish, Peter | Sunset, May 2012 | Go to article overview

The Last Secret Land


Fish, Peter, Sunset


For generations, Arizona's Hopi have kept their world-and one of the West's most astonishing landscapes-closed off to visitors. Until now

RAY COIN talks the way he drives his pickup, straight and steady. He wants his passengers to talk the same way. When one mispronounces the name of the Hopi village we've just passed, Oraibi, Ray quickly corrects him.

"Not o-rah-bee," Ray says. "Ar-zhabee. Zha. Like Zsa Zsa Gabor."

"Zha." I say, being the one who mangled the name. I've been trying to wrap my tongue around Hopi names, wrap my mind around the Hopi world, for an entire day. I thought I'd finally gotten somewhere. Not yet.

Here's a theory of travel. The best journeys are the ones in which every moment is so different from your day-today life, it's impossible to worry about the things you worry about at home. And so you simply surrender. ..to the strange, the new, the profound.

Hopi - the name can denote both the people and the corner of northeast Arizona that more than 10,000 of them call home - lies about four hours north of Phoenix and a millennium or two away in spirit. Its 1.5 million acres are surrounded by the larger, more populous Navajo Nation. While the Navajo have been more open to tourism, the Hopi have been wary.

That's changing. For the first time in decades, you can experience the Hopi world up close: visit its ancient villages, inhabited by a people whose traditions - in art, religion, and agriculture - go back more than 1,000 years. You can buy museum-quality pottery, jewelry, and dolllike katsinas from the hands that made them, then drive out to a lonely chunk of road and take in a landscape of pastel mesas and canyons. And you can do it all in a weekend. But you'll need some help.

Hopi remains a traveler's frontier. Without a good guide, the experience could seem cruel. There are a couple of main highways and lots of dirt roads, and nothing even remotely approaching a finedining restaurant. But in 2010, the Hopi launched a tourism website and opened the Moenkopi Legacy Inn & Suites near Tuba City, the first hotel built on tribal land in 50 years, and a perfect pushing-off point for tours from folks like Ray Coin.

Our first stop is Walpi (wail-bee), a i,ioo-year-old village set atop First Mesa, one of three mesas that mark the Hopi universe. If there's one place that demonstrates how the tribe is changing, Walpi is it. For generations, Hopi'sT2 villages have been mostly off-limits to visitors. Now a few, like Walpi, are cautiously opening themselves up, mainly to bring in revenue.

Bernie Navakuku, a village representative, greets us, and we walk by stone and cinder-block houses crowding the narrow road around the village, past the kivas used for Hopi religious ceremonies. Walpi has no running water or electricity. A fair number of the houses double as informal art galleries, with jewelry and katsinas - the winsome cottonwood figures that are the Hopi's best-known artistic expression - arranged on tables set outside front doors. "Prices here are good," Bernie says, pointing to an $80 katsina. "That might go for $300 in Phoenix. And here you know they're authentic."

But Walpi itself is its own greatest work of art. Bernie leads us to the west end of First Mesa, and from there, 200 feet above the desert floor, I see all ocher and umber rock, the purplish silhouettes of mesas, and, far off, the San Francisco Mountains, conical and snowcapped beneath a powder blue sky. …

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