Rooted in the Sun
Ahead of us, the river curved, cutting into the bank and leaving an earthen cliff seven or eight feet high. The cottonwood trees atop the bank were resisting the river’s power, their tangled roots holding onto the earth, but it was only a matter of time—the river had eons of time—before the river carved away the bank and the trees fell. The trees were thick and tall, perhaps eighty or one hundred feet tall, so when they fell they might divert the current for a while, but soon the river would carve away the trees. Fifty miles downstream from here, the San Juan River has carved away a thousand feet of rock, carved deep, looping canyons.
But instead of appreciating the carving power of water, I was paying too much attention to my own power. I was watching my wooden paddle carving into the water; I was watching my kayak carving through the water; I was watching my boat going exactly where I wanted it to go. Perhaps I was feeling that I was the master of the river.
Until we came around a bend and I saw a man walking down the river. He was halfway out from shore, but the water came only halfway up to his knees. He was walking slowly but having no trouble with the current.
We paddled up to the man, a Native American. I asked him what he was doing. He pointed to the cut bank ahead, with its exposed cottonwood roots. He was searching for roots that could be carved into katsina dolls. Only the wood of cottonwood roots is perfect, perfectly soft and strong, for carving katsina dolls. The washes below the Hopi mesas held some cottonwood trees, but not many and not large ones, and the Hopis soon harvested the available roots there. The Hopis had to find sources farther away, sometimes much farther away: we were about a hundred miles from the Hopi villages.
I looked at the maze of cottonwood roots sticking out of the earth, into the river. The power of this river had flowed into the roots. The katsina dolls carved from these roots would hold the river’s power. They would hold snowy mountain peaks, roaring rapids, deep canyons, and the lifeblood of mountain lions and coyotes and eagles.
As I looked up at the Native American standing in the river, and he looked down at me in my lifejacket, helmet, and plastic kayak, I felt a bit silly. He didn’t ask us what we were doing, for no doubt he knew our type. We were conquering the river. We were the heroic conquerors who had conquered the frontier, the wild mountains, the wild beasts, the wild Indians. After Hopis and their ancestors had been enjoying the shade of cottonwood trees for thousands of years, one conqueror, John C. Fremont, had shown up and noticed the cottonwood tree and gotten it named for himself, the Fremont cottonwood, the subspecies found in the Southwest. John C. Fremont had wandered all over the West, gotten lost, gotten directions from Indians, gotten hungry when surrounded by perfectly good food, killed Indians who hadn’t bothered him, named lots of things, and become the Great Pathfinder, a national hero, nominated for president in 1856. Fremont even got a vanished Native American culture named for him, if indirectly; the Fremont Indians were named for the Fremont River.
We had also conquered the Hopis linguistically, not just calling them “Indians” but more specifically “Moquis,” a Spanish word that was a bit insulting and stuck to the Hopis for centuries. We gave the slightly comical name “Tuba City” to a town that was supposed to honor a Hopi named Tuuvi. We spelled the name for their spirit messengers, the katsinas, as kachinas, though the Hopi language has no ch sound, and we called carved katsina figures “dolls,” which could imply they are toys, when they are serious gifts given to Hopi children to teach them Hopi ways.
As we—a few archaeology–minded friends—went down the river, we stopped at ruins of the Ancestral Puebloans (the Anasazi), the ancestors of today’s Hopis and Zunis and the Pueblo peoples of the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico. A thousand years ago the San Juan River basin was well populated, for it offered good soil for farming, abundant trees for wood, and endless water for drinking and gardens. Yet the Ancestral Puebloans were still dependent on rain for their corn and other crops, and the rains had failed for many years. People were forced to abandon their villages and migrate to better places, including the Hopi mesas, which were about two thousand feet higher and cooler and offered reliable springs. The Puebloans couldn’t carry all their possessions so they left much behind, such as pottery. We wandered among the ruins and examined hundreds of potsherds, some of them unusually large. This section of the San Juan River was seldom used by river runners, who preferred sections downstream with more rapids and canyons. Many of the potsherds were decorated in different styles that told us their origins in place and time. Some potsherds still held the imprints of the fingers that had made them.
The ruins also contained kivas, which, if excavated, would reveal design features and religious symbolism identical to the kivas in Hopi villages today. To archaeologists this suggests a long continuity of religious practices. Of course, say the Hopis. By the 1300s, there were abundant katsina images on pottery and rock art (though no katsina dolls), and some images are quite similar to images seen in katsina dolls today.
Amid some of the ruins, cottonwood trees were growing, descended from trees that had been here a thousand years ago when these ruins were proud houses. These trees were loved for their summer shade, for the way their uniquely–shaped leaves fluttered musically in the wind, for the snowstorm of white, cottony parachutes carrying seeds, and for how the leaves turned golden in the fall and glowed with sunlight. They were loved because cottonwoods grow only where there is continuous, reliable water—for a desert people cottonwoods signified a place where they belonged. They were loved for the fallen branches that provided winter fires and well–cooked foods and luminous kiva ceremonies.
As I looked up at one huge cottonwood tree, I saw the power of trees to lift tons of matter high into the air and give it shapes and skills. I looked at the ground and imagined the root system, two or three times the size of the canopy, tunneling in search of water and nutrients.
Next to the trunk I noticed a potsherd. Under this ground were lots of potsherds, which the roots were embracing and cracking and sucking into themselves. The tree was full of potsherds. Clay had become wood; the shapes and designs of pottery had become the shapes and designs of leaves and bark. The ex–pottery was still holding water and seeds to carry life into the future.
If a katsina doll was carved from these roots, it too would hold potsherds. Clay given life–affirming shape a thousand years ago would be shaped once again by hands molded by the hands of the potter. A pot that had given the Hopis physical nourishment would now offer spiritual nourishment. A potsherd that had been left behind eight hundred years ago would finally make its own migration to the Hopi mesas and rise onto a wall to watch over its people.
This ground was also full of wooden tools, bone tools, cotton clothing, yucca baskets, shell jewelry, and corn husks, and they too were being absorbed into the tree. They too might become part of katsina dolls and renew their service to the Hopis.
I looked at the ground around me. Somewhere, somewhere within the reach of the cottonwood roots, there might be ancestral Puebloan bodies. The tender hands of the roots were embracing the two hands that had made these potsherds and were summoning her to rise into a new life, to become wooden hands reaching skyward and strewing the air with snowy seeds. She too might be handled lovingly by her thousand–year grandson and shaped into a katsina doll. A katsina in the plaza would hand her lovingly to her thousand–year granddaughter. Rising onto a wall or shelf, she would watch over the baking of bread or the shaping of pottery. After her long burial in darkness she might become a Tawa—the sun—katsina doll and watch the patterns of sunlight flowing across the walls, changing from day to day, season to season. She might become an Ahüolatmana’at katsina doll, a katsina maiden who goes from home to home offering kiva–consecrated seeds as the priest katsina offers blessings for the year to come. She might become a katsina doll responsible for rain or the germination of seeds or a good harvest. She would send her ancient blood into new bodies to give them life. She would whisper ancient secrets into children’s ears to inspire them to continue Hopi ways for another thousand years. She would help the Hopis remain rooted.
Considering the importance of cottonwood roots to the Hopis, I wondered if cottonwood trees were, in some way, sacred to them. Yet I am reluctant to ask Hopis about the sacred, since Hopis are often reluctant to talk about it, even among themselves. In many cultures, the sacred involves secrets. And more than other tribes, the Hopis are wary of inquisitive whites, for Hopi beliefs have been distorted and hijacked by a long parade of missionaries, anthropologists, and religious seekers. Thus I tried to be subtle. I knew that most things important to Hopi life have katsinas dedicated to them, so I asked if there was a cottonwood–tree katsina. But no, there was not. Nor is there a coyote katsina, though coyotes are a prominent part of southwestern life and the Hopis have lots of coyote stories. One person answered how right it was that cottonwood roots are the perfect and only wood for katsina dolls, since cottonwood trees are just like Hopis, lovers of water in a world with too little water.
Cottonwoods do love water. Their roots are very twisty because they have to twist through rocky ground to find water. Cottonwoods release their seeds to match the timing of annual river floods so that seeds land on wet ground; one tree might produce nearly a million seeds, but only one seed would fall in the right spot to become a new tree.
One time a Hopi led me into her family home where her brother was carving a katsina doll. On his lap was a cloth onto which the cottonwood shavings were falling. I asked him what he did with the shavings. I had heard that Hopis buried their cottonwood scraps, but this wasn’t possible here, atop a stone mesa. He said that he took them “outside,” back to nature. Perhaps this meant that they joined centuries of broken pottery in flying over the mesa rim. He said that Hopis would never burn their cottonwood shavings, not even for heat on a cold day.
Cottonwoods were sacred for other tribes. Not surprisingly, these were tribes that lived on the Great Plains where water and trees could be scarce and cottonwood groves stood out as oases. For the Arapaho, cottonwood trees, whose winter sap sparkled with sunlight, were the source of all the stars; the Arapahos undoubtedly knew that if you cut open a knuckled twig, it revealed a center with a five–pointed star. For the Hidatsa, according to James Frasier in The Golden Bough, cottonwood trees held spiritual power that could heal. For the Lakota, cottonwoods were—and still are—the center of their most sacred ceremony, the Sun Dance. Warriors of proven worthiness would cut down a cottonwood, being careful not to let it fall to the ground, and carry it to a ceremonial space. They raised it to be the center of a symbolic cosmos, surrounded by twenty–eight posts that represented the sun and the moon and the rest of creation. Tribes in the Pacific Northwest used cottonwood branches and bark for sweat lodges.
In my own experiences, cottonwood trees had become a bit sacred. Many times on river trips and backpacking trips I have camped beneath giant cottonwoods. In the summer their shade alone gives them a green aura of benevolence. In the autumn their golden leaves glow magically, creating an aura of light. Their leaves vocalize the wind into a soft, whispering music that soothes you to sleep and runs through your mind all night long. Their music harmonizes well with the music of a nearby river or creek. To me cottonwoods have an ancient look: their trunks have exotic, twisting, gnarly shapes; their bark is rough and full of confused angles.
As a species cottonwoods are indeed ancient. Their genus, the poplars, arose in the Eocene epoch, some fifty million years ago, not so long after the age of the dinosaurs, though today’s cottonwood species may be “only” twenty million years old. Cottonwoods still practice ancient strategies that more modern trees abandoned long ago, such as relying on the wind to carry pollen from male trees to female trees. Their leaf shapes are still hearing Eocene winds. In some places in the Southwest, the cottonwoods are as ancient as the rocks around them: the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon are made out of Eocene lake sediments. Cottonwoods are also better than other trees at vegetative propagation, in which a living limb that falls to the ground or floats downstream and lands onshore can sprout a new root and become a new tree.
Camping beneath cottonwoods can provoke thoughts of mortality, and not because I am contemplating geological eras. As cottonwoods age, their wood becomes seriously brittle. Without warning a large branch can crack off—with a dagger–sharp point—and fall to the ground. The debris scattered beneath a cottonwood tells you what could happen to you. In some national parks, camping spots beneath elderly cottonwoods have been closed and relocated, or the trees have been cut down. As I drift to sleep, watching the stars constantly eclipsed by leaves, I wonder if I am going to wake up again. When I do wake up, I am grateful to be alive, grateful to the tree.
The brittleness and hardness of cottonwoods made them poor as lumber. Even tree–starved American pioneers on the Great Plains refused to use cottonwoods. When the builders of the transcontinental railroad were crossing the plains and ran out of other trees and tried using cottonwoods for railroad ties, they discovered that driving a spike into this wood would only crack it. Thus it is surprising that cottonwood roots are unusually soft and strong, good for carving katsina dolls. I have asked several botanists about this contradiction, and they speculated that the softness comes from the cottonwoods being very thirsty trees, sucking an unusual amount of water through their roots, which keeps the roots porous, the arteries unclogged. The porous quality of the roots is why they are very lightweight compared with other woods. For katsina doll carvers this porosity means the wood sponges up and blurs paint unless it is prepared with a clay–rich base.
You could say that I always camp beneath cottonwood trees. In my cabin I sleep beneath a little shelf of katsina dolls. Two of them are a carving style called sculptures, which follows the natural curve of the root, leaving much of the wood exposed, uncarved and unpainted, though the head is a richly detailed katsina head. The carvers of these two dolls, Wilmer Kaye and Ramson Lomatewama, both came from the village of Hotevela, the village most committed to preserving Hopi traditions, whether in language, religion, or art. The sculpture style, which bloomed in the 1980s, made a break from the trend of katsina doll art, which was drifting ever farther away from Hopi traditions. In response to the tastes of white collectors, katsina dolls were imitating the styles of Western art, becoming miniature Michelangelo statues full of anatomical realism yet with poses and colors and art styles that were unrealistic for katsinas. In the 1990s, some carvers, including Ramson Lomatewama, made a more thorough return to tradition by carving in the more basic style Hopis had used a century ago when katsina dolls were made strictly for Hopis and not for Santa Fe or Paris art galleries; this style is called simply “traditional.” Yet even in my sculpted doll, Ramson’s traditional impulses came through: he had left the wood not just unpainted but unvarnished, and he hadn’t signed his name on the base. Hopis never used to sign katsina dolls because dolls weren’t about the artist. (I knew it was Ramson’s work because I had commissioned him to carve it.)
Sometimes I would look at these katsina dolls more closely. Sometimes, I admit, this was only because I was dusting the spider webs off them and I needed to lift them up. Still, I don’t like it when things become so familiar that I never see them at all, so I would try to see their designs anew. Half of their designs had been designed by trees. I looked at the wood grain, the way it formed streaks and curves and peaks, or patches lighter or darker. I was seeing the fingerprint of a tree. I would never know the identities of these trees, whether they had lived at a quiet spring or along a roaring river, how old they were, or if they’d held an eagle’s nest. I saw the wood grain as the ripples of the water that had flowed through it; I saw wood canyons shaped by the same river that had carved stone canyons. I saw seasons of rain and seasons of dryness, years of flood and years of drought, decades of growth and decades of old age.
As I held a katsina doll to the window to see its fingerprint more clearly, I was also looking through the window at the mountains a few miles away. Hopis call them Neuvakwiotaka. Whites call them the San Francisco Peaks, after Saint Francis. They hold the highest peak in Arizona, snowcapped for about half the year. They are also the home of the katsinas for half the year. A few weeks after the winter solstice, the katsinas travel from the Peaks to the Hopi mesas to appear in ceremonies, preside over the growing of crops, and bring rain. A few weeks after the summer solstice, with the summer rainy season started and the crops thriving, the katsinas head home to the Peaks. Many summer mornings, for dozens of miles around, the first rain clouds form over the Peaks, then spread eastward toward the Hopi mesas.
I live closer to the Peaks than almost anyone, with nothing but forests, no other buildings, between me and the Peaks. One time when I attended the Niman ceremony,which sends the katsinas home to the Peaks, a Hopi joked to me that since the katsinas were heading to my neighborhood, maybe I should offer to give them a ride in the back of my truck.
Traditionally, the timing of Hopi ceremonies was determined by watching the seasonal cycles of the sun and moon.
One winter, a few days before the katsinas were supposed to head for the mesas, I looked out at the mountains and thought that maybe this would be a good time for me to visit the mesas. This was also right after the coldest spell in twenty–two years, with temperatures down to minus eighteen and ice everywhere, so perhaps I was eager to escape into the desert. If I saw a katsina doll I liked, I suspected it would be a Tawa katsina, the sun katsina, whose smile and colors and feathered headdress radiated warmth. But I wasn’t going to go shopping. I wasn’t a collector. I had only a few katsina dolls, and I hadn’t bought one for more than ten years.
My first stop was Orabi, a village founded about nine hundred years ago, making it the oldest continuously inhabited town in today’s United States. It offered a great view of the cloud–shrouded, snow–covered San Francisco Peaks about fifty miles away.
On the edge of the mesa was a Catholic church, in ruins. The Spanish conquistadors and missionaries had arrived here in the 1500s and demanded that the Hopis give up their religion. Hopis who refused were whipped or doused with hot turpentine. To build their church the Spanish forced the Hopis to drag giant timbers from dozens of miles away. After the katsinas had kept the Hopis alive for centuries, the Hopis saw no need to abandon them, especially for saints who were clueless about bringing rain or teaching respectful Hopi behaviors, and who inspired arrogance and cruelty. In 1680, the Hopis joined the other Pueblos in driving the Spanish out. The timbers in the Orabi church were removed and used to build better kivas.
I went into the shop of Sandra Hamana. She is famous for making large wall plaques, with a wooden center and woven yarn radiating outward. Most of her plaques hold the face of Tawa, the sun katsina, and the brightly colored yarn radiates solar warmth. I had two of Sandra’s plaques on my walls, and one of them was a Tawa. It was on my eastern sunrise wall and greeted me every morning.
My cabin deserved some Hopi decor, for it had been built by Hopi hands sixty years ago, and it had always been called &ldquoHopi House.” It sat on a hill that a thousand years ago was occupied by the homes of Hopi ancestors. The rocks that made up my foundation had very likely been used in those ancient Hopi houses. Nearby were ruins with rock walls that hadn’t been recycled. I lived right next to a midden, a hillside down which people had tossed trash such as broken pottery and food scraps. I walked down this hillside to where I parked, and when rain fell hard enough to carve a little gully in my pathway, it always revealed more potsherds. I was always delighted to see them. They were like a gift, a gift from the rain, a gift from the people who had once lived here. When I reached down and fingered a potsherd out of the ground, I was touching ancient fingers. Most of the potsherds were undecorated, from utilitarian pots, but some bore black–and–white designs. Sometimes I found chunks of obsidian, shiny black volcanic glass, which had been struck to make a projectile point. Sometimes I found bits of bone.
I carried the potsherds to my cabin and placed them into a bowl made by a descendant of the most famous Hopi potter, Nampeyo. The designs on the bowl were descended from the designs on the potsherds. The bowl sat on a shelf a few inches beneath my Tawa plaque. When I placed a new potsherd into the bowl, it felt like I was making some sort of offering to the sun. The ancient pot makers would have understood. The sun grew their crops and stirred the clouds to give them rain. They probably saw the sun not just as a sustaining force, but a creative force.
For the Hopis, Tawa is one of their primary deities, one of the creators of the world. (Tawa is often spelled “Dawa,” for in the Hopi language the pronunciation is somewhere between the English t and d.) Out of primordial chaos and his own being, Tawa created the First World, a cave within the earth, inhabited by insect–like creatures. Tawa wasn’t satisfied with this creation, for its creatures fought among themselves and didn’t appreciate being alive. Tawa sent Spider Grandmother to lead the insect creatures to the Second World, another underground world, where they became animals. But still they fought among themselves and didn’t appreciate being alive. So Tawa created the Third World, with better water and air, and here the animals became humans. At first this world was good, but then sorcerers unleashed chaos and conflict. Once again Spider Grandmother led Tawa’s creatures to a higher world, this time the surface of the earth, where the Hopis try to remember Tawa’s gifts.
In spite of Tawa’s importance in Hopi creation and his frequent appearance in Hopi art, including katsina dolls, I have never seen Tawa appear in a katsina ceremony. When I asked about this, the answers were a bit evasive. As far as I could tell, the Tawa katsina appeared rarely, inside kivas, at the beginning of the katsina ceremonial season, to give a blessing to the season ahead.
Sandra Hamana had a whole batch of miniature Tawa plaques, a few inches across, made with thread instead of yarn. They were ornaments hanging from a Christmas tree. Considering how the Spanish priests had tried to banish Tawa and the other katsinas, I found it ironic that Tawa was now decorating a symbol of Christmas. Then again, the Christmas tree had been around long before Christmas. It was an ancient pagan symbol of the endurance of life through winter, of the return of sunlight and growth. Christmas trees and cottonwood katsina dolls both spoke from the primordial need of life to continue.
In other villages I went into some other shops. I saw some nice Tawa katsina dolls, but all of them were Michelangelos or traditionals, with the wood completely painted over, which to me seemed to waste wood’s natural beauty.
I went into Tsakurshovi, a shop owned by Joseph and Janice Day, famous for their T–shirts that say, “Don’t Worry, Be Hopi.” Yet they were quite serious about promoting traditional–style katsina dolls. Their walls and shelves held maybe two hundred dolls, almost all traditional.
Among the small batch of nontraditional dolls was a sculpted Tawa doll, half of it pure wood. It was gorgeous. River gorge–ous. Its face was painted with softer colors than usual—green, red, and yellow. Its smile was a bit more human and friendly than the usual abstract triangle. Surrounding the face was a huge feathered headdress, also in softer colors than usual. The more natural colors fit the natural wood. Unlike the traditional dolls, it had not even a suggestion of arms or legs; it was a tree root that had sprouted a human face. I picked it up and admired it.
Joseph was watching me, no doubt disappointed that I had zeroed in on the one little section allotted to dumb tourists. He started educating me about the virtues of traditional katsina dolls. He talked about authenticity, what katsina dolls meant to Hopis, and how traditions had been corrupted by bahana (white) tastes and money. Joseph seemed a bit conflicted, for he didn’t really want to talk me out of buying something I liked. He took down a traditional doll and pointed out all its authentic features. Look, this carver wouldn’t even use glue on his dolls, only old–style wooden pegs, and he mixed his own paints from traditional pigments. I guessed that the sculpted Tawa doll had used glue, bahana–white Elmer’s glue, to affix the face. Joseph said that the carver of this traditional doll was well respected for his commitment to Hopi traditions; his name was Ramson Lomatewama. Hmmm, I said, Ramson’s doll was fine work, but I would guess that even Ramson appreciated the beauty of pure wood, like I did.
An hour later we were still talking. I didn’t want to corrupt the Hopis, but in the end I bought the Tawa doll.
I stayed on the mesa that night and watched the sun setting aglow the mesas and the San Francisco Peaks.
That evening I took a closer look at “my” Tawa doll. I looked at its almost whimsical smile. In the Renaissance, Italian painters had strongly preferred to paint not on canvas but on planks of poplar wood, the genus that includes cottonwoods. Leonardo painted Mona Lisa on poplar wood. It was wood that was smiling so enigmatically, hinting at the secret life of wood. The Latin word for poplar is populous, and from this root comes the word people. People are rooted in trees, so it was only correct that poplar trees had branched out into Mona Lisa and a Tawa katsina doll. Like Mona Lisa, this Tawa wasn’t telling me all the secrets he knew.
I looked at the wood grain and how it showed through the painted designs of clouds and rain on the doll’s base. In the face I saw the sun, of course, but I also saw the sun in its body, its wood. The sun had flowed into the tree and materialized itself into wood. Sunlight had energized the drawing of water and soil into the roots and up the tree. Sunlight had energized the absorption of the sky. Sunlight had twirled molecules into DNA and leaves. Sunlight had pushed the tree higher and wider. Sunlight had become golden leaves aglow with sunlight. Sunlight had become cotton puffs floating through the air, like stars floating through the galaxy. In the shapes in the wood grain, I saw solar prominences, convection cells, and sunspots. In the solidity of the wood, I felt sunlight itself, sunlight that had arrived on Earth a hundred years ago. I was touching the sun’s earthen fingerprint.
That night I placed Tawa in a window that faced east, so he could greet the rising sun.
In the eastern window of Joseph and Janice’s shop, there were several glass figures, about six inches tall. Each had a head, a sinuous body, various colors, and swirling shapes and colors within the glass. They lived in the window so they could glow with the rising and morning sun.
I had one of these glass figures at home. It was full of orange energy. From its base arose orange swirls that tapered into a thick, curling spine, leaving much of the torso and shoulders as clear glass. When the orange spine reached the head, it roiled outward, filling most of the head. The orange swirls were like a flame. They were like the towering nebula, “the Pillars of Creation,” made famous by the Hubble Space Telescope.
The glass figures were meant to invoke katsina dolls. Their colors were meant to invoke the elements. Brown was the earth; blue was water or rain; green was plants and life in general; red and orange were fire and sunlight.
I had selected an orange figure after staring into the red–hot glass furnace of the glassblower. I had watched the molten glass glowing like fire, changing shape like fire. Clearly, the glass figures were creatures of fire before they calmed down into creatures of earth, water, or life.
The glassblower was Ramson Lomatewama. Ramson might be traditional at carving katsina dolls, but he had become quite an innovator at working with glass, an art form never tried by Hopis. Ramson started out making stained–glass windows with Hopi motifs, and then he was fired up by the idea of making glass figures. He was careful not to call them katsinas, for they didn’t qualify by any traditional definition. He called them “spirit beings” or “spirit figures.” He built a glass furnace at his home at Hotevela and began mentoring younger Hopi artists, several of whom began working with glass in various forms. Ramson’s glass figures combined cutting–edge artistic styles and Hopi traditions in a way that wasn’t new for him. He had also published several books of poetry about Hopi life. He was often invited to colleges to give talks, for he was one of relatively few Native Americans who could talk about Native traditions in the conceptual frameworks of educated whites, in the language of Joseph Campbell or Carl Jung. Ramson also enjoyed poking holes in white stereotypes about Native Americans, including the positive, romanticized stereotypes widespread on college campuses.
Sometimes I picked up my orange spirit being and held it up to the sunlight. It glowed with flame. It became a prism that brought out the colors hidden within the sunlight. It was quartz that had lain dark inside mountains for millions of years and lay sparkling as sandy seashores, so it contained eons and the pillars of Earth’s creation, and now those eons and forces were wearing a human shape and glowing.
Two weeks after buying my spirit being, I went to Hotevela for the Niman ceremony, and it was through a fiery orange lens that I saw the katsinas dancing.
The Niman ceremony not only sends the katsinas home to the mountains, it brings Hopis home from all the places they live, sometimes far from the mesas. For several nights before the Niman ceremony, I was hearing construction sounds near my cabin. Two neighboring cabins had Hopi residents, and one, Vernon, was from Hotevela, so he was making gifts for the katsinas to give to children, katsina dolls for the girls, bows and arrows for the boys. Vernon invited me into his family home at Hotevela, and I took bread and pies as gifts for his parents, though my Safeway deli bread tended to get ignored in favor of the fresh, outdoor–baked Hopi bread.
Vernon’s carving of katsina dolls was amazing, for Vernon had only one arm. As a youth he had gone to work at the local, bahana–owned trading post, which had a butcher shop. The meat–cutting machine was old, and Vernon was given little training for it. One of the first times he used it, it caught his arm and cut it deeply, too deeply. Most people would be left permanently embittered by such a loss, but Vernon had remained a basically joyful person. The accident wouldn’t stop him from carving katsina dolls.
Even with two arms, carving katsina dolls with a sharp knife could extract a bit of blood. It could leave hands callused. But the carving went on. The portrayal styles might change, but the katsinas went on. The ceremonies went on because the seasons went on, the cycles of the earth and sun and moon went on, the cycles of plants and animals went on, and human life had to go on. Hopi ceremonies were rooted in the deepest Mona Lisa secrets of the solar system and cells. Carving katsina dolls was rooted in a creativity that went deeper than just human creativity. Making a shape emerge from wood brought some of the same satisfaction as helping corn grow from a seed, but it also contained the creativity of the corn itself, the creativity of cottonwood trees launching their blizzard of seeds, the creativity of stars creating carbon atoms, the creativity of the Big Bang launching the universe of puffy white galaxies.
At Hotevela I climbed a wooden ladder onto a house rooftop—the proper place for bahanas—overlooking the plaza.
The katsinas filed into the plaza. Drums began beating. Rattles began shaking. The katsinas began singing. It was all a prayer, an elaborate, performed prayer.
At first I was distracted by the spectacle of it, the colors and motions and sounds, but soon I saw the spectrum of it. I saw it through the prism of my orange spirit being. The spirit beings before me were also filled with fire, with luminous, swirling, pillar–of–creation flames. They were filled with sunlight. Through golden corn the golden sun had flowed into these forms. I saw prominences, convection cells, and sunspots. I saw solar energy flowing in strange new ways. The sunlight upheld their forms, energized their motions, and articulated their songs. Sunlight glowed from their eyes. Sunlight glowed as consciousness. The light of the sun had become the light of the sacred.
I might have been prompted to see the katsinas glowing with sunlight because one of the priests presiding over the ceremony was Ramson Lomatewama.
The katsina dance was one prominence of a much larger dance. The sun too was a dance, a dance far more crowded and intense. The particles of the sun were swarming with fierce speed, spinning and swerving and spiraling, colliding intensely enough to fuse—with a burst of light—into heavier particles. Gravity pulled the particles inward; the outward flow of light pushed the particles outward; electromagnetic fields steered the particles this way and that, and the meshing of these forces carved larger currents and shapes from the chaos of particles, in total the shape of a sphere. The trillions of tiny bursts of light every second combined into a flood of light and heat pouring into space.
Long ago, in other suns, suns long vanished from the sky, the katsina dancers had danced in stars. They had spun and swerved and spiraled at intense speeds. They had ridden currents into the heart of a star and back out to the surface. They had contributed to the gravity that pulled inward, to the energy that pushed outward, and to the electromagnetic fields twisting this way and that. They had helped energize the fusing of atoms, and they themselves had smashed together and by the magic of physics become heavier atoms. They had danced hydrogen into carbon and oxygen and dozens of elements. They had also generated bursts of light, some of which were still out there, still moving through space, billions of light–years away.
The katsina dancers had helped dance into being the atoms that became Earth. They had helped create the rock of continents and the falling rain and the rivers that carved canyons. They had helped create the carbon of life, of cottonwood trees and corn stalks. They had helped create reptiles sponging up the sun, rivers of birds flowing over the continents, insects turning the green wings of plants into their own, and mammals harvesting it all for both stomach and brain. From the solar fire that put atoms together, they had helped light the biological fire that put cells together and the consciousness fire that put meanings together.
The katsina dance was the culmination of a dance that had been seeking order and solidity and life and fertility for 13.7 billion years. This dance had exploded into action with the swarming light and particles of the Big Bang, and it had steadily flowed into new movements, small and large, fast and slow, graceful and savage, instant and evolving. Choreographed by the secret yet unfolding laws of matter, the cosmic dance was performed by eternally pirouetting atoms, by spinning galaxies, by nebulae contracting or dispersing, by stars circling the galaxy and planets circling the stars and moons and comets circling the planets, by tectonic plates creeping along, by mountains and lava rising, by water flowing in a thousand forms, by the dance of the snowflakes writing Tchaikovsky, by pebbles rolling mountains into the ocean surf, by lightning and rainbows and sunsets, by the sounds of thunder and wind and rivers chanting the planet into life. Earth’s circling of the sun was a ceremony that needed to be repeated four and a half billions times, and the sunrise was a ceremony necessary one and a half trillion times, to create beings who could turn that oblivious ceremony into a celebration.
And here it had arrived, in the plaza canyon of ancient stones. The cosmic dance had become beings who recognized that the cycles of their lives were but epicycles of the rolling sky, that a beating human heart was a gear turned by the ancient intermeshing gears of the universe. Through human eyes the cosmic dance saw the cottonwood roots and the suns it had swirled into. Through human feet the cosmic dance now flowed into the new patterns of a katsina ceremony. Through the human mouth spoke the voice the thunder had been seeking to become. The long journey into life had arrived and proclaimed itself to have been worthwhile. The universe had become a celebrant of itself.
The drums began beating, beating, beating like human hearts. They echoed off the plaza walls. I felt their sonic hypnotism and summons.
The drumheads were made of deerskins, pulled taut, as taut as the senses and attention of a deer at their highest intensity.
A deer was grazing in the woods, enjoying the sunlight and the taste of leaves and the cool energy of a stream, when she became aware that something was wrong. She raised her head and looked around. She searched with eyes and ears and nose and mind, all at full intensity. She looked from the boundary between life and death. She threw her embrace to life. Her heart raced. Her muscles tensed to race. In her alertness, she saw the trees as vividly as she had ever seen them.
And with a whoosh an arrow struck her, or perhaps a bullet, and her heart burst. She grasped at one final vision of life.
And now her skin was here, the boundary between life and death. Her hooves were here, rattling inside turtle–shell rattles, summoning humans into motion. Her final heartbeats were here, beating, beating, beating, summoning humans to pay attention, to see with full intensity the universe and their presence in it.
The drums were made of hollowed–out cottonwood logs. The wood vibrated with energy, as it had once vibrated with the energy of the wind. The river within the wood pulsed as it had once pulsed with waves. The earth within the wood pulsed as it had once pulsed to raise mountains. The sunlight within the drums was reminded of its ancient solar heartbeat and echoed with it again, summoning humans to recognize and celebrate their own luminous heartbeats.
Don Lago has recently produced two books on Grand Canyon history. Canyon of Dreams (University of Utah Press, 2014) features in-depth research into previously unknown stories, including five chapters of literary history--how famous poets and writers have reacted to the canyon. Grand Canyon National Park: A Short History (University of Nevada Press, 2015) is a general history and includes a chapter on Pennsylvania-born architect Mary Colter, who designed eight buildings at the canyon.
Rooted in the Sun appears in our Spring 2015 issue.