Newer glimpses of permacircular America (Part 4 of 4)

This fourth and last installment continues, yet again, where the previous post left off. We’re finishing the stay in New Mexico and heading back towards southern California via central and southern Arizona.

10. Permacircularity lesson from the past: Chaco Canyon and the Anasazi collapse

The archaeological wealth of the Southwest is immense. Sites such as Chaco Canyon are also one of the region’s most consistently successful tourist attractions. In and of themselves, these vestiges of a past civilization – commonly called “Anasazi” or “Ancestral Puebloan” – and of places and cultures such as Chaco, Mogollon, Hohokam and Mimbres attest to the complete absurdity of the frontier thesis of an empty land waiting to be “settled” by 19th-century white colonists. A mixture of settlement and movement prevailed in this vast region for millennia – with a complexity that is still baffling historians today, and with a number of enigmas still unsolved.

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Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon

One very unfortunate fact is that the discovery of the ancient ruins of the so-called Anasazi “great houses” seems to have solidified the Anglo-American invaders’ conviction that the contemporary Indians they were encountering – who were of course in large part the descendants of the Ancient Ones who, starting in the 1300s, had re-adapted brilliantly to a new environment after the civilization of their ancestors collapsed many centuries ago after a relatively brief bout of “success” and “growth” between 450 and 1250 AD – were somehow backward and unevolved tribes without culture or history. This, in turn, seemed to justify the treatment of these contemporary Natives as essentially non-entities at the hand of the colonial “settlers.” So, sadly, the past and fleeting grandeur of the Anasazi as evidenced in enduring built structures served as the context for the ruthless oppression of these Anasazi’s descendants – based on the racist mechanism by which white Anglos inevitably projected past grandeur as a sign that the earlier occupants of the land must have been much more like Europeans than the later, current ones ever could be. Here is how David E. Stuart, one of the foremost authorities on the Ancient Southwest, explains it:

[In 1849], an American military expedition accompanied by Lieutenant J.H. Simpson filed into the broad, jagged canyon of the dried-out Chaco River and, under a blazing August sun, beheld a number of magnificent, abandoned sandstone citadels in partial ruin. Though these empty villages had long been known to the New Mexican and Indian guides accompanying the expedition, they were new to Simpson and fascinated him. He began to romanticize them immediately … Simpson speculated that these large ruins evidenced an earlier and higher civilization than that which existed among Indian nations in his own day. … [This] downgraded the status of then-contemporary Southwest Indian societies, denying them equal cultural footing with white Americans while romanticizing these impressive ruins whose vanished inhabitants seemed to Simpson more like members of his own “civilized” society. [Furthermore,] this line of reasoning may have unconsciously assuaged some guilt and ambivalence over the potential fate of contemporary Indians as America expanded westward. Simpson was, after all, part of a military reconnaissance sent to contain Navajo raiding on Hispanic and Indian settlements along the Rio Grande. (David E. Stuart, Anasazi America: Seventeen Centuries on the Road from Center Place, p. 3)

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Pueblo Pintado at Chaco Canyon

So in a very strange twist that can only be explained by deep denial, the ruins that attested to the failure of a past, metropolis-style, unbalanced and overextended civilization that collapsed, served in the 1850s to rationalize the denigration of a contemporary civilization ­– that of the Pueblo and other tribes that had successfully adapted away from this failed model – at the hand of the contemporary Anglo culture that was, itself, on its way to becoming today’s metropolis-style, unbalanced and overextended civilization. A contemporary culture that is, slowly but surely, destroying the Southwest where post-Chacoan Native tribes and nations managed to live in balance for centuries. This self-delusion and this deep denial of historical truth are basically the mechanisms  at the root of what Herman Melville called “Indian hating.” It is a nefarious, sickening ideology of a priori Anglo-European superiority that rationalizes away Indigenous genius (or what Daniel Wildcat calls “indigenuity”) and twists everything to fit its own delusional self-image. As historian Richard Drinnon puts it,

Societies are known by their victims. On the more inclusive level of wholesale killings and hurtings, “the metaphysics of Indian-hating,” as Herman Melville called that national animosity, provided … a liturgy of inflicting death and … resources for studying the European-derived subliminal mind. A critical constant of that subliminal mind manifested itself as the will to power over “fallen” nature. Long before their first landfall, European immigrants were alienated from the “howling Wilderness” that had to be mastered in themselves and in their new surroundings. Yet Native Americans were bodies in that wilderness, indwellers of the very animal world the newcomers so arrogantly sought to rise above. … Place has always mattered to plants and animals. Mainstream historians pay it their due when they stress the importance of both place and time, yet how often the sensual surfaces of organisms in particular settings fail to grace their pages. … Trying to leave the growth-and-decay cycle of their own bodies behind … these Eurocentric historians are the guardians of a linear, continuous, irreversible Time of perpetual progress, in which place is largely irrelevant. They are the secular heirs of Judeo-Christian teleology with its reified Time, which had and has little or nothing to do with the cycles of organisms. (Richard Drinnon, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building, pp. xxii-xxiii)

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Hohokam ruins, New Mexico

In the light of what Drinnon writes here, there is something truly striking about Lieutenant Simpson’s ex post rationalization of Chacoan – and, by extension, all Anasazi as well as Hohokam and other – cultures as superior due to their seeming resemblance to Anglo-European, progress-oriented cultures. In his obsession to vindicate the alleged necessity for elimination or subjugation of contemporary Indian tribes and nations, he was prepared to make a complete travesty of his own ingrained notion of progress, suddenly seeing as more evolved a culture from the past – one that had obviously crumbled to desert dust – while using this to categorize as unevolved a more recent culture that had evolved out of the older one. This is utter nonsense, as the meticulous work of Stuart and others has shown: 16th- to 19th-century Pueblo settlements were very much more sustainable and balanced than were the great houses of the “Center Place” of Anasazi grandeur. The Pueblo nations, in particular in eastern New Mexico along the Rio Grande and more to the west along the Colorado, created landscapes and architectural as well as urbanistic patterns that have survived up to today and would have thrived if not for the repeated, brutal bouts of submission driven by Spanish and Anglo colonial invaders. The descendants of the Chacoans had actually improved upon their ancestors’ ill-fated attempt at putting large cities in desert landscapes where, it seems, no cities should have been (to reach back to Edward Abbey’s great insight). They had engineered and let emerged a network of bioregionally rooted, perma-circular settlements that communicated and cultivated similarities but were fundamentally multi-centered and, therefore, decentralized:

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "david stuart anasazi america"By 1500, large, peaceful communities along the rivers nurtured their populations as successfully as Chaco’s elites had. They had no separate, permanent elite class, however, and were largely self-contained. Few were formally fortified, even though nomads, especially Navajos and Apaches, raided in bad years. Each thing done, each crop grown, each pot or bow made was made best at one’s own pueblo. Language, religion, and social rules were similar at a number of pueblos, but each town was the durable center of its own universe. Unlike Chacoan times, when Center Place was somewhere else for all but the Canyon’s great house elites, there were now as many center places as there were pueblos. One could walk daily to the central plaza and enjoy the surrounding cocoon of security and permanence at the best center place on the whole earth. … When a village did move to follow the rains, all things of importance, including the ancient kiva [= Pueblo place of worship] regalia, moved with it, and a new place became centered again. … villages often moved a few miles up to the mesa or to another bend in the river. But the old village often remained intact while vacant, just as old Àcoma does today, and folks returned, re-centered, and carried on again. The community, its values, and its organizational structure were permanent – and portable when necessary. (David E. Stuart, Anasazi America, p. 213)

Progress, if this word still needs to be used – but we should rather speak of “adaptation,” “evolutionary fitness” and “permacircular sufficiency” – was clearly on the side of the post-Chacoan descendants of the Anasazi – the very descendants, that is, whom the likes of Lieutenant Simpson and his colonialist ilk devalued because they no longer lived in the imagined grandeur of the Great Houses. In fact, they were more evolved because they no longer lived in the unsustainable grandeur of the Great Houses. This is what the Anglo invaders were incapable of understanding. And this is – as Stuart has so wonderfully demonstrated in his work – the main lesson today’s unsustainable America can learn from the distant Anasazi past. It’s ultimately a lesson in perma-circularity. As Agnieszka and I were, along with so many other tourists, climbing across the ruins at Chaco Canyon, we were in fact witnessing a fast-forward into what the desert Southwest might look like again in a century or two.

Unexpected wood source for Chaco Canyon great houses

Chetro Ketl at Chaco Canyon

What happened to Chaco and to the whole Anasazi and Hohokam civilization? Although there is a whole lot left to be learned about the ancient Southwest, the most widespread explanation is that, analogously to the Maya in the 8th and 9th centuries AD, this agrarian, urbanized and therefore heavily water-dependent cultural montage collapsed because it overreached itself, becoming too large and complex to sustain itself given the local climate and the available resources within the local ecosystem. In a significant sense, the Anasazi (roughly west of today’s Albuquerque and Taos, NM) and the Hohokam (around and south of today’s Phoenix, AZ) succumbed to a kind of hubris not unlike that of the 19th-century planners of Phoenix, Los Angeles or Albuquerque: Although with much smaller technical means at their disposal, their tried to create desert oases through massive irrigation and densified urban settlement, accompanied by the almost inevitable administrative centralization and logistical complexity.

Chaco's desert setting

Chaco desert mesa — “where no city should be”?

There are some additional assumptions floating around in the milieu of Southwestern archaeological and historical research – among which (based on the facts that (i) Chaco Canyon is not ideally located for year-round living and was perhaps rather an intermittent center for administration or religious governance, and (ii) a number of sites such as Palatki near Sedona, AZ seem to have been left hastily and provisionally but were then never returned to, suggesting spiritual or other non-materialist reasons for moving away) the hypothesis that none of the Anasazi or Hohokam settlements were, in fact, viewed as permanent but were either provisional or intermittent from the outset. Still, the assumption of the collapse of complex civilizations – following the now classic model offered by Joseph Tainter – remains central in order to account for the rather sudden demise of the great houses and the whole quasi-imperial network of cities, roads and canals they built and administered. I will let David Stuart explain this in more detail:

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "david stuart ancient southwest"The ancient Greek states had a strong 1,500-to-2,000-year run. Rome had its thousand years. Byzantium had its five hundred, and the successors their lesser epochs. And before these, Egypt had three thousand years – including the predictable ups and downs. We are all creatures of time and its rhythms. That is why social life-spans are limited to a degree by “life-style choices,” structural costs, and, yes, both luck and self-honesty. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the Southwest’s fabulous regional Chacoan, Mimbres, and Hohokam societies each grew from modest roots in the Desert Archaic periods before the birth of Christ; slowly increased in numbers of farms and households based on impressive applications of hard work and substantial genius for incremental efficiencies in agriculture, architecture, and technology; and then later gathered enough steam to grow explosively as a prelude to their inevitable shifts toward complexity, including road systems, irrigation networks, complex pottery, and huge building projects, which required ever more lavish infusions of resources and energy just to march in place on a daily basis. But some among every region’s population during the Southwest’s peak of growth in the AD 800-1100s became exhausted by the daily disconnect between their immediate needs and the resources available to them. (David E. Stuart, The Ancient Southwest: Chaco Canyon, Bandelier, and Mesa Verde, p. 130)

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A Western European Earthship

“The daily disconnect between their immediate needs and the resources available to them,” as Stuart so cogently puts it, is what made the Ancient Puebloan cultures unsustainable – essentially because it led them to relinquish the practically built-in perma-circularity that characterized older thoughtways and lifeways; and it’s also what later Pueblo cultures succeeded in avoiding for a long time, despite the colonizers’ pressure for them to “modernize” or disappear. This is why, almost intuitively, in my previous post I linked inspirations from Pueblo life to the cutting-edge ideas being promoted by Earthship Biotecture, fantasizing that today’s subsisting ancient Pueblo settlements might offer paradigms for the Earthship settlements of the future. In a very real sense, the history and archaeology of Ancient Puebloan demise and re-composition – the passage from “Pueblo III” to “Pueblo IV” in archaeological jargon – offers a prelude to what might occur fairly soon in the Southwest if the “great aridness” described by William deBuys persists and stiffens. As John Day and Charles Hall have recently written as a coda to their detailed study of America’s most (un)sustainable places,

In a number of ways, the predicament of the modern Southwest and California is history writ large in the story of the Ancestral Pueblo. … Some recent research predicts that droughts in this century will be more severe than those experienced by the Ancestral Pueblo People. … The current human population of the Southwest is probably just too large. California and the Southwest are projected to grow in population even as the climate, energy, and natural resources that support the state shrink. Something has to give, and systemic failure in the region seems likely. (John W. Day and Charles Hall, America’s Most Sustainable Cities and Regions: Surviving the 21st Century Megatrends, pp. 301-302)

Fallen Roof Ruin - Cedar Mesa - Utah

Cedar Mesa in Utah

It’s truly remarkable that some Southwestern archaeologists such as Stuart have mustered the courage to tread outside of their academic comfort zone and offer concrete, contemporary lessons to be learned from ancient societies and applied to today’s chaotic “growth-oriented” mess. I salute this deeply because it corresponds completely to why I myself have done, and continue to do, academic work. Here is what Stuart, after decades of meticulous experience on-site and of communicating detailed quantitative results to fellow academics at conferences and in journals, has to say about the stark truth of today’s – still largely anti-perma-circular – world, with particular focus on the chronically unsustainable state of the USA:

Are we becoming a postmeritocracy society? One in which connections count more than hard work, increased worker productivity, and innovation? If so, the American business and political communities will need to quickly change gears and learn how to manage a flatline economy, or a gradually declining one, in which the words “we are going to grow this economy” are meaningless. We can waste less. We can recreate safe and satisfying communities that Puebloan society would understand. We can treat equal effort more equally. They would be communities in which all who worked hard and believed in the community were guaranteed a place – a place to live, a place to marry, a place to raise children, and a place to die, secure in the knowledge that their children’s children would enjoy the same. But to have such a community requires us to work at it, to invest in it, and to think strategically rather than just about the near term. We must now build our own version of a sustainable national community and invest far more heavily in survival and efficiency than we have so far been willing to do. That means we must support a robust middle class and again build, and repair, infrastructure designed to last a century rather than a decade. It will not be easy. But it must be done. We can start by accepting the lesson left to all of us by the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon and their adaptable descendants – that survival means establishing a durable community. A durable community is one that balances growth with efficiency, invests in sustainability, and refuses to be seduced by greed and power. … As the Chacoans, too, discovered nearly a millennium ago, greed is not a badge of honor. It is the signature of a dying society. Let us not further tempt fate; rather let us get right to the simple, straightforward work of incremental efficiency and rebuild our national community. (David E. Stuart, Anasazi America, pp. 254-255)

I would suggest to Stuart that after reading as many entries of this blog as possible, he might agree to rephrase his last sentence as, “Let us not further tempt fate; rather let us get right to the simple, straightforward work of perma-circularity, let us combine efficiency with sufficiency so as to no longer be trapped by system-induced rebound effects, and let us rebuild our national community on this renewed basis.” As I’ve discovered on my travels through the Southwest, thinking about how this beautiful, fragile and imperiled region could become a place of perma-circular thoughtways and lifeways is a worthy and timely task. I hope to contribute to it – and, in the process, to glean lessons for other parts of the world, too.

11. Perma-circularity lesson from the present: Second Mesa, Old Oraibi and Hopi endurance

I am now venturing into very delicate terrain. Just like what was the case for Pueblo Àcoma and Taos Pueblo in my previous post, I am reluctant to say too much about our visit to Hopi country. It was a short visit, which in itself makes it unamenable to accurate detail or insightful analysis. We saw and witnessed some surprising things – both in the positive and the negative sense – things that gave us pause. But first and foremost, visiting Second Mesa (the seat of the Hopi administration and cultural center) and then doing a short tour of the village of Old Oraibi on Third Mesa made us feel the heavy weight of being white heirs to an imperialist culture that had, for all practical purposes, fenced in and choked the culture we saw trying to survive here, on a small patch of land no larger than the Canton of Bern (more or less 6,000 km2) and housing some 7,000 people, completely surrounded by the much larger Navajo reservation that spans a territory straddling mainly a portion of Arizona, a bit of New Mexico as small parts of Colorado and Utah.

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Second Mesa village

Visiting Second Mesa – where we had some trouble in actually obtaining clear indications on where to visit – and driving by contemporary pueblos on Second and Third Mesas but not daring to park our car and stroll around, we felt the brunt of being in a strange land where we weren’t really supposed to linger. This wasn’t at all a question of feeling insecure or threatened – there was absolutely none of this, the people we saw and spoke to were gentle and engaging; it was, rather, a numinous and almost religious feeling of treading on sacred ground where (even abstracting from the visible poverty that afflicts much of the population) inexcusable transgressions happened at the hand of our forebears. It was the first time I really felt this in my flesh and bones. It was eerie, somewhat unholy and unnerving – like peeking in to a ceremony one isn’t supposed to be witnessing. It’s true I had read a couple of novels by Tony Hillerman just before our trip, and his richly plotted crime narratives shroud the whole of Hopi, Navajo and Zuñi country in an atmosphere of slightly unsettling mystery; but this was of a whole different order. The crime was both impalpable and thickly present, it was transversal and omnivorous – a crime of marginalization and confinement so unfathomable that kept the psyche from being able to grasp at even the slightest straw of legitimacy or normality. The feeling of betrayal hung over the land, for all its beauty and peacefulness – betrayal of the Natives by their brutal colonizers, betrayal of the Natives amongst each other: we learned there is a “friendly” camp among the Hopi (those in the majority who chose or thought it best to acquiesce to Anglo-European occupation and make the best of it) and also a “hostile” camp (those who refuse assimilation but also, as a result, appear to live at the margin of mainstream Hopi politics, subsidy financing and economic life).

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Old Oraibi

At the cultural center on Second Mesa we hadn’t been told much about the village of Old Oraibi, located on Third Mesa – only that it was “pretty much in that direction (add a cross on a map).” One friendly and talkative gentleman in a gift shop (where he carved artful katchina dolls from small pieces of wood) told us we could go there and get a tour. We were in for both a shock and a revelation. From a distance it looked a lot like the other villages we had already skirted and not felt comfortable entering and strolling around in. Traditional Hopi settlements are basically contemporary Pueblos, as the Hopi can be viewed as one branch descending from the ancient Pueblo Indians. “Hopi” means “the Peaceful Ones” and is related to the old term Hisat’sinom which can be translated as “Those Who Lived Long Ago.” Like all older Pueblo settlements in the region, contemporary Hopi pueblos have box-shaped lodgings sometimes piled up on one another, a central plaza for ceremonial events and a number of kivas loosely connected to neighborhoods. So does Old Oraibi, where upon arrival we were asked to refrain from any photography as we started strolling around among the houses with a local lady serving as our guide. One of the striking things she told us was, “We have little water here. We are dry-farmers. It’s a hard life.”

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Oraibi around 1900

The broad area within which Hopi country is located has been called the “Sierra Sin Agua.” Contrary to other areas of the Southwest, it receives relatively little aqueduct-channeled water from the Colorado River or other watercourses. People make do with the “great aridness,” with all its implications on urban growth and demographic expansion. As such, it is a paradigmatic place in which to muse about perma-circularity, its demands and the spirituality that might go along with it. Here is how archaeologist Christian E. Downum describes the region and its inhabitants:

The landscape surrounding modern Flagstaff, Arizona, is a stunningly beautiful place of extremes, rising from hot desert lowlands to snowcapped mountain peaks. … Everywhere, water is scarce. High elevations often receive abundant winter snows and summer rains, but porous volcanic cinders and fractured sedimentary rocks absorb much of the moisture and keep it from concentrating into bodies of surface water such as rivers and lakes. This circumstance led early Spanish explorers to dub the region “Sierra Sin Agua” – mountains without water. Despite the aridity, abundant archaeological remains testify to a thriving ancient population. … The prehistoric peoples of the Sierra Sin Agua interacted with each other in complex ways at different times, at varying geographical scales – sometimes locally, sometimes across far-reaching distances – and through different forms of social relations. … [These ancient peoples are referred to] as Hisat’sinom, a Hopi term that translates as “those who lived long ago.” … The Flagstaff area holds particular significance for the Hopi people, who maintain religious shrines at local landmarks and continue to make prayers and leave offerings to the Hisat’sinom. … Hopi people know the area just east of the San Francisco Peaks as Pasiwvi, the legendary “place of deliberations.” This was where the indigenous Hisat’sinom – descended from the very ancient ones, the Motisinom – and more recent arrivals gathered into pueblo communities and conceived of a new way of living. They rejected the complexity and corruption of older ways in favor of a simpler, humbler, and more difficult life. These principles lie at the core of Hopi cultural values … (Christian E. Downum, ed., Hisat’sinom: Ancient Peoples in a Land Without Water, pp. 1-2)

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Hopi blue flour corn

Although in order to understand “the core of Hopi cultural values,” it would take a much longer stay and much more prolonged, respectful interactions than what we were able to muster, we did get glimpses of that “simpler, humbler, and more difficult life.” From the mesa on which Old Oraibi sits, we observed small corn fields far away down on the flatland – fields that require very specific techniques of dry-farming. They seem located haphazardly in the middle of the desert, while actually their placement is a matter of understanding very finely where the few natural drips and trickles of water that can help grow corn in the desert can come from. The crops that are grown have been selected specifically over centuries so as to withstand the particular ecosystemic and climatic conditions. So, for example, the distinctive blue flour corn used by Hopis as well as Pueblo Indians to make characteristic pancake-like, flat bread loaves; here is what Gary Paul Nabhan, perhaps the Southwest’s foremost scholar of indigenous plants and agriculture, has to say about its clearly superior adaptability to the local desert landscape:

Locally adapted cultivated plants are variously referred to as folk varieties, land races, heirloom vegetables, crop ecotypes, or razas criollas. They represent distinctive plant populations, adapted over centuries to specific microclimates and soils. They have been selected also to fit certain ethnic agricultural conditions; the field designs, densities, and crop mixes in which they have been consistently grown. Aesthetic selection has also taken place, as the taste, color, and culinary preferences of a particular culture have favored the forms and chemical characters of some plants over others. … one can hardly create a dune-adapted Hopi crop in a lab overnight. A biotechnologist can’t simply transfer one or two genes from variety A to variety B to get the same adaptive qualities. … Early this century, USDA botanist G.N. Collins discovered that Hopi corn had morphological adaptations to deep-seeded, clumped plantings in sand dune environments. Among these adaptations was the robust seedling’s rapid elongation between the root and the first foliage leaf of the developing plant, allowing it to emerge from beneath twelve inches or more of sand! Hopi farmers did in fact plant their corn seed eight to twelve inches deep, for the sand stays moist at this depth. The seedlings that emerged in May could endure on the residual moisture from winter and spring storms, until the summer rains began. Collins suggested that Hopi and Navajo corns from sandy fields were unique in their ability to tolerate deep plantings, but he did not formally compare their responses with those of a range of other corns. … [In my own experiments with four different varieties,] I discovered that the Hopi blue corn from Third Mesa [indeed, as Collins had suggested,] had both root and shoot elongation rates faster than any of the other corns. (Gary Paul Nabhan, Enduring Seeds: Native American Agriculture and Wild Plant Conservation, pp. 171-173)

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Old Oraibi today

So the fine-tuned adaptation of growing techniques to the actual conditions of deep-soil moisture in the arid desert – capitalizing on those occasional rains that do occur but whose surface waters evaporate almost immediately – is one of the many ways in which the Hopi practice and conserve hydrosophic wisdom, or “water wisdom” tightly tethered to the unflinching truth put forward by Edward Abbey, and which is gradually becoming one of my mantras for reading and understanding the Southwest: “There is no shortage of water in the desert unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.” As unsophisticated and even impoverished the Hopi villages on and around Second and Third Mesas may look from a purely superficial vantage point, they nevertheless convey an uncompromising message to us growth-obsessed Anglo-Europeans: Please reflect carefully, and study in detail, what might be required in this, the “Fourth World” in the succession of mythical worlds, the “World Complete” where abundance reigns but where human greed transforms it into poverty – please reflect and study in detail what might be required of us humans so as to remain durably within the boundaries of this one planet. Are you so certain that your arrogant pursuit of more, your “spaced-out” faith in the opportunities of space-faring, terraforming Mars and harvesting on asteroids (to which you are devoting millions of dollars at universities just a few hundred miles from here) are going to allow us survive into the next century?

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Another view of contemporary Old Oraibi

Today’s Hopi villages are truly impoverished – not because of any cultural determinism but because needing to live modern lives within modern infrastructures carries its lot of obligations, among which the necessity of garnering currency in order to pay for all that is no longer autonomously produced and, even more so, all that is no longer being dispensed with. Leading a “simpler, humbler” life is difficult in America, not just for the Hopi but for all the “unsettlers” and the “downshifters.” Denunciations and scorn abound, as do systemic sanctions in the form of bills and mortgages and tolls and credit card debts. Yet, as heirs and relatives of the Pueblo, the Hopi carry the values of another kind of ­– certainly more materially detached, but also more spiritually “inhabited” – thoughtways and lifeways. We need to learn from them, urgently. For instance, the fetishization of buildings as “works of architecture” (which is very present even among many archaeologists) seems far removed from the nature-centered, cosmocentric view of life of the Pueblo. A Pueblo woman wrote recently about the notion of architecture that

Puebloans do not view their own architecture in the way it is viewed by Western peoples. In the Western world, architecture is altogether contained within the human landscape: it considers only the human context. In fact, Western architecture is about human genius and ego. It does not often consider any larger contexts – particularly the natural context. Architecture in the Western world is really about human constructions, with great attention paid to the types of construction materials used and the manipulation of those materials. It focuses on the walls or that which defines space rather than on the contained space. It is very material-oriented. “Architecture” is a misnomer where applied to the constructions of the Pueblo people over the past fifteen hundred years because the word does not capture the full scope of space definitions or the symbolic nature of the building. Here, the human landscape is meaningless outside the natural context – human constructions are not considered out of their relationship to the hills, valleys, and mountains. Buildings and structures, and their walls, are not the primary focus. They are extensions of the natural world and therefore do not call attention to themselves or their makers. They are meaningful only as containers – for the function served by the described spaces and for the cosmic relationships that they reiterate. … Human existence is not contained within the material form of the human village; the human village is but one of the places where people make contact with movement in the sky and the underworld existences. (Rina Swentzell, in Baker M. Morrow and V.B. Price, eds., Anasazi Architecture and American Design, pp. 155-156)

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A building in Walpi Village on First Mesa

A building is a container that points to the function it plays as a medium towards a broader reality. As a result, what matters for a Pueblo or a Hopi Indian is not primarily how houses look ­– the “great houses” of Chaco seem beautiful to some of us but their aesthetic seems not have been a matter of concern (until they became tourist items) – but what broader spiritual and cosmic meaning structure they make possible for the humans living in them as “containers.” I had this feeling very intensely as we were being guided through Old Oraibi; some houses were ancient and being restored in traditional Pueblo style; others were ancient and left to crumble; others still, including houses around the pueblo plaza that serves for religiously significant rituals, had been recently built out of (to our tourist gaze) unseemly and “inauthentic,” grey cinderblocks. I now realize that whether these houses looked “authentic” (and I cringe at this word as I write it) or whether the streets between them were “well kept” (another cringeworthy import from my own worldview) was secondary. What mattered to the lady who guided us was, of course, the money she needed and could earn through our passing visit but, perhaps much more importantly, the creation and maintenance of sacred, meaningful space that her words conjured up as she showed us the nooks and crannies of her ancestral village. Perhaps, I now wonder, worldviews such as these, with the associated thought- and lifeway, make it unnecessary to constantly talk about “sustainability” and “perma-circularity.” Perhaps they are intrinsically geared toward instinctive sustainability and perma-circularity, because they are not – which is what the Western mind finds faulty in them – even capable of generating the cultural and material hubris we have become accustomed to.

Not all is peaceful, of course, among “the Peaceful Ones.” The struggle between the “Friendlies” and the “Traditionalists” – whom certain Friendlies call “Hostiles” – centers in part around the heritage of Oraibi itself: Old Oraibi, which we visited while not yet being quite aware of these rifts and splits within the Hopi people, appears to be a mythical center and a geographical umbilical cord to what the Traditionalist Hopi consider to be their main objective of life: simplicity, balance, and harmony as tools for relinquishing the obsessions of “human genius and ego” (just like in the scholarly work of the Tewa Pueblo thinker Greg Cajete, which I presented in section 7 of my previous post). Implicit in this is a critique of those other Hopi who – I don’t know whether this is true or not – gave up their lifeways and compromised with Anglo-European values and lifeways.

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Maasaw, the Skeleton God

Hopi mythology has it that Maasaw, the Guardian of the Underworld, gave the original settlers of Oraibi demanding instructions on how to live simply. Here is how one contemporary writer, Thomas E. Mails, recounts the mythological encounter and its reverberations through Hopi culture – reverberations which we surely witnessed, without quite realizing it at the time, in the rift between the contemporary inhabitants of Old Oraibi and those of the surrounding Mesas:

Maasaw opened his instruction sessions at Oraibi by talking about the kinds of things we who live in the outside world ordinarily reject. For example, he started with something that will make those of us who live comfortably today blink our eyes and clear our throats, even though our acceptance of it will put us well on our way to survival. When the Hopi at Oraibi asked Maasaw if he would remain with them and watch over them, he pointed out that he had only his digging stick, his seeds, his water, and his cloak. It wasn’t much, but he added, “If you will live as I live, you can come and live with me.” Compared to our standards, the Hopi already lived simply. And since they had no comprehension of what lay ahead, they decided to accept the offer. So long as they had no other choices they kept their promise. Later on, however, the lure of White amenities caused most of them to change their minds. … The simple life advocated by Maasaw bears a kind of fruit that we seldom acknowledge. It avoids waste and misuse. It is a great equalizer. It does not take more for itself than is required, or more than its share. There is nothing self-serving or selfish about it. … We also need to think about working tools that do not lend themselves to overproduction or pollution. In the First World countries, we could get by with a lot less if we wanted to. And, when the time comes that our lives depend on it, we may give up more than we expect we will. In a dire emergency, people jettison anything that might slow them down. … Where we are concerned, the matter of planting, cultivating, harvesting and thanksgiving has to do with self-sufficiency, so that no matter how the world goes in the years ahead, each of us will have enough to get by. Maasaw is not suggesting that we here in the outside world limit ourselves to a digging stick and some seeds. He knows full well that the world must have the industrial capacity to serve everyone. What he is aiming for is the development of an attitude among us that will lead to the kind of heartfelt relationship the Traditionalists have with Mother Earth. From this intertwined relationship will come the motivation to see that our brothers and sisters the world over get their rightful portion of whatever we have. We will not let them starve without sacrificing whatever we must to do something about it. (Thomas E. Mails, The Hopi Survival Kit, pp. 228-231)

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Hopi artists and guests making rattles

In the conditions of contemporary American life, the life of the Hopi is an almost inextricable mesh of chosen simplicity and unchosen poverty. The two can sometime compound to create the impression of a people adrift – but nothing, I think, could be further from the truth. To the extent that we are truly seeking a perma-circular society and economy, we will need to build a perma-circular culture: and once we try to do this, the Hopi will be among those called to our assistance in order to help us shoulder the necessities of a simpler existence. Their endurance throughout the millennia – through internal strife and the external hardships of colonization – is a testament to their capacity to, one fine day, assist us unenduring Westerners on the path toward the endurance we will need. Let’s be prepared to ask for development aid from the Hopi some day in the more or less distant future, when we finally come to grips with the necessities of a one-planet, perma-circular way of life.


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