Traversing miles of arid high-desert spotted with the necks of ancient volcanoes, the road leading up to the three mesas is as flat as it is beautiful. To the west, on most days, the San Francisco Peaks are visible with such clarity that I had to check my map to confirm that they were indeed over 80 miles away. Clusters of buildings dot the level ground beneath the mesas which are impossible to miss.

As you get closer, you can start to see the low profiles of the villages situated at the top of these mesas, named First Mesa, Second Mesa, and Third Mesa by Spanish explorers apparently too exhausted to express any amount of creativity or concern for their existing native names. The Hopi utilize dry farming techniques to grow crops in this otherwise barren landscape in Northeastern Arizona. A special variety of corn has adapted to grow deeper roots and shorter stalks, which allows it to grow without any irrigation on a little over 2 inches of rainfall per year. Still, it is difficult to imagine anything growing here without being watered.

A steep road winds up along the edge to the top of the Mesa. Driving makes easy work of what would be a tiresome effort on foot. On the top, a mixture of homes and small shops line the two lane road. Shortly we arrive at the Hopi Cultural Center which features a hotel and restaurant where I stayed while volunteering at First Mesa Elementary School. I arrived in Hopiland at the end of February, for a two-week program through the Friends of Hopi Foundation. My aunt had volunteered there for many years and I had long wanted to go there myself.

The night before I arrived at Hopi I had the usual bout of self-doubt and concerns about the upcoming experience.The last time I had been in a school classroom was when I was a student. Aside from a couple of days spent volunteering while I was in high school, I had zero experience working with children in a school environment. I was placed in a sixth grade class at First Mesa Elementary School. I spent a lot of my time helping individually with reading or geometry, in addition to answering questions about who I was and what brought me to the school.

One afternoon I gave a presentation about archaeology and the career of an archaeologist. This led to a discussion about artifacts and the significance of objects in their lives and their teacher had them compile objects to bury in a time capsule on the school grounds to be discovered by a future class. I also helped to catalog books in the library as they were in the process of updating the system they use. Mostly I tried my best not to be a distraction or a waste of space. I helped with math, spelling, and writing; worked with kids who didn’t have a partner for reading; catalogued books in the library; and provided supervision when necessary.

When given an opportunity to talk to the 6th grade about archaeology and the work that I have done in the field I was forced to evaluate my career path and what it means to me. Teaching children who haven’t had much time to recognize or analyze their own culture, about the importance of cultural studies was not easy for a novice. Working with the first grade class one afternoon made it even more apparent that I struggled to relay the importance of archaeology in terms that children could relate to. This is a criticism of myself and not the children.

All throughout my time at the school, I tried to soak in as much as I could, without interrupting or interviewing the children or teachers.

Some random observations: Note passing, spitballs, general tomfoolery crosses cultural boundaries. Everyone in class had seen sheep butchered, a distinction was made between traditional and commercial tobacco in tobacco prevention lesson, open discussion of spiritual realms and ideas. The Elementary School has a Hopi language class which is taught orally, without any reading or writing (as the Hopi language has always existed). The teacher uses pictures and songs to convey meaning and facilitate memorization.

Hopi elders warn against writing things down. It forces you to look to the past instead of the future. Future generations will have different interpretations of what was written down, and value it differently (As I write this down).Once an idea is written you separate your opinion from those held by others. Writing it down solidifies an opinion and creates a distinction. Surprising to me, one of the classical leaders of Western thought, Socrates, shared this view. He saw the definitive and immutable character of written word gives the false impression than an answer is final or fixed as a major drawback of writing.

Clearly this elder wisdom was not enough to convince me to stop writing. Growing up with written language, I was naturally at odds with this view of writing. As someone who not only reads and writes, but frequently reads and writes about history, I had some serious thinking to do after encountering this notion that writing things down and focusing attention on the past are inadvisable.

The Hopi have reasons outside of their traditional beliefs to approach the written word with skepticism. Treaties were pushed upon tribes with limited understanding of what they entailed, and they’ve grown wary of such agreements after centuries of legal action in which they did not have the upper hand. Additionally, written accounts of sacred practices exposed by Western academics, an exposition which can harmfully impact said practices has further strained the relationship between the Hopi and the written word. And, seeing as writing things down fails to directly influence rainfall and the growing of crops, there is little upside to writing from a traditional standpoint.

Reading and writing are major components of the children’s education, as the benefits of literacy are apparent when it comes to obtaining success in the world at large. There are many who understand that the Hopi need to adopt skills from the West in order to prosper within the current landscape.

I was raised with a strong sense of individual identity, where “separating your opinion from those held by others” is not necessarily a bad thing. Writing things down, receiving criticism, and responding is one of the processes by which we figure out who we are and where we stand. Rather than leaving people to guess, writing allow us to elucidate our positions so that others may better understand our perspectives.

True, once a thought is written down, it has a life of its own and is no longer under the author’s control. While there may not be something concrete which can be referenced, as in written word, speech is also open to this type of corruption based on interpretation of the recipient of the
information which has been related. Speech is not as binding as the written word, according to our current legal structure, this is true enough.

To me, in ways which speech or contemplation cannot compare, writing offers the ability to sort our thoughts. When writing an essay on a topic, we have the ability to move thoughts around, edit, and revise in order to strengthen arguments and make them more coherent. Weeks, months, or years later it is possible to revisit a previous idea and update it with new information. Yes, we constantly do this as we speak, but it is less concrete and subject to our recollection of memories. Additionally, writing about major events or conflicts faced in life helps to clarify details and reduce strain on the mind. As in the case of writing an angry letter to an offender, but not sending it, writing can be meditative.

Coming here I’m not sure what I expected, I tried to limit my expectations as much as I could. I did some reading on the Hopi culture and history, but really had no idea what to expect in the present-day. Other than the stories my Aunt had shared, my only window into current life at Hopi was a short documentary about the storied cross-country program at Hopi High School.

It took some time for familiarity to set-in before I felt like a part of the classroom and not a feature, but I never felt unwelcome. I think it’s a good thing that the students took some time to figure out who this stranger was before they started to trust me to help with their schoolwork. By the end of the first week, most of the students felt comfortable talking (and more importantly joking) with me, and I them.

Working with the children and spending two weeks interacting with the people in Hopiland was an unforgettable experience. I learned a lot about myself and others that I will carry with me for quite some time.

The two weeks went by very quickly as I enjoyed every opportunity to learn about Hopi culture from a variety of perspectives.  I appreciated that I was welcomed by the school and was treated kindly by all the staff and students at the school. It is a place that I would like to return to one day. Fortunately, there isn’t a word for goodbye in the Hopi language, which made leaving a little bit easier.

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