A Visit With the Hopi

One night in the late 1990s I had an incredibly vivid and powerful dream. It happened with such profound clarity that I could have sworn it was real.

In the dream I was standing on an open plain that was completely barren for as far as the eye could see. Far off in the distance was a range of mountains with low, flat peaks. I had the sense that I was standing somewhere in the desert of the American Southwest.

The ground beneath my feet was absolutely arid and dry, and I could see deep cracks and fissures running in all directions. The earth was brittle and hard, and it crumbled audibly into tiny fragments with every step I took. I could smell the dryness of the dust as it wafted lazily in the stillness of the desert air.

Standing to my right was an old Native American who seemed to be an elder of some kind. His face was weathered and deeply wrinkled, and his eyes had an expression of incredible sadness. There was a sense that he was tired and about to depart on a long journey. I had the impression that he had recently passed away.

Before leaving there was something important he had to tell me. He spoke softly and slowly in a low, deep voice with words I could not understand. The language was not English. Nor did it resemble any European language I am familiar with.

Raising his arm he gestured for me to look to the horizon. I could see silhouettes of animals in the distance, walking slowly in single file from left to right. There was a panther and a buffalo and many other species I cannot remember now. In some cases a predator walked behind prey, but all were walking calmly and deliberately in an orderly procession. There was a sense of balance to what I was being shown.

The silhouettes were all solid black, and within the heart area of each was a small ball of light. It seemed that this light within each represented their energy, or life force.

It was at this point I became aware that the animals were walking up to a great, old tree that stood alone on a very slight rise of land. Within this tree was a similar ball of light to that which was held in the animals, only this ball was much larger and much brighter. It was as if the Sun was positioned behind or inside this tree, and in some way maybe it was.

Looking back to the old man I could see he was now smiling. He seemed pleased to have been able to share something before going on his way. Before I could say a word, he turned and departed.

At this point the dream ended and I woke up.

Although it was the middle of the night the intensity of this experience jolted me fully awake. I immediately ran downstairs to turn on my computer. Surfing the Internet I looked up familiar names such as Black Elk, Geronimo and Sitting Bull. I was convinced that if I could find a photo I would recognise the man from my dream. But the effort was to no avail, because I never did find an image of anyone who resembled the one who spoke to me.

Nevertheless the experience stuck with me, so much so that several years later I commissioned wildlife artist Donna Bisschop to capture my memory of it to canvas.

What does the dream and this painting have to do with furniture making?

Absolutely nothing, but here’s where the story gets interesting.

While channel surfing one night in December 2006 I came across the popular television program ‘The Colbert Report’ . I tuned in near the end of Stephen Colbert’s interview with author Daniel Pinchbeck; with the two of them discussing Daniel’s then-latest book “2012 – The Return of Quetzalcoatl”.

Several weeks later I was discussing the book with friend, and we ended up talking a great deal about a Native American tribe called the Hopi. The Hopi live in the remote mesas of northern Arizona, and Pinchbeck mentioned them in some detail near the end of his book. Out of this discussion came the suggestion that since I was so interested in the Hopi maybe I should travel to Arizona to go see them.

I laughed and said that this was not going to happen, because I could not foresee any reason for ever having to travel to Arizona.

Then something strange happened. On the very next day my phone rings and it’s Lee Weitzman calling from Chicago. Lee had a client in Tucson with a problem they needed help with on a custom dining table we had made a few years earlier. (Apparently a housekeeper had tried to clean the table with abrasive cleanser, and now someone was needed to explain to a local cabinet shop the process of repairing the finish).

As much as I tried to explain the repair process over the phone the client was adamant that I travel to Arizona to deal with the matter personally. They had no qualms about paying for my time and travel expenses. As it turned out, for as much as I tried to talk my way out of making the trip, it soon became clear that I would have little choice but to go.

It was also now apparent that since I was travelling to Arizona anyway (thanks to a client willing to pay for the bulk of my travel expenses), there would be little in the way of added cost to extend my trip a few days for a personal side trip. That said, I decided to follow an intuitive hunch down the proverbial rabbit hole by planning a visit to the Hopi reservation as part of this journey.

I flew to Arizona and managed to resolve business matters by the morning of February 9th. I then made my way to Winslow, Arizona where I then took a 4-wheel-drive north into the desert. After first travelling through the Navajo reservation I ended up on the Hopi reservation by late afternoon.

After driving around and orienting myself with the area I eventually found myself in one of the most traditional of Hopi villages. In so doing I also ended up having a chance meeting with the eldest elder of the Hopi – a revered individual by the name of Grandfather Martin Gashweseoma.

Out of respect for Grandfather Martin and the Hopi I will not give much detail on what happened during my visit. I was asked not to take any photographs or make any sketches in and around the village, and I respected those requests. The only photographs I took were outside the village, and even those were taken with permission.

It is my understanding that many Hopi feel that their way of life has been exploited and misrepresented by non-Hopi such as myself – and not without reason. Therefore, I prefer to err on the side of caution and will share my story based on my own personal experience with what unfolded.

It was late in the afternoon of February 9th when I first met Grandfather Martin. He was busy gathering coal, and after a brief discussion he offered to let me stay the night in his home. I thanked him for the offer, but not wanting to impose on his generosity I said I’d find a place off reservation and return the next day.

“Be back before sunrise” he said.

That night I could barely sleep. I had just met a man considered by many to be the Native American equivalent to the Dalai Lama, and he had just welcomed me into his village. Not wanting to be late, or delayed for any reason, I checked out of my room by 3:00 a.m. and drove back to the reservation, where I parked on the side of the road outside the village to wait for the dawn.

Because this area is so remote, and there is absolutely no electricity or street lights (or streets for that matter) within the village itself, the darkness at night is more than palpable. It was literally and figuratively pitch black.

At some point a very faint glow of light began to appear on the distant horizon, and I knew that dawn was approaching. Not knowing the exact time of sunrise, and not wanting to be late, I set out on foot to make my way into the village. I used my memory of curves and laneways from the previous day to guide me to the main plaza – alongside of which Grandfather Martin’s home was located.

It felt strange to be a white man walking gingerly through the darkness of a Hopi village. On some level I felt like an intruder. As I got within yards of Grandfather Martin’s door I heard growls and something suddenly rushing at me out of the darkness. I didn’t know what it was or where it was coming from until it was right upon me.

Rez dogs – two of them. At first I thought they were attacking me, but thankfully they didn’t. I was then concerned that they’d start barking and waking the whole village, so to keep them quiet I started rubbing and petting the sides of their necks. Thankfully that worked because they loved the attention – so much so that they ended up coiling themselves so tightly around my legs that now I couldn’t walk anywhere.

So there I stood in the pre-dawn darkness – about 10 feet from Grandfather Martin’s door – hunched over and scratching the necks of 2 feral dogs who were determined to keep me standing exactly where I was. I didn’t dare stop rubbing their necks either, because at least what I was doing was keeping them quiet.

There was no light or noise coming from inside the home, so I also had no idea how much longer I’d have to wait.

After a long while the door opened, and Grandfather Martin peered outside. Seeing me there he beckoned for me to come inside. The dogs, it turned out, were his and he seemed pleased that they liked me.

What I soon discovered was that I had unexpectedly shown up on one of the most sacred days on the Hopi calendar. Known as Powamuya, this is a time of purification that culminates with a ceremony known as the bean dance. To describe it in simple terms: this celebration marks the return of the katsinam, who are the benevolent spirit beings who live among the Hopi for about a six month period each year.

In broader terms, and to use a sports analogy, it was as if I had shown up at a football stadium and discovered, quite by chance, that the Super Bowl was being played there that day. The fact that I was welcomed and invited into this elder’s home was the equivalent of receiving sideline passes to the 50 yard line.

The experience was magical beyond comprehension. Grandfather Martin’s home faces a main plaza, and as the day unfolded the bulk of the activity going on in the village was happening right out front. Inside the home was like a veritable Grand Central Station, with an ongoing feast and an endless stream of family, friends and other villagers constantly coming and going.

By far the most pleasantly haunting and treasured memories of that experience were the sights and sounds of the costumed Kachina dancers as they emerged from the underground kivas to slowly dance and weave their way down the dirt lane ways and into the central plaza. It gave me chills of awe to bear witness to ceremony that was probably the same as it has been for thousands of years.

I still get goose bumps every time I recall the memory.

But what impressed me and influenced me the most were the Hopi people themselves. As a stranger and a white man I had shown up unannounced in their village on one of their most sacred of days. Instead of being turned away I was treated as a welcomed guest. Although the material means of the Hopi were few, what little was there was shared generously.

The laughter and sense of humour amongst the Hopi was also a joy to behold, even though some of the loudest of laughs came at my own expense over what a Kachina dancer had done to my leg earlier in the day.

Given how busy things were with ceremonies etc. I had few opportunities to talk one on one with Grandfather Martin, although he did ask me to sit with him on a few occasions while dances were taking place.

Although this is impossible to prove and difficult to articulate I believe that people such as Grandfather Martin and other indigenous peoples such as the traditional Hopi are some of the last remaining people on this planet who retain a true sense of spiritual connectedness to the planet and the natural world.

Perhaps the best way to explain the magic surrounding my experience there is to show you the following photo. It was taken (with permission) near the village of Kykotsmovi. When you compare it to the painting of the dream (shown earlier in this post) you’ll likely notice some rather remarkable similarities.

What does it mean? An interpretation is anybody’s guess, but it’s quite possible that some would call this little more than a coincidence. However, as coincidences go I’d say this is a pretty good one.

In the grand scheme of things I believe that at some point in each of our respective lives we all get confronted with an unusual circumstances, or “coincidences”, to remind us that the world is not always as it seems.

On these occasions it is often prudent to trust our intuition rather than blindly heeding what commonly accepted “conventional wisdom” tells us to do.

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One Response to “A Visit With the Hopi”

  1. John- This is Buck O’kelly from CFBA. Just getting back to your website and blog. Again, I’m wildly impressed with your work, and I feel compelled to offer you back whatever I can concerning this amazing experience you describe. My life has been deeply affected by several events of this nature involving….stuff like this. I’ll get to my point as straightaway as I can.
    The concept of increased durability causing increased difficulty of repair is not new to me, but has resurfaced with a vengeance lately. A few weeks ago I was asked (not the first time it’s come up) to consider repairing some hand-applied polyester finishes (Italian) at a local high end modern furniture store. My research again led me to conclude that it is not a direction I prefer to take, in spite of how lucrative mastery would be. My primary passion is fabrication and original finishing, and while I greatly enjoy repairs and refinishing, I do need to draw the line on how deep I get into those.

    My own finishing approach over the last few years has turned minimalist, and I rarely (but quite willingly if it’s appropriate) use my old friend cat lac, beyond which I never ventured, except for a brief and disappointing foray into water-based conversion varnish. My pieces are niched for antique effects, so the worse they are treated the better they will look, at most needing minimal remedies easily done by the user.

    I’ve often wondered how my oil and wax type finishes would do on veneered work, but I always chicken out and go to the lacquer or shellac and french polish. I’m constantly second-guessing whether I should instead be using tougher stuff, because veneer is a different animal than my planks. In the hearts of both of these animals is the same light that shines within the tree of life from whence they come and through which they remain as one in spirit.

    So for the last 3 days I’ve been repairing/restoring antiques in the home of some very discerning clients. Some veneers, some solids, nothing more severe than some scratches, blushes, dents (I leave ’em alone- just “love” bites I call them). What an amazing experience to watch the french polish effortlessly coax depth and luster out of what looked like hopelessly tired or ruined surfaces. The owners were flabbergasted with what I accomplished with sandpaper, steel wool, TransTints, Lacover and a pad made from a paper towel.

    What struck me the most about this was a short chat with them, just before I came home and checked into your blog, where I explained the trend of increasingly indestructible finishes causing increasingly difficult repairs. These are very savvy, brilliant financial masters of the universe, and they said “You’d think it was wiser to make things that are repairable”. And as I looked over all I’d done there, the thought came to me that none of the pieces looked new again, but had merely had their dignity restored, and had been allowed to show their history with pride, and would again invite the respectful gaze of their people, who would wonder anew at all the stories contained in the subtile shadings and burnished creases on the deeply glowing face of the elder who had seen and remembered so much of the life of humans.

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