Hisat’sinom to Hopi: Establishing Cultural Affiliation in the Bears Ears Landscape

Hand Print & Sandal Design Rock Art, SE Utah.

With the historic visit by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to southeast Utah this week, I think it’s worth re-posting a previous blog writing from 4 years ago describing, in part, some of the Hopi questions and answers we find in the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante landscapes.

While the increased attention of the Bears Ears issue has brought increased visitation to the area, there is also now a better understanding of what needs to happen to provide better protection of these fragile and unique landscapes.

I will write more about these efforts in an upcoming article featured in the Grand Canyon Trust’s quarterly journal, “Advocate”, soon to be published. For now, here is a reflection on what meaning Hopi has and continues to find within these ancestral landscapes.

As part of a 3 day hiking tour of archaeological sites in the Bears Ears National Monument (BENM), I was asked to share a personal perspective based on my experiences as an archaeologist, outdoor guide and person of Hopi descent. When it comes to the Bears Ears, issues such as preservation archaeology, tourism and Indigenous perspectives all converge upon the landscape, setting the stage for conflict, but also collaboration. While archaeological research of the Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa regions is on-going, the study of Hopi connections to these areas and the associated archaeological cultures is currently limited and lacks detailed examination by Hopi advisors.

I often pose the question of how is Hopi connected to these prehistoric groups from distant lands? What is the continuity between modern Hopi people (and other Pueblo groups) and the ancestral cultures of the Bears Ears? Seems like a valid question, given that the modern day Hopi reservation lies over 200 miles south of this part of Utah. What are the woven strands of culture that ties us back over time and space? I recall a prior conversation with a gentleman about the popularity of having one’s genetic background tested. Provide some DNA and you can see in neat percentages and cool graphics just where “your people” come from. There are a whole lot of people interested in learning more about their ancestry and heritage. Understanding your origins matters it seems.

I wonder what my percentages would be if I were to be tested? Would my test results show a pie-chart with one solid color, labeled “Hopi”? In fact, just who am I as a Hopi person? Deeper into my family history there are oral histories of distant lands our ancestral clans occupied. According to this knowledge, if I were able to conduct a DNA test of myself using strictly archaeological culture designations, I would guess my Ancestral Puebloan pie-chart slice would be larger in comparison to the Mimbres, Salado and Sinaguan slices. These cultures being representative of various geographic areas my ancestral clans once occupied and therefore, I am of these places as well.

Two Perspectives of Culture: Archaeological and Hopi (Graphic Courtesy Archaeology Southwest).

Through a Hopi lens, the perspective of “prehistory” here in the Southwest is seen as fluid and dynamic. Rather than foreign concepts such as “Ancestral Puebloan” or “Sinagua” as predecessors to modern pueblo culture, Hopi sees Moti’sinom and Hisat’sinom; cultural concepts that encompass over 2,000 years of ancestry. According to Hopi oral tradition, many clans occupied the Four Corners area, including that of the Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa. These clans brought with them various sets of knowledge that would be incorporated into Hopi culture; ceremony, medicine, technology, language and arts. The end result being the development of what we now identify as “Hopi”. The tracing of that cultural evolution is reliant on both oral tradition and the tangible evidence found within archaeological contexts.

Ceramic Spiral Applique, Circa 1100 A.D.

One Hopi perspective views the archaeological record as metaphorical “footprints” of Hopi ancestors, substantiating Hopi oral histories about clan settlements and migrations. Within Hopi culture is the belief that the meaning of the past is what it contributes to life in the present. This belief underscores the “cultural continuity” between modern-day Hopi and their ancestors. How this connection manifests itself, often daily, is in the cultural knowledge and traditional know-how a Hopi person maintains. This knowledge is evident in many forms within traditional Hopi culture; the crops we grow and eat, the homes we occupy, the tools we use, the art we create, the ceremonies we enact and the language we speak. All of which is really an accumulation of ancestral Hopi experiences, learned over countless generations.

Based on this traditional view, Hopi people firmly believe that some of our ancestral clans are represented in the archaeological record of the Bears Ears. Parts of this ancestral history, the invisible strands of genetic code and the visible evidence of material culture, subsequently made its way into the modern expressions of Hopi people. Proving this requires continued consultation and fieldwork with knowledgeable Hopi advisors. Fortunately there are opportunities for future, collaborative Hopi research, including iconography found in textiles, rock art and ceramics, as well as discussions about agricultural traditions. One interesting area of study is the idea of return migrations or perhaps pilgrimages, by more recent Hopi people. This is evident by the satisfying discovery of Hopi Yellow Wares on Cedar Mesa and surrounding areas. Faint “footprints” in the sand leading back into a recognizable landscape.

This is the meaning that Hopi people find in the Bears Ears region. Experiencing ancestral sites within natural surroundings gives us both insight and reflection; insight into the lives of our earliest ancestors, and reflection on the migrations from Hisat’sinom to Hopi.

Bears Ears Landscape

6 thoughts on “Hisat’sinom to Hopi: Establishing Cultural Affiliation in the Bears Ears Landscape

  1. Christine Nickel

    So….in three days you figured it all out? That’s a disservice to those whom you claim to represent. Connection does not mean a 3-day visit. Most tourists spend much more. This/you are one of the reasons this monument is not being taken seriously enough! Are you a personal stakeholder? Will you gain or lose by the final monument designation? These articles all appeal to those who know nothing of the region, nor who have no personal or financial investment in living there. Are you the ‘token Hopi’?


  2. thank you so much for sharing this perspective
    as a strong supporter of the Bear’s Ears and deeply engaged with documenting the rock art of the area, i would love to have the opportunity to walk and talk with you (and Marilyn) at any of the sites that are part of the continuum of images and stories on the land from earlier peoples. We have so much to remember……..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lyle Balenquah

      Thank You Janet! I appreciate your support! Yes, perhaps someday we can visit some Ancestral sites and ponder the existence….Cheers!


  3. A thoughtful piece of writing – thanks for sharing. We spent a week at Bears Ears and totally enjoyed.. I wouldn’t pretend to know the answers for the future of this area, but I know it will be a shame if it’s not protected.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lyle Balenquah

      Thank You for reading my Blog. Yes stay tuned as we all wait and see how this issue goes. Hopi will support the preservation and protection of our Ancestral lands. We appreciate your support as well! Kwah’kwah/Thank You!


  4. Pingback: Hisat’sinom to Hopi: Establishing Cultural Affiliation in the Bears Ears Landscape — Angles & Momentum – Shash Jaa': Bears Ears – official film website

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