Spirits Among the Sandstone

Sandstone Canyons.
Toko’navi in the far distance.

It’s 2 AM in the morning and I’m sitting on a steep, rocky hillside, deep inside a canyon in Southeastern Utah. I am not alone. An intimate group of friends and family have also made the long backpack to reach this location. We sit in a loose circle, shivering slightly against the chilly air, reminding us it is close to the fall equinox. We have timed our arrival just right. We all stare in one direction, fixated on the cliff face that lies directly across from us. Our gaze follows the full moon’s downward arc towards the dark outline of the cliff edge. A prominent outcrop of rock interrupts the knife edge of canyon wall. This intersection of sky and stone will soon be part of the great reveal we have come to witness.

There is another counterpart to this interplay of earth and sky, the final element sits behind us, silently holding vigil as it has for perhaps a thousand years. It too gazes upward, awaiting the signal that will transform this natural landscape into also a human landscape. Embedded in the sloping hillside sits a large, dark boulder, gazing upwards awaiting a signal from the celestial void above. It faces the setting moon and looks out over the canyon floor far below which winds away from us to the south.

Upon its black, polished surface is a symbol, carved by human hands that bridges the celestial with the earthly. An 8-ringed spiral sits 2-dimensional, yet interacts with the 3-dimensional, perhaps even beyond to an existence that is both ephemeral and ageless. A smaller spiral is connected to the larger by a series of horizontal lines.

Next to the large spiral symbol stands a human-figure with a bird head; a watcher of time that has noted the passing of the eons since given existence by human hands. 2 diagonal lines cut across these images, one passes over the center of the spiral, while the other slashes the bird-headed figure from shoulder to mid-torso. Bird imagery surrounds the whole scene, a migration flock frozen in time perhaps.

Petroglyph Calendar.

As we sit between towering canyon walls, the air is charged with anticipation. Will it happen? Overcast clouds drift between us and the moon, playing with our emotions as they cast distorted shadows into the canyon and across our bodies, illuminating us with light, then darkness. We nervously move our heads from side to side, as if we can peer around the clouds to get a clear view, but to no avail. We are patient and remain seated, gazing upward. Singing crickets and the gentle rush of winds through the cottonwood trees down in the canyon floor are the only sounds. I shift to alleviate the numbness in my legs, we talk in silent whisper and make subtle gestures. It feels quiet, but not entirely.

We are not alone.

Boulders surrounding us contain numerous carved images; anthropomorphs, snakes, footprints, bird tracks, all in suspended animation, waiting for the signal in which they will take on new life. High up on the sandstone walls behind us, stand other figures painted in white pigment, they stare out over the deep canyon, sentinels guarding the secrets of the past.  The moon nears its final approach to the cliff face. We all lean forward as if expecting a wave of energy to reverberate back to us. We prepare for the inevitable. We hold our breathes, eyes widening, hearts beating in our ears.

A deafening silence descends over us, crickets go silent, winds cease, and the earth’s rotation seems to slow, prolonging the suspense. Just as the outer edge of the full moon hits the stony outcrop, the forces of nature determine that “no, not tonight”. The clouds rush in and cover the moon, which seems so close that we can see its cratered surface. Like an esoteric society that wishes to keep its practices hidden from the un-initiated, the moon vanishes behind a veil of secrecy, soon disappearing as a blurry orb behind the canyon walls. There will be no great reveal tonight.

We sit in disbelief. How can this be? We traveled so far? Expended much energy to reach this point. Why are we not rewarded? Looking around at each other, we slowly lean back, releasing the air from our lungs in one final acceptance of this reality. We stand and shrug our shoulders to one another. Slowly we begin our way down the rocky slope back to our camp.

I am the last to leave but I linger. I say a few words to the spirits of the canyon, thanking them for this experience, for allowing us into their world. I tell them we will leave them now to their own doings. A warm wind blows back into my face.

As I start back down the slope, I turn once more to take in the scene, wanting to burn this image into my memory. The faded moonlight still shines from below the horizon, enough that I can barely make out the bird-headed figure on the boulder. I half expect it to raise a hand and wave. I take a deep breath and return to my hammock slung amongst the cottonwood trees. I will not sleep the rest of the night as I lay and watch the stars revolve against the backdrop of dark sky.

Hiking Out.

As the morning sun hits the cliff face, we rise as a group and prepare for our departure. We spread out along the trail, making the arduous trek back up the side canyon we entered in 3 days before. One by one we emerge from the sandstone depths and trudge to our vehicles where we drop our packs. The world seems a different place now, refreshed with new energies. We have traveled back in time and return to the present with a greater appreciation of what we were and were not able to experience. We shake hands, give hugs and thanks to one another. We promise to return one day, hopeful that we will be worthy to witness the event that has played out for a thousand years. So be it.

Months after this epic journey I still replay the scene in my mind. I often dream about it and I am spirited away back into the canyon. In this surreal slumber, I do witness the event we were not able to see in the physical realm; the full moon hitting the stony outcrop just right, throwing a clear shadow marker directly across the spiral where the diagonal line crosses. Fall equinox has come and the ages old calendar has done its job. The passing of the seasons is noted, and the ancient people of the canyon know that it is time to prepare for the cold winter which is approaching over the horizon. I awake from these dreams and I wonder if the spirits await my return.

We journeyed to this distant location to witness what I believe is a celestial calendar. I happened upon this rock art panel on a previous backpacking trip several months before. During that trip, I could not linger long as the group I was with was more concerned with pushing on and making miles. In that brief first encounter, I immediately felt a sense of what I was looking at. I recognized its’ significance and I vowed that I would return. I was not alone. One other in that group also read between the lines and understood the meaning of these ancient, carved images. We made a promise to each other that we would again enter the depths of the canyon in the hopes of witnessing this interplay between earth and sky.

Cilff Granary.

I have spent more than a few days in canyons such as this, walking amongst high-faced sandstone walls, beneath crowns of cottonwoods whose gnarled and twisted trunks are as thick as bridge pilings. I have scrambled along slickrock terraces, pushing myself to challenges that bring me up close to numerous painted and carved images. I have quenched my thirst from pot-holes, at natural springs that pulse with life-giving water. I have held fear in my gut as I reached for hand and toe holds, with an abyss of canyon behind me. I have felt a greater sense of being alive within these landscapes, overcome with emotions that originate deep inside my being, slowly released, mixing with the energies of the ancestors, my ancestors.

During my time in these remote places, I am reminded of the history of my people, the Hopi. This history spans countless ages and is intimately connected to these lands. We believe that it is our forebearers who once dwelled within these canyons, up on the mesa tops, building cultures who would leave their “footprints” for their descendants to follow. Cliff dwellings, granaries, pottery sherds, stone tools, textiles and even their deceased ones, all remain as spiritual guardians of this holy ground. We recall these ancient histories within epic clan migrations that speak of our ancestors traveling across large geographic regions of the southwest.

Within these migrations we would learn the skills necessary to survive in a harsh desert landscape. We would develop the complex ceremonies and religious beliefs that we still practice to this day. Knowledge would be accumulated; medicine, technology, architecture, language, arts, celestial understandings to track the seasons, and ultimately, the development of agriculture.

We believe this farming tradition heralds a cultural development that would put us on the path to becoming “Hopi”. The idea of Hopi is more than just a designation of a people, but a way of life, reflected in the acceptance that corn and other crops would be the foundation of our being. The very act of farming connects us to the land. This tradition reminds us of the humble beginnings that our ancestors first sowed, meticulously developing a cultural lifeway through hardship, cooperation, humility and purposeful prayer.

Hopi Cornfield.

Yet we are also reminded that at times in our history we have strayed from these teachings, causing imbalance amongst ourselves and the natural environment. Harsh lessons that showed we are not the masters of this world, that there are greater forces that need to be respected and cared for. These are the cultural understandings I carry with me as I enter these landscapes. They are packed into my consciousness and serve to guide me as I encounter the footprints of my ancestors. These teachings also provide a unique cultural lens in which to view this ancient past.

Though I am a trained archaeologist, having spent many years learning these skills, there is only so much that the science of archaeology can reveal to me. Of course, I appreciate the beauty, craftsmanship and antiquity of the artifacts I find in my survey and documentation work. I enjoy being able to identify different classes of sherds, lithics and other material culture. This scientific training allows me to track the centuries of ancestral occupation and movements. I have filled volumes of data sheets with this understanding; completing reports that may only make sense to other archaeologists. This technical process, however, only tells one part of the story.

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

The scientific method relegates my ancestors to the “prehistoric”, a static western concept that is not reflective of how Hopi people view our history. Our ancestors were not defined by modern archaeological concepts such as “Ancestral Puebloan” or “Mesa Verdean” or “Chacoan”, nor were they confined by the neat cultural boundaries that archaeologists place on maps. Through a Hopi lens, the perspective of “prehistory” here in the Southwest is seen as fluid and dynamic. My ancestors moved around, they were sedentary, sometimes occupying shared landscapes, dividing social clan structures only to re-join one another in different regions, perhaps generations down the line. All of this being part of a large-scale plan, playing out over a wide geographic area, encompassing thousands of years.

We have always stated Hopi is a living culture. Meaning that the knowledge about our ancestral history isn’t just the “past” but lives in the present amongst the Hopi who retain and continue to use such cultural teachings in our daily and ceremonial lives. We view our ancestral and present-day lifeways as forever connected. 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 our ancestors.

How this connection manifests, 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.

Alcove Dwelling Site.

According to Hopi oral tradition, many clans occupied the Four Corners area, including that of the Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa. While archaeologists have designated these ancestral people as “Archaic”, “Basketmaker” and “Pueblo”, Hopi has our own identities for these groups; Moti’sinom and Hisat’sinom, cultural concepts that encompass thousands of years of ancestry. 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 collaborative Hopi research, including symbolism found in textiles, rock art and ceramics. Agricultural traditions are another area of interest to Hopi. We firmly believe that the acceptance of farming by our ancestors is more than just an opportunistic event. We believe that corn, and other crops, are divine gifts, accepted by Hopi ancestors with the understanding that it would not be an easy life, but would provide longevity far into the future. When we encounter the preserved ears of corn, seeds and desiccated cobs of our ancestors, we take pride in the fact that we continue this tradition to this day, carefully guarding the knowledge of corn and how it is to be cared for. White cornmeal continues to be our sacrament, the medium in which we honor our ancestors and give offerings to a lifeway that is our right and responsibility.

Corn-Spiral Petroglyph.

Recent testing of samples of Hopi corn, conducted by Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, as part of the “Pueblo Farming Project” (PFP), illustrates the cultural continuity between ancestral strains of corn and corn that is grown by modern Hopi farmers. This research states, in part:

DNA testing of 12 named Hopi maize varieties, undertaken by the PFP, show that Hopi maize is genetically distinct, although it is closely related to other temperate maize from the US Southwest. The Hopi samples are closely associated with ancient corn samples that were tested in separate studies. The studies also show that the Hopi varieties have also undergone continued selection over the past 2,000 years (https://crowcanyon.github.io/pfp_ebook/what-we-learned.html).

Another interesting area of potential study is the idea of return migrations or perhaps pilgrimages by Hopi people following the migrations of Hopi ancestors out of the area (late AD 1200’s.) This is evident by the intriguing discovery of Hopi Yellow Ware pottery in small quantities across Southeastern Utah during Pueblo IV times (AD 1290 – AD 1500). This pottery type is only made on the Hopi mesas, 200+ miles to the south and dates from AD 1300 to the present. Also, small, sandstone slab-lined features found within the Cedar Mesa area have been identified as Hopi shrines. These are affiliated with Hopi based on their selected placement upon the landscape, construction styles and orientation, which follows a pattern still used today in modern Hopi culture.

This evidence suggests that Hopi people may have returned to their former ancestral homelands, perhaps to collect various resources, as hunting expeditions, or to pay homage to shrines, villages and landscapes recalled within oral histories. Whatever the reasons, Hopi people will point to it as proof that we have retained the knowledge of our teachings and clan migrations, that Hopi ancestors were here, and their descendants are still here.

Ancestral footprint impression in mortar.

It is this type of specific knowledge that Hopi people work to maintain, not just internally within our own cultures, but also in broader “preservation of public lands” efforts. While Hopi people may not consider themselves “environmentalists” in the mainstream sense, our cultural values dictate that we respect not only our ancestral homes, but the landscapes they are found upon. The two are inextricably connected.

These are the reasons why we advocate for their continued protection and preservation. For if these tangible and intangible experiences are lost, we lose a part of our history and culture. We lose the ability to tell our future generations that we too are a part of these lands. We have a right and responsibility to continue to care for these places under the stewardship of Hopi values. That can only happen if there are these landscapes to walk among as our ancestors once did.

By joining similar endeavors by like-minded groups, Hopi people strive to help educate the American public about the need to protect these lands from large-scale, extractive activities that can harm or destroy these unique landscapes. Through the sharing of our cultural connections and respect of these areas, we hope that the same sense of respect will be given by those who come to visit and see these ancestral vestiges of Hopi history.

As I traverse these canyons, mesas and wilderness areas, I think often of this history. It enriches my experiences and surrounds me. I see it tucked into alcoves as granaries and dwellings. I find it lying on soft sand as sherds and lithics. I stand before rock art panels, intrigued by what messages it relayed to its creator and people of the time. These are the thoughts that wandered through my mind as I sat waiting for the moon to descend and cast a shadow on that chilly, fall morning, hoping that the spirits of the canyon and forces of nature would merge in one spellbound moment.

Although it did not happen that time, I will return and continue to pay my respects to my ancestors. I do so in the hopes that by acknowledging their existence, they will acknowledge mine. I follow these faint “footprints” back in time, eager to experience holy ground where spirits dwell.

I am not alone.

Atlatl Petroglyph.

3 thoughts on “Spirits Among the Sandstone

  1. Dan Keith

    I have long wished to explore the canyons and mesas of the Southwest. After reading this, I realized I just did. Beautifully written, I felt I was part of the group to witness these wonders.
    I’m trying to come up with more words, I think I’ll just be quiet for a while. Thank You for sharing Lyle, this was powerful!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights. I am sorry you did not get to witness the equinoctial alignment you had hoped for. I have seen some of these celestial calendars at Chaco Canyon and other southwestern pueblos, but have never been present for solstice or equinox. I imagine it would be a very powerful experience.


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