The Grand Canyon landscape contains some of the Southwests most unique ecosystems of rivers, springs and riparian zones. These areas are home to many plant and animal species, some found nowhere else in the world, or that represent the last viable populations holding on for existence.
The human connection to these areas also holds much significance for many Indigenous cultures here in the Southwest. The relationship between natural environments and Indigenous peoples is the foundation for much of our traditions, beliefs and values. Therefore, the result of healthy lands, air, water, and the plant and animals that reside within, manifests in healthy Indigenous communities.
Over the years, the water environments of the Grand Canyon have faced threats from various proposals, including uranium mining, pumping of limited groundwater, and large-scale development along the river banks. One area that continues to receive repeated attention is the Little Colorado River (LCR).
First, the Escalade Project sought to construct a large-scale tourist attraction on the rim overlooking the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers. This also included a tramway from the rim down to the rivers edge. This proposal was ultimately defeated, for now.
Currently there are at least 3 new proposals threatening the fragile ecosystem of this area. Outside interests are seeking to build a series of dams within the walls of the LCR Gorge. These dams would flood large areas of the canyon floor, irrevocably damaging areas that are of high cultural significance to many local tribes, including the Hopi Salt Trail and the Hopi Emergence place.
More details about these proposals, and how you can help STOP these actions, can be found on the Grand Canyon Trust’s website here https://www.grandcanyontrust.org/little-colorado-river-dam-proposals
I wrote the following piece for a public education effort led by the Museum of Northern Arizona in response to the proposed Escalade project. It outlines the significance of water and springs within Hopi Culture, particularly Blue Springs, (Sakwa’vaahu) located within the LCR Gorge. Given the continued threats to this unique area, I feel these thoughts remain relevant in the need to stay vigilant for the protection and preservation of the Grand Canyon landscape.
“We are of water, The water is of us.
When water is threatened,
All living things are threatened.
What we do to water,
We do to our selves.”
–Hopi Hisat Navoti Gathering, October 23, 2003, Second Mesa
It is difficult to superficially discuss the connection between Hopi culture and water, in all its forms, including springs. This connection is held within the hearts and minds of Hopi people and cannot be easily explained in terms of geologic formation and hydrological processes.
The Hopi Tribe’s Integrated Resource Management Plan (IRMP) states (2001:30), “Water resources come in many forms such as springs, lakes, streams, rain, snow and fog. Water comes from the earth and is also a divine gift from the ancestors and Hopi religious deities. All Hopi ceremonies center around the need for water and it is a major cultural theme.”
Centrality of water is expressed in every aspect of Hopi life—thought, prayer, song, dance, and artworks (Sekaquaptewa et al. 2015).
Therefore, the importance of springs (Nööngava, water flowing out) within Hopi culture cannot be understated. Since “Time Immemorial”, the phenomena of naturally occurring springs are proof to Hopi people that greater forces exist in the physical world we inhabit. The life-sustaining waters that issue forth are a precious resource, allowing Hopi people and their ancestors to survive within a desert environment. Springs are key components of a Hopi Cultural Landscape; one that is imbued with the history of a living culture such as Hopi.
Due to this importance, many springs are formally consecrated with religious shrines, obtaining ritual significance that is recalled in Hopi oral history, song, prayer, and ceremony. To this day, water is collected from springs, some from great distances, and used within ceremonies at Hopi. The riparian environments associated with springs and other water sources are also considered culturally important. Specific springs are often visited to collect flora, fauna, minerals and pigments, which are used in ceremonies, as medicine or as utilitarian items.
In ancestral and historic times, springs drew people together, often being the place at which villages were built and named for, such as Paaqavi, “Reed Springs Village” located on Third Mesa. When a great drought occurred across the Southwest in the late 12th century, many Hopi clans migrated to areas where more reliable springs could be found, including the southern Black Mesa area, where the modern Hopi villages are located. In recent years, when some of these springs began to dwindle in output, or even completely dry up, Hopi people considered this a manifestation of a much larger problem than simply drought-related.
Activities such as the pumping of underground aquifers by Peabody Western Coal Company on Black Mesa, 50 miles north of the Hopi Mesas, were blamed for the depletion of springs’ output. More on this topic can be found in this in-depth article https://www.azcentral.com/in-depth/news/local/arizona-environment/2020/12/07/drought-and-pumping-hopi-natural-springs-drying-up/5972599002/
The Hopi Tribe’s IRMP states (2001:30), “Since aquifers depend on infiltration of surface water for recharge, they are vulnerable to overuse, drought, contamination and harmful human activities.” The Hopi people understand that there are connections between springs, the water found therein and its subterranean origins. These connections are both physical and spiritual.
For Hopi people, springs are considered to be living entities that breathe and exhale moisture; a metaphysical connection between the spiritual world of ancestors and the natural world of their descendants. “Water under the ground has much to do with rain clouds. Everything depends upon the proper balance being maintained. The water under the ground acts like a magnet attracting rain from the clouds and the rain in the clouds acts as a magnet raising the water table under the ground to the roots of our crops and plants” (Hopi elders and religious leaders, 1972).
The granting of life from one world to another is commemorated with ceremonial offerings left at springs, which formally acknowledge our ancestors’ existence, as they acknowledge ours.
Blue Spring (Sakwa’vaahu) located along the Little Colorado River near the Confluence of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, is one of thousands of springs that exist within the ancestral Hopi homeland. The sensitive details of its religious context remains with Hopi practitioners, however, due to its proximity to Sipaapuni, the Hopi Emergence point – a spiritual and cultural genesis – its significance takes on added meaning. It is akin to Holy Water within a church.
The geographic area around Blue Spring and the Sipaapuni is also imbued with the essence of departed Hopi ancestors, who visit their Hopi relatives in the form of clouds and other moisture. Accordingly, the Blue Springs region is hallowed ground where Hopi ancestors reside, serving as spiritual guardians of the Grand Canyon and Hopi culture.
Again, due to its close association to the Hopi Emergence point and the Hopi Salt Trail (both of which are associated with life-fulfillment traditions for Hopi people), Blue Spring is intimately connected to a larger worldview of Hopi life. Yet, although Sakwa’vaahu lies outside the modern boundaries of the now established Hopi Reservation (a result of federal land policy), the traditional knowledge and connection to Hopi people remains.
In addition, because of its unique qualities of issuing beautiful turquoise blue waters, Sakwa’vaahu serves as a metaphorical representation of a verdant and healthy ecosystem: “blue/green is a significant color because it is the color of plants and thus symbolic or growth as well as because it is the color of water and thus symbolic of rain (Sekaquaptewa et al. 2015:26). As with other springs known to Hopi people, a significant drop in the output at Blue Spring is an indicator of environmental changes or impacts elsewhere, which can negatively affect the spiritual well-being of Hopi people and their culture.
Hopi Anthropologist Ferrell Secakuku states (2005), “… every time we go out (to pray and leave offerings)…we also go to a spring…because the spring is very, very important. That represents the blood line of the earth, our mother….” Thus the importance of springs encompasses more than our daily need for survival. Springs are inter-twined with cultural preservation as a whole. As the opening statement remarks, springs are a reflection of the current state of our environment; ecologically, culturally and spiritually.
The Hopi Tribe’s IRMP states (2001:30): Paavahu, Water Resources, are highly valued by the Hopi as a main source of life in a harsh and arid environment. The central focus in Hopi ceremonial life is the propitiation of moisture in its various forms. Moisture provides for the domestic and agricultural needs of Hopi people as well as the supernatural and spiritual essence of Hopitutskwa, the Hopi indigenous lands. As a valuable natural resource to the Hopi people, water must be protected and conserved so that we may all fulfill our ultimate stewardship responsibility: the needs of our children and future generations for this life giving resource.
Hopi Elders and Religious Leaders. 1972. Oral Testimony from the Hopi Hearings. Transcript on file, Museum of Northern Arizona, Flagstaff.
Hopi Tribe, et al. 2001. Hopi Tutskwat Makiwa’yta: Soosoy Himu Hopit Tutavoyat ev Hintsaktiwqa Qatsit Oovi Natwaniwa (Hop Land Stewardship: An Integrated Resources Management Plan for the Hopi Reservation).
Secakuku, Ferrell. 2005. Interview transcript on file, “Siitala Life in Balance, World in Bloom” exhibit planning project, Museum of Northern Arizona, Flagstaff.
Sekaquaptewa, Emory, Kenneth C. Hill, and Dorothy K. Washburn. 2015. Hopi Katsina Songs. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.