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Without Reservations

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6/8/04: No More Hopis?

I was busy cleaning the glass counter tops to the jewelry cases when I heard the little brass bells ring, letting me know that someone had just come through the front door. I had only been working in the gallery for a few months and was anxious to make a good impression on a would-be customer. I smiled and greeted the couple as they came up the short flight of old wooden stairs leading into the main parlor. They were obviously getting on in age and appeared to be local. I noticed them as they browsed around the shop, admiring various pieces of artwork and thumbing through the library of books on topics ranging from modern art to Hopi history. It was the latter that seemed to interest the gentleman most.

As with all of our visitors, I approached and asked if I could help them find something in particular or if they had any questions I could answer for them. I was hoping that this might open up an avenue for conversation and provide an opportunity for small-talk if nothing else. He looked up from the book he was holding, smiled at me, and asked, "Have you read any of these books?" I replied that I had read some of them, but most I had only read portions of. "Well, what did you think of what you've read?" he asked, he was still smiling. I could tell this was leading up to a trick question, but I wanted to see where he was going, so I put it back on him. "I don't know. I've read a lot of stories that don't always agree. What do you make of all of it?"

He looked down at the book again and flipped through a few pages, as if here were reminiscing about the time he last read the volume he was holding. As he placed it back upon the shelf, he laughed softly and looked back up at me. He had a more serious look in his eyes. "Unfortunately the stories have been told so many times by so many different people and written down in so many different ways, there's really nothing left that's accurate." I could tell by this statement that he was more disappointed than amused by the collection of writings that exist on the subject of Hopi history and culture.

My next assumption was that he was Hopi, since he seemed to have some knowledge of the subject and certainly had an opinion. "So you're Hopi then?" I inquired. "No…." He paused and looked away, "No, I'm not Hopi." He looked back at me again with that soft smile. I was confused. If he's not Hopi, then he must be Pueblo and probably married into the Hopi tribe. "So where are you from?" I asked. "My wife is from Shungopavi," he said. "Oh so, she's Hopi then," I tried to confirm. He laughed softly again and shook his head, "No, she's not Hopi either." By now, he could tell I was perplexed.

Then he said something that I will never forget, "There are no more Hopis." Obviously the next question out of my mouth was "What do you mean there are no more Hopis?" I was getting frustrated, but at the same time I was even more curious. Although I probably shouldn't have pressed him with so many questions, he must have felt that I was sincere, because his posture relaxed as he leaned up against one of the cases and began to explain. "Hopi is a way of life - more than it is a skin color or tribal affiliation." He continued, "Hopi is to possess true charity. It is without enmity, jealousy, greed, or guile. Are you Christian?" he asked. I replied in the affirmative, and he said "To be Hopi is to be Christ-like." I began to understand. As a result of my own religious upbringing I had always been taught to strive to develop a virtuous character, much like the one he had just described. He pointed at me and nodded his head, "You could be Hopi." I thought about that for a moment and realized that this man probably was Hopi according to the tribal roster but possessed an elevated sense of self-awareness that prevented him from declaring that he truly was Hopi, much like many Christians would probably refrain from believing that they had attained perfection.

Ultimately it became clearer to me that Hopi was an aspiration - a philosophy. It was an ideal that he believed was supreme. To him it meant purity of heart. The irony was that he was probably closer to being Hopi than most others but was the first to realize that he still had a long way to go. I suppose it hasn't helped that our Western ways have encroached many Native peoples and their ways of life. With money, alcohol, technology, and politics, it's easy to become distracted. It's easy to lose focus.

Perhaps this is the reason behind these great works of art. The true sense of Hopi is yearning to be preserved. It's longing to be embraced. I see it in the delicate jewelry lines and elaborate pottery murals. It is in the fluid motion of a kachina carver's masterpiece. The beauty, elegance, grace - and purity is still alive. Although there are still some who possess many of the characteristics and attributes of a true Hopi, I realized that "Hopis" are vanishing all over the world. In a day and age where we are overcome by convenience and indulgence, I'm grateful for the opportunities that I have to pause and reflect on the real beauty in life - the love of family and friends and the glorious creations of both God and man.

May there always be Hopi.

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