Hopi Dances: Summer Solstice on the Roof of the World

June, 2009

The Hopi Indians are the westernmost of the Pueblo peoples and live in twelve villages on three mesas in northeastern Arizona. To grow crops — especially corn — in their semiarid land, the Hopis believe that they must cultivate the favor of the gods who have power over nature and weather. Each year between Winter and Summer Solstice, ancestral spirits called "Kachinas" come from their cloud homes in the San Francisco Peaks to live among the people and renew the powers of fertility and rain.

Our friend Ann H. is an expert in Navajo weaving, and her husband Kit is a sculptor and former ranger at Navajo National Monument. It didn't take much arm-twisting to persuade us and friends Tom and Ann C. from Albuquerque to get together in northern Arizona at Solstice to attend the Hopi Solstice dances. We met Friday at La Posada in Winslow for one night of quirky luxury. One of the original Fred Harvey hotels, La Posada was designed in the 1920s by architect Mary Colter, who considered it her masterpiece. But this Arizona landmark closed its doors in 1957 and remained empty until it was purchased by Allan Affeldt and artist Tina Mion in 1996. Affeldt and Mion have restored and redecorated the inn with flair and daring. And while I was slightly weirded out by Mion's dark style, her Ladies First portraits of America's first ladies are riveting. May Michelle O. be spared the personal tragedies that have touched the lives of so many presidents' wives.

From Winslow, we caravaned north to the village of Shungopavi on Second Mesa, where the dances were already in progress. "Dance" is bit of a misnomer. The kachina dances are religious rituals that include chanting and drumming accompanied by rhythmic movements. The costumes are breathtaking, with turkey feather headresses and colorful, finely painted masks for the dancers and the chorus. More than 200 costumed figures — including the comical mudheads — were packed into the village square. Several times during the dance, villagers arrived with baskets overflowing with fresh vegetables, fruit, cookies and popcorn. The dancers distributed these treats, delighting in firing bananas, oranges — and especially melons — at the rooftop spectators. Recording of any kind is strictly prohibited.

We had planned to stay at the Hopi Cultural Center, but the motel was full and the camping area was bleak. Instead, we made our way to Coal Mine Canyon, one of the most beautiful spots anywhere in Arizona. Since the canyon is on land claimed jointly by the Hopi and the Navajo, we knew we were taking a chance. Two young Navajos drove up while we were preparing dinner. Although we thought they'd ask us to leave, instead they politely regaled us with tales of the many dangers lurking in the canyon, including:

  • mountain lions
  • coyotes
  • packs of wild dogs
  • rattlesnakes
  • armies of tarantulas
  • Hopi game wardens
  • trigger-happy grandmothers
  • skinwalkers
  • ghosts on horseback

Each warning was accompanied by a story of their encounters with the various demons and an admonition to "be careful out there". Thoroughly charmed, we repeatedly invited them to join us for dinner, but each invitation yielded yet another cautionary tale. We were sorry when they drove off to a campsite farther down the canyon.

Dawn lit up the red, white and gray layers of the canyon while we sipped our coffee on the rim in the shelter of the Turtle. We bid a reluctant farewell to Tom and Ann after breakfast, and made a mad dash to Navajo National Monument, where Kit spent summers as a child and worked as a ranger from 1968 to 1970.

We were amazed to find that this spectacular national park charges no fees for admission, camping or even guided tours. We camped on a ridge with a glorious view of Long Canyon, and hiked the Sandal Trail to Betatakin overlook at sunset.

Monday morning we caught the first guided tour of Betatakin — a remarkably large and well-preserved pueblo in a huge alcove above an aspen forest. Our Navajo guide, Miranda S., not only did a fine job of narrating the history of Betatakin, but also recounted her personal experiences with the healing powers of certain plants that we found along the trail. We eagerly signed up for a two-day backpack to Keet Seel ruins later this summer.

It was only when we turned the TacoMa south that we realized we had wandered to within a stone's throw of the Utah border, and that we were facing a LONG drive back to Tucson. Of course we chose the scenic route, travelling through blue and yellow high mesa country slashed by red sandstone ridges and jagged basalt fins. Darkness found us dodging herds of elk as we wound our way south along the lip of the Mogollon Rim. We arrived home at 2:00 a.m., tired, happy and looking forward to our next trip to Indian country.