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For nearly a century, fiercely traditional Hopi Indians in the village of Hotevilla have struggled against the U.S. government and their own tribe in an effort to preserve their ancient culture and protect their religious beliefs.
When Hotevilla was established as a haven for traditionalists in 1906, the dispute centered on the villagers' refusal to send their children to government schools. Through the years, the specifics have changed--from the creation of the Hopi Tribal Council in 1934 to an attempt in 1968 to bring electricity to the village.
In 1998, the issue is toilets. The small group of remaining traditionalists is challenging a million-dollar sewer system that has finally brought indoor plumbing to dozens of homes on the isolated mesa in northern Arizona.
The traditional Hopi, led by a 105-year-old village elder, say the sewer system--a series of pipes that lead from homes on the mesa to a large sewage-treatment pond at its base--was built in violation of federal environmental laws.
Moreover, they say the pipes are smack in the midst of a sacred burial ground and that the underground plumbing is blocking the path of their prayers to the Creator. This obstacle to spiritual communication, they contend, is causing huge problems worldwide, including El Nino and the threat of armed conflict with Iraq. The group believes that if the pipes are allowed to remain in the ground, they could even portend the end of life on Earth.
For decades these traditional Hopi have shunned any sort of government handout or program. They've refused to recognize the authority of the U.S. government and especially the Hopi Tribal Council, which was created by the feds. They declined to participate in public hearings on the sewer project because the meetings were government-sponsored.
But in its effort to preserve its cultural heritage and eschew the government, the Hopi group is making good use of government institutions and modern technology. They have pushed their legal challenge of the sewer system all the way to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and may take it to the U.S. Supreme Court. Last week, the Ninth Circuit rejected their legal arguments, ruling that the Hopi Tribe is sovereign and immune from lawsuits. Normally, the government-shunning traditionalists would welcome a ruling that said the tribe was immune from outside interference. But now, they say, they will file an appeal with the nation's highest court.
Friends off the reservation have designed a sophisticated Web site aimed at spreading the traditional Hopi's broader message of saving the planet and humanity through sound environmental practices and civility. The Web site, a 1995 book on Hotevilla and other homespun publicity attempts have brought in some cash for the lawsuit, although their Phoenix attorney, Howard Shanker, says his expenses have barely been covered.
And though traditionalists' numbers have dwindled--elders die, people leave the reservation and young Hopi embrace modern ways--the traditionalists' passion has never faded. Through the years, their leaders have suffered imprisonment in crude government guardhouses. The men of the village were locked up in Alcatraz for a year. In more recent times, they've thrown themselves in the path of bulldozers and laid down in open construction trenches to stop water and sewer projects. They've gone against their own family members, a difficult decision in a society organized around clans and lineage.
Current Hopi Tribal Council leaders didn't return phone calls for this story.
That's okay with the traditionalists, who want their story to be understood their way.
"We settled down here with a purpose to be who we are, as a traditional Hopi group," says Dan Evehema, who at 105 years old is the eldest elder in Hotevilla. "That was our choice.
"We want outside to leave us alone--the tribal government as well as the U.S. government. They have no authority here."
To understand the present, you must first learn about the past. That is the Hopi way, says Vernon Masayesva, a former tribal chairman who was born and raised in Hotevilla [pronounced HOAT-villah]. So before Masayesva, who's relocated to the Valley and is not a part of the traditionalist group, will comment on the latest political brouhaha in his village, he explains the history of Hotevilla over a cup of coffee at a Scottsdale cafe. It's a story that also can be found in various books and reports about the Hopi Tribe, as well as a 1995 tome co-authored by Evehema and published by the California-based Touch the Earth Foundation.
Anthropologists believe the area of northern Arizona that contains the Hopi reservation has been occupied for as long as 10,000 years, and continuously occupied for at least 2,000 years. The sewer outfall pipeline and sewage lagoon sit amid ancient farms and fields and orchards. Some pipes are located near petroglyphs.
Hotevilla itself took root in 1906, after disagreements between the traditionalists and the "progressives" in the village of Old Oraibi came to a somewhat violent head.
Traditionalists had for several years refused to send their children to government schools in nearby Keams Canyon. The more progressive Hopi embraced education and Christianity; the traditionalists held fast to the Hopi religion and opposed any government but their own long-established village hierarchy, which is organized around clans and recognizes a village chief.