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.
Late on a September day in 1906, a serious argument ensued. Traditionalists were dragged from their homes by their hair and marched to the edge of the village. The progressives and traditionalists had decided to split, and the traditionalists were the ones leaving. According to Evehema's book, Yukiuma, the charismatic traditionalist leader, stood at the edge of Oraibi and drew a line in the dirt with his foot. He said, "From here on, all the land is under my care. You in Oraibi will have only the village." Then he stepped over the line and headed west.
Evehema is the only Hotevilla resident alive today who witnessed the breakup of the old village and the founding of the new one. He was 13 years old, and his father was among those who a few years earlier had been held in the federal prison on the San Francisco Bay island of Alcatraz because he wouldn't send his son to a government school. Evehema remembers being herded from the village by progressives who taunted the departing villagers. He says they weren't even allowed to collect most of their belongings.
Yukiuma actually meant to lead his followers to a more distant spot, but bad weather and a lack of supplies forced the group to set up what was to be a temporary camp on Third Mesa. Masayesva says the villagers who had been driven from Old Oraibi didn't have enough food to get much farther, so they decided to make a temporary village until they could harvest crops and possibly retrieve some of their possessions. People put up makeshift homes that eventually became permanent, which is why the village is scattered today, not well-planned and laid out like other Hopi villages, he says.
People soon became comfortable with the site; Hotevilla had ample water and fertile ground and still has the best-producing farms on the reservation.
Dissent took hold early in Hotevilla. A group of traditionalists soon tried to return to Oraibi but was rejected. It headed back toward Hotevilla but stopped short and instead established Bacabi, a village whose residents were willing to accept some things from the government. Bacabi got a sewer system years ago.
"Yukiuma's group outright rejected anything the government had to offer, including schools," Masayesva says.
The traditionalists were called "hostiles" because of their animosity toward the federal government. Other Hopi believed that the best way to preserve their culture was to work with the government and become educated. They became known as "friendlies."
But flaws in Hotevilla's religious and social structure created a serious weakness that Hotevilla, despite its intention to follow a traditional line, has never quite resolved, Masayesva says.
In Hopi culture, it is the Bear Clan that produces the spiritual and moral leaders of the village. But Hotevilla was established by the Fire Clan (which is Masayesva's clan), and the traditional religious system was shattered because the necessary rituals couldn't be carried out, Masayesva says.
Yukiuma's personal force held the village together for many years, says Masayesva, but when he died, there was no one anointed--or strong enough--to take his place.
"As the years went by, the adherence to the original mission weakened, and no one had the strength to bind the people together," Masayesva says. "The village just sort of operated from day to day. Even today there is not a clearly recognized leader."
In the 1930s, the federal government urged the Hopi to form a tribal council, a departure from the traditional system in which each of the dozen Hopi villages governed itself. Only about 15 percent of the Hopi participated in the election, but a tribal government was put in place anyway, according to the Evehema book. Decades later, the Hotevilla Village Board was formed as a mechanism to accept grant money from the council and the government, but Masayesva says it has never been intended as a village governing body.
Masayesva remembers a similar dust-up over electricity, something that the village rejected about 30 years ago when traditionalists had more political sway in the village. Other Hopi villages had electricity and kids wanted to watch TV, he says. So Hotevilla residents bought TVs they could plug into the cigarette lighters of their cars and trucks. Then they'd drive to the edge of the mesa in the evenings to get the best reception. "There'd be a long line of cars lined up on the mesa with the antennas pointed at the San Francisco Peaks," Masayesva recalls.
But the village still valued its simple ways, and the Hopi Foundation came up with a plan to provide homes with solar power, thwarting the need for electrical transmission lines. Masayesva believes Hotevilla is the largest solar-powered community in the nation.
If we remain strong and firmly rooted, we will not be reshaped, whereas others will slump because they are rootless. So when the tests come, we must possess the strength to preserve ourselves.
--Translation of Hopi prophecy, from traditionalists' Web site
The Hopi religion is draconian.
"People say the Hopis walk on the edge of a sharp knife while the Christians walk on a broad path," Masayesva says. "If you fall down in the Christian religion, you can confess and get back up again. With the Hopis, once you fall off, you can't get back on again."
Leaders are special in the Hopi culture and must be properly enthroned through strict religious rules and rites. Evehema and other traditionalists who have taken the lead on battling the sewer project do not claim to be "leaders" and are almost shy about finding themselves in the spotlight.
Evehema "is not a leader," says Masayesva. "He is just a man who is totally convinced that we are headed in the wrong direction, that we have broken the covenant."
The covenant is the pact that traditionalist Hopi believe was made nearly 1,000 years ago with the Creator. Evehema's book, Hotevilla: Hopi Shrine of the Covenant, Microcosm of the World, explains the arrangement in nearly 600 pages of history, philosophy and spiritual guidance.
Co-authored by Native American scholar Thomas E. Mails, the book begins with this question. "Is it possible, probable, even logical that an endangered species without federal protection--five elderly native people, supported by perhaps fifteen younger men and women, living the simplest of lives in a remote village in Northern Arizona--hold in their hands the fate of the Americas and perhaps even of the entire world?"
"Implausible as it seems," Mails and Evehema write, "this little village may at this moment--and for a long time to come--be the most important place in the world."
Evehema and his supporters believe that in A.D. 1100, Maasaw, the guardian spirit of the Earth, entrusted the fate of the world to the Hopi. Maasaw gave the Hopi numerous prophecies and expected them to become, as the book puts it, a "network of loyal servant people." The Hopi were initially just charged with watching out for North America. But as the "aboriginal loyalists" in other lands have become extinct, the Hopi elders have had to take responsibility for those countries, too, the book says.
"When Hopi makes a commitment, he makes a commitment to the whole world, not just the Hopi people," says Emery Holmes Sr., a Hopi medicine man. Holmes, a younger man who appears to be in his 40s, has become the quasi-official spokesman for the traditionalist group. Holmes, Evehema and another elder, Martin Gashweseoma, are the three traditionalists who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the sewer project.
To that end, Evehema and his allies have traveled to United Nations meetings four times--as set out in the prophecies--to preach their environmental message.
Gashweseoma, who is Masayesva's uncle, is the keeper of the sacred tablets that explain the prophecies and the covenant. In fact, the Mails/Evehema book describes a holy object--a "marker"--vital to the covenant, the prophecies and the fate of the world and known only to the most trusted elders, that is buried somewhere in Hotevilla. The traditionalists are worried that the object will be damaged if sewer and water systems continue to be built.
Still, Holmes says, the sewer project has disturbed other sacred areas, including a burial site that held fetuses, umbilical cords and other remains of dead babies. Women from the village who were having a hard time conceiving would go to the site and pray, he says, and often would have their prayers answered.
"I think we should all realize that culture is the most important thing," Holmes says. "But you can't mix the Hopi culture, the Hopi way . . . with the white man's government. They don't go together.
"As a people, we're trying to walk away and follow the white man's way and that's not our way. And when it's too late, who is going to pay for it? Our children."
The sewer project has been in the works since about 1989. It was funded with a $759,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency and then the Indian Health Service and the tribe chipped in about another $250,000, according to federal officials.
Construction began in the early 1990s, but stopped when federal budget cutbacks led to a shortage of government labor. The Hopi Tribe took it up again a year later and finally finished the system in 1996. It's hard to tell how many people in the village have actually taken advantage of the offered conveniences; the traditionalists say only a few homes have hooked up, village community development officials who operate the system say about 60 homes are using it and an IHS spokesman says about 120 homes are connected. The facility plan anticipated more than 200 homes connecting to the system, at a cost to homeowners of about $14 a month.
The sewage-treatment lagoon covers about five acres at the base of the mesa, a spot where the IHS says villagers used to dump their waste anyway. About 4.5 miles of sewer line, mostly buried, lead up the side of the mesa alongside ancient petroglyphs and into the village. Eighty-nine manholes in the form of four-foot-high concrete conduits are scattered through the village and farm area.
Three years ago, after construction was nearly finished but before the sewer was operating, the traditionalists were introduced to Phoenix lawyer Howard Shanker, a former Justice Department attorney who specializes in environmental law. Shanker and his wife, Tamara Crites Shanker, also an attorney, decided to take the case.
"These people had no recourse," says Howard Shanker. "They needed help and they weren't getting it through the tribe. They're not sophisticated and they're isolated."
Shanker says the traditionalists are not opposed to finding a way to dispose of waste other than outhouses and pit privies.
But the government didn't consider any alternatives, such as above-ground plumbing, when it approved the project. The National Environmental Policy Act sets out a detailed checklist of things the government is supposed to do before it decides to go ahead with a project. Under NEPA, the government is supposed to consider other alternatives to a project, including what might happen if no action is taken at all. It is supposed to look at a project's effects on the broader community, including economic and cultural changes that might occur. And, Shanker says, it also should have taken into account the cumulative effects of four other water projects along with the sewer system--as is required by federal law.
Often, NEPA requires the writing of a full-blown "environmental impact statement" or at least a more abbreviated "environmental assessment." In the case of the Hopi sewer project, IHS determined that neither an EIS nor an EA were required because reservation sanitation projects are specifically exempted under IHS regulations. So instead of a NEPA-guided EIS, the IHS included a five-page "environmental review" in the overall facility plan for the Hotevilla project. The plan concluded that a more thorough assessment was unnecessary because the project would not have a significant impact on the environment.
The lawsuit dragged on with a federal judge first rejecting a request to stop the project and then, last year, ruling that the traditionalists simply couldn't sue the Hopi Tribe because the tribe is protected from lawsuits under sovereign immunity. The one-sentence decision issued last week by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals doesn't elaborate on that thinking. It simply affirms the lower-court ruling.
Shanker contends that the project was funded by federal dollars and built, for the most part, by the federal government. "Tribal sovereign immunity shouldn't frustrate the [U.S. government's] ability to comply with its own laws," he says.
For its part, the Indian Health Service says it followed the rules in building the project. John Hamilton of the IHS Phoenix-area office, who helped oversee the sewer and water projects in Hotevilla, says most Hotevilla residents were eager for the system to go in and told the government so at numerous public hearings.
"Why should a small percentage of the community stop it?" he says, adding that no one is forced to hook up to the system if he doesn't want to.
Hamilton also notes that the sanitation facilities are needed to prevent the spread of diseases like hepatitis and gastroenteritis, which can occur if raw sewage is allowed to build up in the community. No studies were done of health problems in Hotevilla--a point being raised by the traditionalists who say the dearth of sewage-treatment facilities has not harmed anyone. But Hamilton says an IHS study of Indian reservations nationally compared before-and-after disease rates in what's called Indian Country. In the 1950s, before federal sanitation projects were common, Indian communities suffered disease rates four to six times higher than the U.S. average. That rate has fallen to about the same as the national average since most communities now have sewage-treatment facilities, he says.
Masayesva is generally supportive of the sewer system simply because people are used to modern conveniences. "The young kids, they need indoor plumbing," he says. "Who in Phoenix would dream of not having a shower? These people are no different."
Besides, he adds, "If a sewer line can destroy your religion, that's not a very good religion."
But Masayesva is critical of the government for the way it handled the project, particularly because planners didn't study the effect of the project on the traditionalists and their strong religious beliefs. That's a central argument that Evehema and the other plaintiffs are raising in their lawsuit.
"How do you measure a culture?" asks Masayesva. "You can't transform beliefs into numbers that you can feed into your computers . . . and then crank out what the impacts are. When the government doesn't understand something, they ignore it. It's a racist thing."
For now, life goes on for Hotevilla and its contentious traditionalists. But several of the elder traditionalists have passed away, and Evehema's group appears to be dwindling.
Masayesva wishes a leader would emerge in Hotevilla, someone who could once again bind the people together.
The village as well as the tribe need visionaries who can deal with all sorts of issues, including a long-standing dispute with a major coal-mining company that the Hopi worry is draining their scarce--and sacred--water supply.
"I just also hope the young ones don't hold a grudge against Dan [Evehema]," Masayesva adds. "He is a valuable man because he is standing against someone and standing on principle. The young people should be very proud of him, and see that in a way he is for them."
Contact Patti Epler at her online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.