The most terrifying event of my life happened in Old Oraibi when I was 8 years old.
I haven’t been back since, but I’m heading uphill out of Moenkopi Farms and onto the Hopi Reservation toward First Mesa and Old Oraibi. Huge sensually green expanses of Mormon Tea remind me of spring Kansas wheat fields, with lone trees replacing grain silos on the flat landscape. Things are a little different up here. People drive slower and are in less of a hurry to walk through their daily goings on. The graffiti common in Flagstaff and Tuba City is absent. The roadsides are surprisingly free of litter.
All geographic landmarks are lost for awhile except for the omnipresent Nuvatukaovi (San Francisco Peaks) to the west, home of the Kachina gods and the sacred mountains of the Hopi people. All of a sudden the land falls away to your right and you are reminded that you are on a high northern Arizona mesa. The village of Old Oraibi appears almost invisible, blending into and perched on the tan cliffs high above Oraibi Wash.
The last time I was here I was with my father on a visit to a Hopi friend to attend a Hopi dance and sacred ceremony. This was when kachadas (non-Hopis) could attend ceremonies as friends of a Hopi and before the days when the dances became entertainment to the outside world.
Four large and hideously masked kachinas with large sharp teeth and long sticks appeared suddenly from a narrow alley and one of them struck me hard on the leg with his stick. They were not shy about using their sticks and pieces of rope as they chased every person off of the dirt streets and into the closest doorway. My father grabbed my arm as we ran into the nearest home, not knowing who lived there. The room was packed with Hopis gathered there for the same reason we were. We sat on the dirt floor, the only kachadas in the room. No one dared to peek out of the sheet covered windows while the Kachinas conducted their secret and very sacred and serious business outside. This is the first time I recall truly recognizing mortality and the first time I saw a baby being breast fed. Only after a couple of hours were we allowed go back outside.
My old friend Phyllis Yoyetewa-Kachinhongva (Eagle clan) from Shongopovi on Second Mesa chuckled softly when I told her this story some years ago at Grand Canyon. Phyllis is the epitome of the calm grace and friendly gentle spirit of the traditional Hopi. With a permanent twinkle in her eyes she told me stories of Hopi life on the Mesas and how Old Oraibi has maintained the older traditional ways of the Hopi.
Unlike other surrounding Hopi and Navajo Reservation communities, this way of life continues in Old Oraibi in spite of the strong attraction of Flagstaff and Winslow to the younger Hopis. Modern “progressive” Hopis have mostly moved off to places like Keems Canyon and Polacca.
Widely recognized as the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the United States, Old Oraibi was built around 1100 AD and “discovered” by one of Coronado’s lieutenants on his quest for the Seven Cities of Gold.
As I returned after all these years my memory of the village was surprisingly accurate. I parked my truck by the highway and walked down the ancient dirt road into the stone and adobe village. The only thing reminding me that this wasn’t the twelfth century was the bright orange school bus stop sign on the outskirts and a pickup truck or two. Visitors are welcome the village, although the residents keep mainly to themselves.
As I lingered in the village, I felt uncomfortable and a bit awkward – like I was intruding on a way of life that was not mine, and was not only different, but in many ways better. It was not the few gracious residents I encountered that brought on these feelings, they were my own.
Photographs are not allowed in Old Oraibi, and I would recommend you leave your vehicle off the paved highway and walk into the village – respect Old Oraibi and its residents as they respect you as a visitor.
You can reach Old Oraibi and the Hopi Mesas by traveling south on Highway 264 south from Tuba City and the Navajo Reservation or by going north on Highway 87 from Winslow on Interstate 40. Services are limited on the Hopi Reservation, but the quality of the silversmith and carved Kachina businesses is excellent.
Old Oraibi is not an attraction or tourist spot. It is not even a village made up of homes and families. It is much more; it is perhaps the only place left where centuries old traditions, beliefs and a very special way of life continue today.