PRINT Summer 1988



I HAD A CHOICE on Easter Sunday. It was either a deep draught of religio-pantheism at a dawn mass on the southern rim of the Grand Canyon—a touch of in situ sublimity and à la lettre gorgeousness—or a journey eastward across Arizona’s Navaho and Hopi reservations. Sensing a kind of irresistible incongruity between fattening candles and the chasm, and a craving to avoid the pitfalls of well-intimated spectacular sentimentality, I went east.

Hopiland is inscribed on the map inside the greater Navaho compound, not far from that apogee of territorial rectilinearity and arbitrariness, Four Corners, at the Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona junction. The reservationscape, a vast liquorless tableland of another people’s pa(ma)trimony, carries some of the earliest and most continuously settled sites of pre-Caucasian civilization in North America. If you can think at all in the bleak transit from wash to wash, you are somehow obliged to think of trespass — especially the trespass of industrial time, with its ignoble sediment of unperishable detritus, its peculiarly fashioned metals and intractable synthetics, inflicted as desire, by the artificial machineries of need, on the incunabula rasa of the geo-logic.

Three mesas fillet down across the sage-scrubbed plateau. The Hopi’s recourse to these defensible fastnesses was a necessary maneuver against the foraging raids of Navaho and Apache nomads to the north and the south. In 1870, a certain Major John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran and future director of the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Ethnology, stood at the threshold of Tusayan (as the Spanish called the province) and keenly spoke it into the appropriative discourses of the picturesque and the metaphoric:

These cliffs are rocks of bright colors, golden vermilion, purple and azure hues, and so storm-carved as to imitate Gothic and Grecian architecture on a vast scale. Outlying buttes were castles, with minaret and spire; the cliffs, on either side, were cities looking down into the valley, with castles standing between; the inhabitants of these cities and castles are a million lizards: great red and black lizards, the kings of nobles; little gray lizards, the common people, and, here and there, a priestly rattlesnake.

Inside the miniature sky-pitched urbanism of the pueblos this Easter Sunday, in their one-story-immured plaza hearts, the Hopi danced a seasonal kachina dance. Aligned in a snakelike curve around the mud and dust arena, the kachinas measured out a moccasin-stamped rhythm, interrupted by a tiny syncopation (on the twenty-somethingth beat) exacted by a solitary drum and answered by the clack of turtle-shell greaves and the rattle of “sleigh bells.” Ash-clad irregulars (jokers/clowns) cavorted parodically, disrupting the lineaments of the dance. Elsewhere in Arizona, exogenous lawmakers were preparing for and against the impeachment of their governor.

Around noon, clowns and kachinas together fetched dozens of thin, brown, brand-named grocery boxes crammed with festive offerings. Kleenex, Pepsi, Nabisco. The boxes were set down in the middle of the square, and fifty men began hurling a wild assortment of comestibles to the loose ranks of onlookers and roof-sitters. I saved a star-shaped blue-corn piki bread from crushing my earlobe. Adjacent airspace was thick with 7-Up and Wonder bread. A Navaho from Tuba City confided that this was his first-ever visit to a Hopi dance. I echoed the confidence.

Almost imperceptibly, in the throes of this exchange, the format of the dance was reassumed. It had faded and begun thus on both the weekend days. Everyone but the few tourists, voyeurs, and heavy-metal adolescents (“cultured people from New York, Californians, onward-pressing tourists, cowboys, Navaho Indians, even negroes,” wrote D.H. Lawrence of his visit to Hopiland on August 17, 1924) stayed with or around the dance for the duration. This realization underlined the contradictory pleasures of viewing, the uncomfortableness of difference, and demonstrated the power of staying. But it was only by going that I knew that the Hopi dance, for all its Christianized conflations (painted eggs in eagle feathers), for all the peripheral appurtenances of modern life (in and out of the plaza), was willingly and willfully unknowable.

Neither orotund Powellisms nor the undernourished statistics and observations of (much) anthropology could underwrite the guarantee of knowledge here. And Lawrence’s interpretation of the Hopi’s hardwon, animistic, sun-centered religiosity opens up further unnegotiable spaces of paradox. For all his assertions of instinctual consanguinity—“I have a dark-faced, bronze-voiced father far back in the resinous ages”—for all his acquisitive hope of “getting something” from the Native Americans, “something which this wearily external white world cannot give,” for all his virtuoso displays of contiguity—“the old nodality of the pueblo still holding like a dark ganglion spinning invisible threads of consciousness”—despite all these contestations of the “tribal mysteries of [the] blood,” Lawrence has, in the end, to shrink back: “I stand on the far edge of their firelight, and am neither denied nor accepted. My way is my own, old red father; I can’t cluster at the drum anymore.”

The Hopi themselves have contributed to the unknowing by prohibiting most if not all visual representation of their rituals and places for most of this century. None of the dance’s articulations, none of its symbols, can be referred to a common text. Its open secrecy is the border between nonrelated discourses. The underlying power of this mystery play lies not only in its untranslatability but also in its unreproducibility. The original cannot be transferred or copied. No circulation, no trade, no shared language except report. The dance is a glimpse of the unconscious of the Americas, somehow still lived in the middle of the West.

John Welchman, an art historian and critic, is a visiting scholar in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University, New York. His column appears regularly in Artforum.