Tucked within northeastern Arizona's Navajo Reservation, the Hopi Reservation is home to nearly 7,000 Hopi people. And although signage is minimal along the 81-mile stretch of State Route 264, from Tuba City to Keams Canyon, ancient tradition and culture are ever-present in many artistic expressions. Between the mountain cliffs and the vast high desert land where corn grows and sheep and cattle graze, 12 villages dot the three main regions—First Mesa, Second Mesa, and Third Mesa—that comprise the Hopi Arts Trail. As one of the oldest living cultures documented in history, the Hopi have lived here, and created art, for many generations, so it comes as no surprise that a visit to one of these old pueblos feels like a step back in time.
A Tale of the Trail
Approved by Hopi elders in 2012, the Hopi Arts Trail welcomes visitors, encourages tourism, and is expected to increase commerce on Hopi lands. Like a key to the natural wonders of Hopi lands and the hospitality of its people, the trail opens the door and welcomes visitors in to fully experience the area through the eyes of each artist, while preserving and sharing the culture and traditions of nearly two-dozen local artists.
The Hopi Arts Trail affords visitors the opportunity to get to know local artisans in their homes, workshops, studios, and galleries; learn firsthand about the Hopi matrilineal society, organized by clan; and try native foods.
Most often taught by their elders or mentors who continue to pass their knowledge down from one generation to the next, Hopi artists furnish items they've put to use in their daily lives for many years, including baskets woven to sift grain and pottery crafted to store food. Items such as these, which tell the story of the Hopi culture, are created as art and available for purchase.
From the pottery painted with symbols that represents the different clans, to the Kachina doll that exemplifies a specific dance or character central to Hopi religious beliefs, Hopi art is unique because it has been an integral part of the Hopi way of life.
With four galleries showcasing traditional and contemporary mediums, the type of art you are interested in may dictate the galleries and artists you choose to visit. First Mesa, for example, is where you'll find the bulk of the pottery artists. Second Mesa is known for coiled basketry. Third Mesa artists are known for wicker basketry, weaving, Kachina doll carving, and silversmithing.
Masters of Their Crafts
One-on-one visits with artists along the trail provide opportunities to learn more about each artist's inspiration, how he or she works, and become acquainted with the materials used to create each piece of artwork—cottonwood root for carving a Kachina doll, matchstick ends for painting pots, and yucca plants for weaving baskets, to name a few.
While each of the artists will do custom work, they might have certain restrictions related to the culture. Michael "Coyote" George, a Kachina doll carver, will carve rare and custom figures, but not priests or chiefs. "They are sacred," he says.
Silversmith Roy Talahaftewa is known for making concha as well as his own stamping tools, but he also works with tufa casting, a process where a lightweight, easy-to-carve stone called tufa (locally quarried) is used to create molds for silver jewelry designs. Talahaftewa's intricate and unique designs might feature corn and water or feather designs that he draws by hand, as well as the use of turquoise and other natural stones. In the summer, he hosts classes at his gallery for artists and visitors alike.
Some gallery owners schedule hands-on workshops, including Iskasokpu Gallery in Second Mesa. The gallery's co-owner, Iva Honyestewa, is extraordinary to watch create coiled basketry; the speed at which she weaves the fibers in and out is an experience in itself. She and her husband, Edward (a sculptor), also host a culinary experience right in their home kitchen. Here, you can taste indigenous foods such as mutton (sheep) stew or piki, a rolled, wafer-thin bread made out of blue corn meal, which is usually reserved for ceremonial purposes.
If you're invited into an artist's home, take them up on this honor. You also might be invited to join them for dinner or meet their family. You'll surely gain a glimpse of what life is like inside the Hopi home. See how they decorate; it's common for families to line the ceiling in the living room with Kachina dolls, including the ones given as gifts to their children while growing up. In many cases, water flows from ancient springs and generators provide power.
On such a visit, you might get a chance to hear from someone like Lawrence Namoki, a potter from Walpi, about how Hopi people came to live in this place they call the Fourth World. It's a beautiful story of love and faith that he illustrates in Hopi colors (blue, white, yellow, and red) and in clan symbols on his pottery.
Much of what you'll see along the trail helps tell the story of this ancient people who migrated to what's now northeastern Arizona. From the ancient cliff dwellings at the Navajo National Monument near Kayenta and Canyon de Chelly, to the authentic Hopi cuisine served at the restaurant inside the Hopi Cultural Center, a visit to this region is a comprehensive cultural experience.
Visitors are welcome to embark on self-guided, self-paced tours along the trail. But guided tours, hosted by several Hopi guides, also are available. As a spiritual people who closely guard their land, art, and lifestyle, the Hopi prefer you leave what's sacred to them in peace, and allow yourself the opportunity to experience your visit without distraction. What this means to visitors is recording or reproducing of any kind—from drawing and note-taking to photography and audio/videotaping—is prohibited without prior permission from the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office.
Experiences vary by visit, season, and location. And while galleries are open and artists are working year-round, hours are limited in winter. Regardless of the time of year, it's always recommended to call ahead to set up both artist and gallery visits.
Social (read: open to the public) dances provide visitors with a rare opportunity to learn more about the Hopi. The winter Buffalo Dance, where men sport buffalo heads and body paint and carry rattles and juniper branches while dancing to the beat of drums, marks the Hopi's annual request for cold weather. Social dances take place on all three mesas throughout the year and in Tuba City.
Attending public events, such as these, on Hopi lands is considered a privilege and is part of what makes visiting such a pleasure. "You used to have to know a Hopi to experience Hopi," says James Surveyor, director of the Hopi Arts Trail. While you won't find a calendar of events for Hopi lands posted on a website, you can ask about any social events taking place at local establishments, or you may be invited by someone you meet along your journey.
The Hopi Arts Trail strikes a balance between past and present, introducing ancient rituals to new, curious, and appreciative eyes. No two experiences here are the same, as each person's sojourn—and the people encountered along the way—shape the understanding of these sacred lands and the storied culture within.
This article was first published in Arizona Highroads in January/February 2015 and updated in March 2019. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.