Reflections on Hopi life. Poet Ramson Lomatewama shares his world through verse

Itaanatwani piw talongnaya

``Neat, huh?'' says Ramson Lomatewama after reading two of his poetic lines in the Hopi language. Aware that the words were jabberwocky to his listeners, the full-blooded Hopi allowed himself a laugh, an overt expression that some Indians tend to stifle outside their own set. But not Mr. Lomatewama, because he's someone with a solid hold on two worlds, the Indian and the Anglo. So he laughs outright.

No one in his audience at Chicago's Field Museum seemed to care a hoot what his lines meant, because the musical meter and intonation melted the language barrier. Giving a loose translation about crops seeing a new day, the poet switched back to speaking and reading in English.

Steeped in oral tradition, the Hopis have only had written words for about 100 years, with standardization just now taking hold - not exactly an ideal situation for sprouting many men and women of letters. That's why Lomatewama is quite unique among his brethren, who live high on three arid mesas in northeast Arizona.

The 33-year-old poet writes in both English and Hopi. He's been published in the former but not in the latter, because there's little demand for penned poems among his people.

Lomatewama's wife, Jessica, is also a Hopi, and that's how they're raising their three daughters - Stephanie, 10; Caryl, 7, and Ellen, 4. Three months ago, the family took a big step, moving from the seclusion of the reservation's Third Mesa to the city of Flagstaff, Ariz., so Lomatewama could be more centrally located for his work. He's an ``artist on the road'' for the Heard Museum in Phoenix. Throughout the year, he travels to schools around Arizona, teaching poetry and creative writing for extended periods to selected classes. From the family's Flagstaff duplex, Lomatewama now commutes a mere three hours, one-way, to his museum base. From his mesa home, he had to drive six hours, one way.

Since their advent to Flagstaff, the family's lifestyle has become embroidered with the amenities of urban living. They now have Sesame Street on the tube, indoor plumbing, and a pizza parlor down the road.

``And mortgage payments and credit cards,'' Lomatewama adds. Then he gives a verbal sketch of the family's 10 years in the reservation village of Hotevilla. At night, they read by Coleman lanterns because there was no electricity in their home, and they toted their water from the village spigot or the mesa's spring. A telephone? No way.

Now the family is preparing for a trip back to the reservation for the ``return of the kachinas,'' a simple ceremony held at the winter solstice. The network of beliefs surrounding kachinas carries a complexity that often baffles outsiders, so Lomatewama pares down the intricacies: ``Kachinas are the spiritual essences that inhabit the things of nature: the clouds, the trees, the corn, the eagles,'' he says, naming only a few.

The Hopis believe that the kachinas stay on the mesas from late December through spring planting and crop nurturing, until late July. It's then that they ``go home'' to their mountain peaks, a departure marked by a lengthy Hopi ceremony. At this time, the young boys receive bows and arrows, and the little girls get kachina dolls, the gifts neatly tied to cornstalks and cattails. The dolls, which are carved, painted, and garbed to depict the kachinas' particular roles, serve both as toys and teaching tools for reinforcing Hopi beliefs.

Sitting in a restaurant during an interview, Lomatewama elaborated on the kachinas. ``Those plants,'' he says, motioning to a pot of greenery, ``they have kachina spirits.'' Then he reneged. ``No, not those. Plastic,'' he says, amused that he was duped by the ersatz.

``The focal point of our culture is corn, and the driving force behind the Hopi is religion,'' with prayers centering on the need for rain, explains the poet.

Lomatewama's hair is bobbed short in front but reaches below his waist in back. ``Hair is symbolic of rain,'' he says. ``So the longer your hair, the longer the Hopi rain will be.''

Although he has adopted much from the Anglos, Lomatewama's heart ticks to a Hopi beat. He seems totally at ease with this dualism, probably because he walked a two-way street from his youth. He was raised in the white world of Flagstaff, where his parents taught him Hopi ways in the home, supplemented by stays with relatives on the reservation.

After attending Northern Arizona University, in Flagstaff, Lomatewama received his bachelor of arts degree from Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt. During his early 20s, he sifted through the religions and philosophies around him to finally select the Hopi beliefs as his own. It was then that he moved to the reservation, where he wrote, worked in a business capacity for the tribe, and taught school at Hotevilla.

Much of Hopi life is mirrored in Lomatewama's poems, collected in a paperback entitled ``Silent Winds.''

To an outsider, Lomatewama's cherished Third Mesa might look like a parched world, hungry for rain, where the soil seems more suited to beaches than crops. But Lomatewama looks out from that mesa, upholstered in tans and browns and sparse dots of green, to view a different scene. Not earth's end, but the center. And all around the circle's fringe, he sees sky kiss ground because no buildings, no barns or forests break the continuum. It's space, uncluttered. A place where man can speak with sun and moon, with ants that sting, and everything in between, with no city cacophony to interrupt the conversations.

It's this hidden beauty of the mesa that enriches Lomatewama's verse. Dark Horizons The grey clouds were as mountains that towered beyond the horizon. They suffocated the dawn under the crushing weight of their darkness! They brought the merciless wind that pelted the dogs with grit! (making them howl) They brought the jagged lightning that butchered the morning sky! The windows in the houses echoed the rumbling of the insane thunder! They came with the fury of angry men! But left us with life-giving rain.

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