Discovering the Hopi lifestyle

In Arizona's Sonora Desert, most resorts boast poolside smoothie bars, pampering spas, and restaurants with chili-laden Southwestern fare. Guests looking for local flavor beyond mealtime often have to venture off site.

Not so at Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort at Gainey Ranch. Vice president and managing director Bill Eider-Orley wanted guests and other visitors to learn something about the native Americans who helped put Arizona on the tourist map.

The resort has a small, dedicated exhibit space for art and artifacts made by Hopis, who live on a reservation three hours north. At first glance, the "Hopi Learning Center," tucked into an alcove near the concierge office, doesn't look like much.

But a tour of the weavings, pottery, photographs, toys, baskets, and other objects thoughtfully assembled by a small group of Hopis and attractively displayed behind glass will give the curious traveler more for his money than a whoosh down the resort's three-story water slide.

Best of all, the learning center is staffed all day by two Hopi cultural interpreters. Even a trip to the reservation, where cameras and notebooks are forbidden, may not be as educational as a chat with the articulate and affable duo Lance Polingyouma and Rod Davis (Tsongomoki is his Hopi name).

Both men clearly relish the opportunity to chat with visitors about the lifestyle they know best.

"I've spent my entire life preparing for this job," says Mr. Polingyouma, who is in his late 20s. His father is a member of the respected "bluebird" clan and one of the reservation's leading oral historians.

"Every day I talk about those things I learned while riding a horse with my dad," Polingyouma explains. "This is a phenomenal opportunity to share our culture, and at the same time, to fulfill my obligation to my tribe."

At first, he wasn't quite as keen about the job. "My greatest concern was that this display would sell out our culture with misinformation," he whispers. But his father gave him the green light after viewing it himself. Dad decided it was basic enough that it doesn't reveal any secrets, he explains.

And Polingyouma won't share any either. Not because he's closed-mouthed, but because he doesn't know them. Quick to point out that he has not yet been initiated as a Hopi (only about 5,000 out of 15,000 have been chosen for this honor), Polingyouma is privy only to certain information. But he shares what he knows, starting with a few basics: The Hopi lifestyle is about the pursuit of a peaceful, good, clean life. Nature is respected. Passages are marked with rituals and ceremonies. And character is of utmost importance. "It is revealed by those things one does while alone," Mr. Davis adds.

For 2,000 years, he says, Hopis have depended on corn to sustain them. In the high arid desert of northeastern Arizona, where they live on plateaus near three mesas, that's no small feat. But they wouldn't think of going anywhere else. A Hopi deity chose the land for them, they say, so it has always been the center of their universe.

They call themselves "farmers without water," a revealing title, says Polingyouma. Hard work builds character, demonstrates human endurance, and prepares one better for the next world, he explains.

Polingyouma then digresses. "Hopis don't take vacations," he says. "The only vacation I've ever had was to Disneyland when I was 4. To leave your crops is like leaving your children home alone."

When they aren't tending their corn, Hopis might be found teaching children, telling stories, or making crafts, he says.

Perhaps their best-known craft is the katsina doll, or what they call "tihu," which is carved from cottonwood tree roots. It is part of the Katsina religion, one of two religions that Hopis practice.

Ten intricately carved dolls are displayed here. And nearby at the Heard Museum North, a Scottsdale branch of the spectacular Phoenix museum, is a remarkable collection of 437 katsina dolls donated in 1964 by Barry Goldwater.

Davis's daughters play with katsina dolls and with Barbie and Ken - symbolic of his family's embrace of both old and new worlds. He calls himself a modern Hopi. He has a computer, a cellphone, and several bows and arrows. His son is learning how to use all three.

Polingyouma, who left the reservation for high school and college before later returning, resists technology. "The old ways work just fine," he says.

While Davis spends his free time with his wife, a Navajo, and his five children, Polingyouma coaches lacrosse for Scottsdale high-schoolers and writes letters to his girlfriend on the East Coast. Both men shuttle between homes in the Phoenix area and the reservation. At work, their stunning turquoise necklaces speak of their backgrounds, but the rest of their look - starched white shirt and khakis - is all Gap.

The Heard Museum's Rebecca Murray says the Hopi Learning Center is ideal for tourists who can't make the drive up to the reservation. "It's a fabulous project," she says. "It gives people exposure to a culture that is much more vibrant than they might think."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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