The other day I had lunch with an acquaintance of mine, Cecelia Cuch, a Northern Ute, and a friend of hers. He was an elderly Tewa gentleman from Hopiland. We were at a meeting of tribal people in Las Vegas and had taken some time for lunch and found a place to eat. We sat down and waited for our meal, a Navajo, a Ute and an old Tewa police officer.
One of the last places he was assigned to work was the Grand Canyon—Havasupai. Havasupai, in their language, call themselves the People of the Blue Water because of the springs that come out of the canyon walls which are crystal clear and so the pools of water in the canyon all appear blue in color. Havasupai (or Supai as natives call it) is a small village located at the bottom of the canyon along the Colorado River. Their people have been there a long time and so has the village. You can't get to it by car. You have to either hike in or come in by helicopter.
The police officers there work for the BIA. In the village, there is just a single path and the police use four wheelers to get around. There is only one store so everything gets shipped in and the officers assigned there stay in a small place.
As we ate lunch, we got to talking and I asked him about the work down there and some of the things people do and a little about his job. He said it was pretty basic stuff but mainly it was minor incidents and lost tourists who go up the wrong canyon or trail.
I asked him what do you do when you are off duty? He said he wandered around and would go to the trading post where some of the men would gather. He said on one occasion he went over and there was a group singing a song in their native language. He listened to it and since they were younger men he could hear them talking about trying to remember the right words.
He sat on the fence and listened to them sing and, not knowing their language, he was quiet and after a bit he began to sing himself. The group of Supai men looked at him as he sang and then when he was finished they asked him how do you know our song? He laughed.
He said “I know this song from the Kiva on Hopiland. We sing it there. I learned it as young boy and have known it all my life.” His eyes twinkled as he spoke about it.
His hair was all gray and there were lines on his face and they are the kind you get from laughing a lot so it showed he had lived a good life.
I asked him, what did they say to you after you told them? He said it made my job easier. I didn't have any trouble with any of them because I taught them some of our songs and they taught me some of theirs. We used to get together and sing on that fence.
As he talked I thought about Supai and having hiked down there in my youth and knowing the difficulty of following an established trail. I thought of the ancient treks made by the Hopi-Tewa from their mesas to the bottom of the Grand Canyon over the centuries.
Tewa is an ancient form unique to native tongues. Only a handful of people can speak it and is different that the Keres dialect spoken by the Hopi; it came from someplace along the Rio Grande some centuries ago. The Supais have been in the canyon since time immemorial and speak a dialect that is rooted in Uto-Aztecan which language seems to follow the native tribes along the Colorado River. I thought there is a history here not recorded anywhere but is found in the singing voices and stories that tie different native peoples together in a very basic way and that is by tradition and ceremony.
I looked at my lunch guest and considered that we were in Las Vegas. The Flamingo Hotel, no less. I sat in silence and watched my elderly native companion eat his lunch and his smile and countenance radiated a subtle humility that outshined even the brightest lights of the Las Vegas Strip. I wondered about the song, and with it the ancestral tie that binds us forever to this land.
Johnny Rustywire is Folded Rocks Clan People on his mother’s side, and born for Tsinahbiltnii, the Mountain People Clan on his father’s side. He comes from Toadlena-Two Gray Hills, New Mexico, where the mountain is cracked and the water flows. He is a father of six and grandfather of 12. He attended Indian boarding schools and grew up on the Navajo Reservation, and has been married to the same woman for 40 years, a Ute from Fort Duchesne, Utah.