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America's Best Idea: Walnut Canyon a Window into an Ancient Hopi Past

NAU Cline Library, Joseph Muench Collection, NAU.PH.2003.11.22
Walnut Canyon National Monument

Flagstaff, AZ –

In the third installment of KNAU's America's Best Idea, Rose Houk visits with the last surviving member of the Bluebird Clan who once lived in Walnut Canyon National Monument outside of Flagstaff.

Visit Walnut Canyon National Monument.

Ken Burns' "The National Parks: America's Best Idea"


Standing in a cliff side alcove in Walnut Canyon National Monument with Eric Polinguma is like standing with someone who lived in these rock-bound homes 900 years ago. Eric is a Hopi elder from the village of Sungopavi, and his ancestors once lived here. He's the last surviving member of his clan.

"I'm a Bluebird," Polinguma says. "In fact the last of the Bluebird Clan and I have been given a responsibility to oversee that history we need to teach, and this is a good way to teach not only the public but our young people too."

Centuries ago, members of the Bluebird Clan migrated north to Walnut Canyon. It's their former presence that draws Polinguma back here to perform religious ceremonies:

"We make offerings when we come to these sites, it's something we always do, because there is someone who is important may have been buried here or left behind," Polinguma says. "There's always someone here, seems like when you come here you're in the company of someone else. You can feel someone's watching you."

Polinguma says sometimes it may be in the form of an eagle, or a red tailed hawk.

He and his wife Jane still water an acre of corn by hand at their home at Hopi. That makes it easy for him to see back in time, to how people lived down in this 400-foot-deep canyon and up on the forested rims. The early Puebloans, who occupied these small dark rooms, tucked in deep alcoves, also grew corn and collected water in natural catchments and large pots.

Archeologists have identified at least eighty dwellings and hundreds of storage rooms in Walnut Canyon. They think the Puebloans lived here for only about a hundred years--from the 12th into the 13th centuries. Polinguma does listen to what archeologists have to say:

"I work with them a lot and they do it from a scientific point of view," Polinguma says. "They in fact help me a lot in my stories; help me put my stories in place." But the relationship between Hopis and archeologists hasn't always been easy, says Lloyd Masayumptewa, one of just a handful of Hopi-trained archeologists.

"Archeologists go to sites, they dig up our ancestral homes," Polinguma says. "Early on to me it was basically looting. "That's how my people felt is that archeologists are nothing but grave robbers."

Masayumptewa now heads the ruins preservation program for the Flagstaff-area national monuments. He considered his career choice carefully.

"Thinking about becoming an archeologist and being thought of as a grave digger, that weighed heavy on me," Masayumptwea says. "Talking with my parents and getting their okay I felt a whole lot more comfortable in pursuing a career in anthropology and archeology."

Professionally, Massayumptwea says he would like to see better preservation of the sites and more authentic materials used to stabilize them. Personally, he feels he can balance his traditional beliefs with science.

"Combining the two is how I approach things and not giving too much weight to the scientific end, but still respecting the fact that there are those things I have to be held accountable for," Massayumptwea says. "As far as being culturally sensitive, these are sacred sites. Of course being a Hopi I do give offerings and pray as I do things."

Though science and ethnography can clash at times, Masayumptewa sees way they support each other too.

"There's a lot of evidence both archeologically and in oral histories, there were times when things were great, life was grand, and then there were times when it was a struggle," Massayumptwea says. "Without the people going through the process of experimentation basically to survive, the Hopi people would not have survived to this day."

The daily struggle for the dwellers of Walnut Canyon lasted until around A.D. 1250, when archeologists say everyone had pretty much moved out. They tend to attribute the departure to drought or other environmental vagaries. But Polinguma's oral history tells another story:

They got into gambling and these men got together, gambling all way around this place, it went on for years," Polinguma says. "They lost all their material things and life was going off balance."

And that's why he says they had to leave Walnut Canyon.

"This was a nice place, it rained here, there's a lot of green here, pretty good place to live, but because our lives went off balance we had to move on and change our ways," Polinguma says.

And it's a lesson he says Hopi people remember to this day.

"That is what makes things happen, when life becomes easy, when there's hardness that is when you take your life seriously," Polinguma says.

Which is why Polinguma says the Hopi settled where they did. To survive on the three mesas where they live today, they needed to work hard and remain faithful to the Hopi way.

Polinguma climbs the 240 concrete steps up and out of Walnut Canyon; barely stopping to take a breath. Back on the rim, he looks back and thinks about the future. He says he'd like to pass his stories on to a young person; someone he could trust to keep his clan's history alive in this place where they lived nearly a thousand years ago.