On September 10, filmmaker, video-artist and photographer Victor Masayesva of the Hopi village of Hoatvela joined chairman Jonathan F.P. Rose for the latest installment of the Garrison Institute Forum: Planetary Health Series. Since the early 1980s, Masayesva has been at the forefront of developing and propagating an indigenous aesthetic through his works, drawing praise from one scholar as being “one of the most influential Indigenous filmmakers and photographers of his generation.”
In this conversation, Masayesva talked about Hopi philosophy and traditions, using both recent and centuries-old stories to share insight into humanity’s present and future relationship with the earth. The talk was in keeping with the Planetary Health Series’ larger theme that social transformation and our collective future relies on fully integrated, mutually supportive, systematic frameworks.
Masayesva started out by telling a story from 1906 about a bloodless but painful conflict within the Hopi tribe, between two factions known by the US Government as the “Friendlies” and the “Hostiles.” That split in the Hopi community was followed by a series of coal mining agreements, where the Hopi’s sustainable traditions were challenged by exploitation and a disconnection from the land. Today, Masayesva says that tribal conflict and challenges brought about by COVID are bringing back “our culture, our history, memories about how we dealt with conflicts in the past.”
Masayesva said that the Hopi tribe was originally formed of unique groups of people, from different migration routes, who were able to share their experiences of survival without even speaking the same language.
“We came together to try this big experiment of living together,” he said. “Despite all their differences, all these ceremonies were placed in order to support each other… if it works, all the good things will come to the village.”
He went on to explain that once the process of colonization began, that all changed for the worse, and that there is disagreement about how the tribe’s historical narrative should be applied today.
“One group thinks they know what the true teachings are… and the other group is saying all this has changed, and technology is part of that,” he said. “It’s one of the situations that we’re facing with COVID. With online now, the students’ schooling has been put back again. I’m working on trying to get some electricity in the village, and that’s created a lot of problems.”
Rose pointed out that “there’s a traditional fabric that has worked when it was a whole, that is not working now as pieces have been frayed, and yet is confronted as every culture and civilization today is because of climate change… confronting this vast change and our traditions actually have lessons for us but they have to be completely reinterpreted and traditionalists sometimes don’t want to go through that reinterpreting.”
Masayesva said his tribe’s elders have understood for a long time that “the white man’s world was really transactional.”
“They were saying the white man doesn’t just give you anything, they’re writing your bill even as you think they’re giving you something. Eventually, whatever we take on with what they think are improvements, we’ll be paying for it. So we want to still encourage the idea in our kids that the earth can provide, and we don’t have to fall back entirely on the wage-earning system.”
This led to an exploration of how Masayesva strikes a unique figure in his community; he comes from traditional, rebellious origins, but was sent off to private school and ended up gaining filmmaking and technology skills that he now uses to reach out to indigenous youth about what he calls “the old ways.”
Masayesva and Rose discussed a similar dialectic between the old and new with the decades-long Black Mesa coal saga; a 1964 coal mining and water access deal made under fraudulent circumstances ended up providing about 80% of the tribal counsel’s operating expenses and countless jobs for tribe members. However, it was also causing drought conditions on Hopi farmland while massively polluting the environment. Up to three million gallons of water was being pumped daily from the tribe’s underlying aquifer to carry away coal from the local mines to large coal-fired plant almost 300 miles away.
More than a year since the mines were totally shut down, nothing has replaced the loss of revenue.
“We said if we are to be good stewards of this land, we can’t be exploiting the water to create this huge pollution. But that’s part of that thinking that convinced our people to close that mine.”
“We talk about corn as a “natwani”, a very important word that I’m glad young people are using now to understand why we’re living where we are and some of us continue to farm. Natwani is the produce, so it would be the corns, the melons, the beans, the squash. So it’s a crop, natwani. But it’s also a process. You’re always learning. Two years ago, we had a huge drought, and when you’re planting, growing corn, you’re applying everything you’ve learned, and everything you’re continuing to learn to apply that knowledge and skills to secure a crop. It’s a classroom like no other.”
Masayesva talked about letting the fields go fallow and letting the earth rest.
“It’s not a good thing to hear, but it’s going to be a continuing development of our thinking process. When to pause, and rest, instead of just thinking we’ve got to do this because we’ve always done this, and continue headlong.
“It’s brought up this idea of our interdependencies. We don’t recognize the invisible. We have in common with other animals. We all have sighting in some way, with plants we have the connection with the sun. With all living, breathing creatures we have the breath that brings us all together.
We just ignore the invisible, because it’s not so present visibly. It’s not in our human characterizations or categories of what’s human, if it doesn’t breathe, we don’t recognize it. The virus is one of those that is obviously affecting us now, we’re seeing it manifested, but we didn’t see it or anticipate its character when it first showed up. We’re seeing the consequences now. What it does, it brings us back into connection with each other. All of us are in this together, so it’s a big reckoning and realization of all the other connections that maybe we’re missing.”
To check out some of Victor Masayesva’s work: his critically acclaimed 1992 documentary Imagining Indians is available to stream on Kanopy, and his 2006 book of photography titled Husk of Time is available through the University of Arizona Press.
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Victor Masayesva, Jr., a member of the Hopi Tribe from Hoatvela Village, has been a life long advocate for the implementation of the indigenous aesthetic in multimedia productions. He has promoted this aesthetic by curating programs at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC and serving as artist in residence at the School of Art Institute of Chicago, Walker Art Center, Banff Centre for the Arts and featured director and jurist at the Yamagata International Film Festival, and the CLACPI Festival in La Paz, Bolivia.
Jonathan F.P. Rose’s business, public policy, and not-for-profit work focus on creating a more environmentally, socially, and economically responsible world. Jonathan and his wife Diana Calthorpe Rose are the co-founders of the Garrison Institute. He serves on its Board and leads its Pathways to Planetary Health program.
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