Growing up in Arizona, I was fascinated with Native cultures, particularly those of the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest. Arizona afforded ample opportunity to experience how these peoples had lived a thousand years earlier, in such ruins as Casa Grande south of Phoenix (conveniently located near the San Francisco Giants’ practice facility) and particularly Montezuma’s Castle near Sedona, a largely still-intact multi-story, mud-walled apartment complex dramatically set in the massive hollow of a red-rock cliff wall.
Most fascinating of all to me were the Hopi, who still live largely in the same villages they have populated since even before the prehistoric peoples who built Phoenix’s extensive canal system disappeared into the mists of history. Old Oraibi on Second Mesa, one of three huge, table-like formations rising from the desert floor in Hopi territory, is the oldest continuously-inhabited settlement in North America.
The Hopi learned to coax agriculture from a land without water, building an elaborate cosmology based on harmony and balance with the universe and mediated by spirits represented by the famed and colorful katsinas (or “kachinas”) that appear at their frequent ceremonials. They lived a communal existence and disdained the warlike ways of others around them, especially those that began to move into the Southwest several centuries ago in response to the aggressive westward spread of the strange European civilizations that had planted themselves on the continent’s East Coast. A well-known film, with score by the modern composer Phillip Glass, juxtaposes our modern life with that of the Hopi, appropriately under the title Koyaanisqatsi – a Hopi word meaning “life out of balance.”
I spent my childhood summers in northern Arizona learning to ride a horse, fire a rifle, and shoot a bow-and-arrow (two out of three of which I still do with some degree of proficiency). I also met White Bear, a Hopi artist and repository of Hopi esoteric wisdom (he was the main informant for the best-seller, Book of the Hopi), who taught me Hopi history and epistemology.
I spent a sweltering summer night camping on a desolate hillside outside Oraibi so I could rise before dawn to be among the few non-Hopi to watch the sunrise ceremonial celebrating the departure of the katsina spirits for their winter home near the Grand Canyon. Even today I keep several Hopi katsinas displayed on a special shelf in my home. I love the iconography, the colors, the timelessness rooted in the natural world of a special, ancient place. Somehow, I’ve always felt a special connection with the Hopi.
So I was thrilled when my consulting firm, Public Works, was selected to assist the Hopi Tribe in a long-term project to assess and strengthen its school system. I returned there last week for the first time in decades, to kick off the project. A big part of the assignment is helping the Hopi to find the right balance between preparing students to succeed in the challenges of a 21st Century world while at the same time preserving the distinctive Hopi values, culture, religion and even language in the face of the very same challenges. This, of course, is in many ways the same problem facing rural communities across America, although the issue is particularly acute for distinct peoples like the Hopi.
The Hopi live in roughly a dozen widely-scattered, centuries-old villages, most with their own local school and all strongly protective of their local prerogatives, local customs, even individual dialects. At the same time, they have an open enrollment system whereby students can attend the school of their choice – some traveling 90 minutes each way to attend the school their families deem best. In fact, in many ways, the Hopi schools are models of the kinds of education “reforms” we’ve studied around the country – a lithe central administration; building-based control, budgeting, and educational programming; a recognition that good principals create good learning communities that attract the best teachers and committed parents; and empowered parents who “vote with their feet” as to the school’s performance.
Of course, there’s a role even here for system-wide functions. Up in Hopi, this starts with coordinating the vast transportation network for the schools. But our tasks, as in all such performance reviews, include identifying where else efficiencies can be realized through economies of scale or coordination, or whether the community’s values can best be realized through delegation and empowerment – and, as with all things Hopi, how best to find the natural balance.
As always, I welcome your comments below.