Spirits move through Southwest essay

July 14, 1994|By M. R. Montgomery | M. R. Montgomery,Boston Globe

This modest, wise, small book would perhaps escape attention were it not for the incredible boom in tourism to the remote Four Corners territory of the Southwest. So be it: If the lost time and lost land described in this autobiographical essay have been irrevocably changed by modernity and motor vehicles, tourism and telephones, Edward T. Hall's memoir of a time and space lost forever will at least be read by people who have already acquired a taste for Navajo and Hopi country.

For tourists who have gotten their hands on the excellent California Automobile Association travel map of the southwest Indian country, "West of the Thirties," will provide an unusual additional guide, an authentic example of that rarest commodity -- truth about how it was. Mr. Hall, before beginning a long career in anthropology (pioneering the field of nonverbal communication), spent a few years on the Hopi and Navajo reservations working for the Indian equivalent of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps.

It was a time and place when telephones were unknown outside the major towns, when radios, though invented, simply were not used, and when almost no Navajo and only a few Hopi spoke English. Although there had been contact for 400 years, young Mr. Hall was in effect present at the last decade of isolation on the mesas.

They would soon be penetrated by the Selective Service draft and off-reservation employment of World War II, followed quickly by the intrusions of our modern, motorized citizenry. Written 60 years after the events, the book has some of the elegiac tone of that remarkable biography, Theodora Kroeber's "Ishi in Two Worlds" (also in paper editions as "Ishi, Last of His Tribe"), another book of Indian-Anglo contact, also written about youthful events from the perspective of age.

It was the forced interaction of four cultures that made Mr. Hall an anthropologist-to-be: the federal bureaucracy (always a world unto itself), the Navajo, the Hopi and the innocent persona of a teen-ager suddenly in charge of grown men, dynamite and disputes. He thrived on the experience, and the reader will savor each cultural encounter, rarely described in sociological jargon, and then only to enlighten, not to impress.

The reader will also find insight into the effect the reservation landscape and villages may have on a perceptive visitor. Mr. Hall gained, and retained, an almost-Indian sensitivity to the psychological power of particular places on the reservations.

He reflects: "In my experience, each country has a flavor all its own, a mystique unique to it and its people. This flavor, or 'feel,' . . . springs from the old nature spirits, gods, ghosts, witches, and demons, which are a vital part of most peoples' worlds. White Americans have very few spirits, so their country is by comparison apt to feel empty and barren based on this supersensory scale."

For the visitor who may feel uncomfortable, even threatened somehow in a pueblo, it is interesting to note that Mr. Hall, in that innocent age, could hardly bear to be in Old Oraibi: "[it] exuded an aura of suffering, pain, suspicion, even hostility. . . . The village had been there too long and had seen too many feuds and altercations. It was dying."

At another pueblo, Walpi, separated by a precipitous, narrow canyon from neighboring Sichimovi and Hano, Mr. Hall always encountered a spiritually powerful, probably benign and totally mysterious force: "I was recently reminded of my reaction to Walpi when I arranged for three Australian Aborigines to visit . . . when they approached the narrow strip separating Walpi and Sichimovi, all three stopped as though they had run into an invisible wall. They said they felt a powerful spiritual presence there that was alien to them, and they did not want to become involved with such forces unless they were properly prepared."

Well, Mr. Hall cannot promise enlightenment, but a visitor to the high mesas, once again centers of angry dispute among, and between, Hopi and Navajo, Indian and white, will be better prepared, if not "properly prepared," to deal with these alien matters after "West of the Thirties."

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "West of the Thirties: Discoveries Among the Navajo and Hopi"

Author: Edward T. Hall

Publisher: Doubleday

Length, price: 186 pages, $21.95

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