Edge of the Rez: A Stranger Among the Hopi Jonathan Day spent summers with his white father and Hopi stepmother on her reservation in Arizona. He learned about the tribe's traditions and way of life, but he has no illusions that a white man can fully understand what it's like to be an Indian.
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Edge of the Rez: A Stranger Among the Hopi

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Edge of the Rez: A Stranger Among the Hopi

Edge of the Rez: A Stranger Among the Hopi

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Think of a border town here in the U.S., and communities neighboring Mexico or Canada come to mind. In northern Arizona, border towns are on the edge of Indian country. Over the next few months we'll air stories from the Edge of the Rez, a series produced by member station KNAU that profiles people and places along these borders. One town is Flagstaff, Arizona, that's a tourist destination for many Grand Canyon visitors and within close distance of the Navajo and Hopi reservations.

This morning, reporter Daniel Kraker introduces us to the Day family, two generations of Native American arts traders.

DANIEL KRAKER: The original stone buildings in historic downtown Flagstaff are more than a century old. There's not a chain store in sight, not even a Starbucks, and there are several shops selling Native American arts and crafts. The smallest and newest is Jonathan Day's Indian Arts. Rows of brightly painted doll-like figures suspend from the old brick walls.

Mr. JONATHAN DAY (Owner, Jonathan Day Indian Arts Shop): These are all the traditional style Hopi kachinas. If you go into a Hopi house, all the dolls hang on the wall; they don't put them on their knickknack shelf.

KRAKER: If a tourist asks owner Jonathan Day what exactly these wooden dolls are?

Mr. DAY: I basically tell that these are the carved representations of actual spirits who represent everything from animals to ancestors, to plants, to elements of the universe. And, yeah, everyone asks, you know, how did you learn all this stuff? Is this your thesis for your graduate school? And I say no.

KRAKER: Jonathan Day grew up in the Boston suburbs with his mother but spent his summers on the Hopi reservation with his father, Joe Day, and his Hopi stepmother, Janice.

Mr. DAY: I definitely thought it was more fun on the reservation because you kind of had free reign. You know, you couldn't go back to Boston and climb a cliff, or walk into a canyon, or play kachina, or shoot bows and arrows at your friends until the tips were dull and then sharpen them in a pencil sharpener and keep shooting. You just didn't do that stuff back east.

KRAKER: As Jonathan got older, he spent less of his summers running around the village plaza and more time in another tiny shop. This one, a two-hour drive from Flagstaff called…

Ms. JANICE DAY (Jonathan's Stepmother): Tsakurshovi, it's a real old name and it means the hill that comes to a point.

KRAKER: Jonathan's stepmother Janice Day and his father Joe have selling Indian arts out of their store on Second Mesa in the heart of the Hopi reservation for two decades. Pinned on a bulletin board are photos of customers taken in nearly every corner of the world wearing the Days' now-famous Don't Worry, Be Hopi T-shirt.

Mr. JONATHAN DAY: We're different than most arts and craft shops out here because while we have things that tourists are interested in, we also have a lot of stuff for the locals: buckskins, fox skins, deer hooves, turtle shells, weird mineral pigments, strange herbal medicines. Outside, we have stacked-up piles of cottonwood root, which are what kachina dolls are mad from.

KRAKER: Joe Day came to Flagstaff in 1970 to run the city's Head Start program. He was invited to a Hopi kachina dance, a sacred religious ceremony. He kept coming back on weekends, and that's how he met Janice. Joe Day says he's a token bahana on the reservation; that's the Hopi word for white man.

Mr. JOE DAY (Jonathan's Father): We've been married for a long time. She still lives in constant fear that in Hopi social situation I'm going to bahana-out on her…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOE DAY: …and embarrass her. I used to tell Jonathan when he was a kid, out here you follow the two eye, two ear, one mouth rule. Which means you're supposed to look and listen twice as much as you talk. And we're the people of the mouth.

KRAKER: Jonathan had a lot of time to observe life on Hopi; he started spending summers there at age six.

Mr. JOE DAY: He had a pretty interesting upbringing. He had his spoiled suburban Boston rich kid personality, and then he had his village personality for the summers with us.

Ms. DAY: Yeah, we'd send him home with a box of piki.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAY: And he'd be the only kid on his block eating this rolled up piki bread. Piki is traditional Hopi bread that's spread out on a hot stone and rolled into real thin, like paper.

Mr. JOE DAY: Because you forgot to tell him the main thing about piki is it's blue, because it's made from blue corn.

Ms. DAY: Oh, yeah. It's blue. Yeah.

Mr. JOE DAY: We used to have conversations on the way back to the airport. And I asked him one time, I said so what do you tell your friends back east about where you spend your summers? And Jonathan says, I don't tell them anything. They don't believe me. They think I'm making things up.

KRAKER: To make sure Jonathan didn't forget his summers at Hopi, the Days gave him things Hopi kids would have.

Mr. JOE DAY: We used to send him kachina dolls for his birthday and for Christmas. And he had a little medicine bag with hooma in it. And Janice would make hooma, ground cornmeal, which is what Hopis used to pray with. The reason I did that is because every time he'd looked at those he would remember this place and he would remember us.

KRAKER: According to Jonathan, in his shop in Flagstaff, his father really didn't really have much to worry about.

Mr. JONATHAN DAY: They were all the happiest memories of every year. I used to hang out with the other Hopi kids and play kachina, you know. Even though you don't know the words, and the kids that I was with didn't know the words, you know, we just would hum sounds that sounded like kachinas.

Mr. JOE DAY: One time we were looking for Jonathan and we could hear this music going. We went back there and we opened the door, and there's all these little boys. And they were all lined up singing and shaking their rattles and stuff. And Jonathan was the only tall, little, white kid in the group.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRAKER: Joe and Janice reminisce about the time Jonathan faked a Hopi accent to woo a cute Hopi girl and when he discovered free clothes that a Christian charity had donated to the Hopi tribe.

Ms. DAY: So Jona comes running into the house and he goes, they're giving out clothes at the community! He goes down there and he's pulling out shirts and pants. And I guess his mother called to check and see how he was doing, and he's going, oh, I got this new shirt! And she goes, oh, where did you buy your shirt at? And he goes, I didn't buy it, we got it at the community. They're giving out Christian clothes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOE DAY: That's where we get all our clothes.

Ms. DAY: That's where we get all our clothes, he said.

KRAKER: Joe Day believes that Jonathan has no romantic illusions about life on the reservation.

Mr. JOE DAY: He knows it's a real place where real people live with real problems. And white people in general tend to have two kinds of stereotypes about Indians. There's the drunken, thieving, lazy, savage stereotype. But then there's also the little brown man living in harmony with his fellow man and with the environment. And everybody can see the evil in the first stereotype. But I think the second stereotype is just as evil, because stereotypes keep us from relating to people as people. We're relating to stereotypes instead.

KRAKER: A few years ago, Jonathan Day wrote a book called “Traditional Hopi Kachinas: A New Generation of Carvers.” He profiled almost 20 artists, but the book is far more than a collector's guide. The carvers talk about preserving their native language, border towns and alcohol abuse.

Mr. JONATHAN DAY: So it does really come out as a slice of life at Hopi, what it's like to live on the rez and make a living off your culture. And a lot of it is just them telling their story. And they all say it's a different approach because I portray them as people instead of, you know, as Indians.

KRAKER: In the introduction to his book, Jonathan Day writes, I am fortunate enough to have witnessed things that few non-Indians will ever see, and I have often been accused of being an expert. The reality is that the only way to be an expert on Hopi is to be born Hopi. My dad always says, If I'm lucky, they let me watch.

I'm Daniel Kraker.

Unidentified Man: (Chanting) (unintelligible)

MONTAGNE: Joe Day talks about the stereotypes surrounding a white man on the Hopi reservation at npr.org. Tomorrow, more from member station KNAU's series Edge of the Rez with a visit to Winslow, Arizona.

Unidentified Man: (Chanting) (unintelligible)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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