Ernie, a Man of Many Talents
Last May, my husband and I heard about Ernie through an internet search and ended up spending 5 hours with him on his Hopi reservation in Arizona. He shared a book's worth of history, a flute demonstration, a cleansing ceremony, endless personal stories and opinions and some piki bread.
The most surprising thing Ernie shared was being in a photo.
Since early in the 20th century, photography has been banned on the reservation. Only a few photographers have been cleared by Hopi leaders to share images of this very private culture. It was after spending 5 hours with Ernie that I asked about the no photo history. As if he'd read my mind, he casually offered. "You can take as many pictures as you want in my trailer."
Inside Ernie's trailer
After touring three of the Hopi villages and absorbing as many details, images and stories as my brain could hold, we relaxed in Ernie's trailer. The cozy shop/home was jammed with detailed kachina dolls, Hopi pottery and woven baskets. Ernie pulled out a couple of his handcrafted flutes and played while we looked around. He told us how his grandfather not only taught him to play the flute, but how to express himself through music. Ernie was shy as a young boy and learned he could share more easily with the sounds of his flute than by using words. He played two contrasting pieces for us. and the last was so sad the notes almost quivered. Ernie's voice cracked as he told us that playing the flute made his grandfather's spirit very near.
Treasures to take
There are a few things we were able to take with us besides memories. We have one tiny clay pot made by a woman in one of the villages. She explained the complicated process of baking, polishing and painting the pieces. We also have 2 small feathers from the chest of an eagle. Ernie gave them to us as a gift and explained the importance of the eagle in the Hopi family. Each year a baby eaglet is taken from a nest and brought to the Hopi home. The eaglet is bathed in milk and dusted in cornmeal in a ceremony to unite the eagle as a member of the family.
The most unusal thing we were given was piki bread. Elder women in the village had spent days making these delicate sheets of blue corn powder and juniper ash. After baking on hot stone they were rolled into scroll-like shapes and given to Ernie as a gift for his flute playing at a recent ceremony. We took the bread with us and sampled it later. It reminded me of my first communion as a child. I let the paper like flakes melt in my mouth, while waiting for some kind of mysterious wonderful awareness to wash over me. Maybe I was too distracted by the strange flavor and texture for a profound experience.
Leaving Hopi Land
As we drove away from the mesas that afternoon, I scribbled down as much as I could remember. We had learned so many things about the culture and history, but I couldn't stop thinking about the personal stories. I kept picturing Ernie as a Hopi child, capturing a baby eagle, planting the harvest and dancing in the festivals. I imagined what it must have been like to be a child taken from the home to be educated in Indian boarding schools...and the culture shock of the outside world. There were good things that Ernie experienced in the world outside the Hopi mesas. He had an opportunity to meet Walt Disney, he dabbled in films for a while and he gained recognition for his flute playing. But his mother's illness called him back home, where he has been since.
I'm glad you went back home so you could use your talents to share about your culture. Since meeting you, I've tried to share your stories and thoughts with others. Just yesterday I brought a recording of your flute music to a group I gather with each week. I wish you could have seen the faces of these sweet folks with Alzheimer's as they smiled and listened and nodded...then joined your music, beating softly on drums.
To celebrate my birthday in April 2012, I decided to reflect on the past with a different kind of list. I've met a lot of people in my 55 years, but I'm going to stop and remind myself about the strangers I've met. These are people I met by accident, not through friends or work. For some reason, these strangers dropped into my life. Even though we may have only spent a few minutes together, these people have never been forgotten.
Each week, I'll spotlight someone I met in the past, who in some small way, made me stop and think.
Remember 55 Strangers