Iconic Western author Katie Lee journeys with a tribe’s spiritual talisman.
Essay Sept. 5, 2015
It all began on a mild September day in 1968 when I stopped to visit my old friend Slim Williams, then living in his house trailer at Fry Canyon, Utah. He’d never owned a telephone in all the years I’d known him. I’d show up and we’d go hiking or jeeping, looking for old trails, hunting up mine roads, or just relaxing in the trailer.
Slim was a man-of-all-trades who had come west from Missouri, probably in his twenties—a miner, assayer, boatman, hunter, and cowboy. He herded cattle, supplied far-flung claim diggers with groceries and tools, built roads, drove trucks and tractors and…
…was a pot hunter.
Most everyone in the area was into hunting pots, and much more, before the Antiquities Act was passed — a law that didn’t actually put a stop to the business, as we know. I’d seen some of the stuff he collected in the cabin at White Canyon, where he lived during the river days, and knew that when working at a mine on his days off he and a buddy or two would go hiking through canyons along the river, picking up whatever took their fancy — surface stuff like pot shards, chippings, arrowheads, knives, ax heads, pieces of sandals, woven thongs. They didn’t dig for things like big cooking pots, jugs or ollas — ceramic jars.
Then, around 1957 the legal pot hunters got into the act — the anthropologists. Knowing that the reservoir behind Glen Canyon would drown thousands of ancient ruins, university anthropologists were sent into the Glen for the Upper Colorado River Basin archaeological salvage project.
From my first day on the river in 1953 with Mexican Hat Expeditions — owned and operated by Frank Wright and Jim Rigg — they made it abundantly clear that their passengers were not to remove artifacts of any kind from sites they visited in the Glen or San Juan canyons. They took me, and my guitar, to sing to the passengers on the beaches at night. Anyway, pot collecting was completely out of my line. I was busy looking up-and-around, getting the whole picture, not nose-to-the-ground, like the hunters. I’ve seen trunk-loads of artifacts in over a hundred ruins, on many rivers and trails since those first days, when I let my imagination fly as I touched artifacts that lay on the surface, envisioning the hands that formed them centuries ago. It was a kind of opiate to dream myself back in the company of the Ancients.
When I arrive at Fry Canyon on that September day in ‘68, Slim is washing dishes and comes to the door with wet, soapy hands. I help stick some bowls in the drainer, have a drink of water, and go to sit on the couch beside his bookcases.
“Got something to show you,” he says.
Stepping over to the cases, he takes something out, comes back and lays it in my lap. It is cool and heavy, about a foot long. As I run my hands over its golden, polished surface, the hair on the back of my arms and neck tingles. “My god! What is it?” I whisper. “What’s it for? Where’d you find it? Did you trade it for someth…?”
“Whoa, girl, not so fast. You know better’n to ask questions like that; but I’ll tell you one thing, it’s a chamahia.”
“What’s a chamahia?”
“Some people think it’s an artifact used by the ancestral Puebloans, perhaps in their ceremonies —for what, nobody I know can tell me. You see how it’s shaped: flat, like a blade on this end, and kind of like a handle on the other? Could be used for ending someone’s life, or maybe it’s a digging tool.”
“Nobody’s been digging with this!” I say. “It’s beautiful… couldn’t be shinier if it’d been polished on a jeweler’s wheel.” I stare in wonder… chamahia… the name sounds Spanish to me. “How could anyone chip something this perfect out of stone? Got to be three inches wide on this flat end and it must weigh over a pound. You’re right, if somebody got socked with this they wouldn’t last long. What do you think the stone is?”
“Not sure. Maybe some kinda jasper.”
I’d never seen anything like it, or if I had, it didn’t register at the time. I was never much of a museum-goer, and what little I remembered was mostly mummies in glass cases; never bothered to look at the smaller, more intricate stuff. But from that day on, until Slim and I moved much farther away from each other, I looked at that stone with a kind of envy — always took it out of his bookcase and felt it. I once tried to trade him out of it by giving him something I believed he wanted, but nothing ever worked, and even I wondered why the chamahia kept nudging me.
Years sometimes stagger by… or dwindle… often surge and even gallop, depending on how you ride them. The spring of 2013 reminded me that I hadn’t had but three or four letters from Slim since 2007, and the last time I’d seen him must have been around 2004. The reminder came as a blinding shock with a phone call from his nephew George telling me that Slim had died.
After months of trying to locate where Slim had been living — somewhere near Yuma, Arizona in his same old house trailer — George had come upon a few of my old letters. They were half eaten by rats, but my address was still readable, which is why he searched for and called me. He asked if I’d like to have the letters returned, along with some other things that were of no special value to the family, since I was the only person they could find who’d known Slim for a long time and seemed to care about him; and would I please pardon him for reading my mail, but it was the only way… etc.
We made arrangements to meet and he brought a large box containing a few photographs and books, the letters, and some of the arrowheads, small pots, scrapers and knives that had been in the glass case. In the bottom I pulled away a piece of an ancient sandal, and beneath it was…
I let out a shriek, startling George, then started to laugh and cry at the same time. The irony was more than I could bear. Slim wouldn’t trade me anything for it, he wouldn’t give it to me, he wouldn’t tell me where he found it, or even if he had. Over the years I had completely forgotten about it. Now, here it was. What unknown force propelled it my way? Whatever the mystery, I could see Slim’s tight little “you-won-that-one” smile, knowing that it now rested in my hands.
When I lifted it from the box, I felt the tingles once again.
So I put it carefully on a shelf of my own bookcases — more as a memory of Slim than something I was proud to display. I never felt I “owned” it in any way — more like the chamahia owned me. Cleaners were instructed not to dust that shelf. I would stroke its beautiful surface now and then as I walked by, but after a while I began to feel a strange sense of guilt about its being here. Why? That raised the hair on my curiosity enough for me to start asking questions. I still didn’t know what a chamahia was.
Before I had a chance to start asking, an answer came in the form of Don Fowler’s just published book The Glen Canyon Country: A Personal Memoir — a truly scholarly work, but at the same time, one written with far more empathy than most academic salvagers, not just for the canyon and what may or may not have happened there centuries ago, but also for the miners and river runners who’d come only a short time before the salvage began. Don was one of the archaeologists hired by the Upper Colorado River Basin archaeological salvage project back in the early ‘60s — yet there wasn’t a word about chamahias in his book.
I write, tell him what I have, send him a photo of it, and ask if he knows what it is, what it was used for — anything about it. I tell him how I come to have it and my feeling that it doesn’t belong here, that no way am I going to give it to a museum to live in a glass case, or worse, some archival basement — they wouldn’t display it anyway if they didn’t know where it came from. Here is his answer to my inquiry:
… Turns out we actually found 3 whole and 2 broken chamahias in Lake Canyon in 1960. All were on the surface of different sites. … pieces of others were from open sites even further upstream. Two showed a lot of use; one showed no use. All were made of siliceous hornsfels — a smooth grained, very hard rock.
Hm-m-m… Lake Canyon… My memory sizzles with flash pictures of that place, one that Slim knew well — far better than I. But Don mentioned nothing about what they were, or were used for. He then referred me to Rosemary Sucec, a cultural anthropologist at the cultural office at Rainbow Bridge National Monument. I talked with her, told her what I had and sent her a photo of it, which she passed on to one of the Hopi Elders on Second Mesa in Northern Arizona — someone I hadn’t a clue how to contact.
Almost a month went by.
Then came a message from a Hopi Elder, Lee Wayne Lomayestewa — our names, his first, my last, are the same; another odd connection — who is repatriation coordinator at the Hopi Culture Preservation Office at Kykotsmovi Village, Arizona. He writes that Floyd Lomakuyvaya, Antelope Priest of the Hopi Village of Shungopavi, would be interested in having, and possibly using, the tsamahia in their ceremonies — especially the ones that fall, coming up soon. (Later, I find it spelled, tchamahia, tshamahia, even chamahia, the way Slim spelled it, and finally, tsamahia — the way it will be spelled from here on, having learned from the Hopi there is no “c” in their alphabet). Lee suggests I box it and mail it to him at the Hopi Cultural Center up on Second Mesa.
No way! I get him on the phone and tell him, “Lee, I can’t put this incredible piece of art in a box to send through the U.S. mail! Who knows what could happen? It’s more like a spiritual talisman than just a work of art. I don’t know what else it has been subjected to since being found. I don’t wish to add more insult, injury, or anything whatever, to its long, historic life — not me.”
There is long silence at the end of the line… Something in my voice and manner has told him this is not the same as hundreds of other artifacts being returned to the Hopi from various museums, organizations, and people around the country. That maybe he should listen to what the old lady had to say…
“Oh-h, I see, Miss Lee. We could send someone down to your house to pick up the artifact if you would prefer not to send it through the mail.”
Someone… not Lee Wayne, not Floyd, the Antelope Priest, just… someone.
“No, Lee. Thank you for the offer. I will bring the tsamahia up to Second Mesa and give it to you. Please send me a map of where you are. I really hate driving the interstate, so I want to know if I can still use the back roads north of Leupp. Strangely enough, Kykotsmovi isn’t even on my old res maps.”
He sends directions. I call my friend Jody Drake who knows my story of the tsamahia, and a lot more about Second Mesa and the museum and cultural center there than I do. She is thrilled to come along, and her husband, Ron, also, to help me with the driving if need be.
My thoughts on the drive up are full of apprehension. What if all this preparation, contact with strangers of a far different culture, and following my intuition rather than doing more research, turns out to be a wild duck chase? Suppose I have to return with the tsamahia? Well, whatever, it isn’t mine to keep. I’ll bury it somewhere near the area where I think it may have come from, where it can’t be found; where I believe, in my heart, the spirit in the stone will rest with its ancestors, and not be bothered again.
The reservation land is anything but boring, as opposed to the smelly, truck-burdened Interstate. Every curve is graced with mounds of wind-sculpted, flesh-colored sand; sometimes flowing in a shallow stream across the two-lane tarmac. This fall, the rolling land is dotted with rabbit brush just beginning to release the fuzz of its spent blossoms. We see rows of corn in small, tidy plots near a trailer home or hogan, or backed into the juts of a Navajo sandstone wall, out of the wind. It’s a day of all seasons — the glittering sun of summer; the cool breeze of spring; the deepened colors of fall, and the impression of winter, with the air full of snow-white seeds. Above, and north of all this, rise the First and Second Mesas of Hopi Land.
I made a couple of wrong turns on the Mesa that put us a tad late for lunch with the two Elders at the cultural center restaurant. We drop our luggage in the lobby and are led to a table where they sit waiting with their wives. Both men stand to welcome us with handshakes, smiles and much laughter from everyone over my boo-boo of wrong turns; they’re not “antsy,” as we Americans become when someone is late for a meeting—especially one of importance. Floyd is supported by his steadfast wife, Charlene, who is also a healer. The group is complete with his lifelong friend Lee, and Lee’s wife—all have close community and personal vested ties.
In my arms is the tsamahia wrapped in a bath towel. I don’t sit down as the others do, but look at Floyd, the Antelope Priest, with a sting of tears forming in my eyes and throat, afraid I can’t speak to tell my story. Once more the hair on my arms tingles as I relate what I know of the tsamahia’s late history. They nod gravely from time to time, smile at something Slim has said about it, and never take their eyes from mine except to glance at the rolled up towel I hold in my hands. When finished, I walk around the table to Floyd’s chair, conscious that the room had gone almost quiet. I place the towel in his hands, and return to my seat on the other side of the table where Lee sits next to me, and directly across from Floyd. When he puts it on the table in front of him, and slowly unrolls the towel, I cover my mouth with my hand and send one last prayer to the River Gods. Everyone holds their breath. It happens quickly and subtly. One glance at the stone and the golden thread of a single thought passes between them. Their eyes meet and widen for a split second; the muscles at the corners of their lips tighten ever so slightly, in sync, and the slightest nod passes as silent agreement.
Floyd quickly re-towels the tsamahia and lays it in his lap—then and there I have the distinct feeling the next time it will see light will be in a Hopi kiva. Everyone exhales breaths of relief and satisfaction as talk turns to anticipation of the ceremonies that will welcome the sacred stone home, back where it belongs.
We learn that the honor of the Antelope Priest has been passed through Floyd’s family for generations; his grandfather, great-grandfather, and beyond, have been the tribe’s Antelope Priests. Charlene tells Jody and me that Floyd will be in the kiva for ten days with the stone — Jody remarks that, in the end it doesn’t matter what the tsamahia was used for, or who used it. All is overshadowed, because now it is in the hands of those who understand, with a respect that only deep heritage can give — preserving the future through preserving the past.
I am smiling, almost laughing as I watch Floyd walk away with the towel tucked beneath his arm; realizing it’s the tsamahia that’s had the adventure — one spanning a thousand or more years, compared to my couple of decades of exploring Southwest deserts.
A week or so later I receive a letter from Lee Wayne:
That’s good that you burn cedar in every room of your house. Yes Charlene is a healer and she could help you on how to deal with your vertigo. I will give her your love and hope you can come visit us soon again. I know that the Tsamahia is in the right place where it belongs. I feel good about it being with Floyd.
After that day, many interesting details came to light through research pointing to the mystery of these artifacts. Through Google I found a wild array of interesting information about the Hopi — pre-Hopi, and present Hopi. And I took note of oddly entwined threads that connected me, in some esoteric way, with the tsamahia, with clans, and rivers, and specific locations in Hopi history.
… The Acoma were said to be Hopi who had learned to speak Keresan; the early language of the people who came to be referred to on First Mesa as Snake-Sand clan was said to be Keresan. It was believed that all these peoples … lived together at Toko’nabi, near the junction of the San Juan and Colorado rivers.
I had played and swam in the waters of the San Juan where it joined the Colorado River — plus all around the 1,200-foot sandstone cliffs that surround that junction, long before the dam and reservoir drowned it all.
I’d never heard the word “Keresan,” but if you walk in my front door, immediately to your right you will see at least fifteen snakes, made of everything from iron, to grass, to wood, adorning low cabinets between the bookcases.
There are photos of me with snakes in hand from the Escalante River, Glen Canyon and many places in Arizona. I love snakes.
The horned or the two-headed snake which is patron of the Antelope society; and chamahia, the term for the implement-weapon, the hoe-ax placed on the Hopi Antelope society altar… Chamahias are fetish stones in Pueblo opinion, representing warrior spirits, anthropomorphic beings of an earlier age, turned to stone.
And so there it is — the spirit in the stone.
[Original article published in High Country News HERE.]