With about 7,000 inhabitants, the Hopi Indian reservation centers around 12 ancient villages set on three thin mesas that rise to 7,200 feet northeast of Flagstaff. Although “Hopiland” is a cultural island floating in the sea of the Navajo reservation, the two tribes are quite distinct. First, Second and Third Mesa (named from east to west) are connected by Highway 264 between Tuba City and Ganado.

The “Peaceful People” live a quiet, isolated existence in the rarefied desert atmosphere. Their traditions revolve around humility, cooperation and the careful cultivation of corn in the high desert. Many Hopi have become outstanding artisans in silver, turquoise, baskets and pottery. It’s an atmospheric and traditional place, even as more and more tribal members have settled in modern towns between the older villages on the mesas.

One of the best ways to experience the culture is with Hopi guide Gary Tso, who leads private tours of his homeland. All-day excursions offer a rare peek behind the veil of this reserved culture, where visitors are strictly prohibited from taking photographs or videos – or even making sketches. Tso takes guests into the homes of Hopi artists – with permission, of course – and off the main roads to see some of the 15,000 petroglyphs (carved rock art) at the Dawaki site, which is only accessible to visitors with a guide.

Touring Old Oraibi

Also on the itinerary is the village of Old Oraibi (oh-RYE-bee), inhabited since the mid-12th century and arguably the oldest continually occupied community in the country. This is the closest you’ll come to experiencing time travel in America. Residents get by without electricity or running water, and the windswept stone buildings seem straight out of an antique etching.

In 1906, the Oraibi community was split by internal strife when one clan wanted to cooperate with the U.S. government and another faction did not. The dispute was settled by a tug-of-war. Two groups lined up on either side of a line etched in the ground and started pulling. When the dust cleared, the faction who agreed to work with and received help from the U.S. government prevailed, and the others who chose the traditional lifestyle left to found the villages of Hotevilla (HOAT-vih-lah) & Bacavi, about eight miles north of Oraibi.

Visiting Dances & Events

Tso is happy to take his clients to cultural events such as dances that are open to the public (not all are), or at least point you in the right direction. His refreshing enthusiasm makes all the difference between feeling like an outsider and a warmly welcomed guest. When he’s not leading tours, Tso carves katsina dolls, small representations of the Hopi spirits that sell for hundreds of dollars.

It’s possible to visit the Hopi reservation on your own as well. Many residents sell crafts and food from their homes; try some traditional, wafer-thin piki bread, made with blue corn flour. You’re welcome to watch if a ceremony that’s open to the public is taking place. Just be aware that you are considered part of the collective spiritual effort, so you should act and dress respectfully. Stop by the Hopi Cultural Center on Second Mesa, which has a museum, restaurant and hotel, for more information. For a list of towns and tour guides, visit www.hopibiz.com.