I spent a week recently volunteering in the ancient pueblo villages of Tewa and Walpi on First Mesa located on the Hopi reservation in Arizona. It is sometimes challenging to stay focused on the job at hand working on the roofs of 900-year-old adobe and rock homes clustered from one end of the mesa to another. The views from the rooftops, constructed at the top of a 300-foot mesa, reach all the way to Flagstaff mountain 100 miles to the west and circle in all directions from there.
If one pays attention, the view back into history -- and into the way a community used to thrive -- is as clear and inspiring as what one can see with the eyes. While working alongside community members recently, I would occasionally hear a tribal member in one of the plazas, call out to no one in particular: “Askwali!!” Within seconds, someone from a different part of the plaza or mesa, would echo back: “Askwali!” And the call would reverberate from each direction, sometimes for ten seconds -- sometimes for as long as a minute. Interspersed within the female’s calls of “Askwali!”, I would occasionally hear a male pick up the call: “Kwakwhay!” “Kwakwhay!” It was hard not to stop what we were doing and enjoy those words echoing around the mesa.
It was a beautiful . . . and gentle . . . . back and forth with no apparent reason understood by a visitor in this enchanted and ancient village. No one in particular would start the chain, or end it. Just every now and then: “Askwali!” “Askwali!” “Kwakwhay!” “Kwakwhay!” When the echo stopped and we returned to our work, I wondered what the words meant, and occasionally would try to understand the context behind them. When the call would start, it was comforting in some sort of way – and once quieted, I would await the next call, if only to be reassured that the people were still there. It became almost a song. . . . a window into the past . . . and then a prayer . . . . and then a beautiful lesson on the power of living in a community rooted in Indigenous wisdom.
During one of our breaks, when we sought shade in the scorching desert heat, I inquired of one of the local residents as to the meaning behind the two words. Both words, my friend explained, meant the same thing – though one was spoken by the females (“askwali”) and the other by the males (“kwakwhay”). Like so many first languages, the words themselves were more expressions of content, and are gutted if one attempts to translate them directly. “Askwali”/”kwakwhay” might be quickly (and improperly) translated simply as “thank you”, though that translation barely describes what happens on the mesas when those calls go out. The elder explained to me that the words are expressions of gratitude but not simply just a thank you. The words -- when the call is echoed and carried forward -- reverberates as encouragement and then gathers power in their song and then as a prayer.
I remember now sitting on the hot roof that day and hearing the words – being soothed, encouraged and inspired to continue the work. Having left the mesa now, I oftentimes want to call out “kwakwhay” as I move about my day in gratitude for those of you who support the work we do. But also, for those in my community (the first responders, the teachers, those working on the roads and infrastructure, our medical providers, our friends and family whom we walk with, and all of the others). I imagine if the world echoed in that same way, how different it could all be.
This story is the first of the four-part Our Mission in Action series! Honoring Indigenous Wisdom is one of four pillars of our mission - and the spirit of gratitude that permeates the Hopi & Tewa communities of First Mesa embodies the ancient teachings we seek to acknowledge and amplify in all that we do.
Your support for our mission will help us continue uplifting Indigenous wisdom and serving Native communities in a variety of ways!
Indigenous Wisdom, Alleviating Poverty, Reconciliation, and Gen7 Youth are the guiding pillars which integrate across all our activities. Stay tuned in the coming weeks as we dive deep into the three remaining pillars of our mission!
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