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A CLASH OF CULTURES ON THE HOPI RESERVATION

Nov. 20, 1989
Nov. 20, 1989

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Nov. 20, 1989

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A CLASH OF CULTURES ON THE HOPI RESERVATION

In his more discouraged moments. Chuck Otterman considers the modern marvel that is Hopi High School—a sprawling, rust-colored structure baking in the sun 75 miles northeast of Wins-low, Ariz.—and imagines it no longer exists.

This is an article from the Nov. 20, 1989 issue Original Layout

"The desert is going to reclaim all this stuff," he said recently, staring bleakly at the four tennis courts that are rarely used, the football stadium that can't be used and the $2-million terraced rock garden that threatens to slide to the desert floor. "There's been no upkeep. The dollars went for construction, not for maintenance."

Otterman, a 33-year-old father of six who came to the Hopi Indian Reservation two years ago to teach social studies at the new junior-senior high school, has only to look down to prove his point. Dust swirls around his shoes. The brown earth is crosshatched with deep cracks and shallow gullies. From goalpost to goalpost, not one blade of green grass shows its crown. The sod has dried up, died and blown away, leaving a spectacular view from the concrete bleachers of desert valley and surrounding mesas...but no football.

"We had a big, nice scoreboard, too," says Otterman, who grew up in Roanoke, Va., and had never coached football before coming to Hopi High, "but the wind came up last summer and destroyed it."

In his more exuberant moments—say, the night a few weeks earlier when a fourth-quarter quarterback sack' sealed Hopi High's 18-12 road victory over Alchesey High School's Apache team—the longhaired, wiry Otterman leaps, scissors his legs and screams like some demented conductor, to the amusement (and amazement) of his players. Or he turns his back to the field and gestures frantically to the Hopi fans to stand up and shout their support.

"I have to cheerlead as well as coach," he explains. "The Hopis don't know what you do at football games."

He means many of the Hopi players as well as the fans. Otterman recalls an early-season practice when he tried to explain blocking assignments on a sweep and got blank looks from half the team. Says Otterman, "Sometimes I go berserk because I tell them to do something and nothing happens. I mean, I knew this stuff when I was in second grade! The kids have to come to me and say, 'Coach, you think we know all this stuff, but we don't.' "

In their first year of football, the inexperienced Hopi Bruins went 3-7 in Arizona's Class 2A North Conference, which includes schools with enrollments between 300 and 600. (Hopi High has 308 students, some of whom live at the edges of the reservation, 45 miles away.) Last year, because of two fine pass catchers who have since left the school, the Bruins improved to 6-4. This year, despite having to play all of their games on the road because their own field is unfit to play on, the Hopis finished 4-4. For a desert people with no football tradition, the results should be gratifying, a source of tribal pride.

But skeptics ask: Why football? Much of the game's essence—particularly the emphasis on hitting, emotionalism and total commitment to victory—contradicts 850 years of Hopi culture and religion. The mesas themselves, flat-topped hills upon which the Hopis have lived since about 1125 A.D., testify to the tribe's historically peaceful nature. The mesas' cliff walls once provided refuge from marauding tribes and Spanish conquistadors and still give privacy for certain traditional dances (actually religious ceremonies) performed in underground chambers, called kivas. The Hopis are noted for their ceremonies, their art—kachina dolls, pottery and jewelry—and their spirituality. They are not noted for their linebackers.

"They aren't used to our win-at-all-costs, beat-the-other-man mentality." says Otterman. "Their understanding of life, of what it means to be a good Hopi, goes against what it takes to be a good football player."

No one reflects that confusion of purpose more than Hopi High's star quarterback and safety, Jarrett Huma. "It's hard to be a Hopi in the 20th century," the shy teenager wrote in a school essay assignment. "Everything in a Hopi is emphasis on the life of all living things. You are taught to be humble and generous."

Quarterbacks, on the other hand, are taught to be cocky and dominating. Huma, a junior, passed for 2,923 yards as a sophomore and set northern Arizona prep records for total offense, passing yardage and touchdown passes (game and season). This season Huma has not had such sure-handed receivers to throw to, and his numbers have fallen off—which, according to Otterman, has made his teammates and Huma himself more comfortable. "Individual success," says the coach, "makes them uneasy."

Greg Wahnee, a senior flanker who is one of the few Hopi High players who has lived off the reservation, agrees that the Hopis are not football naturals. "I'm a Comanche." says the native of Lawton, Okla., "and when I came here, I found out the Hopis weren't as aggressive." The streetwise Wahnee smiles and adds, "I'm a different Indian."

To stir the Hopis' competitive fires, Otterman sometimes resorts to classic coaching technique and becomes what he calls "the yelling motivator." He does so with trepidation, because the previous varsity coach lost his job when parents and tribal leaders complained that he verbally abused the players and encouraged them to retaliate when they were behind in games by hurting opponents. In one breath, Otterman explains how he must get his players to change—"I've got to get those guys to hate to lose"—and in the next, he chastises himself for undermining Hopi culture, saying, "The school staff really freaked out when I told them we were doing exactly what the missionaries tried to do—de-Indianize the Indians."

It is a stressful role for Otterman, who lives with his wife, Tammy, and what will soon be seven children a hundred yards or so from the school, in a boxlike adobe house owned by the U.S. government. And while he hides his burnout symptoms from his players and students, it would take a magician to hide the bureaucratic bungling that has plagued Hopi High's football program from the beginning.

When the new school's stadium was deemed complete in May 1987, it had no rest rooms, no concession stand, no press box and no fence to keep out non-paying spectators. Those frills weren't in the stadium specifications. And at first no one noticed that the goalposts had been installed 110 yards apart instead of the customary 120, leaving only 90 yards between the end zones.

The goalposts were later corrected, free of charge, by the contractor, but the other shortcomings remain. The lack of a fence, besides hurting home-game revenues, allowed roaming cattle and sheep to graze on the field. When Otterman went to a Hopi rancher to complain, the weather-beaten old man snorted and said, "Those cows were here before you, and they'll be here after you've gone."

The biggest screwup, of course, was letting the stadium turf die. No one stepped forward to accept blame for that, but the school's previous principal and the school business manager both resigned amid accusations of mismanagement. When Otterman took over the football program in July, at the request of the Hopi school board, he and the players inspected the stadium field and declared it unusable. "When we saw that field," recalls Duvaughn Figueroa, a senior who plays tackle and defensive end, "we felt like no one cared about us."

The school board accepted Otterman's recommendation, and Hopi High suddenly faced a daunting schedule—eight road games, some as far away as a five-hour drive—and a total cutoff of ticket and concession revenues.

Practicing proved to be no picnic, either. The only usable land was a weedy patch maybe 40 yards wide and 60 yards long, below the school and behind the tennis courts. The school has no mowers, so the players stomped down the grass themselves and drove out the rattlesnakes and scorpions. A sprinkler fed by a long hose keeps the ground soft enough to use, but there is no real grass—just clumpy weeds and cow pies. The footballs turn white with dust.

Otterman won't say whether the situation has cost his team any victories, but he points out that the absence of goalposts on the practice field caused him to shelve field goal attempts and PATs for the season. And the first time his team lined up on a real football field this fall, Otterman had to scream frantically for his linemen to spread out. Having gotten used to playing shoulder-to-shoulder on their narrow plot at home, they were poised in the middle of the field like inseparable sextuplets.

"It's unbelievable what these kids have gone through to play football," says line coach Weldon Kowena. "You have to admire them for sticking it out."

In October an open meeting was held at the school to address the stadium issue. Predictably, no one accepted the blame for its disintegration. Bill McConnell, the Phoenix area facility manager for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), said his office would send Congress a $300,000 proposal to, among other things, restore the stadium turf and install a fence and irrigation system, but he said it would be futile to ask for lawn mowers or toilets when other Indian facilities had pressing needs of their own. The next night, at the Alchesey game, Hopi tribal chairman Ivan Sidney expressed skepticism about the BIA's proposal. "What you're hearing," he said, "is the typical government answer: 'It's our responsibility, but we don't have the money.' " Sidney proposed, instead, a scheme in which the tribe would finance the field repairs by "selling" small squares of turf to individual Hopis. However, like the BIA official, Sidney could not promise that the field would be repaired in time for the 1990 football season. "There are obstacles," he admitted, "but we are going to make it. All we want is a helping hand, not handouts."

The game itself seemed an antidote to the depressing debate over purposes and means. Hopi High trailed the Apache team 12-6 at halftime, but Otterman and his assistants gathered the team in the far end zone and threw a few logs on the motivational fire. The players huddled and put their hands together, chanting "Nahoungvitoat'a, "a Hopi expression that, roughly translated, means "Pride, push it"—and ran out for the second half.

One long Hopi drive stalled at the goal line, but the Bruins' luck changed with 1:56 left in the third quarter, when an underthrown Huma pass bounced off a defender and into the hands of wide receiver Clifford Nodman for a touchdown. In the fourth quarter Huma hit wide receiver Gary Yoyokie Jr. for another touchdown, putting the Bruins up by 18-12.

For the rest of the game, Otterman whipped up his players and the Hopi fans behind the bench. The players on the sidelines clapped their hands and chanted. "DEE-fense! DEE-fense!" The parents stomped their feet on the aluminum stands, prompted by Otterman's arm waving, and raised their voices to inspire the boys on the field. And when the last seconds ran off the clock and the Hopis had won. their exuberance as they leaped and hugged each other seemed no less genuine than that in any other small American town, where Friday nights in the fall have meant football for a lot longer than three years.

"We're under a microscope because of what happened here the last two years," Otterman said later. "These people are just waiting to say, "Football is bad, we don't want it.' And maybe they're right, I really don't know. I don't think the Hopis knew what they were getting into."

Neither did Otterman, of course. Life on the reservation is so removed from the city world he left behind in Little Rock, Ark.—where he worked as a computer specialist—that even football seems, at times, to be overwhelmed by the desert and the sky. When Hopi High played at Red Mesa last month, the moon and a distant fog conspired to produce a weird light that Otterman had never seen before. "It kind of looked," he says, "like milk running down off the mesa, the way the light was hitting it."

A week later, the Bruin season ended on a less transcendental note. St. John's. a non-Indian school 175 miles southeast of Hopi High, crushed Hopi High 56-0. Otterman and his assistants resigned, citing a lack of community support for the football program. The activities bus, which had transported players to their homes after practice, lost its funding. And there was no money to repair football equipment.

Otterman, who also coaches the basketball team, seemed grateful to be leaving the dusty practice field for the comfortable confines of Hopi High's modern gymnasium. "The kids understand basketball, and they like it," he says. "Hopi basketball doesn't present as many problems."

Maybe not, but the Hopis noticed last fall that cracks were beginning to open between the boards on the gym floor. It seems the gym was built without a humidifier to counter the desert air.

PHOTOCARL YARBROUGHThe Bruins got another scoreboard, but they couldn't use it.PHOTOCARL YARBROUGHOtterman tried to inspirit his troops before the Red Mesa game. The Hopis lost 14-12.PHOTOCARL YARBROUGHWilmen Hyoema (left) and Michael Kowena prepared for Red Mesa.PHOTOCARL YARBROUGHBecause their stadium was a mess, the Bruins played every game this year on the road.