TUBA CITY, Ariz. – In the far reaches of northern Arizona, where city sprawl gives way to majestic canyons and a holy place is defined not by steeple and cross but rather by earth and sky, lies a monument to a people's past and a symbol of the promise of peace between two long-warring Indian nations.
The Hopi people call it Tutuveni (tu-TOO-veh-nee), meaning "newspaper rock," and from a distance this place is just that — a collection of sandstone boulders set on a deserted swath of rust-stained land outside of Tuba City, some 80 miles from the Grand Canyon and a four-hour drive north of Phoenix.
It is only when you step closer that you begin to understand what Tutuveni really is: a history of the Hopi Indian tribe carved into stone.
The site contains some 5,000 petroglyphs of Hopi clan symbols, the largest known collection of such symbols in the American Southwest. According to researchers with the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, the many etchings on the boulders of Tutuveni date as far back as far back as A.D. 1200.
On the dark desert varnish of the boulders are rows of bear paws, corn stalks, spiders, coyotes, kachinas, clouds, cranes. Some of the symbols represent various aspects of Hopi cultural life, but most are the markings of the Hopi clans, or family systems, which are usually named for animals or other natural objects.
The Hopi made these engravings during ceremonial pilgrimages from their land to the Grand Canyon to mark the passage into adulthood for Hopi young men.
"They would stop at Tutuveni and camp there, and they would peck their clan symbols on those rocks to mark their participation in that pilgrimage. And they did this for four or five centuries at least," said Wes Bernardini, an archaeologist and professor at the University of Redlands who has been studying Tutuveni for years. "When people from the same clan would visit the site, they would put their symbols next to the previous symbol that somebody had left earlier. There's no other site that we know of like that, that shows these repeated visits.
"It's a very important place."
It is also a place threatened by modern-day vandals who view Tutuveni not as the sacred site and archaeological treasure that it is, but rather a canvas for their own graffiti.
Scattered among the many ancient impressions are the markings of lovers, history buffs and random visitors looking to leave their mark with etchings such as: "Aaron Myrianna 07," ''The Victor 10-20-85," ''Van.B," ''Ramon Albert," ''Ariz. Hy. Dept." Even: "1969-Man Land on Moon."
On one rock is a carved image of the two World Trade Center towers, with a plane heading for them. Elsewhere, clan symbols have been chiseled away or spray-painted over.
The Hopi had long known that what they considered a religious place had become, instead, a gathering spot to drink beer and act out. There was talk over the years of erecting a fence or building berms to help keep out vehicle traffic.
But the question of how to protect Tutuveni was complicated by its mere location: The site, while recognized as a Hopi traditional cultural property, actually sits on land now owned by the Navajo Indians, the result of a decades-old dispute that saw these neighboring tribes fighting over land each considered its own. The conflict was finally resolved in 2006 with much of the disputed 1.5 million acres going to the Navajos, but bitterness lingers still.
It might have been easy for Tutuveni to get caught up in all of that — and its needs overlooked — but for the small group of researchers, archeologists and preservationists from both tribes and beyond who came together in common cause: to save this important cultural resource.
"It's something that's really unique and very special to the Hopi," said Ron Maldonado, supervisory archaeologist for the Navajo Nation. "In my mind, it didn't matter who it belonged to. It needed to be protected, and that was it."
Maldonado talked with Jon Shumaker, a fellow archaeologist at electric utility Arizona Public Service, to see if the company might contribute some funding for fencing materials. APS came up with some $13,000.
Meanwhile Bernardini, in collaboration with the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, nominated Tutuveni for inclusion on the World Monuments Fund 2008 "watch list" of endangered cultural sites around the world. Among the treasures listed in years past: the Great Wall of China, India's Taj Mahal and ancient Pompeii, Italy. The fund pitched in some $100,000 toward a protective fence and surveillance cameras, but also a laser-scanning project that captured many of the petroglyphs for an educational website that was launched this past December.
Today, a chain-link fence stretches around the rock site, with only a narrow opening to allow for visitors on foot. Hidden cameras capture the movement of people and animals. Some beer bottles still litter the ground, but far fewer than what once was found at Tutuveni.
On a recent visit, Lee Wayne Lomayestewa of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office and Patrick Secakuku, who works with the Hopi schools, walked slowly among the boulders, stopping to run their fingers over the clan symbols and talk about their significance to their people. It was Secakuku's first visit to Tutuveni, and he stared in awe as he discovered just how many engravings represented his own ancestry in the bear strap clan.
"I'm really amazed. I didn't realize there were this many," he said. "This tells you a lot of history about our tribe, our Hopi people, and for people to desecrate, vandalize ... you're losing a lot of rich culture, history. It's sad. But how do you control it? You just wish that out of respect they'd leave them alone."
Lomayestewa comes out to the site regularly to check that the surveillance cameras are still working and to document any new vandalism with his digital camera. The fence, completed in 2010, has helped, he said. But educating both outsiders and the Navajo and Hopi people who live near Tutuveni about the importance of the site is the only real way to help preserve the place — and allow the past to live on.
"I wish we could have protected it before all this happened," Lomayestewa said, as he sought to explain just what Tutuveni means to the Hopi. "White people don't understand that we have these places where we pray. Their way of thinking is that you have to pray in a church.
"Ours is out here," he said, standing on the earth where his ancestors walked so long ago, on the soil that is his sanctuary.