For nearly a thousand years the Hopi people of Arizona have lived on the same three mesas and for all that time they’ve spoken the Hopi language. But now elders and youth alike say the language is dying.
There are many hurdles standing in the way of preserving Hopi -- the great distances between the eleven villages that make up the Hopi community, the distinct dialects in each of those villages, and for Hopi teens, the choice between preserving their traditional culture or adopting a modern lifestyle.
Last Words from Hopi High was produced in 2009 by Brett Myers of Youth Radio/Youth Media International, in collaboration with the students of Hopi High.
All photos by Brett Myers/Youth Radio.
Brett Myers is a producer for Youth Radio's National Network, which includes bureaus in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. Before coming to Youth Radio in July of 2006, Brett worked both as an independent producer and with three other Peabody Award winning radio institutions including Sound Portraits Productions, StoryCorps, and The Kitchen Sisters. He received a BFA in Photography & Imaging from Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and was named one of the top 25 photographers under the age of 25 by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.
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BEHIND THE SCENES with Brett Myers
How did you meet the students we hear in the story?
Youth Radio/Youth Media International (YMI) has forged strong partnerships with youth media organizations and schools in communities around the country, and Hopi High School in Keams Canyon, Arizona is part of that network of partners. The school's radio class started collaborating with Youth Radio/Youth Media International as part of Youth Radio's CPB funded Curating Youth Voices project, and Youth Radio/YMI producers met the Hopi High students through that collaboration.
Whose idea was it, yours or theirs, to talk about the Hopi language itself? Why was that important?
The story began as a conversation initiated by Hopi High students at the National Federation of Community Broadcasters conference in New Orleans several years ago. After lunch one day at the conference, a group of Youth Radio/YMI students and Hopi High students sat around a table discussing issues they cared about. Again and again, Hopi students talked about their language. Loss of culture was clearly something they were worried about, and language is central to that issue. They said they felt pinched between two competing paths, going off to college and then getting a good job vs. staying on the reservation and maintaining their culture. As the school year was nearing a close, Youth Radio/YMI and Hopi High made a plan to regroup the following year and begin production on a story about the Hopi language.
Could you describe how you collaborated with the young people involved to make the piece? What was the process like?
The Hopi reservation is geographically remote, which presented some particular production challenges. Often when Youth Radio/Youth Media International works with partners from our national network, we’ll do the lion's share of the advance work by email – working with students to find characters, schedule interviews, and script – but at the time of production, most students on the reservation had very limited access to the internet. So instead, production centered around two trips to the Hopi reservation.
On the first trip, Antony Jauregui, a Youth Radio Los Angeles alumnus attending college in Flagstaff, Arizona, joined me on the reservation. Together Antony and I worked with Hopi students to find characters, conduct interviews, and gather tape for the story. The piece began taking shape much in the same way that our initial conversation in New Orleans happened -- free flowing group discussions became a collection of recordings. Antony and I met with five to ten Hopi High School students at a time in the back of the auditorium, which was one of the quietest places on campus. One Hopi student would riff off the next, with Antony gathering tape all the while. Tape from those larger discussions made its way into the final story, and more importantly, those conversations helped us figure out our main characters. Hopi Boy, a teen named Alrye Polequaptewa, was one of those characters. To a person, every student from Hopi High’s radio or journalism class agreed that Alrye was one of the few teens who could fluently speak Hopi, and more importantly was someone actively trying to save the language by teaching his fellow students what he knew.
Leaders emerged from these larger groups – students who were particularly interested in reporting on the issue – and those students worked with me on the second production trip to conduct more in-depth interviews in the field. Together we gathered interviews and audio in locations all around the reservation, from young people and elders, figuring out the arc of the story as we went, so that we could script on the fly.
Everything had to happen in those two trips, so it was a constant challenge to make sure all the disparate pieces had ways to connect, so we had all the tape we needed to shape the story.
How did students initially respond to the topic of their native language? Were they eager to talk about it, uncomfortable, indifferent?
Eager and anxious is probably the best way to describe it. Keeping a culture alive is an unbelievably huge responsibility, and Hopi students definitely wanted to discuss the pressures they were under, but at the same time, they were anxious about sharing too much. The Hopi community is very tight knit and many of the religious customs are closely guarded secrets. No one wanted to be seen as saying too much, or betraying the community. So it was a dance, telling the story in a way that everyone felt comfortable with, that would also be relevant to a national audience.
Hopi students owned and lead the production process. I just brought experience and commitment. Without them, the story wouldn’t have happened, because people wouldn’t have opened up to an outsider in the same way. Plus, they knew the story, I didn’t. That said there’s an interesting paradox in that, for many of the characters, it probably helped having an outsider like me there to facilitate the process. There’s a lot of intergenerational guilt going both ways about the fact that so few young people can speak the Hopi language, so having a neutral party facilitate discussions made it easier for many folks to open up.
Did the students seem to discover anything about themselves during interviews or production?
Anytime people honestly engage with an important issue, there’s discovery. And especially with topics like this, topics that make people feel uncomfortable, responsible, anxious or guilty, there’s usually much more discovery. Because there aren’t easy answers.
Moreover, not speaking Hopi is something most of the young people felt very powerless about. Being able to speak out and own this story and the way it was told, allowed for more intergenerational dialogue and gave Hopi teens some power in their situation.
Have you kept in touch with any of the students at Hopi High? Have there been any developments related to their efforts to revive the language?
Youth Radio/Youth Media International continues to work with Hopi High students on radio stories and blogs. Most of the teens in this story have since graduated, but I’ve personally kept in touch with a few students who fell in love with radio and are pursuing careers in the medium.
As for the Hopi language, students and elders continue to fight for it. Some Hopi believe the language is so sacred that it should only be taught in the home, which is partly why it only recently began to be offered as an elective at Hopi High School, but teaching the language academically faces some uphill challenges. There are many villages spread out across the vast Hopi reservation and each has its own distinct dialect, and while there have been attempts to fuse the dialects, they haven’t been terribly successful. And more than anything, the major challenge is the lure of jobs and universities in bigger cities, drawing young people away from the reservation, and in some cases further away from the culture.