‘Bahana’ Humor on the Hopi Reservation

‘Bahana’ Humor on the Hopi Reservation

The Wall Street Journal

‘Bahana’ Humor on the Hopi Reservation

By Leo W. Banks
SECOND MESA, ARIZONA

Joe Day is a 51-year-old ex-hippie and a self-described ranter and raver. The only trouble is that for the past 12 years he’s lived in a place where no one could hear him scream. The Hopi Indian Reservation in northeastern Arizona is one of the remotest spots in the Southwest. The silence atop the three Hopi mesas stretches into eternity.

But it’s a bit noisier now that Mr. day is writing a newspaper column called The Pet Report. That sound you hear is the collective cackling of appreciative Hopis. His column, you see, is a send-up of white people.

“It’s about stereotypes,” says Mr. Day, who is white. “Anglos come here with a lot of preconceived ideas about Hopis. Take your pick. That they all live in harmony with nature, the whole noble savage thing. Or that their lazy, shiftless and drunk. Stereotypes like that are all equally damaging because they prevent you from interacting with real people.”

The column’s title stems from a theory Mr. Day has developed over more than two decades of observation: Every Hopi family has a pet Bahana, the Hopi word for white person.

This can be a New Age tourist who visits the Rez to learn about Indian spirituality, meditate on a Mesa, or attend a tribal ceremony. Or it can just be a vacationing family passing through in a Chrysler minivan.

Mr. Day knows all about such visitations. He first began coming to the Hopi Reservation in the early ‘70s when he was director of the Head Start program in nearby Flagstaff. He befriended a Hopi family and eventually married into it. He and his wife, Jan, now run a gift shop on second Mesa.

“I was Jan’s family’s pet Bahana,” says Mr. Day. “It’s been understood up here for a long time that every Hopi has one, but it was never articulated until the column.”

The Pet Report has a bite. Its logo depicts Mr. Day’s toothy face superimposed over a photograph of a pit bull. In one column, he listed several popular “Bahana breeds,” including the guilty liberal, the Santa Fe Indian lover, the Indian wannabe and the sponsor.

“It is so important when choosing a pet Bahana to pick a breed that will meet your family’s needs,” he wrote. “So, in my next column I’ll be offering you some helpful hints on choosing your pet Bahana and try to answer the question, ‘Who are these guys and what are they doing here anyway?’”

When a group of latter-day hippies held their World Unity Festival on Hopi land, Mr. Day and a local doctor went to the site to disrupt their activities. He later wrote a column comparing the participants to stray dogs on the Rez: “Both the dogs and the festival goers are skinny, friendly, nonviolent, will eat anything, wag their tails a lot and are homeless. And most importantly, neither make good pets.”

“In future columns, Mr. Day plans to give tips on how to get Bahana’s to stop asking so many questions. And he’ll address two more burning issues: Are all Bahanas rich? Do Bahanas really have their own culture?

The Pet Report’s flaunting of sensitivities about race and culture is precisely Mr. Day’s intention. “I have no time for political correctness,” he says, spitting smoke from his Marlboro Light. “Life up here is too real. Look, Hopi’s are in slack-jawed amusement at us, just like we are at them. Why can’t I write about it?”

Mr. Day’s wife, Jan, who also serves as his editor, says Hopis find the column funny because it expresses what they’re already thinking but are too polite to say. It also fits with the Hopi ceremonial custom of having clowns act out what otherwise is not expressed. “Joseph’s column is just a Bahana form of clowning,” Mrs. Day says.

Mr. Day espouses similar views when he speaks to groups of seniors who visit the Rez as part of an elder-hostile program. He calls his talk, “Bahana: Stranger in a Strange Land.”

But the column gets the most attention. It’s published in the Underground, founded in February 1994 after the Hopi tribal newspaper suspended publication. The Underground’s coverage of events on the Rez is irreverent, particularly when about tribal government, whose leaders are routinely depicted as fools.

The secretive paper has no phone, only a mailing address: P.O. Box 468, Second Mesa, AZ 86043. Erlene, the postmaster on Second Mesa, obviously knows who’s renting the box, but she’s a fan and isn’t talking. The Days’ gift shop, called Tsakurshovi (the hill that comes to a point), serves as the paper’s informal office.

A T-shirt they created, inscribed with “Don’t Worry, Be Hopi,” has made their tiny shack on the edge of the mesa a popular spot with tourists.

Mr. Day’s walk-through trade allows him to observe goofy Bahanas in action. They wander in wearing Bermuda shorts and black socks, or tie-dyed shirts and sandals. Mr. Day chats them up, in the style of a city street vendor, and dishes out copies of the paper.

But the shop also attracts Hopis because it sells materials for tribal ceremonies, such as deer hooves, cottonwood root, turtle shells and gourds for making rattles.

So far, four issues of the Underground have been published. In classic reservation style, it comes out whenever it’s troika of creatures feels like doing it. The first edition numbered 500 copies, but they were quickly snatched up. The fourth edition numbered 2000.

Mr. Day has even gotten his first hate letter. It came from a man in Santa Fe complaining that the column’s swipes at whites amounted to slurs, undignified Bahana bashing.

“This is obviously some poor liberal sucker who’s never seen Hopi clowns in action,” says Mr. Day. “They’re not politically correct either. In my next column I’m going to tell this guy to get a grip and send it to him. That’s what they do to guilty liberals up here, they eat them alive.”