Indigenous wisdom with Hopi Elder Mona Polacca

How we use water is a result of how we relate to water. As we approached a flowing river when I visited with Mona at her home in Tucson, Arizona, Mona shared her wisdom on how to meet water with respect. She spoke about how much we depend on water for cleanliness and aliveness. I could see how her water advocacy was connected to her personal relationship to the land. In addition to the knowledge that “all life depends on water,” Mona’s work with water is embedded deeply in her life. She truly understands the interconnectivity of all life, so that global a water issues are not abstractions, but are as personal as this sacred river on the land near her home.

Mona Polacca is a Hopi elder, teacher, and water rights activist. She is a member of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers. Mona provides a strong voice of support for the protection of indigenous peoples and safeguards the environment. She left the PhD program at Arizona State and her research in social studies and human rights after she realized her work outside of academia was closer to her heart. She has supported indigenous peoples issues on United Nations committees.

Following is a short excerpt from my interview with Mona Polacca from my upcoming book The New Now – Dispatches from Pioneers of Change.

MG: What does the name Polacca symbolize for the Hopi?

MP: Transformation. It symbolizes the four stages of life that we go through. There’s the egg, the larva, the cocoon, and the emergence.

MG: Were you raised in traditional ways?

MP: Yes, I was taught how to be a Native woman. I’ve always been told: “This is the way we do it. This is the Indian way. This is the way we believe. This is the way to be. This is the way to represent us – not just our family, but our people, the tribes, and the Native Nations of this country.”

MG: What does Hopi prophecy teach us about humanity’s evolution?

MP: I was 14 years old when I first heard the prophecy. It was like a seed was planted in my being. The Hopi elder who was a teacher to me was the late Thomas Banyacya. He was the elder that carried the message of the Hopi prophecy. In the prophecy, a few key things stuck with me. One was that we had to prepare for the changes that were coming. And we needed to know our water, our air, our fire, and our Mother Earth for our survival. I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but it stuck with me. Now I know. To know your water is to have a relationship with it, to pray with it, every day.

My mother told me that the four elements give life, but they can also take life. Because the Havasupai live in the canyon and Havasu creek runs through the village, they have to have a relationship with the water. She said, “You must respect water. You don’t just run and jump into it. You approach it respectfully. You walk up to it and you reach down and you introduce yourself to the water.“ You would say, “I give thanks to you and I love you and respect you. I’m going to take you home and wash with you.” Or, “I’m going to get in you and enjoy the cleansing and wash with you. That’s how I’m going to use you.” Along with getting to know your water is getting to know the water sources, the natural springs, knowing where those waters are. That’s part of that teaching.

MG: These Original Instructions are literal and metaphorical directives, which have been passed on orally from generation to generation. They talk about how we can live in reverent and mutually beneficial relationship with our environment. Traditional cultures all around the planet are familiar with them. The Hopi prophecy shows us having a choice between destroying this world or saving ourselves by remembering the Original Instructions and living by them.

MP: In the prophecy, there’s a symbol depicting humanity coming to a fork in the road. One road continues straight and the other one veers off. The people that stay with their Original Instructions, taking care of things in a sacred manner, staying in balance and harmony. The ones that take the road veering off are the ones that are destroying all of the four sacred foundations right now. They are depicted as people whose heads are disconnected from their bodies. They are disconnected not only from their own bodies, but also from the earth. And their path leads to chaos and destruction. It’s happening! I don’t have to tell you that; it’s so obvious.

MG: You are meeting elders and spiritual leaders from so many indigenous cultures from all over the world. What are the commonalities in their wisdom teachings?

MP: The basic principles of our practices, of what’s sacred, and our responsibility to maintain the balance and our relationship to that foundation – water, air, fire, earth. In our Original Instructions we have the responsibility to maintain those places, our sacred sites within our own territories and the lands that we were given the knowledge of. And remember that white people received their Original Instructions, too. Indigenous people have these Original Instructions intact. They still practice them; they still have an understanding of those instructions with the foundation of life as well as with Creator.

MG: How can we learn about what is sacred and what sacred is?

MP: Go without water for three days. And on the fourth day, you take a drink of that water. There are sacred ceremonies that our people do where they go without water for four days while they’re in prayer. You tell me how you feel when you take your first sip after four days without water. What do you think of that water? That’s how you learn what sacred is. That’s the teaching that I use: have you ever been in a situation where you had no water to drink? There are places in the world right now where people are in that situation.