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Hopi Film, the Indigenous Aesthetic and Environmental Justice: Victor Masayesva Jr.'s Paatuwaqatsi – Water, Land and Life


Since the early 1980s, the Hopi filmmaker and photographer Victor Masayesva Jr. has played an influential role in Native American multimedia production in the United States. This article examines Masayesva's film Paatuwaqatsi: Water, Land and Life (2007), which documents a 1,650-mile run made by Hopis from their home villages in Northern Arizona to Mexico City in early 2006. The run marked the closure of the Mohave Generating Station in southern Nevada and the Black Mesa coal mine which fuelled the power plant. It also celebrated the shutting down of the controversial coal slurry pipeline between the plant and mine that required for its operation the pumping of 1.2 billion gallons of pristine water annually from the Navajo Aquifer, which lies under the homelands of the Hopi and Navajo nations. The article explains how Hopis' affective relationship with place is put into action through the acts of running, prayer and personal sacrifice. It reviews Masayesva’s filmmaking career to date and considers his core idea of the indigenous aesthetic, a set of principles that has guided the practical decisions and artistic choices he has made in the course of over thirty years' working as an independent media producer. After a close analysis of selected scenes in Paatuwaqatsi, the article concludes by noting, first, how the film negotiates internal divisions within Hopi society over development and environmental issues and, second, how it engages the impact of continuing drought and ongoing climate change on the American Southwest.

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1 Ryan Randazzo, “Mohave Generating Station to Be Demolished,” Arizona Republic, 11 June 2009, available at

2 See Grinde, Donald A. and Johansen, Bruce E., Ecocide of Native America: Environmental Destruction of Indian Lands and Peoples (Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers, 1995), 1943; Whiteley, Peter M., “Paavahu and Paanaqawu: The Wellsprings of Life and the Slurry of Death,” Cultural Survival Quarterly, 19, 4 (Winter 1995), available at (an expanded version of this article appears in Whiteley, Peter M., Rethinking Hopi Ethnography (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998), 188207); Glennon, Robert Jerome, Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping and the Fate of America's Fresh Waters (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2002), 155–68; Begaye, Enei, “The Black Mesa Controversy,” Cultural Survival Quarterly, 29, 4 (Winter 2005), available at

3 Vernon Masayesva, “Closing Power Plant Is First Step in New Era of Energy,” Arizona Republic, 3 Nov. 2005, available at,vernon.html.

4 For criticism of Masayesva's earlier films, see Rony, Fatimah Tobing, “Victor Masayesva, Jr., and the Politics of Imagining Indians,” Film Quarterly, 48, 2 (Winter 1994–95), 2033; Bahns-Coblans, Sonja, “Reading with a Eurocentric Eye the ‘Seeing with a Native Eye’: Victor Masayesva's Itam Hakim, Hopiit,” Studies in American Indian Literatures, 8, 4 (Winter 1996), 4760; Kilpatrick, Jacquelyn, Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), 208–16; Singer, Beverly R., Wiping the War Paint off the Lens: Native American Film and Video (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 6467; Jacobs, Karen, “Optic/Haptic/Abject: Revisioning Indigenous Media in Victor Masayesva, Jr and Leslie Marmon Silko,” Journal of Visual Culture, 3, 3 (2004), 291316; Knopf, Kerstin, Decolonizing the Lens of Power: Indigenous Films in North America (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008), 134–69.

5 Brew, J. O., “Hopi Prehistory and History to 1850,” in Ortiz, Alfonso, ed. Handbook of North American Indians, Volume IX, Southwest (Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 1979), 514–23, 514.

6 The Hopi historian Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert notes, “the Hopi people consider this present world to be the ‘fourth way of life’ for Hopis and for all humanity.” See Gilbert, Matthew Sakiestewa, “Hopi Footraces and American Marathons, 1912–1930,” American Quarterly, 62, 1 (March 2010), 98 n. 13.

7 For an English translation of stories of the emergence and migrations of the Hopi people see Courlander, Harold, The Fourth World of the Hopis: The Epic Story of the Hopi Indians as Preserved in Their Legends and Traditions (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987; first published 1971). The literary scholar Peter G. Beidler notes that at least twelve versions of the Hopi creation story have been recorded by ethnographers and folklorists and translated into English texts since the late nineteenth century. See Beidler, Peter G., “First Death in the Fourth World: Teaching the Emergence Myth of the Hopi Indians,” American Indian Quarterly, 19, 1 (Winter 1995), 7589.

8 See J. O. Brew, “Hopi History, 1850–1940,” in Ortiz, 533–38; Frederick J. Dockstader, “Hopi History, 1850–1940,” in ibid., 524–32; and Richard O. Clemmer, “Hopi History, 1940–1970,” in ibid., 533–38.

9 Whiteley, Rethinking Hopi Ethnography, 192–93.

10 Gilbert, 79.

11 Nabokov, Peter, Indian Running (Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1981), 27.

12 Quoted in Nabokov, 27. See also Stephen, Alexander M., Hopi Journal, ed. Parsons, Elsie Clews (New York: Columbia Contributions to Anthropology, 1936), 780.

13 Marc Simmons, “History of Pueblo–Spanish Relations to 1821,” in Ortiz, 186.

14 Nabokov, 11–12.

15 Crucially, Spanish colonial control of Hopis was limited in the aftermath of the Pueblo Revolt. Awatovi, the one Hopi village to which Franciscan missionaries returned to proselytize and baptise infants, was ruthlessly attacked by Hopi war parties in late 1700 or early 1701, and subsequently fell into ruin. This collective effort to cast out the Catholic presence and reassert Hopi religious and political sovereignty proved successful, and it was not until the late nineteenth century that the authority and autonomy of Hopi tribal leaders was again truly tested by external forces. See Rushforth, Scott and Upham, Steadman, A Hopi Tribal History: Anthropological Perspectives on Sociocultural Persistence and Change (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992), 97–16; and Courlander, 175–84.

16 Hough, Walter, The Hopi Indians (Cedar Rapids, IA: The Torch Press, 1915), 108–9

17 Gilbert, 77–101.

18 Vernon Masayesva, “Closing Power Plant Is First Step in New Era of Energy.”

19 Victor Masayesva in conversation with the author, 15 May 2010, Hotvela, Arizona.

20 For the purposes of this discussion I use the encompassing terms “filmmaker” and “film” to discuss Masayesva's work across these three distinct yet overlapping forms of video, film and high-definition digital production.

21 For information on the availability of Masayesva's films on DVD and public performance rights, see

22 Masayesva's photography is featured in Masayesva, Victor Jr. and Younger, Erin, Hopi Photographers/Hopi Images (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1983); and Masayesva, Victor Jr., Husk of Time: The Photographs of Victor Masayesva (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2006).

23 Masayesva, Victor, “Indigenous Experimentalism,” in Lion, Jenny, ed., Magnetic North: Canadian Experimental Video (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, Video Pool Inc. and the Walker Art Center, 2000), 228–39, 229.

24 Quoted in Leuthold, Steven, “An Indigenous Aesthetic? Two Noted Videographers: George Burdeau and Victor Masayesva,” Wicazo Sa Review, 10, 1 (Spring 1994), 40–51, 48.

25 Sands, Kathleen M. and Lewis, Allison Sekaquaptewa, “Seeing with a Native Eye: A Hopi Film on Hopi,” American Indian Quarterly, 14, 4 (Autumn 1990), 387–96, 388.

26 Leuthold, 44.

27 Victor Masayesva, “Indigenous Experimentalism,” 236.

28 Ibid., 236–7.

29 Ibid., 237.

30 Rickard, Jolene, “Visualizing Sovereignty in the Time of Biometric Sensors,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 110, 2 (Spring 2011), 465–86, 467. For an application of the concept of visual sovereignty to contemporary Indigenous photography see Tsinhnahjinnie, Hulleah J., “Dragonfly's Home,” in Lidchi, Henrietta and Tsinhnahjinnie, Hulleah J., eds., Visual Currencies: Reflections on Native Photography (Edinburgh: National Museums Scotland, 2000), 318.

31 Raheja, Michelle, “Reading Nanook's Smile: Visual Sovereignty, Indigenous Revisions of Ethnography, and Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner),” American Quarterly, 59, 4 (Dec. 2007), 1159–85.

32 For a discussion of the ways in which “Masayesva seeks to decolonize images of the Hopis” see Romero, Channette, “The Politics of the Camera: Visual Storytelling and Sovereignty in Victor Masayesva's Itam Hakim, Hopiit,” Studies in American Indian Literature, 22, 1 (Spring 2010), 4975, 71.

33 To this end Masayesva established IS Productions in 1980 – see The company is based in Hotvela and in addition to pursuing film projects provides media production training for young Hopis.

34 Victor Masayesva in conversation with the author, 15 May 2010.

35 For information on the series see

36 Email communication, 22 May 2012.

37 Similar to his practice in the documentary Imagining Indians, which features a good deal of footage of interviews and conversations between participants in the field, Masayesva does not employ captions to identify the various people who speak directly to the camera, or in voice-over, in Paatuwaqatsi.

38 “Profile and Mission,” at

39 Barlow, Maud, Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water (New York: The New Press, 2007), 164.

40 For instance, the Indigenous Declaration on Water states, “We recognize that as stewards of the lands and waters, and as sovereign peoples who will never sell nor trade their rights to Water, we Indigenous peoples retain inherent rights and responsibilities to protect Water.” See “Indigenous Declaration on Water,” Final Report – Water for People and Nature: An International Forum on Conservation and Human Rights, July 5–8, 2001, at, 10.

41 “Indigenous Declaration on Water,” 10–11.

42 “Indigenous Environmental Network Statement on the Endorsement and Adoption of the Indigenous Declaration of Water,” at

43 Victor Masayesva in conversation with the author, 15 May 2010.

44 In December 2008, the Office of Surface Mining approved a new permit allowing Peabody Energy to operate the Kayenta Mine until 2026 and to include in its lease the coal reserves formerly allocated to the now-closed Black Mesa Mine. See “Feds OK Permit Revision for Arizona Coal Mine,” Arizona Republic, 28 Dec. 2008, at In February 2012 this decision was challenged by a coalition of environmentalist groups comprising To’ Nizhoni Ani, the Black Mesa Water Coalition, Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, the Sierra Club, and the Center for Biological Diversity. See “Navajo & Environmental Organizations Appeal Peabody's Kayenta Coal Mine Permit,” at At the time of writing, the case is pending.

45 For analysis of the rise of “the hydraulic society” in the Western United States see Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity and the Growth of the American West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). See also Kupel, Douglas E., Fuel for Growth: Water and Arizona's Urban Environment (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2003).

46 de Buys, William, A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 310.

47 “Navajo Generating Station and Air Visibility Regulations: Alternatives and Impacts,” a federal report published in January 2012, noted that over the past 25 years the Hopi and Navajo nations have received $291.4 million and $772 million, respectively, in coal royalties, bonuses and water fees associated with the running of the Kayenta Mine and the Navajo Generating Station. See “Study: Navajo Generating Station, Kayenta Mine Have $1.3 Billion Economic Impact on Navajo, Hopi Tribes,” Indian Country Today, 9 April 2012, at

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