“Do you speak Hopi?” asked five-year-old Milo in Sunday school class. I quoted the two Hopi words in my repertoire. Apparently they didn’t match up with the Hopi words in his vocabulary, or quite possibly, my accent was off, as Milo quickly moved on and informed the class that he could count to twenty in Hopi. We listened while he counted.
Then I asked seven-year-old Julio if he’d like to count in Spanish for us. He opted out of counting in Spanish and instead volunteered a Navajo phrase, one that probably bordered on the derogatory, so before he could explain the meaning, I quickly changed the subject and boasted that I could count to twenty in English. I failed to impress Julio as he replied, “Duh, everyone can do that.” Before we started our Bible story, Julio announced that he forgot to brush his teeth.
Nine years ago we moved to the northeastern corner of Arizona, near the Navajo and Hopi reservations. Our church fellowship is comprised of Hopi, Navajo, and Hispanic peoples, as well as a few individuals from various other Native American tribes. We are the minority in this group. We are the pahana, the Hopi word for white man.
Having a mild fascination with languages, but semi-proficient in only my mother tongue, I enjoyed the challenge of learning new words in Hopi, Navajo, and Spanish. Over the years, my list of words has grown. Besides the Hopi word Lolma (a Hopi greeting), and Askwali (“thank you”—when spoken by a Hopi woman), there is Ya’at’eeh (a Navajo greeting), and “Cómo estás tú?” which is asked each Sunday by our Hispanic brother.
Our times of fellowship frequently involve food. Our ethnically diverse potluck dinners often include: tamales, enchiladas, fry bread, hominy stew (traditionally made with elk or lamb), green or red chili to spice up everything, and piki bread (pronounced “pee-kee” – a dark blue-gray, paper thin Hopi bread). Piki bread is made from blue cornmeal, greasewood ashes, and enough water to make a thin gruel. It is spread, with a bare hand, over a hot stone to bake before being folded in layers. After years of eating piki, we’ve only recently learned that the hot stone used to bake piki has been greased with a sheep’s brain.
The word that has been the bane of my newly acquired repository of non-English words is the Hopi word, paht-choon’-ta.1. After a meal, the word is announced by the host while pointing to the remaining food. It means “please, take whatever you want.” After potlucks, that is what we do. Plates, containers, or bags are filled with leftovers to be taken home. In my attempt to pronounce the word, my pahana accent always elicits a laugh from our Hopi friends. They ask me to repeat it for other Hopi visitors. Fortunately, you need not have the proper accent in order to participate in the practice.
I have also been challenging our church family with dishes outside their realm of taste. I’ve introduced ham-salad sandwiches at our Wednesday night Bible study and fellowship time. The fascination and perplexity on their faces as they stared at them while eating them made me smile. One native family has even inquired at the grocery store in order to purchase ground ham to make them.
We’ve acquired new tastes since moving here. Our choice of foods now occupies a higher rank on the Scoville2 scale. While I can’t report that my pahana accent is improving, at least I’ve gotten our group to enjoy ham-salad sandwiches, and after the paht-choon’-ta-ing, I don’t have to bother taking left-overs home. Perhaps, more importantly, I don’t have to stress over the Hopi pronunciation, as there is no Hopi word for ham-salad sandwiches.
And they sang a new song:
“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased men for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
*true account, names changed for privacy reasons
1paht-choon’-ta – after checking numerous sources, the spelling of this word or phrase is unsure, I’ve written it phonetically
2Scoville scale is the measurement of spicy heat of a chili pepper
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