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Hopi elder still creating goods

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By Joanna Dodder -- The Daily Courier

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) - Rex Pooyouma looks forward to seeing all his artist friends once a year during the annual Prescott Indian Art Market at the Sharlot Hall Museum.

Now that he's 90-plus years old, Pooyouma had his trip made easier by museum Curator of Anthropology Sandy Lynch, who picked him up in a small private airplane at Tuba City, not far from his Hopi home.

Pooyouma has been making traditional Hopi moccasins for more than a half-century. They're on display at places such as the Peabody Museum in Boston and the Museum of Northern Arizona. But this year might have been the last time for visitors to meet him at the Prescott show, at least as an exhibitor.

''I'm just about to give it up, because my eyes are not so good,'' Pooyouma said.

Pooyouma has seen much change with those eyes.

He grew up in Hotevilla on the Hopi Reservation, where he still lives today. His mother is from the Corn Clan and his father is from the Butterfly Clan, where he gets his last name that means ''flying butterfly.''

One of his earliest memories was from when he was about 5 years old, selling bows and arrows to tourists who came to see the Snake Dance.

He couldn't speak a single word of English so one visitor was trying to communicate what he wanted through signals, repeatedly throwing his Derby hat up in the air.

Pooyouma figured the man was saying he would buy the bow and arrows if he could put an arrow through his Derby hat. Pooyouma pierced it on the first shot and made the sale.

He likes to joke that the man might have returned home and used the hat to back up a story about an Indian attack, related Lynch, who calls Pooyouma her ''daha,'' the Hopi word that's closest to the meaning of ''teacher.''

''He's a man that never met a stranger,'' Lynch said.

Pooyouma wasn't sure exactly how old he was back then, because the Hopi didn't use watches or calendars. They told time by the moon, stars and sun, which let them know when to plant and harvest.

When the U.S. government forced Pooyouma into the Indian boarding school in Phoenix, the teachers tried to calculate how old he was. So he figures he's probably about 93 now.

Pooyouma learned carpentry as well as English in school, and traveled around to various carpentry jobs after finishing school. He also learned to play the saxophone and clarinet in school. While working for the railroad in Winslow, he ended up in a band that traveled to Chicago to perform.

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Then came the World War II draft, and Pooyouma served throughout the Pacific.

When the U.S. government feared that the Japanese had broken the Navajo code, they brought in Pooyouma - who speaks Hopi and Navajo - and members of 19 other tribes to use their languages as code, too, Lynch said. But many of these men, including Pooyouma, never have received recognition as code talkers.

Pooyouma doesn't talk about the war much.

''They ask us to talk about what we went through,'' Pooyouma said. ''It's too hard.'' It gives him nightmares when he thinks about it.

When he returned from the war, Hopi cleansing ceremonies helped him.

''They make you forget,'' he said. ''They had to do that to me two times.''

Pooyouma didn't start making moccasins until 1956, although his father taught him the skill at age 15.

He's happy to see his son Gene carrying on the tradition. Like other elders, he worries about whether the Hopi traditions and language will continue.

He also worries about the drought. It's affecting the tribe's ability to gather wild plants, and the corn is turning brown. He says it's the worst drought he's ever seen.

''Somebody's punishing us,'' Pooyouma said. ''We do a lot of things wrong these days.''

His grandfathers used to tell him stories about what was going to happen in the future, including drought and sickness.

''Now some of us older people are seeing everything the old folks predicted,'' Pooyouma said. ''How they knew, we don't know.''

Despite all the change he's seen, Pooyouma's hometown hasn't changed as much as most others. He still doesn't have electricity, although he does have a propane tank, and six years ago he got plumbing.

''I don't have hardly anything, but at least I'm happy,'' he said.

He doesn't let himself worry about things as often these days, because he needs that energy to keep going.

''I'm just living from one day to another now,'' he said.