Michael Freisinger, museum curator for Arizona’s parks
system, is wrapping clay potsand stone tools in acid-free paper, preparing them for storage in a
climate-controlled room in Tucson. The oldest pieces date
back more than 800 years.
Freisinger started working for the parks
system in 1993. One of his first tasks was to open Homolovi.
He spent the next 17 years expanding the state’s collections
and opening new exhibits. Now, he drives across the state to
pack them all away. And no one can say when they might
“I’m the mothball curator now,” he says.
Homolovi Ruins closed Feb. 22, victim of
a state budget deficit that led lawmakers to cut parks
funding last year by 61 percent. Homolovi and Lyman Lake
were the first in a wave of closures that by June will
padlock 21 of the state’s 30 parks and recreation areas,
leaving people far fewer places to explore the history and
beauty of Arizona.
The closures will eliminate the jobs of
70 rangers and parks staff across the state, depriving them
of the chance to share the story of Arizona with the
system’s 2.2 million annual visitors.
Freisinger works at a folding table in a
space where schoolchildren used to line up to see pots and
petroglyphs made by ancestral Hopis in the 13th and 14th
The exhibit contains 400 pieces of
ancestral Hopi pottery and tools that drew nearly 15,000
people to Homolovi last year. Freisinger has already put
nearly two dozen white boxes into his van. When he is done
packing, he will drive them 300 miles to the Arizona State
Museum in Tucson, the state’s official repository for
archaeological artifacts. The objects will not be available
for public viewing.
Homolovi Ruins comprises 4,000 acres,
part of a vast floodplain that stretches halfway to the
horizon in every direction. Freisinger knows how to protect
the artifacts in his boxes. He has no idea how to protect
the potshards and petroglyphs, the grinding stones and hand
tools, scattered among the park’s 340 archaeological sites.
“We’re charting uncharted waters,”
Freisinger says. He asks the question that all of the park’s
employees are asking: “How do you close a park?” Homolovi
Ruins State Park encompasses seven ancestral Hopi pueblos
that were occupied roughly 1260 to 1400. Today, more than
9,000 Hopis live on a 1.6 million-acre reservation 65 miles
north of the park.
On visits to the park, Hopi
schoolchildren learned how their ancestors settled the
floodplain and grew corn, squash and cotton. Outside
visitors learned the ancient culture, watched demonstrations
of their crafts and purchased works made by Hopi artists on
Establishment of the park in 1986 also
offered protection from looters who used to rip up
archaeological sites in search of treasures. With the park
closed, tribal leaders are afraid the pothunters will
When the park was established, state
parks officials worked with the Hopis to plan the layout so
roads would not disturb sacred sites.
The park’s three full-time staff members
learned which of the Hopis’ stories are considered sacred
knowledge, not to be shared with the general public, and
which could be told.
Karen Berggren has spent nearly 23 years
at Homolovi. She became the park’s first manager when it
opened. She lives in one of two residences in the park and
used to manage every facet of its operations.
On this day, she is sitting at her desk
in the visitors center shredding personnel records.
Homolovi’s closure means more than a lost
job to Berggren. She is losing her chance to connect people
with the past.
“These parks are Arizona treasures,” she
says. “Reducing them to ‘revenues produced’ is a tragedy.
It’s a tragedy for our citizens and for our history. And for
Berggren takes the closure personally.
She is 60 years old. Homolovi has been her life’s work and
The park, Berggren says, is a microcosm
of Arizona. In addition to the Hopi pueblos, there is a
cemetery from an early Mormon settlement.
When the layoffs come, Berggren plans to
retire. Evicted from her home of two decades, she will move
with her dogs into two rooms at the home of a friend who
lives in Winslow.
Park Ranger Kenn Evans lives in Winslow
with his wife. To make ends meet, Evans has long had a
second job doing administrative work at a mortuary in town.
That will become his only job when the park closes.
Homolovi remains his passion.
Evans spent 18 years explaining to
visitors the subtle differences in the artifacts at
Homolovi, showing them how they could tell what sort of wood
the clay was fired in by the coloration of the potshard or
the way the clay hardened. Asked how he can differentiate
among the 30 kinds of pottery found at Homolovi, he chuckles
and shares the secret. “Do it for 18 years.”
Chad Meunier, Berggren’s deputy, lives in
the park’s second residence with his wife and four young
children. He has worked nearly 10 years at Homolovi.
Meunier was applying for other jobs when
parks officials offered to keep him on-site to provide
security. He will no longer have a chance to tell the park’s
stories. But perhaps he can keep it safe.
Excavations at the site have allowed
archaeologists to piece together the beginnings of kachina
religion in the Hopi Tribe and to show that early Hopis had
developed advanced brick-making techniques about 300 years
earlier than originally thought.
Evans worries what will happen to the
artifacts on the site.
He also worries about what will become of
the collective knowledge and deep relationships with the
Hopis that park staffers have developed over a combined 50
years at Homolovi.
Several ideas about how to reopen
Homolovi and other parks are percolating in the Legislature.
One is to add a $12 fee to vehicle
registrations that would go to the parks. That proposal, HCR
2040, passed out of committee last week.
But Berggren and Evans do not see help on
the horizon this day. If new funding arrives, it will likely
be too late for them. They feel the park slipping away.
The Hopis tell a story about an elder
brother, the Bahana, who traveled to the east to learn about
the world. Someday, he will return, they say, bringing with
him a golden age.
To find his people, the Bahana will visit
the Hopis’ ancestral homes. The potshards at Homolovi are
part of the trail that will lead him back to his people and
usher in a happier time. If the land is disturbed and the
artifacts are stolen, the Bahana could be lost.
Outside the park, Hopi tribal member Gwen
Setalla lives in Winslow. She worked at Homolovi for four
years, giving demonstrations of traditional pottery making.
She thinks of that story and of the significance of those
pottery shards scattered across the landscape.
“They leave a trail for us also,” Setalla
says. “Not only for us, but for the public. To learn about