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  • Writer's pictureDarian Dyer

Profile in Compassion: Charleston "Lenhomewa" Lewis

Updated: Mar 18

Each month we will feature a “Profile in Compassion” from a firewood bank to share inspiring stories of bank leaders, volunteers, or firewood recipients. This month we feature Charleston "Lenhomewa" Lewis, leader of Pikyanivi Warmth for Hopi and Tewa in Second Mesa, Arizona. Please feel free to suggest the next one!


What is your occupation and background/relation within the community?

My name is Lenhomewa and I am Hopi from the village of Songopavi and a member of the Cloud clan. My village is located in the high deserts of northeastern Arizona where my people have lived for over 1,000 years. I am a Hopi silver overlay jeweler by trade but harvested and hauled wood as an additional source of income. I am also a hunter, elk and deer, and share the meat with my community when I have a large kill. I was also a bass player for a local heavy metal rock band for many years.

What made you want to get involved in starting your firewood bank?

When COVID hit our community, it was a very scary time; there was so much fear in even leaving our homes even though we live in a very open area. During this time we lost so many elders, some families lost multiple family members. There were fears about famine and starvation and it forced us to reflect on our ancient practices of farming and the Hopi value of Naminangwa (neighbors helping neighbors). I wasn’t sure what I could do, me, just by myself, but I knew I had to do something.

I couldn’t stand staying “locked” up so I took refuge in our small juniper forests here in my area and started harvesting wood again. Then, Hopi Emergency Relief Program, was established to assist our families with donated food and medical necessities and I began volunteering. I also began to partner with a nonprofit called Red Feather who purchased wood from local wood vendors. This wood was then delivered to Hopi families in need. Most of our homes on Hopi still rely primarily on wood stoves to heat their homes.

I also began to volunteer with a Navajo based charitable organization called Chiz for Cheii. The lead for this organization is Loren Anthony who I knew from my heavy metal rock days since he also played in a band. I took a team of guys from Hopi and we helped Loren’s organization with bucking and splitting logs for Navajo families.

It was from this experience that I began to envision how I could provide this service to my Hopi people.

What motivates your work? In what ways is this work meaningful for you?

Due to the sudden closure of the Peabody Coal Mine in 2019 I became much more aware of how many families were NOT prepared for the amount of wood that is needed to provide warmth for an entire winter. Since I can remember, the annual trip to the coal mine for loads of coal was a family event. Most of our families were dependent on coal which was free and provided a strong heat source. All of a sudden, the coal was gone and there was no plan by our tribal government to provide families with heat to fill this gap.

Since I had been a wood hauler for most of my life, I knew that this was a service that I could provide. What I did not know was how many families needed wood. Families not just from my own village of Songpavi, but families from 11 other Hopi communities as well. I know how valuable and necessary wood is; it provides heat for our families and heat provides people with a healthy immune system and the feeling of safety. I also know that we have many elders who must have the wood stove going the entire day - and that means they must have more than a few rows of wood, they need at least 4 cords of wood to keep them healthy and safe.

Providing my people and my elders with a life saving necessity is very important for me. Even though new technology is emerging, I know that we will be burning wood here on Hopi for a long time.

I am also so at peace in the forest; it has a healing impact on me and I am very grateful for not only the wood but for the medicines and homes it provides to the animals.

What do you find most satisfying about the work you are doing?

When I deliver wood to families, they often share their stories with me and I am grateful that they feel safe enough to share with me; so at times, I am not just a wood hauler but provide a listening ear as well. Sometimes, the families will share food with me, frybread or cookies. This is a Hopi tradition, you express your appreciation with the gift of food.

During my deliveries or distributions, I meet new people and new clan members and this opens up new conversations, sharing of stories about elders and traditions and often just a good joke!

The adoption of Pikyanivi Warmth for Hopi & Tewa, which is the charitable arm, has been a huge learning experience that has been very challenging at times. I am learning more about bookkeeping, grant management, human resources and writing strategic plans. I am very grateful that I now have the opportunity to grow my organization so that I can service more families by providing a larger and more dependable wood bank. Growing a wood bank means that I must also find funding to support our team. The funds from Alliance for Green Heat have been life saving for us.

This experience has also allowed me to meet new people from the east to the west coast! I never knew how many people and resources were out there to provide support! I wish I could tell each and everyone of them how much they have helped me and our organization to grow.

What’s the hardest or most frustrating?

Growing a new organization that meets a high priority need, reveals the strengths and challenges of your community. One challenge has been maintaining a strong team of individuals who can keep up with the physical requirements of wood hauling and also to encourage those individuals with addictions that they have the ability to become healthy and successful which is so important for our young people.

What's your favorite story related to firewood bank work?

My favorite story was delivering wood to an elder in a neighboring village. I didn’t know the location of his home and ended up driving on various dirt roads getting lost, even driving up a sand dune before we found him. What we found at his home, which was a one room G-shed, was only 4 logs of pine wood. When the elder came out, he was so grateful that we had come, the expression on his face made us smile. Another snow storm was brewing, he didn’t have a vehicle or funds to buy a truckload of wood so our arrival was very unexpected and surprising for him. We also were not aware of his heating and home challenges so we were just as surprised. We had a memorable conversation with him and again and again he expressed his appreciation.

What's a piece of advice/words of wisdom you have for other people working/volunteering at firewood banks?

We are a unique group of people that do this kind of work so keep up the good work because we all need it (the wood) young and old. Just to be thankful that we are here to do something for someone. 

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