The westernmost of the Pueblo Indian tribes, the independent Hopi (HO-pee) Nation is the only Pueblo tribe that speaks a Shoshonean language of the Uto-Aztecan linguistic family. “Hopi” is a shortened form of the original term Hopituh-Shi-nu-mu, for which the most common meaning given is “peaceful people.” The Hopis have also been referred to as the Moqui, based on what the Spanish called them. The Hopi reservation, almost 2.5 million acres in size and located in northeastern Arizona near the Four Corners area just east of the Grand Canyon, is surrounded completely by the Navajo reservation. The Hopis inhabit 14 villages, most of which are situated atop three rocky mesas (called First Mesa, Second Mesa, and Third Mesa) that rise 600 feet from the desert floor. Estimated at 2,800 in 1680, the Hopi Nation had 7,360 members in 1990, about 1,000 of whom lived off the reservation. The Hopies are ancient, having lived continuously in the same place for a thousand years. They are also a deeply religious people, whose customs and yearlong calendar of ritual ceremonialism guide virtually every aspect of their lives. Although some concessions to modern convenience have been made, the Hopis have zealously guarded their cultural traditions. This degree of cultural preservation is a remarkable achievement, facilitated by isolation, secrecy, and a community that remains essentially closed to outsiders.


According to Suzanne and Jake Page’s book Hopi , the Hopis are called “the oldest of the people” by other Native Americans. Frank Waters wrote in The Book of the Hopi that the Hopis “regard themselves as the first inhabitants of America. Their village of Oraibi is indisputably the oldest continuously occupied settlement in the United States.” While Hopi oral history traces their origin to a Creation and Emergence from previous worlds, scientists place them in their present location for the last thousand years, perhaps longer. In her book The Wind Won’t Know Me, Emily Benedek wrote that “anthropologists have shown that the cultural remains present a clear, uninterrupted, logical development culminating in the life, general technology, architecture, and agriculture and ceremonial practices to be seen on the three Hopi mesas today.” Archaeologists definitively place the Hopis on the Black Mesa of the Colorado Plateau by 1350.

The period from 1350 to 1540 is considered the Hopi ancestral period, marked primarily by the rise of village chieftains. A need for greater social organization arose from increased village size and the first ritual use of kivas, the underground ceremonial chambers found in every village. Additionally, coal was mined from mesa outcroppings, requiring unprecedented coordination. The Hopis were among the world’s first people to use coal for firing pottery.

The complex Hopi culture, much as it exists today, was firmly in place by the 1500s, including the ceremonial cycle, the clan and chieftain social system, and agricultural methods that utilized every possible source of moisture in an extremely arid environment. The Hopis’ “historical period” began in 1540, when first contact with Europeans occurred. In that year a group of Spanish soldiers led by the explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado arrived, looking for the legendary Seven Cities of Gold. After a brief, confrontational search produced no gold, the Spanish destroyed part of a village and left.

The Hopis were not molested further until 1629, when the first Spanish missionaries arrived, building missions in the villages of Awatovi, Oraibi, and Shungopavi. Historians speculate the Hopis pretended to adopt the new religion while practicing their own in secret. Hopi oral history confirms this interpretation. Rebelling finally against the Spanish yoke of religious oppression, the Hopis joined the rest of the Pueblo people in a unified revolt in 1680. During this uprising, known as the Pueblo Revolt, the Indians took the lives of Franciscan priests and Spanish soldiers and then besieged Santa Fe for several days. When the Hopis finally returned to their villages, they killed all the missionaries.

The Hopis then moved three of their villages to the mesa tops as a defensive measure against possible retaliation. The Spanish returned to reconquer the Rio Grande area in 1692. Many Rio Grande Pueblo Indians fled west to Hopi, where they were welcomed. Over the next few years, many living in Awatovi invited the Spanish priests back, a situation that caused a serious rift between those who wanted to preserve the old ways and those who embraced Christianity. Finally, in 1700 Hopi traditionalists killed all the Christian men in Awatovi and then destroyed the village. The destruction of Awatovi signaled the end of Spanish interference in Hopi life, although contact between the groups continued.


In response to the growing problem of Navajo encroachment on traditional Hopi land, President Chester A. Arthur established the Hopi reservation in 1882, setting aside 2,472,254 acres in northeastern Arizona for “Moqui and other such Indians as the Secretary of the Interior may see fit to settle thereon.” The Hopi reservation was centered within a larger area (considered by the Hopis also to be their ancestral land) that was designated the Navajo reservation. As populations increased, the Navajo expanded their settlements well beyond their own borders, encroaching even more on the Hopi reservation. Despite the executive order, this situation continued for many decades. The Hopis complained, but the government failed to act, and the Navajo continued to overrun Hopi lands until they had taken over 1,800,000 acres of the original Hopi designation. The Hopis were left with only about 600,000 acres. Recognizing the problem, Congress finally passed the Navajo-Hopi Settlement Act in 1974, which returned 900,000 acres to the Hopis. The dispute over resettlement and the remaining 900,000 original acres continues, however, as a number of Navajo families have refused to leave due to ancestral ties to the land. A 1975 film titled Dineh: The People, produced by Jonathan Reinis and Stephen Hornick, examined the relocation of Navajo from the joint-use area around the Hopi reservation, looking at the many sociocultural issues it raised. A more recent film, In the Heart of Big Mountain (1988) , produced by Sandra Sunrising Osawa, looks at the background and history of the land dispute and the sacredness of the Big Mountain area to affected Navajo. Thomas Banyacya Sr. (b.1910), born in New Oraibi, became an outspoken traditionalist Hopi elder in opposition to Navajo relocation.

Another ongoing issue facing the Hopi concerns the preservation of the Hopi Way. Two 1980s films examine the Hopi Way. A 1983 film directed by Pat Ferrero takes an in-depth look at the Hopi

The Hopi women's dance is performed at coming-of-age celebrations.

The Hopi women’s dance is performed at coming-of-age celebrations.

Way, the ideal way of life from the point of view of many Hopi community members. Titled Hopi: Songs of the Fourth World,the film shows Hopi people in everyday life and contrasts Hopi society and worldview with other societies. The 1984 filmItam Hakim, Hopit, produced, directed, and filmed by noted Hopi filmmaker Victor Masayesva Jr., examines the life of a member of a Hopi storytelling clan and various periods of Hopi history.

These modern-day concerns have split the tribe into two factions, the Traditionalists and the Progressives. Traditionalists fear the erosion of Hopi culture by white cultural influences. Progressives feel that adoption of some aspects of modern American culture is necessary if the tribe is to survive and grow economically.

Acculturation and Assimilation


By the end of the twentieth century, the Hopi tribe was considered one of the more traditional Indian societies in the continental United States. As far back as they can be reliably traced by archeologists (to the period called Pueblo II, between 900 and 1100), the Hopis have been sedentary, living in masonry buildings. Their villages consisted of houses built of native stone, arranged around a central plaza containing one or more kivas. Hopi villages are arranged in much the same way today. During the Pueblo III Period (1100 to 1300), populations in the villages grew as the climate became more arid, making farming more difficult. The village buildings grew in size as well, some containing hundreds of rooms. During the Pueblo IV Period, the Hopi ancestral period from 1350 to 1540, the houses, made “of stone cemented with adobe and then plastered inside were virtually indistinguishable from the older houses of present-day Hopi, except that they were often multistoried,” according to Page and Page. They added that the houses of that period contained rooms with specific functions, such as storage or grinding corn, and that kiva design was “nearly identical” to that of today. The houses and kivas of this period were heated with coal, which was also used for firing pottery. Today the Hopis occupy the older masonry houses as well as modern ones. The kiva remains largely as it was in ancient times: a rectangular room built of native stone, mostly below ground. “Sometimes,” wrote Waters, “the kiva is widened at one end, forming the same shape as the T-shaped doorways found in all ancient Hopi ruins.” This design is intended to echo the hairstyle of Hopi men, which generally forms a “T” shape. The kiva contains an altar and central fire pit below the roof opening. A ladder extends above the edge of the roof. When not in use for ceremonies, kivas are also used as meeting rooms.

The number four has great significance in the Hopi religion, so many ritual customs often call for repetitions of four. In accordance with Hopi tradition, both boys and girls were initiated into the kachina cult between the ages of eight and ten. Leitch wrote that the rite included “fasting, praying, and being whipped with a yucca whip. Each child had a ceremonial mother (girls) or father (boys) who saw them through the ordeal.” She also noted, “All boys were initiated into one of the four men’s societies Kwan, Ahl, Tao, or Wuwutcimi, usually joining the society of their ceremonial father. These rites commonly occurred in conjunction with the Powama ceremony, a four-day tribal initiation rite for young men, usually held at planting time.” A tradition no longer observed is the prepuberty ceremony for ten-year-old girls, which involved grinding corn for an entire day at the girl’s paternal grandmother’s house. “At the onset of menses,” Parsons wrote in 1950, “girls of the more conservative families go through a puberty ceremony marked by a four-day grinding ordeal.” The girl would also receive a new name and would then occasionally assume the squash blossom hairstyle, the sign of marriageability.


A tradition of oral literature has been crucial to the survival of the Hopi Way because the language has remained unwritten until recent years. The oral tradition has made it possible to foster Hopi pride during modern times and to continue the custom, ritual, and ceremony that sustain the religious beliefs that are the essence of the Hopi Way. The body of Hopi oral literature is huge.


The Hopis have long been sedentary agriculturalists, with the men handling the work of cultivating and harvesting the crops. A great drought occurred from 1279 to 1299, requiring the Hopis to adopt inventive farming methods still in use today. Every possible source of moisture is utilized. The wind blows sand up against the sides of the mesas, forming dunes that trap moisture. Crops are then planted in these dunes. The Hopis also plant in the dry washes that occasionally flood, as well as in the mouths of arroyos. In other areas they irrigate crops by hand.

In the ancestral period, wild game was more plentiful, and Hopi men hunted deer, antelope, and elk. They also hunted rabbit with a boomerang. Page and Page listed corn, squash, beans, and some wild and semi-cultivated plants such as Indian millet, wild potato, piñon, and dropseed as staples of this period. They also noted that salt was obtained, although not without difficulty, by making long excursions to the Grand Canyon area. Barbara Leitch wrote in A Concise Dictionary of Indian Tribes of North America that the women gathered “pinenuts, prickly pear, yucca, berries, currants, nuts, and various seeds.” Hopi women also made fine pottery, a craft that still flourishes today. The Hopis raised cotton in addition to the edible crops, and the men, Leitch wrote, “spun and wove cotton cloth into ceremonial costumes, clothing, and textiles for trade.” In the sixteenth century the Spanish introduced wheat, onions, peaches and other fruits, chiles, and mutton to the Hopi diet.

The Hopis continue to depend on the land. Wild game had dwindled significantly in the region by 1950, leaving only rabbit as well as a few quail and deer. Modern Hopi farmers still use the old methods, raising mainly corn, melons, gourds, and many varieties of beans. Corn is the main crop, and the six traditional Hopi varieties are raised: yellow, blue, red, white, purple, and sweet. All have symbolic meaning stemming from the Creation story. A corn roast is an annual ritual, and corn is ground for use in ceremonies as well as to make piki, a traditional bread baked in layers on hot stones. A 1983 film Corn Is Life,documents the importance of corn to Hopi culture and its religious significance. The film shows traditional activities in planting, cultivating, harvesting, and preparing corn, including the baking of piki bread on hot, polished stone.


by Ellen French and Richard C. Hanes



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