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The Hopi Way

May 2024
16min read

Isolation ends for “the People of Peace”

Perched on the edge of a rocky mesa six hundred feet above the desert of northeastern Arizona is the Hopi Indian village of Hotevilla. A stronghold of Hopi traditionalists Indians who remain profoundly loyal to the religious teachings and values of their ancestors—the little settlement of fewer than a thousand people is something of an anachronism on the American scene, a remnant of another day and another way of life that defies many of the influences of the white man’s modern-day civilization and at the same time challenges it to do as well in providing mankind with enduring answers for an existence of happiness and contentment.

To the visitor Hotevilla appears to have some of the attributes of a true-life Shangri-la. One of twelve Hopi villages that are strung, at an altitude of six thousand feet, for some seventy miles along the southern escarpment of Black Mesa, it is a remarkable center of peace and serenity in a vast, silent land of stone cliffs and canyons, sandy wastes, and huge, dramatic stretches of painted desert. From a distance the town, like all the Hopi villages, seems to be a part of the landscape, the shapes and earth colors of the buildings blending with the rough terrain of the mesa top. The settlement is low and compact. Rows of flattopped stone buildings, some with two or three tiers, front on narrow sandy streets. In large open plazas are mounds of earth, covering kivas, the Hopis’ underground religious and social rooms, which are reached by ladders whose tops protrude from holes in the center of the mounds. Foxskins and bundles of feathers, part of the garb for the annual round of ceremonial dances and rituals, hang from the walls of some of the buildings.

The town is busy but quiet. Men with bangs over their foreheads and with their long hair in back tied up with a string work industriously repairing houses or packing wool sheared from their flocks of sheep into bags for market. Children and dogs romp past them. Women with pails of water or arms full of corn shuffle by. They have come up steep paths that lead from springs and gardens far below the mesa’s edge. From the lip of the mesa the view of the green patches of terraced gardens and the broad desert floor stretching into the distance is at once breathtaking and idyllic. Each garden plot, bordered by a stone wall around it, has been given to a family by the kikmongwi , the hereditary chief and spiritual leader of the village. The sandy lower slopes and valleys beneath the mesa are dotted with the dark green clusters of growing crops: squash, beans, melons, gourds, and cotton, as well as corn. Among and beyond the plots, extending in isolated little clumps of green across the desert, are peach trees. Summer rains and seepage from springs water the garden plots; winter rains and snow help the fruit trees. Above the gardens, on a bench of land part way down the mesa wall, a spring feeds a large pool from which the village women fill their pails.


All is outwardly quiet, harmonious, and contented. It is the routine of ages, but there is no sign of monotony. Nothing shrill breaks the peace—no quarreling, no anger. In the silence of the humans and the spaciousness of the unspoiled land one is aware of a closeness to nature: the presence of earth and rocks and growing things everywhere; the clambering down to the gardens and the clambering back up; the vastness of the view from the mesa; the dramatic thunderstorms, the dust clouds, and the movement of the sun that brings changing colors to the canyon walls; the rain, the springs, and the pool of water on which everything depends. But there is also a meticulous order here, day upon day, year after year, that comes from an unquestioned devotion to a timeless philosophy and plan of life. The wellspring of the plan was nature. Its author, the traditionalist Hopis say, was a god, and its goal is to help man to be good so that he will not destroy himself.

Several years ago the serenity of Hotevilla was temporarily profaned by the intrusion of some twenty hippies from San Francisco who, high on drugs, rolled into the village in their trucks and vans and proceeded to hold a raucous orgy at the edge of the Indians’ sacred pool part way down the mesa. The offended Hopis got rid of them, viewing them patiently as sick members of a stream of more respectful visitors who were coming from all quarters of the world to learn the traditionalists’ prescription for a happier and more meaningful life.


The stream since that time has swelled. A new interest in America’s minority groups has made the Indians the subject of many books, magazine articles, movies, and television programs, and accounts of their cultures are having an impact on a restless and changing world. To the disturbed and dissatisfied who are searching for new values and life-styles and for better relationships with their fellow men, the supernatural, and the earth, almost all the original Indian cultures arouse images of a more natural —and therefore a purer and more self-fulfilling—existence. But most of the native cultures have long since vanished, or been changed by the white man. Here and there in the Western Hemisphere tribes exist with much of the content of their original cultures intact, or almost so, but none of them are as accessible to outsiders as the Hopis, whose centuries-old beliefs are still carefully guarded and maintained by the traditionalists.

Today visitors to the mesa villages are coming in large numbers—husbands and wives and whole families, longhairs in vans, single girls and groups of women, professional men fed up with urban life, and television crews from the United States and abroad—trailing to the stone houses of the gray-haired Hopi elders for interviews and discussions and attending the clans’ religious observances in the plazas, studying in awed silence the rituals.

What do they want? A young woman real-estate agent watching the Flute Ceremony of the Hopis’ Gray Flute and Blue Flute societies in the village of Shungopovi last summer drew her two children closer to her. She had driven them in her white Mercedes from Sunset Beach, California, and would return after a week in the villages. “I’m looking for inner peace, and these people seem to have it,” she said. “Maybe I can learn something from them.” She paused, studying the clan members in their white blankets fringed with red and black who were reenacting the Hopis’ emergence and migration myths. “I didn’t want my husband to come with me,” she added. “He wouldn’t understand.”

At Hotevilla a young man and his girl, both from Santa Fe, came out of the home of David Monongye, an elderly village spiritual leader. They walked slowly, with the pleased, faraway look of believers who had found what they had come to see. “Did you notice him?” the girl said. “He stopped talking in the middle of a thought and started to pray. And it came from so far down, like it was deep inside of him, like every part of him felt it. We should pray like that. It was beautiful.”

Not all the Hopis are traditionalists and participate in the clan ceremonies or pray in the same manner as David Monongye. Government schools and Christian churches established in some of the villages have turned many of the people away from the beliefs and ways of their ancestors. Known as progressives, to contrast them with the conservatives, or traditionalists, they live like white men and raise and educate their children to be successful in the white man’s world. But many of them are defensive and know that they retain Hopi values that they will never shed, and some of their children, becoming militantly antiwhite, have gone over to the traditionalists and eagerly sought instruction in the old ways.

The traditionalists exist in every village, though they are strongest at Hotevilla, which they founded in 1906 after a split in another village, Oraibi, between themselves and those who wished to follow the ways of the white man. To the outsider there is ample evidence that the traditionalists themselves have not found all of those new ways bad. They have welcomed the material comforts and conveniences of modern civilization and, as individuals, have made choices of what to accept and what to reject. Sewing machines, canned foods, automobiles, and Grand Rapids furniture are among many of the white man’s products that are commonplace on the mesas. But the people of Hotevilla have kept electricity out of the village and have no sewerage. To some it makes no sense; to the traditionalists who made the choices such decisions had a relationship to what really mattered —not the adoption of material conveniences, but the maintenance of age-old beliefs and values and the opposition to changes that might tend to undermine and destroy those values. They will drive everywhere in automobiles, wear sunglasses to protect their eyes, and use dime-store supplies for a hundred practical needs. Why no electricity in Hotevilla? It may baffle an outsider. But the traditionalist has considered, and has rebuffed what he believes to be a threat. There is only one thing important to him: in his home and clan kiva the Hopi must keep alive the myths, legends, and prophecies on which rests the pattern of his life. It is an intertwining of religion and philosophy that he calls “the Hopi Way.”

The roots of that plan for existence reach far back toward the very dawn of the human habitation of North America. It is known that at some distant period, possibly during the Ice Age, ten thousand years ago or more, the earliest ancestors of all the Pueblo people of the Southwest —of whom the Hopis arc one group -migrated from the north. Eventually the groups spread across the rough and arid plateau country that is known today as the Four Corners area, where the present states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet. Other migrants from more developed areas came among them, bringing them new ideas and skills, and they began to live in circular pit houses, often constructed in large caves or in rock overhangs of cliffs.

Slowly their population grew and demanded more complex and sophisticated systems of society. After about A.D. 700 they began to build contiguous rooms aboveground, constructing them of stone mortared with adobe or of poles and adobe and arranging them in straight lines or crescents. Member families of clans joined their rooms together, and social and religious organizations developed. Pit houses became subterranean ceremonial chambers and meeting places for the men, and gradually as their culture expanded and flourished through a series of advancing stages, there developed an increasingly formalized religious system, centered on nature and agriculture and including a pantheon of deities, many legends, myths, and prophecies, and special rituals and ceremonies. The overall intention is to maintain harmony and order in the universe by keeping everything in balance, thus bringing rain, ensuring crop fertility, and warding off natural disaster.

The culture of all the Pueblo peoples, including the ancestors of the Hopis, reached a radiant climax in the Southwest in the years from about A.D. 1100 to 1300. Their settlements stretched all across the red rock canyons, valleys, and juniper-covered hills of the Colorado plateau; some like those at Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly were built in huge, arched recesses of cliff walls, while others were constructed on mesa tops or in the open valleys. From time to time there were great movements of people, but the greatest occurred during the latter part of the thirteenth century, when groups abandoned t heir dwellings in one area after another and moved elsewhere. Various theories ascribe the sudden exodus to a twenty-threc-year drought, to pressure from hostile neighbors, or to other reasons, but the true cause is not known. Many of the peoples migrated to the Rio Grande and established new towns, where the Spaniards later found them and named them the Pueblos. Others moved elsewhere across Arizona and New Mexico, settling in different sites.

The people who became the Hopis seem to have stayed where they were, for the earliest of their present villages date to well before 1300, and Oraibi, the oldest continuously inhabited town in the United States, is believed to have been first settled in the eleventh century. Both before and after the dispersal, however, the inhabitants of these communities received many newcomers into their midst, including peoples of other tribes and different languages, so that in time the Hopis became something of a mixture of strains. In their isolation, far to the west of the main bodies of Pueblo peoples, they continued their cultural rise and, as the years went by, wove new legends and sacred beliefs and enriched their civilization with additional ceremonies based on fast-receding memories of early migrations and events of a distant age.

The philosophic foundation on which their society rested was by that time ancient. It was an understanding, permeating every phase and moment of their life, that man was only one element in a delicately balanced universe in which every component interacted and interrelated in harmony. Everything that the Hopi people could comprehend -the rain, the rocks, the growing crops, the natural forces around them, the ideas in their heads, the birds, reptiles, and animals, every act and action -was part of a great living power and contained a spirit that existed everywhere. Everything was in balance, but man alone by wrong living or evil deeds could upset this balance and bring disaster. Therefore man had to live a prescribed way of life the Hopi way —which had been given to their ancestors by a deity when the first people had entered this world.

From that conviction of man’s obligation sprang the full richness of the Hopis’ religion, including their myths, legends, prophecies, and annual cycle of ceremonies all designed to illuminate and help them follow the proper and pure way of life so that the balance of the universe would not be disturbed. The welfare and good fortune of people everywhere demanded harmonious attunement to the spiritual world, and the Hopi legends made vividly real the origin and nature of that demand. Man, according to the legends which differ slightly in details from one village to another had earlier lived in three different underworlds. Each time some of the people had grown corrupt and evil and by their wrongdoing had caused dissension and social disorder. Disgusted with the people’s fighting, the supreme deity had destroyed each of the underworlds, attempting to wipe out the evil ones, and each time some of the good people had escaped and moved on to the next underworld, where the mistakes were repeated. Finally, those with good hearts had ascended into the present world through a place of emergence known as sipapu . They had been welcomed by the deity Massau’u, the earth’s lone occupant at the time. Entrusting the care of the universe to them, he had given them instructions in the proper way to live, as well as prophecies of what would come to pass, and had started their different groups on long migrations, at the ends of which they would come to the place where they should settle, the very center of the universe. Further legends told of the migrations and of the arrival of the individual groups of migrants, one after another, at the Arizona mesas, the universe’s center, where they finally built their villages. But at the heart of all the legends was the theme of the Hopi way of life, the plan that Massau’u had given them. Its essence, the key to its present-day appeal to peoples other than the Hopis, was simple: brotherhood, love, and peace.

In their own Shoshonean language the word Hopi suggests “one who follows the path,” or, in the expression of traditionalists, “one who is good.” It has also taken on the connotation of peace, and most Hopis consider themselves today “the people of peace.” But, more accurately, Hopi implies peace as a value and goal and, like Christianity, which similarly invokes the ideal of peace, has seen violence committed in its name and in its behalf. Throughout their history Hopis have fought, though scarcely ever with aggressive intent. Warfare and war societies among them have been justified traditionally as defensive in aim, and when Hopis killed enemies, they went to great pains to purify themselves of the bloodshed. Similarly, while anger, violence, and crime among themselves have not been unknown, they are generally traumatic to all the people and arc considered grave threats to their social order. Their laws are those of their spiritual beliefs, and penalties for infractions arc ridicule and social ostracism rather than punishment or imprisonment.

Both the order and the serenity of the life of the presentday Hopi traditionalists reflect their continued faith in the instructions of Massau’u and their spiritual conviction that they are interrelated with, and responsible for the well-being of, nature and everything in the universe. But the legends also tell them that a few of the evil ones managed to enter this world along with the good people, and Hopi history has been darkened many times by conflicts with forces that jeopardized the people’s continued observance of Massau’u’s plan and threatened the destruction ol this fourth world.

In the past such threats came from raiding Utes, Apaches, and Navahos, who had to be fought off, and from Spanish priests who tried unsuccessfully to convert the Hopis to Christianity. In 1700 one of the most contradictory and violent episodes in the Hopis’ history occurred when a Franciscan missionary managed to convert almost half the population of the village of Awatovi. This resulted in so much dissension and internal conflict among the Hopis that the future of all Hopi life was considered threatened by those who remained loyal to their ancient beliefs. Finally, in a desperate attempt to save the Hopi way of life, the kikmongwi of Awatovi appealed to other villages to wipe out his town and all its people, good and bad, himself included. The towns of Oraibi and Walpi responded and totally destroyed Awatovi, killing all its inhabitants, Christians and non-Christians, and clearing the earth of this threat to the Hopis’ well-being. It was a terrible experience for the tribe, and even today no Hopi likes to talk about it.

For many generations after that the Hopis were undisturbed by whites. Their arid and rugged land possessed nothing deemed valuable by the Spaniards, Mexicans, or Americans who, in succession, held sovereignty over the area, and the remoteness of the villages from the mainstream of white civili/ation permitted the Hopis to maintain their culture and religious life without serious interference until the latter part of the nineteenth century. Then new threats arrived with the appearance of Protestant missionaries and United States government agents. Since then, the traditional way of life has been steadily on the defensive. Many Hopis have been Christianized and encouraged to jeer at the traditionalists’ “idols,” the masked kachinas— symbolic representations of the spirits of animals, birds, plants, places, or ancestors who appear among the people from the kivas during the ceremonies and remind the Hopis of the good way in which they must live. Children forced to attend schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs have been made ashamed of their people’s beliefs, have been whipped and punished for defending their fathers’ faith, and have been taught that the only right way to live is the white man’s way. On many occasions traditionalists have tried to keep their children out of schools; for theiropposition they have had troops called out against them and have been hustled into prison.

The number of people who turned against their ancient beliefs and became known as progressives, or “friendlies,” grew during the first half of this century. Competition, vanity, the lust for acquisition of material possessions, individual ambition—all the human characteristics that Massau’u had warned against—took hold in the towns. To the traditionalists the great turning away from Massau’u’s plan meant the balance of the universe was in danger. The dissension that had led to the end of the three previous worlds was growing again. The destruction of this fourth world, which only good Hopis would survive, was drawing near.


As caretakers of the universe, the traditionalists viewed the white man’s way of life, with its wars, ruthless exploitation of the land and natural resources, pollution of the air and water, crime, racial conflict, and poverty, as the principal threat to the delicate balance they were trying to maintain. They prayed to their spirits that the whites would learn the way of Massau’u before the evils of their society and their influence in turning Hopis against each other brought disaster to all. In May, 1959, and on other occasions both before and afterward, they sent their elders to the United Nations headquarters in New York, to Washington, and to other centers of the white men to try to tell them of the prophecies of destruction and of the Hopi way that could save them. The whites never knew what they were talking about and dismissed them politely as quaint primitives. Meanwhile, the stage was set for what many of the traditionalists have come to fear may be the final disaster that brings on the world’s destruction.

In the 1930’s the Bureau of Indian Affairs, making use of the progressives, imposed on the Hopis a white man’s form of government. Against the will of the traditionalists, a constitution was written for all the tribe by Oliver La Farge at the request of John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and authority over nonreligious tribal matters was vested by the federal government in a tribal council. Only 651 of the more than five thousand people in the Hopi villages supported the constitution in a referendum, but it was a majority of those who turned out to vote—most of them progressives—and the government declared the constitution adopted. The traditionalists, who still follow the guidance and decisions of the kikmongwis , have never accepted or recognized the tribal council, and the council has been something of a farce, out of communication with the people, responsive to the Bureau of Indian Affairs rather than to the villages, and made up of progressives, some of whom appoint themselves or each other to membership. Through the years it has been a divisive agent, carrying out the policies and programs of the bureau and forcing on the people many things they did not want and that disrupted the harmony of their life.

Nothing the council did, however, compared with a truly horrendous action it took in 1966. Encouraged by the federal government, its members signed a lease with the Peabody Coal Company of St. Louis for the strip mining of Hopi land on Black Mesa. The mine will be the biggest of its kind in the world, supplying coal for thirtyfive years to two giant power plants in a network of at least four others that are already under severe attack by environmentalists for the devastating pollution with which they threaten a large area of the Southwest, including the Hopi reservation. The Peabody lease was signed by the Hopi council in such secrecy that the traditionalists in the villages knew nothing about it until 1970, when the coal company moved onto the mesa to begin operations. Since then, a storm of protest has blown up that has gained the Hopi traditionalists the support of many Indian tribes as well as numerous white individuals and organizations, including the Sierra Club, the Friends of the Earth, and the Environmental Defense Fund. But the deed is done, the sacred land to which the Hopis are spiritually bound is being destroyed, and there is little prospect that the strip mining can be stopped.

The physical threat to the future existence of the Hopis is very real. Billions of gallons of the Hopis’ limited underground water reserves that feed their springs will be used by the mine during the course of the lease, and the contract contains no guarantee that the Hopis will always be supplied with water. Hydrologists are divided on whether the Hopi springs will suddenly dry up, and only time will provide an answer to the question. Furthermore, the lease gives no guarantee that acid from spoil-bank run-offs from the mine will not wash across and destroy the Hopis’ gardens. Nor does it guarantee that the land ravaged by the mine will be reclaimed and healed satisfactorily after the strip mining ends. Any one of those catastrophes would force the Hopis to move, severing the sacred attachment between them and the place Massau’u told them to settle, the center of their universe, and thus bringing about their prophesied destruction.

To many of the white visitors who come to the Hopi villages the strip mine on Black Mesa and the air and water pollution with which the new power plants threaten to destroy the exquisite beauty of the American Southwest are sobering reminders of man’s present suicidal course on earth. Suddenly the gap disappears between the “quaint primitives” and the rational twentieth-century men who believe themselves created to dominate and control nature. As the visitors listen to the traditionalists in Hotevilla and the other Hopi towns relating Massau’u’s life plan and his prophecies of what will happen if that plan is disregarded, they see the pollution of the air and understand clearly, at last, what the Hopis have been trying to tell the world. And those who have come as pilgrims in restlessness and trouble sense that they have found the answers for which they have been searching.


Black Mesa is covered with the holy shrines of generations of Hopis, the signs and markings that signified the Hopis’ belief that they were the stewards, not the exploiters, of the earth, and that everything in nature is interrelated and must be respected if man is to survive. But the strip-mine drag lines are already tearing them up.

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