Sikyatki

Polychrome jar with moth, bird and geometric designs
A repaired Sikyatki jar

Sikyatki was a pueblo built at the foot of Hopi First Mesa by people from a couple different Keresan and Towa-speaking pueblos located on Antelope Mesa. They moved to the environs of First Mesa in order to be closer to more reliable water.

Pueblo construction is dated to have begun around 1375 CE, just before the major weather changes began around 1400. By 1400, the pueblos on Antelope Mesa were being abandoned in the face of a major drought. Only Awatovi had a nearby water source that flowed enough to support the pueblo. The drought was a problem that reached far beyond the Colorado Plateau. Families, clans and villages were on the move nearly everywhere in the southwest.

Sikyatki (meaning: Yellow House) was built next to a steady, reliable spring. The pueblo was constructed of the same yellow sandstone the mesas are made of. There are maps of the ruins but no drawings as to what the pueblo actually looked like. From the size of the ruin mounds, J. Walter Fewkes felt it could have been four stories high with maybe 500 residents at its peak (by contreast, Awatovi was estimated to be five stories high with as many as 800 residents at its peak). It wouldn't be a big deal except for some of the designs on the pot sherds that litter the landscape around the ruin.

The pueblo started building around 1375 and probably grew slowly in the beginning as families and clans moved from Antelope Mesa and built their places. There was an influx of people from the Homol'ovi and Casa Malpais areas around 1400 CE, then an influx of folks coming from Pottery Mound around 1450 CE. All of them contributed to Sikyatki becoming a bit of an art colony.

That source idea might have come from the Coyote clan. Today's Hopi Coyote clan claims descent from the Coyote clan of Sikyatki. The Coyote clan is charged with exploring ahead, picking out what's good for Hopi society, adapting that to Hopi society and continuing to forge ahead. In this case, around 1400 someone at Kawaika'a decided to make the journey to Pottery Mound to check out a new katsina, ritual and art form that was developing there. They took part in that development and learned the ritual, costumes and designs that were part of it. Then they made the journey back to the Hopi mesas, bringing textiles and pottery imbued with the designs. Wall murals were painted with Sikyatki designs at Kawaika'a and Awatovi but not at Sikyatki. When the potters of Kawaika'a relocated to Sikyatki a few years later, they brought those pottery designs with them.

At Sikyatki, those new designs met and found a place among the older designs of the Kayenta, the Little Colorado, the Acoma, the Jemez, the Zuni and the Mogollon.

Sikyatki also became home to the Kokop (Firewood) clan, a recent transplant from the Towa-speaking pueblo of Kokopnyama on Antelope Mesa. The Kokop have been tied to a previous occupation of a round stone tower further to the east in Arizona, and their Towa language ties them to the Jemez people in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico.

The potters of Sikyatki excelled at their craft and their products were traded everywhere from the Pacific coast to east of the Rio Grande, northern Mexico to the Great Salt Lake. It's extremely easy to identify pottery made in a Sikyatki form with Sikyatki decorations. Sikyatki set the bar for quality pottery with quality designs, until Payupki was built and populated. Payupki potters came really close but by the time they got started, Sikyatki had been destroyed more than 50 years previous.

There are a number of oral stories about the destruction of Sikyatki. All of them involve a problem with the people of Walpi (Walpi was the closest Hopi pueblo to Sikyatki, Walpi was also built a couple miles away in the foothills below First Mesa and there were always water and farmland problems between the two pueblos). All the stories agree that the chief of Sikyatki approached the chief of Walpi and asked to have Walpi warriors destroy Sikyatki and its people for their wickedness. Arrangements were made and when the appointed day came (in 1625), virtually the entire village of Sikyatki was destroyed. Certain ritual specialists were spirited away early in the process and their clans were officially relocated to other pueblos (mostly to Walpi: the more clans a pueblo has the more important the pueblo). Some of the women and young girls were spared but everyone else was killed and the pueblo burned, never to be reoccupied.

Except for all the pot sherds littering the ground and a Hopi-Tewa woman 270 years later, Sikyatki might have remained just another ancient ruin at the foot of First Mesa. But that woman was an excellent potter, so good that the archaeologist who excavated Sikyatki in 1893 was afraid her work might be mistaken for the ancient pottery they were digging up. And in the words of J. Walter Fewkes: "A careful examination of the beautiful productions of the prehistoric potters of Tusayan leads me to say that for fineness of ware, symmetry of form and beauty of artistic decoration the Sikyatki pottery is greatly superior to any which is made by modern Hopi potters."

Fewkes was the Harvard-financed archaeologist who first dug into Sikyatki. A Hopi-Tewa potter named Nampeyo had been producing Jeddito and Sikyatki Polychrome pottery that was almost indistinguishable from the ancient Sikyatki pottery for several years. Fewkes claimed that he first introduced the Hopi-Tewa potters to Sikyatki styles and designs but Nampeyo had been selling similar ware to Keam's Trading Post well before Fewkes arrived on the scene. And as much as she has been rightly credited with beginning the Sikyatki Revival phase of Hopi pottery, she also employed decorations that came from the Kayenta, Little Colorado and Awatovi pueblos, some of which were a hundred or more miles away and abandoned long before Sikyatki was born. At this point in time, those designs have been replicated so often, in so many places, in so many variations, it's hard to know their real source(s). And some elements are common to the vocabularies of most indigenous potters from one side of the continent to the other (like the universal "hand", the "spiral" and the "lightning bolt").

Sikyatki Polychrome Contemporaries:

  • Early Sikyatki Polychrome is like Awatovi and Jeddito black-on-yellow with the addition of red outlines
  • Bitahochi Polychrome has white outlines instead of red
  • Kawaika'a Polychrome has massed white paint in addition to red
  • Awatovi Polychrome is engraved through the black paint
  • Matsaki Polychrome has thicker walls, a crackled buff or tan slip and ground sherds are used for temper. (Matsaki Polychrome was a contemporary Zuni product)

The ruin of Sikyatki is only a couple miles across the desert from today's Tewa Village. Many of the potters I know who live near there walk regularly through the ruins looking for inspiration and new designs. They walk around other ruins for the pot shards, too, and up and down the canyons for the rock art panels that are almost everywhere around the mesas.

The area of Awatovi sees almost as much visitor traffic for similar reasons. However, of the seven recognized ruins that line the Jeddito Valley and pre-date the arrival of the Navajo, 5 of them are now within the Jeddito Island, a Navajo Nation property wholly surrounded by the Hopi Reservation. A Hopi guide can take you to Awatovi and give you a real introduction and education but I haven't heard of anyone except duly-papered archaeologists or folks local to Jeddito legally going for walks among any of the other sites there. I don't know that a Navajo guide would be able to relate any of the real history of that area either. On neither reservation do you go anywhere without a proper local guide close at hand, most especially around ruins of any sort.

Upper left photos are in the public domain.

Sites of the Ancients and approximate dates of occupation: