The Hopi Pueblos

A view near Oraibi on the Hopi Reservation
A view near Oraibi on the Hopi Reservation
Bird element design on a polychrome bowl
Attributed to Nampeyo of Hano
circa 1890
3 3/4 in H by 10 in Dia
Black and red bird element and geometric design on a yellowware jar
Yellowware jar with black and red bird element and geometric design
10 1/4 in H by 6 1/2 in Dia
Thunderbird design on a polychrome bowl
Polychrome bowl with thunderbird design
3 1/2 in H by 9 3/4 in Dia
Bird element and geometric design on a black on yellow ware bowl
Black on yellow ware bowl decorated with cloud and rain elements
1 1/2 in H by 4 1/4 in Dia
    Hopituh: The Peaceful People
  • Language: Hopi
  • Size: 1.6 million acres
  • Population: 9,000

Pueblo History

The Hopi have lived in their corner of the Colorado Plateau for more than a thousand years. Their reservation is surrounded on all sides by the Navajo Nation, land set aside for a much larger tribe that entered and settled in the area about the same time the Spanish first arrived in force in the New World. The Hopi trace their ancestral routes back through the ancient Sinagua people of Arizona and the Anasazi of the Four Corners area. To honor those ancestors, some of the Hopi travel every year to various of the ancient sites and conduct religious services in remembrance.

Polychrome jar
Polychrome jar by an unknown Hopi potter

The center of Hopi territory is located about 80 miles northeast of Flagstaff. Today there are twelve Hopi villages located in the areas of Hopi First, Second and Third Mesas, mesas which rise up to 1,000 feet above the surrounding desert and afforded some degree of security in the old days. Old Oraibi (on Hopi Third Mesa) and Acoma Sky City both are more than one thousand years old and have somewhat equal claim to being the oldest still-inhabited settlements in the United States.

During Coronado's stop at Zuni in 1540 he sent Pedro de Tovar and Frey Juan de Padilla with a group of soldiers to the Hopi area in search of Cibola, the legendary Seven Cities of Gold. They found nothing of interest to their gold-greedy eyes so they left. The next incursion by the Spanish came in 1629 when a group of Franciscan monks arrived in the village of Awatovi and began trying to convert the Hopi to Christianity. That effort failed and when the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 happened, the Hopi acted together with their Puebloan cousins and destroyed San Bernardo de Awatovi Mission. When the Spanish returned to northern New Mexico in 1692, they quickly retook the Rio Grande Pueblos but it wasn't until 1696 that they tried to retake Hopi territory. That effort failed, although it did lead to the complete destruction of Awatovi and the remains of San Bernardo de Awatovi Mission. The Spanish never did reconquer the Hopi but they did convert a few tribe members to Christianity. Because that conversion also made the convert an enemy of the Hopi people, very few Hopis became Christian in those days.

Traditional polychrome bowl by an unknown potter
Polychrome bowl by an unknown Hopi potter

To escape what was happening among the Rio Grande Pueblos in the 1690's, many Tewa-speaking villagers from that area sought refuge among the Hopi. Hopi leaders made a deal with them in which they were allowed to stay as long as they kept guard over the access path to the top of Hopi First Mesa. Tewa villages were established at Hano and Payupki. Only Hano is still populated and the residents still speak Tewa. The oldest Hopi village on First Mesa is Walpi, established around 900 and expanded in 1690 when the Hopi became fearful of reprisals from the Spanish after the Pueblo Revolt. The villages at the foot of First Mesa were abandoned and the people moved to Walpi atop the mesa.

As much as the Hopi rejected all things Christian they did eventually embrace new Spanish agricultural products (apples, apricots, peaches and melons in particular) and new technologies (metal plows and hoes, new wood-working techniques and new textile weaving methods). They also embraced horses, cattle, sheep and burros, animals introduced by the Spanish that changed the Hopi way of life.

Geometric shard design on a polychrome cylinder
Polychrome cylinder decorated with a geometric shard design
8 in H by 5 in Dia
Circa 1940
Black bird element and geometric design on a red-slipped jar
Red-slipped jar decorated with black bird element and geometric designs
8 3/4 in H by 4 3/4 in Dia
Circa 1930
Geometric design on a black on red Sikyatki-style jar
Black on red Sikyatki-style jar decorated with a geometric design
2 1/2 in H by 7 1/4 in Dia
Bird element and geometric design inside and out on a polychrome jar
Polychrome open bowl decorated with bird element and geometric design inside and out
2 1/2 in H by 8 3/4 in Dia

Pottery History

Hopi pottery has a history going back more than 1000 years and many of the forms and designs in use today are direct descendants of those old pots. However, the actual making of Hopi pottery has been modified by a number of different elements over the years. After the introduction of sheep, potters began using dry sheep dung to fire their pots (they used wood and coal before). The potters also began to adopt some of the European ceramic designs and shallow, flare-rimmed stew bowls and ring-based bowls began to appear. However, like all the other pueblos, the Hopi potters continued to use their hand-coiled molding techniques and did not adopt the "potter's wheel."

Bowl found in the ruins of Sikyatki
Sikyatki bowl
c. 1375-1625

From 1778-1780 and again several times through the 1800's, drought and European diseases forced significant numbers of Hopis to move temporarily to Zuni, Zia and Acoma Pueblos. It was a time when the Hopi pottery tradition seems to have been dying out at First and Second Mesas. Under the principle of "village specialization," the making of Hopi pottery was kept alive only at Oraibi. The one area where that did not apply was the area settled by the Tewa around First Mesa. The Hopi-Tewa produced pottery consistently through the years and never let it go.

It appears that many of the potters from Oraibi that migrated went to Zuni. The cross-pollination that happened caused their formerly unslipped tan, orange and light yellow creations to add a white, yellow, pink or pale brown slip and resemble Acoma and Zuni pots of the period. New pottery shapes and designs also emerged during this time.

On the return to Hopi, there was a problem with the white clay they used for slip: when being fired it shrank differently than the clay body it covered. That produced a crackled surface that wasn't popular with the tourists. This was the time of transition from "Polacca A-C" (common from 1780-1880) to "Polacca D" ware, buff-colored clay with a thin white slip. Polacca C ware is what Nampeyo (1858-1942) is said to have been producing at the beginning of her days as a potter. Polacca D is also the point where Sikyatki symbols and imagery began to appear again: Polacca D was made primarily for the traders and tourists.

Then the railroad traders arrived and started ordering large volumes of pottery for their tourists. It was almost the death of traditional Hopi pottery. Then the archaeologists arrived and "discovered" Jeddito yellow ware. When Nampeyo refined her process further and moved to painting directly on a polished yellow clay body is where the Sikyatki Revival (Hano Polychrome) really began (1885-1910).

Nampeyo lived in the Tewa village of Hano at the base of First Mesa. Her imagination was fired by the ancient pot shards she found while walking around near the ruins of Sikyatki, a village inhabited between 1375 and 1625. The Sikyatki style required the use of a fine-textured yellow clay rather than the heavier yellowish-white slip the Hopi had adapted after their return from Zuni. That finer clay allowed Nampeyo to develop an unslipped yellow body with a high polish as a canvas for her painted designs. She decorated her pottery with stylized images of butterflies, birds and other designs, ushering in a whole new era of Hopi pottery making. The dynasty of pottery artists that began with her is still dominant among Hopi potters.

The full story has some amazing twists and turns in it. The Book of Hopi talks about the migrations that went on for thousands of years with tribes and clans criss-crossing the countryside in their search for a good place to settle down. Archaeologists and geneticists have been able to trace the genetic roots of the migrations going back to the days of the Bering Land Bridge, about 20,000 years ago. Al Qoyawayma talks about finding designs from today's Hopi vocabulary on ceramics unearthed in Valdivia, Ecuador, and dated to about 500 years before the time of Moses. When we look at the archaeology and the oral histories of many tribes, we see lots and lots of migration happening over thousands of years, not just in the area of what is now the southwestern United States.

And when it comes to the area of Kayenta-Tusayan itself, we can see how different clans came together and then split apart again, and again, and again. We see settlements comprised of people from all over the region, coming together in a boiling pot of clans, languages and ritual practices at different times and for different reasons. Al Qoyawayma also says the ancient village of Sikyatki was a settlement of his Coyote Clan, with origins, religion, language and traditions different from the Hopi we know today. At the same time, archaeologists say Sikyatki was more likely a settlement of the Kokop (Firewood) Clan, a group that emerged from the Jemez Mountains to the southeast and spoke an ancestral version of Towa. The Kokop Group, as outlined by the elders of Walpi and Sichomovi to Fewkes in 1895, consisted of the Firewood, Coyote, Wolf, Yellow Fox, Gray Fox, Pinon, Juniper, Bow, Masauu (Death God), Eototo and two unknown bird clans.

Awatovi, nearby on Antelope Mesa, was established around the same time as Sikyatki and it survived Sikyatki by about 75 years, until it, too, was destroyed by the clans of Walpi in the winter of 1700-1701. Evidence says that Sikyatki was completely wiped out, men, women and children. When it comes to Awatovi, there is evidence that some of the ritual specialists were allowed to survive the massacre and carry their knowledge, rituals and dances to other nearby settlements. There is also evidence that some of the women and children were spared, only to be killed a short distance away shortly thereafter. The people of Awatovi spoke several languages but the primary ones were Towa and Keres. The nearby pueblo of Kawayka'a spoke primarily Keres.

However we want to look at it, today's Hopi are descended from clans that came from as far north as central Utah, as far south as the Gila Mountains, as far east as the Rio Grande and as far west as the Grand Canyon. And as each of the clans came together, the Hopi language evolved. It's a union of families at different stages of culture, each having their own religious traditions, secular customs and separate languages. Even today, there are slight differences in the Hopi language as spoken by residents of each different village, the most different being the dialect spoken at Old Oraibi.

On the other hand, Hano seems to have always spoken Tewa, as have Tewa Village and Polacca. Tewa and Hopi are unintelligible to each other. Then again, Tewa as spoken in the vicinity of First Mesa is now identified as "Arizona Tewa" and is classed as a "threatened" native language. There has been contact between Hano and the Rio Grande Pueblos but the Tewa spoken at each end of that has slowly diverged since 1700.

Bird element and geometric design on a polychrome jar
Polychrome jar decorated with bird element and geometric design
6 in H by 6 1/2 in Dia
Palik Mana design inside and geometric design outside on a large polychrome bowl
Large polychrome bowl decorated with a Palik Mana design inside and a geometric design outside
3 1/4 in H by 11 3/4 in Dia
Bird element and geometric design on a polychrome serving bowl
Polychrome service bowl decorated with a bird element and geometric design
4 in H by 12 3/4 in Dia
Circa 1930
Bird element, shard and geometric design inside and out on a large polychrome bowl
Large polychrome bowl with bird element, shard and geometric design inside and out
3 in H by 11 3/4 in Dia
Photo taken at the edge of Old Oraibi on the Hopi Reservation
A view from the edge of Old Oraibi
Upper and lower photos are in the public domain
Sikyatki bowl photos courtesy of Jay Cross, CCA 2.0 License

Hopi Potters