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 southwestern people were nomads for thousands of years, moving across the countryside as the seasons and good hunting shifted. Back then it wasn't tribes or clans so much as it was family units. When agriculture began, then the people got more sedentary, settling into areas with good water, good soil and good hunting nearby. They began to congregate more and the first villages were established. Still, changes in the environment would often force them to migrate to new locations and set up again.

A Hopi Creation Story

The Hopi story is that the first clans came into being in those days. The various clans were charged with carrying out certain rituals in order to assist the people in staying aligned with the spirits to maintain a planet that was good for the people. For instance, the Corn Clan is a seed clan, charged with carrying the seed forward through the years and providing the people with food and prosperity. The Bear Clan is the medicine clan, charged with carrying and applying the people's hard-won knowledge of elements in their environment that were felt to be conducive of treating the people's health, both physical and spiritual. The Coyote Clan is the explorer clan, charged with seeking out, testing and adapting new and better places and paths for the people.

Map of the Ancestral Puebloan Region in 1300 CE
The Ancestral Puebloan Region
1300 CE

Changes in environmental conditions were linked to improper ritual performance, so the welfare of the people was linked directly to conservative spiritual traditions that didn't adapt well to the changing environment. When the great drought of the late 1200's set in, the situation got dire and many disparate elements were introduced to those societies via cult migrations over collapsing trade routes. Some of those elements appear to have been brought north from Mesoamerica. It is speculated that that is where the founders of Homolovi I came from.

There were many clans that split up and went in different directions over the next several hundred years. The Hopi generally feel that they exist near the place where the people first emerged into this, the Fourth World, and what remains of all the clans will eventually return to this neighborhood.

Some clans that we now identify as "Hopi" have lived in the vicinity of the Colorado Plateau for more than a thousand years. Some originated in the north, some in the west, some in the south. A lot of what we now indentify as "Hopi" also originated in an arc to the east: Hovenweep, Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, the Jemez and the Rio Grande Valley Pueblos. The oral and ceramic histories of all the clans tell similar stories but each is told from a different perspective. That perspective is modified further depending on the clan relationships of the teller of the story, and by the relationships that teller has with any listeners.

The Hopi language has been built up over hundreds of years by injections of terminology from other languages. Roots of some words can be traced all across the southwestern US and northern Mexico. Same for some ritual practices and their paraphernalia. There is no distinctly "Hopi" source, only the routes of clan migrations as they came together in the region of Tusayan.

Some of the Hopi trace their ancestral routes back through the ancient Sinagua people of Arizona and the Anasazi/Ancestral Puebloans 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.

Today's Hopi 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 early 1500's. There has been animosity between the two tribes ever since. There has also been significant intermarriage. There was a time when the Navajo would attack and kidnap Hopi women. From the Hopi perspective, any child born of a Hopi woman is a Hopi (descent is matrilineal). All forms of intermarriage have led to the development of new "houses" among the Navajo.

Polychrome jar
Polychrome jar by an
unknown Hopi potter

The center of today's Hopi territory is located about 80 miles northeast of Flagstaff. There are twelve Hopi villages located in the areas of Hopi 1st, 2nd and 3rd Mesas. Those mesas rise up to 1,000 feet above the surrounding desert and afforded some degree of security from outside attack in the old days. Old Oraibi (on a finger of Hopi 3rd Mesa) and Acoma Sky City both appear to have been inhabited for a thousand years or more and both have somewhat equal claim to being the oldest still-inhabited settlements in the United States.

During Coronado's stopover 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 went to Awatovi, Sikyatki and Walpi and found nothing of interest to their gold-greedy eyes so they left. However, they did leave a bad taste behind.

When the Spanish first came close to the village of Walpi some of the people went out to meet them. At a short distance the Spaniards stopped. Pedro de Tovar got down off his horse and approached. The chief of Walpi likewise moved forward. Neither could understand anything the other was saying so at arm's length, the chief of Walpi extended his hand looking for an honorable, classic Nachwach clan handshake (the handshake of brotherhood and respect). Pedro de Tovar looked at that and asked around among his men for a coin. Shortly a coin was produced and de Tovar dropped it into the open palm of the Walpi chief. The chief knew nothing of money and little about metal but he knew a lot about honor. It was an unforgetable insult and it showed a lot about the nature of the Spanish people of the time. Over the years, the Spanish only succeeded in expanding on that first impression.

Several Spanish explorers came and went over the next several decades but the first serious incursion by the Spanish came in 1629 when a group of Franciscan monks and soldiers arrived in the village of Awatovi (on Antelope Mesa, southeast of 1st Mesa). They immediately began trying to convert the residents of Awatovi to the Christianity-of-the-day. It was apparently failing until a perceived medical miracle by one of the Padres changed things. The people didn't allow that particular Padre to live much longer but the priests who came to replace him were even more of a problem. And they brought more soldiers.

From that first mission at Awatovi the priests established a couple of satellites at Oraibi and Walpi. Those were attended by the priests off and on but they made no headway anywhere else. They were also a bit nervous about the freshly destroyed ruins at Sikyatki (Sikyatki was destroyed only a few years before the construction of the Franciscan mission at Awatovi). There were several other recently abandoned ruins in the area, too, but their stories were different.

When the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 happened, the Hopi acted simultaneously with their Rio Grande cousins and killed all the Spanish priests and soldiers they could find. And while they destroyed parts of San Bernardo de Aguatobi Mission, they didn't destroy it all. When the Spanish returned to northern New Mexico in 1692, it took them a couple years to solidify their hold on the Rio Grande pueblos. It was in 1696 that they sent someone to have a look at Hopi territory.

The Spanish were met immediately with hostility at every pueblo they went to. The only place they could even get in the door was Awatovi, and within a couple years that led to the complete destruction of Awatovi and the remains of San Bernardo de Aguatobi Mission. There were no more Christian establishments made in Tusayan until after the United States took possession.

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 Southern Tewa people who'd left the Galisteo Basin/San Marcos area in 1694 sought refuge among the Hopi. Their territory in the Rio Grande Valley had always been marginal but had become unlivable under the Spanish yoke. So they first went north to their Northern Tewa cousins. Travel was not allowed so they had to evade detection. They had to go around Santa Fe and get at least 20 miles to the north along the Rio Grande corridor. At the same time, there were active hostilities still happening between the Spanish and the pueblos in the area.

Population pressure and friction between them and their Northern Tewa cousins plus problems with the Spanish resulted in them killing a priest or two, then packing up and running west to avoid the retribution. Travel in those days was from watering hole to watering hole so some of them travelled quickly past Jemez to Laguna to Zuni to 1st Mesa. The rest took the same route but took more time: some of the women were pregnant and couldn't travel until they'd given birth. In that way, they made and renewed connections among the villages they passed by.

This is another area where two different stories are told. Some claim the people of Walpi sent representatives to the Rio Grande area to recruit Tewa warriors. Others claim the Tewas came begging for asylum at the doors of Walpi. Either way, the leaders of Walpi made a deal with the Southern Tewas in which the Tewas were allowed to stay as long as they kept guard over the access path to the top of 1st Mesa (the people of Walpi had just moved from their village at the foot of the mesa and rebuilt at the top).

There is a story told about a Ute attack on Walpi being repulsed by Tewa warriors the very next year but the story isn't at all clear. In one version a traditional, seasonal Ute raid happens, just like any other regular Ute raid. Another version has the chief of the Walpis contacting the Utes and taunting them to attack and test the Walpis new warrior friends.

However it started, the Utes did come raiding and they were beaten badly by the Tewas. A few Utes were allowed to live to carry the warning back to their clans and the Ute problem stopped. The people of Walpi opted to let the Tewas stay. Part of the deal they struck gave the Tewas all the land east of a north/south line through the mesa near Walpi. That included some good farmland down below the mesa. Tewa Village and Polacca are built on that land.

A Tewa settlement was established at Hano around 1698. On a northern finger of 2nd Mesa was a Tiwa village named "Payupki," established by mostly Sandians and some Isletans who had fled to the area beginning in the early 1680's. After the destruction of Awatovi in the winter of 1700-1701, Payupki was targeted by a new cohort of Franciscan monks. The monks were being paid by the Spanish authorities in Santa Fe to try to get the "escapee" Tiwas to return and submit to Spanish rule. Eventually the Tiwas were convinced to abandon Payupki and, in the company of several priests, they headed back home.

In 1741, 441 of them returned to the vicinity of Sandia Pueblo and surrendered to the Spanish authorities. A couple decades later they were allowed to rebuild their destroyed pueblo.

There were ruins at Hano, ruins originally built by another group of Tewas I've traced back to the Chama River Valley near Abiquiu. Those people, the Asa people, abandoned Hano around 1600 CE because of drought and disease and went to the Navajo settlements near Tsegi Canyon (Canyon de Chelly). They settled in there for about 50 years. They lost their history and their language in that time. Many intermarried with the Navajo and established the High-standing House clan. After 50 years some of them migrated back down to the Rio Grande pueblos. Others slowly went back to 1st Mesa and eventually settled mostly into Sichomovi (a new pueblo at the time, started by migrants from Zuni but others came later).

Hano is still populated and the residents still speak Tewa. The oldest Hopi village on 1st Mesa is Walpi, first established at the foot of the mesa near Coyote Spring around 900. But the village was uprooted and moved to the top of the mesa and expanded in 1690 when the Hopi became fearful of reprisals from the Spanish after the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. All of the populated villages near the foot of 1st Mesa were abandoned and the people together moved Walpi to the top of the mesa. This was a time when several more clans were added to the roster of Walpi as their separate pueblos were abandoned.

As much as the Hopi back then rejected all things Christian they did 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 way of life of tribes all across the West.

Prior to the Spanish arrival the Hopi had also domesticated turkeys. Turkey feathers are considered to be the most powerful feathers, even more powerful than eagle feathers. They are still used in the making of prayer sticks and kachinas. Turkey bones have been found in all archaeological digs in the area. Most of those bones were modified for use as tools for various purposes. Sometime after the Spanish arrival, the turkeys disappeared from the pueblos. By the 1800's there were only a few chickens running around and the people were herding sheep and cattle.

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 1,000 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 outbreaks of 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 1st and 2nd 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 1st 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 to escape the droughts 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 those times.

On their return to Hopi, they had a problem with the local white clay they were using 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 travelers. It was almost the death of traditional Hopi pottery. Then the archaeologists arrived and "discovered" Jeddito yellow ware. Nampeyo had already refined her process further and moved to painting directly on a polished yellow clay body. That's 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 potsherds 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, moths 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 and clans, we see lots and lots of migration happening over thousands of years, and not just in the area spanned by 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 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 J. Walter Fewkes in 1895, consisted of the Firewood, Coyote, Wolf, Yellow Fox, Gray Fox, Pinon, Juniper, Bow, Masau'u (Death God), Eototo and two unknown bird clans.

Awatovi, nearby on Antelope Mesa, was begun a few decades before Sikyatki and it survived Sikyatki by about 75 years. Then it, too, was destroyed by the clans of Walpi in the winter of 1700-1701. Oral histories say that Sikyatki was completely wiped out, men, women and children. In reality, some of the clan ritual specialists were allowed to survive. Their clans were just transplanted to other villages and their dances integrated into the annual schedule. Not all members of the same clan nor did members all clans relocate to any one village. The fracturing and resettlement of clans and ritual specialists has led, over time, to some clans dying out at some villages. When those villages dance now, there are empty spaces in their dances. There are so many empty spaces in some dances that the dances can't be danced and the functions of those dances are lost.

When it comes to Awatovi, there is also 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 Kawaika'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 Casas Grandes in Mexico, 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 in its different incarnations seems to have always spoken Tewa. Tewa and Hopi are unrelated to each other. The original agreement between the Hopis and the Southern Tewas was that the Tewas would speak Hopi but the Hopis would never speak Tewa. Tewa as spoken in the vicinity of 1st Mesa is now identified as "Arizona Tewa" and is classed as a "threatened" native language. There has been contact and intermarriage 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-hanging-from-sky-band and
geometric design inside and
geometric design outside

3 in H by 11 3/4 in Dia
Polychrome bowl decorated with a bird element and geometric design inside and a geometric design outside
Polychrome bowl decorated inside with
bird element and geometric design,
decorated outside with a geometric design

4 1/4 in H by 12 in Dia
Polychrome ladle decorated with a bird element and geometric design
Polychrome ladle decorated with a
bird element and geometric design

1 1/2 in H by 2 in W by 6 1/2 in L
Polychrome bowl with fire clouds decorated with a bird element and geometric design
Fire clouds on a polychrome bowl decorated
with a bird element and geometric design

3 1/2 in H by 10 3/4 in Dia
Polychrome bowl with fire clouds decorated with a bird element and geometric design inside, bat wing and geometric design outside
Large polychrome bowl with bird element
and geometric design inside and bat wing
and geometric design outside

3 3/4 in H by 10 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