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.

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. 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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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, mesas which 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 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 (on Antelope Mesa, southeast of 1st Mesa) and began trying to convert the Hopi to Christianity. It was apparently failing until a perceived medical miracle by one of the Padres changed things. That particular Father didn't live much longer but the priests who came to replace him were much more of a problem to the people. When the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 happened, the Hopi acted simultaneously with their Rio Grande Valley 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, they quickly retook the Rio Grande Pueblos but it wasn't until 1696 that they sent anyone to have a look at Hopi territory.

The only place they could regain any kind of toehold was at Awatovi, and that soon led to the complete destruction of Awatovi and the remains of San Bernardo de Aguatobi Mission.

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 villagers from the Galisteo Basin/San Marcos 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 (Walpi had just been moved from the foot of the mesa and rebuilt at the top).

There is a story somewhere about a Ute attack on Walpi being repulsed by the Tewa warriors but the story isn't at all clear. One version has a traditional Ute raid happen, just like any other Ute raid. Another version has the chief of the Walpis contacting the Utes and taunting them to attack the Walpis new warrior friends. However it started, the Utes did come raiding and they were beat badly by the Tewas. The people of Walpi opted to let them stay. Part of the deal struck gave the Tewas all the land east of a line through the mesa near Walpi. That included some good farmland down below the mesa. Tewa Village and Polacca are built on some of that land.

A Tewa village was established at Hano around 1698. Over near 2nd Mesa was the Tiwa village "Payupki," established by mostly Sandians who had fled to the area 20 years earlier. After the desturction of Awatovi in the winter of 1700-1701, Payupki was targeted by the Frnciscan monks as they were being paid by the Spanish authorities in New Mexico to try to get the "escapee" Tiwas to return and submit to Spanish rule. Eventually they abandoned 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 who originated in 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 Canyon de Chelly. There they stayed for 50 years and lost their history and their language. 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 while others went back to 1st Mesa and settled mostly into Sichomovi (a new pueblo at the time, settled in the beginning by migrants from Zuni but others came later).

Only Hano is still populated and the residents still speak Tewa. The oldest Hopi village on 1st Mesa is Walpi, established at the foot of the mesa near Coyote Spring around 900. But the village was uproated 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. Most of the villages at the foot of 1st Mesa were abandoned and the people together moved Walpi to top the mesa.

As much as the Hopi back then 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 also 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