The Hopi Way


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.