A glimpse of Hopi history

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Twice in the 1950s, I had the good fortune to spend a half an hour or so with elderly Tewaquaptewa, the cacique, or village chief, of the Hopi Pueblo of Old Oraibi. And therein hangs a tale.

The Hopis live mainly on three finger-like extensions of northern Arizona’s Black Mesa. In 1540, Coronado, then encamped with a large expedition at Zuni, sent Capt. Pedro de Tovar with a small force northwest to explore unknown country.

Tovar came upon the seven Hopi towns and was welcomed at Oraibi. Its people at first believed he was Pahána, the lost white brother of native legend, whose return had long been anticipated.

The Spaniard’s conduct, however, quickly dispelled that notion. In fact, the Hopis concluded that the arrival of this false Páhana signaled trouble for them in the future.

With the founding of the Kingdom of New Mexico in 1598, Hopi land was included as the western most province. Not until 1629 did Franciscan missionaries arrive there to begin converting the natives.

One of the largest missions rose at Oraibi. Hopi work gangs were forced to carry huge logs for roof beams from the mountains and to haul heavy stones for walls up from the valley floor below.

In tribal memory, to this day, the hated Oraibi mission is referred to as the “slave church.” But that structure and all else connected to Spain’s occupation was swept away in the 1680 Pueblo Revolt.

Unlike the Rio Grande pueblos, who fell once more under the white man’s yoke after 1692, the Hopi retained their independence to the end of the colonial period despite repeated efforts by Spain to regain their submission.

When the American government obtained possession of the Southwest in the mid 19th century, the Hopi looked to it for protection from the raiding Navajos and Utes. In addition, the Hopi found it necessary to deal with federal officials, school teachers and Protestant missionaries.

Inevitably, tensions arose within the villages, factions formed and internal disturbances erupted. Nowhere was the discord more serious than at Oraibi.

There, by the late 1890s, the pueblo had split into two warring factors: one was called the Friendlies, or Progressives who were pro-American, approved of sending their children to school and compromised on government demands that called for cultural change.

Their bitter foes, the Hostiles, were sharply anti-American, and rejected the white man’s schooling and remained stout traditionalists.

In September 1906, the combustible factionalism reached a crisis. Tewaquaptewa had recently become head of the Friendlies, while the Hostiles were led by Yukioma, who declared the Hopi culture had become contaminated by white men and their government.

As the ill feeling grew, violence appeared unavoidable. Yukioma went to Tewaquaptewa and said, “I have drawn a line upon the sand. Let us face the other, and whoever can pull the other across the line wins. Then the loser must take his people and leave Oraibi for good.”

Tewaquaptewa agreed and the big pull began. It lasted for several hours as the two men were well matched. But finally Tewaquaptewa won. Yukioma and his followers departed and founded a new pueblo, Hotevilla.

When I first visited Oraibi in 1954, the place was almost a ghost town. I learned it had been declining since the split in 1906. Tewaquaptewa still presided and was eking out a tiny income selling his own crudely made kachina dolls to the few tourists who braved the 70 miles of dirt road from Highway 66.

Nearing 100, he had become something of a celebrity. I very much wanted one of his kachina dolls, all offered at $10 apiece. So I missed out then.

When I returned four years later, however, Tewaquaptewa, well past the century mark, had only two or three dolls for sale, all quite crudely carved and painted. Each was now priced at $20.

After I’d purchased one, he gave me a guided tour of the Bear Clan kiva. That was the only time I ever entered a kiva still in use, something that would be unthinkable among the eastern pueblos.

Tewaquaptewa died on April 30, 1960, his birth date unknown. But it had to have been sometime before the American Civil War.