Dancing Gods, by Erna Fergusson, , at sacred-texts.com
One sunny summer morning we strolled the length of the First Mesa in Hopiland. The few people we met responded to greetings with quick flashing smiles and friendly words, usually in the musical minor notes of their native Tusayan. Most Hopis are short, with broad faces, and they move with a queer effect of stillness. The men wore overalls and shirts whose original brilliance the fierce Arizona sun had faded to the soft tones of mesa and desert. They wore moccasins or store shoes, but the women padded over the rocks barefooted. Their broad hips and bosoms were confined in the old-time squaw dresses, or blouses and full skirts of gingham, and their hair hung in knotted queues over the shoulders. An occasional boarding-school girl came along in American dress of cotton or cheap silk. These girls spoke to us in English, either curtly or with hidden resentment. Only the older women murmured the pretty Hopi "Lo-lo-mai" as they fingered a white woman's Indian jewelry or offered pottery for sale.
The houses were cool, dark, and quiet within. In one doorway I saw an old man, still unhampered by the trousers of civilization, carving a Katchina doll while he
chanted an ancient song. A naked baby played near him. Small children run quite naked, even up to the age of ten, playing in the sand or making shining bronze images of themselves as they whoop and splash round some stagnant pool left by the last rain.
In another house we saw the supine body of a man lying on the floor, as blissfully relaxed as a child. Working hours in Hopiland are from dawn until noon heat, and from late afternoon until dark. All summer the men are forever busy in the tiny fields, which are terraced into the rocky mesa-side to catch any underground flow of water, and which follow every hidden stream in waving patches of brilliant green far out on to the arid plain. For centuries they have forced a living from those deserts with no weapons more powerful than sharp sticks and the invincible human spirit which is born of need, and of faith. So every year they bring to maturity enough dwarf corn, round pale watermelons, beans, and peaches the size of walnuts to keep alive.
Looking out across the desert, I sensed the desperate struggle which these people must make for life. No part of the whole unconquerable southwest is more inhospitable than this land of the Hopis. It is strangely beautiful, but it supports only the occasional scrub growth and sparse grass on which both Navajos and Hopis graze their sheep. For the Hopi reservation is about five hundred square miles in the midst of the Navajo reservation, a sharp reminder, even in these peaceful days, of how the gentler people were driven by their enemies.
The Hopi villages cling to three rocky mesas, where
these gentle people took refuge from their foes in a pitiful huddle of desperation. The entire Hopi population is less than two thousand, most of whom still live on three mesas in nine villages, and in Moeneopi, which makes the tenth. Americans first called the Hopis Mokis, a Navajo word meaning dead. Naturally they resented that; they prefer their own name for their country and their musical speech, which is Tusayan.
The finest pottery is made on the First Mesa, tall honey-colored vases and squat bowls decorated in dull red and brown-black. We looked into one house where a group of chattering women sat on the floor molding or painting pottery. An old woman knelt, bending over the grinding-stones set in the dirt floor. The house was scantily furnished, and swept clean, but smelly with that persistent unsanitary smell so typical of Hopi houses. The American influence had extended to one screened window, but the door stood hospitably open to swarms of flies, buzzing the fat contented buzz of the well-fed. One of the women cordially invited us to come in, and we sat on the floor watching the work. Food was simmering in the corner fire-place. Bunches of herbs and Katchina. dolls hung from the smoky rafters, and depending from a pole were a few ceremonial garments. Hopi men are the weavers. During the winter they weave cloth of white cotton and wool and decorate it with free-hand embroidery in red and green and black, the colors of sun and growth and rain. A few families still have bits of prehistoric weaving, made when rabbit-skins were, twisted into soft woolly robes with thongs of buckskin.
The First Mesa is a long, narrow peninsula of rock,
dropping off sheerly to the desert. It is as though the world ended there, as though the Hopis were the only people in the world, with the exception of the long-legged Navajos who come in on ponies for every feast. Looking westward, one sees clearly the Second Mesa, which curves in a lovely crescent from Mishongnovi, clinging to its perch above Corn Rocks, to Chimopovi on its western tip. In Shipaulavi, on the highest tier, they weave the largest coiled baskets, sometimes as tall as Ali Baba's jars. These villages are the least touched by any modernizing influence. Incredibly dirty, they still have great charm; Mishongnovi and Shipaulavi seeming to grow out of the rocks, and Chimopovi dusty white on its dusty plain. In Chimopovi one day I saw a burro, dusty white like the houses and the plaza, drooping half asleep; three naked little boys scuffling through the sand; and an old weaver, his only garment a dusty white shirt, his skinny legs dusty from sitting on the floor, the oldest type of spindle in his hand. Chimopovi might have looked like that on a hot July day three hundred years ago.
From First Mesa one can hardly see the Third, but it is there: abandoned Oraibi, which died when its people moved to Hotevilla, on the other end of the mesa. Later a group split off from Hotevilla, where the old men tried to stand out against government schools and missionaries, and founded the village of Bacavi, most modern of all, with a few tin roofs, a store, and no terraced houses at all.
Our stroll brought us to Walpi, which perches on the western point of First Mesa where the peninsula is so narrow that there is room for only two solid rows of terraced houses. They step down to the south, where the kivas are
built into the very walls of the cliff, their roofs only a few steps higher than the lane, their ladder-poles reaching irregularly above them, the taller one for the man, the shorter for the woman. The snake kiva crowds into the plaza about half-way the length of the village, where the hour-glass-shaped Snake Rock stands. In a crevice of this tall bowlder is a shrine where one always sees prayer-plumes and freshly scattered meal, and in front of it they dance the Snake-dance.
Like other Pueblo peoples, the Hopis are divided into fraternities, which control all ceremonial life. The priesthoods seem to be hereditary in the family which carries the clan name and whose legendary ancestor brought the fetishes and altar paraphernalia. Their government is less democratic than that of the Rio Grande peoples. Each village has a hereditary chief. There is no council and no appeal from the decisions of the despot; hence the many splits resulting in the settlement of new villages under new chiefs. Each village is independent, recognizing relationship with the others, but no union, either for government or for ceremony.
Now rapid changes are coming about under the American influence. At the foot of every mesa is a group of government buildings: a school, houses for employees, a laundry in which an effort is made to clean up the Hopis. Children wear government-issue clothes of gingham and blue jean, and heavy shoes; and in the entrance to the school-building are rows of tooth-brushes hanging on nails labeled: "Geraldine," "Percy," "Hortense," and "Clyde." At First and Third mesas the Percys, Hortenses,
and Clydes have moved down from their ancestral homes and built houses on the American pattern, in which they live more or less on the American plan. Here are found the people dressed in store clothes, cooking on stoves, listening to Victrolas, otherwise conforming to what they have been taught. The missionaries of various Christian faiths have much to do with these changes, and even more deep-seated ones. Several important ceremonies have been abandoned because of the conversion to a Christian faith of the one man who could carry them on. Probably a few more generations will see the abandonment of the beautiful villages and the old beliefs, and the submergence of the distinctive Hopi in such typical American homes and lives as these.
Like all primitive peoples, Hopis personify everything. Not only men and animals, but plants, stones, mountains, and storms, astral bodies, clouds, sky, and underground have spirits which may be evil or beneficent toward human beings, and which may be propitiated or defeated by certain prescribed acts. These spirits are personified as Katchinas, who come into our modern world trailing the tatters of everything historical or legendary in the Hopi past. Their pictures are found carved on stones in various parts of Arizona; their prototypes are found in Zuñi and the Rio Grande pueblos; they carry implements like the most ancient ones found in ruins; they chant in languages older than anyone knows; and their costumes, though they are prescribed by ancient ritual, still show the effects of
the modern store, for a felt hat may be the basis of the god's head-dress, and the priest who serves the underground altar often appears in overalls.
Katchina may be the man who dances in a mask; the spirit which the man represents; or a doll, carved of cottonwood and painted, dressed, and feathered exactly like the dancer. These dolls are seen everywhere in Hopiland: children carry them about in play, they stand on the altars.
The Katchina, meaning the spirit, is similar in idea to the Zuñi Ko-Ko. It is not a god; it is merely one manifestation of the great all-powerful being, which is infinitely higher and greater, but which may somehow be reached through appeals to these Katchinas. Prayers are primarily, of course, for blessings which are of advantage to the whole group: rain and sun, plentiful growth, many children. The Hopis are still in the cultural stage of group consciousness, and the government schools, trying to make twentieth-century Americans of them, find themselves up against this enormous gap between the primitive and the civilized mind. The Hopi, dirty at home, dirty in his person, careless of everything which the white man considers of greatest importance, is deeply concerned about all the things of tribal significance. All ceremonial objects are exquisitely made, all ceremonies are conducted with truly prayerful attention to detail.
When the Katchina appears as a masked man, it is in the dramatization of a myth or a legend. Often much of the significance has been lost, and often the ceremonies, borrowed from other peoples, are conducted in a foreign language which even the participants do not understand.
[paragraph continues] The ceremonies may vary from year to year, only certain masks being constant, and the appearance of others depending upon the whim of the actors or upon hidden causes. The masks, less beautiful than those of Zuñi, are even more numerous. Dr. Fewkes, who spent years among the Hopis, studying their ceremonies, collected, in 1900, more than two hundred pictures of Katchinas drawn by Hopi artists. Most of these probably appear in the dances in the course of several years; some of them appear annually.
Before a Katchina dance very important business is the refreshing and repainting of the masks, which fit closely over the head, completely biding it, and are finished at the neck with a ruff of feathers, fur, or spruce. The face may represent a bird, a beast, a monster, or a man, or every combination of all these, with many variations in the use of color and the misuse of feature. The rest of the costume is usually the white ceremonial kirtle and sash, with turtle-shell rattle under the knee, moccasins, and jewelry. The man often carries some object especially associated with the being he represents: bow and arrows, a yucca whip, pine, or feathers. Women figures, Katchinamana, are represented by men. They always wear wigs of long hair dressed in the flat swirls over the ears which typify virginity and which are usually called squash blossoms.
The Katchina dances, generally thought to have been introduced from the eastern pueblos, cause a queer division in the Hopi calendar. The Katchinas come between late December and February. A few appear in Soyaluna, a ceremony of the winter solstice, but the "coming-in" is usually considered the Bean-planting dance in late January or February.
[paragraph continues] From then on there is a continuous succession of masked dances until July, when, with the Niman Katchina, the "gods go out," returning to their home near San Francisco Peaks. After that the more ancient ceremonies of the Hopis are given: the Snake-dance, the Flute Ceremony, and others which have no masks.
This division in the ceremonial calendar is further emphasized by the fact that every summer ceremony has a winter counterpart. Fewkes suggests a belief that the gods who preside over the summer retire underground in winter and may be reached there. So the fraternities in charge of summer dances always meet in mid winter for ceremonial smoking and the planting of prayer-plumes. In the case of the Niman Katchina, a runner goes every December to a certain shrine on San Francisco Peaks, where he scatters meal and plants plumes to be brought back at Niman time, in July, by another runner. The winter run is no easy task, for the runner has to cover about a hundred miles in two days across cold and snowy country; yet the summer man has always found the plumes properly planted there under the snow peaks.
Clowns appear in both masked and unmasked ceremonies. Sometimes they resemble the Zuñi Mudheads and sometimes the Koshare of the Rio Grande pueblos. They are notable in both cases for gluttony, obscenity, and an absolute license in their fun-making, which often makes for real wit, and sometimes for less desirable results, as in all fun-making.