The Hopi

© Jonathan Mazower / Survival


'If there are still one or two Hopi who haven’t forgotten the ancient laws, then there is maybe still a little hope that the world can be saved', proclaimed an old Hopi man in 1993.



What is their real name?

Hopitu-Shinumu means “peaceful people”. The Hopi are one of the peoples that the Spanish called Pueblo. This is how the Spanish conquerors, when they arrived in 1540 led by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, called the tribes who built permanent villages instead of using teepees, like the Indians from the Great Plains.

This Indian tribe descended from the Anasazi, who settled in the region around 1000 BC, and built villages into the cliffs around the edge of the canyons.


Where do they live, and what is their environment like?

They live in a small territory, on a reservation that covers 3 mesas, or plateaus, in the vast Arizonan desert near the Grand Canyon in the United States of America. The territory is like an island in the middle of the sea, because it is surrounded completely by the Navajo reservation. It is a surprising situation, that is not easy on a daily basis, but that has allowed them to preserve their culture and traditions better than most other native Indians from the United States.


The Hopi reservationThe Hopi reservation


Summers are dry and hot, whilst winters are cold, making the natural environment tough. To grow and harvest crops there is only 10 cm worth of rainfall a year. Therefore they need to irrigate the fields, and use water from natural sources. Oraibi, their oldest village, could be the oldest village in all of North America.


What is the size of the population?

Around 9,000 Hopi live in the reservation, but it is hard to say how many live in towns, or have married out of the Hopi tribe.


What languages do they speak?

They speak English and Shoshonean, the Hopi language that has been hard to keep alive. To save it the University of Tucson has developed a teaching method, and now nearly all parents want their children to learn Shoshonean at school, which wasn’t the case twenty years ago.


How do they dress?

Young girls who are eligible for marriage are easily recognized because of their hairstyle, shiny black “squash blossoms” or “butterfly whorls” on each side of their face. The women roll strips of leather around their calves and wear woolen dresses that hang off one shoulder, held together at the waist with a striped belt. During winter they cover up their shoulders with big woolen blankets, to protect themselves from the cold and from the desert wind.

Their fabrics are always very colourful, striped with geometric designs. Each colour and design symbolises something, just like the body painting used during ceremonies. They make suede moccasins with fringes, done up with a silver button, and very soft leather bags.


Hopi weavingsHopi weavings

© D.R.


What are their houses like?

All the villages have a big plaza, or open space, surrounded by flat-roofed houses, with stone walls covered with adobe, a plaster made out of mud mixed with straw. This means that the houses are the same colour as the soil around them. To go inside, they have to climb up a wooden ladder leaning on one of the outside walls onto the roof, and then climb down inside on another ladder. When there are celebrations crowds go onto the roof to watch the dancers. It is also where they store bundles of dry wood which have been gathered from the surroundings to fuel the fire to cook with.


Which animals live around them?

The Arizonan desert is a land of snakes, spiders, tortoises, and hares. These animals are often present in Hopi legends. Antelope, stag and deer travel across the desert and provide leather with which to make clothes, bags, moccasins and straps. The most prestigious animals are pumas or “mountain lions” and eagles whoser feathers the Hopi collect. They make headdresses out of them, and whips to arouse the snakes during their famous dances.


What do they eat?

They grow marrows and beans, but corn is the staple food. There is yellow, red and blue corn. The Hopi are said to have received the blue corn when the world was created. It is a sacred plant with which flour is produced to make piiki, Hopi bread, and flat blue cakes cooked on hot flat stones and rolled up like cigars.

They breed sheep for meat. They pick melons and peaches after the rainy season. However, modern American culture has invaded the Indian reservations, so they can also buy a hamburger at “Kachina corner”, the local fast food chain.


What are their beliefs and rites?

The kachina are spirits belonging to plants, animals, natural elements and ancestors. From July through to December they go and live on the mountain peaks, and then come back to live with the Hopi from the winter solstice through to the summer solstice. The Hopi contact the spirits to ask for rain, or to try and get rid of misfortune. There are more than 250 kachina, they are represented by dolls and given to children so that they can learn what each kachina looks like: butterfly, big-headed, clown, etc. For some dances, the men wear kachina masks and dress themselves with pine branches and feathers, and people throw corn seeds at them.


Kachina dollKachina doll

© D.R.


Kivas are underground chambers built underneath the village plaza. It is where the men gather for secret ceremonies. Through a hole in the middle of the ceiling, they can watch the movements of the stars, and decide upon the dates for the rituals. At the beginning of ceremonies the cortege climbs out of the hole on a ladder.


Which occasions do they celebrate?

The important dates celebrated are above all the solstices and equinoxes: the sun must be helped to follow its path. During these occasions, they perform dances on the village plaza; they wear bells on their ankles, and pound the ground with heavy steps, shaking rattles to imitate the sound of a storm. From far off can be heard the sounds of pounded rhythms, drums and deep voices, mixing into the melodies of their flutes.

The most famous snake dance is where they hold a rattlesnake between their teeth. These snakes then disappear underground to ask the spirits to send more rain, which is vital for a good harvest.


What does Hopi art look like?

Some French artists, called the Surrealists, collected kachina dolls at the beginning of the 20th century. They then became valuable collector items, and started appearing in museums. The Hopi still make them, and sell them to tourists; however they are not decorated as carefully as before.

Woolen blankets, traditionally woven by men; yellow, red and brown pottery made by winding strips of clay; dishes and baskets made out of wicker with their colourful animal designs; silver and turquoise jewelry also contribute to the Hopis' reputation as good artists.

A Hopi sand painting can be seen in the "musée vivant" section of the archives.


What problems do they face today?

To defend their rights from the white men, who despised them and monopolised their land, the Pueblo set up a council in 1922 that the Hopi belong to. Some of them are very proud of their culture and refuse to be invaded by the American way of life. Even though they are citizens of the richest country in the world, lots of young Hopi are unemployed, poor and live off benefits. They spend their days in front of the TV drinking coca-cola.

The Hopi are bombarded with tourists and journalists on the lookout for dance ceremonies and craftwork. Yet discretion and humility are essential values for the Hopi. How can they respect their principles and still accept that white men loaded with cameras, microphones, and camcorders ask them to exhibit themselves? Will the community remain united despite these two contradicting lifestyles?


Kindly translated by Alice Hertzog


Written from : Gardiens de la terre, Survival ; Hopi, photographs by J. Mora, Rizzoli 1979 ; Voyage en terre indienne, T.C.Mc Luhan, Filipacchi 1985.