“Hopi Religion and the Missionaries”
by Nuvayoiyava (Albert Yava), Tewa Village
“Portrait of Albert Yava,” Unidentified (Photographer)
The first missionaries to enter Hopi were Franciscan priests who accompanied the Spaniards on their entradas into the American Southwest in the 1500s. A new wave of missionaries arrived with the Americans in 1846 to set up mission churches and schools. The arrival of the missionaries resulted in a split among the Hopi people—between those who wanted to practice their traditional religion and those who converted to Christianity. Nuvayoiyava (Albert Yava) gives his view of the effect of missionaries on Hopi society.
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We old-timers can see that there has been a steady drift away from our traditional attitude toward nature and the universe. What I’m talking about is not the dancing and the kiva paraphernalia, all those visible things. They are only a means of expressing what we feel about the world. “Kiva in Escalante Great House, Colorado,” David Grant Noble (Photographer) I am talking about the feelings and attitudes behind the kiva rituals. We feel that the world is good. We are grateful to be alive. We are conscious that all men are brothers. We sense that we are related to other living creatures. Life is to be valued and preserved. If you see a grain of corn on the ground, pick it up and take care of it, because it has life inside. When you go out of your house in the morning and see the sun rising, pause a moment to think about it. That sun brings warmth to the things that grow in the fields. If there’s a cloud in the sky, look at it and remember that it brings rain to a dry land. When you take water from a spring, be aware that it is a gift of nature.
All those stories we tell about men changing into bears or deer, and then changing back, you can look at them as primitive ideas if you want to, but they really express our certainty that the dividing line between humans and animals is very slim, and that we are here to share what is given to us.
We seek a way of communicating with the source of life, so we have prayers and katsinas. I think we are probably as successful at this effort to communicate as Christians are. You don’t hear as much about the Great Spirit in our traditions as you do about those lesser spirits that are sacred to particular clans and kiva societies, but I believe we are constantly aware that it exists and that without it we would not be here. You can say that we have not lost our sense of wonder about the universe and existence. “They all came with that fixed idea that the poor, barbaric Indians had to be saved.”
This knowledge is supposed to be translated into personal good behavior, into the way we act toward other individuals, our clan, and our village. If you meet a person, you greet him. If he is a stranger or someone you know, it is all the same. If someone comes to the village from another place, even if he belongs to a different tribe, feed him. Keep your mind cleansed of evil. We have purification rituals to accomplish this. Be generous with whatever you have. Avoid injuring others. Respect older people. No matter how they appear to you, they have had hard experiences and have acquired knowledge from living. Do not injure others by violence or gossip.
Now, if all these ideas don’t meet the highest standards of the different Christian churches that have been busy trying to convert us, I’d like to know why. “Boys Standing Outside Laguna Church,” Unidentified (Photographer)
Still, we have had a long line of missionaries parading through the villages. First were the Catholics, but they were thrown out— unfortunately not without some sad events, such as the massacre and destruction at Awatovi. Then there were Mennonites, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and Baptists. You will find churches in or close to all the villages now. The missionaries came telling the Hopis and Tewas that the old traditional ways were barbaric, and each one claimed to have the true faith, the only one that paid respect to the Great Spirit. Because of that old tradition that a good bahana [white man] would come some day, the Hopis and Tewas listened, some of them wondering if this missionary or that missionary was the right one.
I remember a man who was in charge of the Sunlight Mission back around 1912. He approached me and said, “Say, Yava, what do you think about all those things that are going on in the villages?”
I said, “What kind of things do you mean?”
He said, “Well, all those things that are going on in the kivas. Don’t you think they are pretty bad?”
I said, “I know that you are trying to convert me to your church. Maybe that would be all right, I can’t say. Maybe you have a good church. But I have been doing a lot of thinking about what you missionaries are doing and the way you are doing it. The first thing you do is to say that the Hopi and Tewa religious practices are barbaric, and after that you convince a few people here and there that they have to become Christians so as not to go to hell. But I don’t think you are doing very well. You don’t catch more than a few stragglers. One reason for that is that you don’t really know anything about what Hopis and Tewas believe in. You just assume that they don’t know the difference between right and wrong. I thought that Christians were supposed to have humility, but I don’t see any humility in that. How can you just assume that [our beliefs] were barbaric? Have you ever taken the trouble to study our ways and find out what our religious beliefs are? If you are ever going to be successful with your converting of Hopis and Tewas, you are going to have to know a lot more about us.”
He said, “Yava, I believe you’re right about that.”
I suppose he and some other missionaries made an effort to know more about us, but they all came with that fixed idea that the poor barbaric Indians had to be saved, so they only learned what they wanted to. “Sixteenth-century Franciscan Monk of New Mexico,” Unidentified (Artist)
I myself have listened to these missionaries. They come to my house sometimes, and I invite them in and hear everything they have to say. Sometimes I have gone to one church or another on Sunday. Of course, a great deal of what they say is interesting. But I have not heard anything yet to persuade me that what they have is superior to what we Tewas and Hopis have.
All I can tell those missionaries is that it is a matter of conscience. I tell them that if a person believes in the Indian way, and lives according to what Indians believe is a good way of life, that is okay. And if a person is a Baptist or a Mormon and lives according to what Baptists and Mormons believe is a good way of life, that is okay too. That is a choice everybody should have, and the missionaries should stop putting themselves forward as the only ones who know the difference between good and evil.
I don’t believe any of the Christian denominations has something valuable that we don’t already have. “If a man falls down, help him to get up.” That is our belief. Do the Christian churches have anything better than that? I don’t think so. In fact, you have to judge those churches by the way Christians act in their everyday lives. And too often we have seen a man fall down and a Christian walk right by, in a way of speaking.
“Share what you have.” We believe in that, but we have had long experience with the white man. Sometimes he has shared what he has, other times he has taken away what we have. “If you see something edible, take a part of it, only what you need.” Too often the white man has eaten everything up. “Oraibi Pueblo, Hopi, Arizona, ca. 1882,” John K. Hillers (Photographer)
One thing is clear. The Hopis and Tewas who convert from our traditional religion have taken themselves out of our traditional ways. The missionaries have had a great deal to do with the destruction of Hopi-Tewa religion. In a way, they are competing with each other to see who can do the most destruction. I guess you can’t blame the missionaries too much. They are doing what they believe they are supposed to do. If our traditional religion is passing, you have to blame the Hopis and Tewas themselves. There is one fellow over in Oraibi who was lamenting that the Hopi religious beliefs were disappearing. I said to him. “Why are you crying? You yourself joined the Mennonites a long time ago. You talk about the Hopi way, but you deserted it. So who are the people who should be blamed? The ones who stayed or the ones who left?”