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“Oraibi Before the Split”

by Homer Cooyama, Kikeuchmovi, July 1970

Terrace Homes of Hopi Indians—Street Scene in Oraibi, Hopi Reservation, Arizona, ca. 1900“Terrace Homes of Hopi Indians—Street Scene in Oraibi, Hopi Reservation, Arizona, ca. 1900,” Unidentified (Photographer)You’ll need 3-D glasses to view this Anaglyph image. Don’t have a pair? Request 3-D glasses right away!

The American occupation of the Southwest in 1846 marked the beginning of government intervention in Hopi affairs. Besides land policies that radically decreased the boundaries of Hopi lands, the newly introduced government schools had severe consequences for Hopi society. The US government took Hopi children away from their families, sometimes against their parents' will. The children were sent to boarding schools for long periods of time. This policy was hard on Hopi family life and affected the people's ability to sustain themselves, both physically and culturally. The policy also resulted in splits among the Hopis like the one at Oraibi. Here, a Hopi elder talks about what life was like before the split.

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Before the split, Old Oraibi was a very complicated society. We were involved with different organizations, with fraternities, with groups (comparable to) the Masons, many things we don’t know too “There were fourteen kivas in Old Oraibi before the breakup.” much about today. There were fourteen kivas in Old Oraibi before the breakup. Each organization had its high priests. The kivas were located in three different areas. One was for the common people. The kivas in the middle area were for the high priests, officials in the big, important societies. And in the back area was where they had special shrines where they kept all kinds of sacred objects—things that had to do with katsinas, ancient pottery pieces connected with some important ritual or commemorating some significant mystery in our religious beliefs. All those things were placed in appropriate shrines. Only the high priestly officials could go there.

View of Kiva Opening at Oraibi Pueblo, ca. 1879“View of Kiva Opening at Oraibi Pueblo, ca. 1879,” John K. Hillers (Photographer)You’ll need 3-D glasses to view this Anaglyph image. Don’t have a pair? Request 3-D glasses right away!

We who had never been initiated above a certain level had to stay away from the pahoki (shrine) area and the most sacred kivas unless we were invited to come. It was a very elaborate religious system. An outsider could never completely understand it. That is why it was important to have initiations into the societies every year, so that new members could be brought in to learn the traditions and keep them going properly. In 1906, when we had the split and drove out the Hostiles, we blew up the whole thing.

I told white men sometimes, “You are the ones who spoiled everything, the way you brought education in here and insisted everything had to go the white man’s way. You are the ones who destroyed our religion.”

Of course, that may sound too hard. But before the white man moved in on us and sent missionaries in, the Hopis had been practicing their old religion according to their prophecies and the supervision of the high priests who had inherited the knowledge and according to the ritual calendar of the clans and the kiva societies. We also had a sun watcher, an astronomer you might say, who kept track of where the sun came up every day and told the people when it rose at a certain particular point, meaning that a certain ceremony should take place.

Every clan had a particular responsibility, it had to do special things for the village. My own clan, the Coyote, had the responsibility of taking the lead to protect the village in time of danger. When the Catholic priests were thrown out back in the 1600s some time, we took the responsibility in that and in tearing down the Catholic mission. Every clan had something particular to do for the village. It was very complicated. We had a village chief, a war chief, a crier chief, and many other officials who carried out their tasks. If there were difficulties between kiva societies or clans, they were discussed and thrashed out in council in the kivas, and whatever was decided down there was carried out. You could say that we had a wonderful social organization that really worked.

“My parents had very high positions in the ceremonial life, and they told me many things.”

Then the government came in and forced us to do things, threatening us, shooting guns over our heads, chasing us all around Oraibi. I was one of those who were chased around, when I was a little kid. They sent a lot of Hopi and Navajo police from Keam’s Canyon to force the people to send their kids to the government school. We felt very much under threat. For that reason, Oraibi people felt very hostile against the government and what it was doing. That whole affair of the Oraibi split was stirred up by the government, which forced the people to take sides. I’m sure the village had had troubles before, but they were all settled in council in the kivas. This time Oraibi broke wide open and there was no way you could put it back the way it was. Of course, now we are kind of reconciled to the white man’s way. But having grown up and lived here so many years, I will never forget those things.

Group of Three Maidens in Native Dress; Adobe House Nearby, ca. 1879“Group of Three Maidens in Native Dress; Adobe House Nearby, ca. 1879,” John K. Hillers (Photographer)You’ll need 3-D glasses to view this Anaglyph image. Don’t have a pair? Request 3-D glasses right away!

No outsider can ever hear everything that really happened, because most of the people who were involved have died away; they’re gone forever. But I participated in the katsina ceremonials, for a long time. I take part nearly every time there is a ceremony. I know all the processes, how they’re performed and what they’re for. My parents had very high positions in the ceremonial life, and they told me many things. That’s how I have some ideas about what it was all like before the white man and the missionaries intruded on us.

I think you can read something about the destruction of our altars when the village split up. There are some books and articles on it. All the sacred altars and paraphernalia of the main kivas were brought here originally by the Bow Clan when Awatovi was destroyed. So you could say that the Bow Clan in Oraibi was responsible for them in a particular way. After the split, a high official in that clan named Johnson—his Indian name was Tawaletstiwa—burned everything. He’s an old man now. He was a converted Christian, and after the split he took all the stuff out of the kivas and burned it. A lot of people were pretty shocked by what he did.

It’s a peculiar thing, what I’m going to tell about what happened after that. Johnson is the only one of those Bow Clan people who is left. After the altars were burned, the Bow Clan had a whole series of misfortunes. Their people died off one after another, or went insane, or developed some kind of condition where they had fits. Johnson is the only one that’s still here.

Oraibi used to have a very high standard of moral living before things broke up. We had a great deal of knowledge about the traditions that other villages didn’t have. Compared to what we had, some of the other villages were, you might say, backward. They looked to us for religious leadership.