Cultural Overview

The time period under consideration spans from the last two decades of the 19th century to about 1950, although some of the cultural features of that period were present when I did my major field work in the 1970s. Following this cultural overview, I shall use the present tense in describing facets of Hopi culture.

The Hopi inhabited dry plateau country, where rain was scanty and farming relied on trapping run-off and tapping groundwater. Their major crop was corn, supplemented by beans, squash, and a few fruits and vegetables that the Spanish had brought into the Southwest in the 17th century. Men still hunted game, but by the 18th century mutton, from sheep the Spanish introduced, was a major source of meat. Wild plants provided additional food and were used medicinally. In addition to food crops, the Hopi grew a form of cotton that they used for textile production, both for home consumption and for trade with other Indian peoples.

By the 1890s, manufactured clothing was worn by some, paid for by wage labor both close to home, as the U.S. government began the economic development of the Southwest, and away from home in the towns springing up along the recently built Santa Fe Railroad. A few individuals began small-scale trading and carting enterprises, and some made pottery and other craft items to sell to tourists at the Santa Fe train stops. After the Moqui (Hopi) Agency was established in 1887, Hopis were employed at the schools and other government establishments. When government-licensed trading posts opened up, some Hopis sold farm commodities, mostly corn for animal feed, and some craft items.

The Hopi, population about 6,000 in the early 20th century, lived in villages on three mesas, finger-like plateaus extending out from the high tableland of Black Mesa. Village size ranged from about 300 to 2,000. The houses, two or three stories high, were clustered around one or two village plazas, where ceremonies were held, and along the lanes leading out from them. Built of native stone, they seemed to grow out of the rock that supported them. A house consisted of one or two rooms for living plus storage rooms where dried corn and meat and other goods were kept.

With a few exceptions, the villages were politically autonomous. Each village was composed of a number of clans accorded different ranks, and the leading ceremonial and governmental officers came from the high-ranking clans. The government consisted of a village chief and his council, all of whom held ceremonial offices as well. Additional ceremonial officers had no official role in village decision-making, but their influence was very strong as they had the support of both their clans and the sodalities (see below) in which they held office.

A Hopi village could be thought of as a federation of clans. These clans were matrilineal. Each was led by a woman (Clan Mother) and a man (Clan [maternal] Uncle) who were usually actual sister and brother, although all clan members of the same generation called each other "sister" or "brother." The Clan Mother trained one of her daughters, often the oldest, to be her replacement, and one of her sons was usually chosen by the Clan Uncle as his heir to the office.

Clan unity was expressed in several ways. Clans owned the best farmland, the quality of the land roughly corresponding to the rank of its owning clan. This land was distributed to individual clan households for their use. Houses were owned by women, and men left their mothers' homes at marriage and joined the households of their wives. They divided their time between the house of the wife and the house of the mother or sister, where they had considerable authority over the sons of their sisters.

Clans also controlled ceremonial offices, and some of the highest-ranking clans controlled the sodalities (ceremonial societies) that put on the major ceremonies of the ceremonial calendar. While anyone could join any sodality, and all Hopis belonged to at least one and sometimes several, only members of the controlling clan could take on leadership roles within a sodality.

Clans often competed for political power and for land, but the village united in producing the ceremonial calendar. They also united in warfare. During this time period there was no intervillage warfare, but there were enemies from other tribes, primarily Navajo, who raided fields and stole animals.

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