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Hopi Indian Tribe: Facts, History & Culture

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  • 0:02 Hopi Indian Society
  • 2:45 Politics and Religion
  • 5:33 Hopis & Europeans…
  • 6:57 Hopis & Europeans…
  • 9:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Crystal Daining

Crystal has a master's degree in history and loves teaching anyone ages 5-99.

The Hopi tribe is comprised of agricultural people who live in the Southwest United States. Learn about their society, politics, and religion, as well as how they have dealt with contact with Europeans throughout time.

Hopi Indian Society

The Hopi tribe is comprised of agricultural people who have lived in the Southwest United States, mainly in Arizona, since approximately 500-700 CE. They are considered one of the oldest living cultures in the world, since their history stretches back for thousands of years, and they have lived continuously on the same land for that time. They are deeply religious, with ritual ceremonies guiding most aspects of their lives. After contact with Europeans began in the 1500s, the Hopis have worked hard to keep their cultural traditions alive while still allowing some connections to the whites.

Since the beginning of their long history, the Hopis have focused on agriculture, leading many scholars to call them the world's greatest dry farmers. Dry-farming tactics include farming in sheltered valleys as well as gardening on irrigated terraces along the mesa walls below each village. Dry farming also depends solely on natural precipitation (snow and rain), which is remarkable since the climate sees very little moisture in any form. Through dry farming, the Hopis harvest mainly corn varieties, although they are also able to produce other types as vegetables as well.

The Hopis focused solely on agriculture and wild game for their food until they were introduced to livestock, especially sheep and cattle, by the Spanish who came to the area in the 16th century. From then on, they began having small herds of livestock, and they are careful to limit herd sizes based on available water.

Hopi society holds monogamy and matrilineal descent in great importance for their society. They have organized their tribe into a matrilineal clan system, and they currently have approximately 30 of these clans. They also practice matrilocal residence, which means that the new husband becomes part of his mother-in-law's household. The clans play an important role in marriage by helping select the partner. They have strict rules that forbid marrying within your own clan in order to prevent poor genetics and interbreeding. Hopi society has been strongly preserved due to the fact that they do not often marry outside of the tribe.

Hopi women are known, even today, for their pottery skills, and the Hopis are also known for silversmithing, making baskets, weaving, and for their carved kachina dolls. The Hopis do not have a written language, and it has remained untranslated until very recently. However, they have a strong oral literature and history tradition. Today, Hopis speak both Hopi and English.

Politics and Religion

Each Hopi village has its own government, so they are each independent of each other. There is also a tribal council that makes laws, oversees business policies, and deals with the United States government for the entire tribe. Some villages have existed for a long time; for example, the village of Old Oraibi, which was first settled in the 11th century, is considered the oldest continuously inhabited village in North America.

The Hopi religion is very complex. They have a very developed belief system with many gods and spirits; this includes Earth Mother, Sky Father, the Sun, the Moon, kachinas (invisible spirits of life), and Masaw (the world's guardian spirit).

The Hopis believe that the universe has gone through four phases, or worlds, and that they are now in the fourth way of life. They believe that the fourth way of life is difficult for them because they drew the short ear of corn compared to other peoples before the fourth way of life began, and this is why they believe that they must submit to corn.

The Hopis also believe that they are the Earth's caretakers, and that they need to perform a successful cycle of ceremonies in order to keep the world in balance, as well as appease the gods and also in order for the rains to come. There are three important aspects to all of their ceremonies: the 'kiva', the 'paho', and the 'Corn Mother'. The kiva is an underground ceremonial chamber that each village contains. It is a symbol of emergence to this world. There is a small hole in the floor to symbolize the path to the underworld and a ladder to the roof that symbolizes the way to the upper world.

Secret ceremonies are held inside the kiva before ceremonial dances are done in the village public plaza. The 'paho' is a prayer feather, often taken from an eagle, which is used to send prayers to the Creator. The 'Corn Mother' is a perfect ear of corn from a harvest that is saved for rituals.

The Hopis have many ceremonies throughout the year, and the actual ritual ceremonies are always done in secret in the kiva. They end the ceremonies with the public dances. Outsiders are occasionally allowed to see the dances, but never the ceremonies. Some of the dances include: the Soyal (at winter solstice), the Home Dance (at summer solstice), the Buffalo Dance (in remembrance of bison hunting in the past), and the Bean Dance (celebrating the future harvest).

There is also their famous 'Snake Dance'. Before the dance, the secret ceremony happens for eight full days. The Snake Dance only lasts one hour, and in the dance, priests handle snakes from the desert and even put them in their mouths without being bitten. At the end of the dance, the snakes are released back into the desert in order to bring the land messages for rain.

The Hopis and Europeans, 16th-18th Century

The Hopis first had contact with Europeans in 1540, when Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his soldiers arrived in the area. Coronado was trying to find the legendary Seven Cities of Gold and, after searching the Hopi territory and not finding it, they returned the way they came. The Hopis did not have contact with Europeans again until 1629. In this year, Spanish missionaries arrived in the area and began building missions in the Hopi villages. The Hopis most likely pretended to adopt the new religion while practicing their own in secret.

In 1680, the Hopis joined other tribes in the area and together they revolted against the Spanish missionaries. They killed all of the missionaries in the area and in their villages. After the revolt, the Hopis moved three of their villages to the mesa tops for defensive purposes. In 1692, the Spanish returned to the area in order to reconquer the territory. The other local Indian tribes fled to the Hopi villages for protection, and the Hopis welcomed them. In 1700, the Hopis once again drove out the Spanish and killed the missionaries, and this was the end of Spanish interference with Hopi life. Things remained relatively quiet during the 18th century.

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