The Hopi people are Native Americans who live primarily in villages on and at the base of three mesas on the southern edge of the Black Mesa in North-eastern Arizona, USA. Nowadays, the Hopi number around 10,000 people and, like most Native Americans, have a rapidly growing population. Although still farmers, the Hopi derive their income from work in the various tribal and government agencies on the Hopi reservation, from their famed arts and crafts, and from off-reservation jobs in local towns where although they are forced to live off the reservation, they can still return to their mesa homes and families and take part in the important ceremonies at the weekends.
Although maintaining a degree of autonomy, the villages of each mesa cooperate closely with each other, especially in sponsoring and performing the annual round of ceremonies. Clan membership cross-cuts village and mesa loyalties, while membership in various religious societies adds yet another set of interwoven threads binding the people, especially men, together in this matrilineal society. The ceremonies, in turn, bind the people, the creatures of the natural world and the spirits of the supernatural world together. To the Hopi, these are a unity, not separable entities. Still, each clan, each village, each mesa has its own set of traditions, variations on central themes perhaps, but the distinctions are important to the people. Only the elders of a clan said to “own” a ceremony, and the priests of the religious society which is obliged to perform the ceremony, have full knowledge of the elaborate set of meanings and symbols incorporated in it.
The Hopi did not have sustained contact with Europeans until the 1860s, after the Southwest became part of the United States. Their reservation was created by the US Congress in 1881, an island surrounded by the Navajo Reservation. Up through the mid-decades of the 19th century, as the Hopi were confronted with adjusting to American schools, a cash economy, and migration for jobs, anthropologists and government officials alike were predicting the decline and disappearance of many elements of traditional Hopi culture, especially their religion and ceremonies. In fact, the exact opposite has happened. Ceremonial activities today are more vigorously carried on than they were in the 1950s or 1920s, corn and beans are still planted, and families continue to exhibit that combination of humbleness and humour about their existence and dedication to the Hopi Way that is so much a part of Hopi character. Others may think that love or money make the world go round, but the Hopi know that is accomplished by their performance of the appointed cycle of ceremonies.
The Hopi have the help of kachinas, spirit beings, who live with them for seven months of the year. The Hopi are estimated to have between 250 and 350 kachinas, representing the spirits of all significant living things in the Hopi world, as well as some physical features. The kachina cult ceremonies undertaken throughout the year involve the personification of these spirit beings usually by men either singly or in groups. The men wear distinctive masks and costumes typifying the particular kachina involved. Some group dances are Mixed Kachina Dances in which as many as thirty or forty different kachinas dance, while others are Line Dances in which all the dancers impersonate the same kachina. Although there are female kachinas, these entities are still usually impersonated by men. All Hopi children are initiated into the Kachina Cult where they learn that the katchina dancers are not really the spirits but their fathers, older brothers, and uncles assuming spiritual identities.
The dancers normally supply their own music, by singing and playing gourd or turtle shell rattles and bells carried or worn; sometimes they are accompanied by a drummer. Since each kachina has not only a distinctive appearance and voice but also distinctive movements, the dancers use different steps from slow, shuffling ones to more vigorous and faster tempos.
In addition, to the kachinas dancers, masked clowns are also involved in the ceremonies whose costumes often reflect modern life and situations and who provide light relief whilst the kachina dancers are resting.
Other ceremonial dances (Oaqöl, Marau and Lakon) are performed by women in September and October to celebrate the harvest and to mark the end of growth for the year. The dancers have special costumes but no masks as they do not represent kachinas.
Feathers are an integral part of all Hopi ceremonies as they are symbolic of clouds, and therefore rain. Feathers of one or more birds are attached to virtually all costumes. One or more eagles, captured as eaglets from nests in the cliffs and tenderly nourished, often for years during which their plumage may be raided several times, are then sacrificed to carry a final prayer for rain to the kachinas as clouds.
Uninitiated children are given kachina dolls (tihu) and gifts. Made for children by their male relatives, these dolls are mostly given to little girls so they will learn to identify the different kachinas, while boys are more likely to receive miniature bows and arrows. Not sacred in themselves, or “played” with in the usual sense of the term, the kachina dolls, carved from cottonwood roots, are cherished possessions displayed in the girls’ homes. Married women desiring to have children may also be given dolls.