A Window Into the Hopi Worldview
For Susan Secakuku, Katsina in Hopi Life,the new Autry exhibition about Hopi spiritual gift-bringers that opened June 29, 2012, is the result of long, loving labor, interrupted at times but never abandoned or given up. Secakuku, who is Hopi and a member of Sipaulovi village on Second Mesa in Arizona’s Hopi territory, is the guest curator for the show, which places the Hopi belief in Katsinam — spirits that represent all aspects of life — in the context of the daily life of Hopi people. It also showcases more than 180 Katsina dolls from the Southwest Museum of the American Indian collection, which in all comprises more than 800 dolls and is one of the premiere such collections in the country.
At the show’s opening celebration June 28, 2012, Secakuku described how she had worked on the exhibition, with the help of museum staff and family members, for about eight years. She talked of consulting with her father, Ferrell Secakuku, and her uncles Alph Secakuku and Hartman Loumawaima, (Loumawaima died of cancer in 2008.) Her voice began to crack.
“I’m getting emotional,” she said while her husband, young son and extended family looked on. “But you have to understand that this is my second baby, and I’ve been carrying this baby around for eight years!”
Secakuku, who has worked with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Heard Museum in Phoenix, was glad for the opportunity to work on a show about Katsinam. The Autry also approached Lomawaima, and the arrangement for them to work together underscored a key aspect of the way Hopi families and clans work: the adult males from the mother’s line, all of them referred to as uncles, are teachers of lessons and values of the clan, and they are also the disciplinarians. With young Hopi girls, those lessons occur largely through the carving and giving of Katsina dolls.
“As a Hopi person you are born into a clan that you receive from your mother and that’s the basis of who your family is,” Secakuku said. “The uncle in the Hopi traditional kinship system is very important because he’s a member of her clan … So the uncle sets the tone, plays the bagpipe, if you will. He’s a very strong personality in your family to help keep you on the straight and narrow. So it’s a very important function in family rearing and development of values and all that, but they also help teach you a lot of your own clan history as well.”
The exhibition highlights the uncle/niece relationship by introducing two characters, a Hopi girl and her uncle, who, through their conversation about Katsinam and the Hopi growing cycle, illustrate the Hopi belief system and how it shapes their agricultural practices and lifestyle. The two are featured in videos that establish the theme throughout the exhibition.
There are also the Katsina dolls, called tithu in the Hopi language, arranged according to the time of year the Katsinam they represent arrive to visit the Hopi, in groupings that also denote their personalities or the roles they play: ogre, clown, rain-bringer.
Secakuku said understanding Hopi requires the context of place.
The Hopi live in an arid area in Northern Arizona, and their existence for centuries has revolved around dry farming, in which plant seeds, corn in particular, are planted far apart and several kernels to a hole about six inches deep (to compensate for both sparse rain and pests that might steal the kernels). The plants are tended and thinned throughout a long growing season until the plants yield their crop for the year. It’s a tenuous cycle, and religious practice focuses on ensuring that the rain and moisture come to continue the growth.
“A lot of the Hopi culture and certainly the religion and lifeways really just take place at Hopi,” Secakuku said. “You have to live there, you have to be a part of the community, and physically live there, to participate and therefore learn more about it. So if you choose to leave, which is certainly an option for anyone, by choosing to leave to do other things, you remove yourself from that part of your life.”
Secakuku said Hopi sometimes leave for better opportunities outside the reservation, including college, jobs or better circumstances for their children. But that has consequences.
“We’re just leaving home, which can be an hour away,” she said. “Physically, it’s sixty miles by car but it’s a very different world because you have none of your own cultural bases there anymore. So you do learn to acculturate yourself to become completely American and find your way of life in that sense.”
Some Hopi who are far away from home may find a sense of shared history with other Native Americans from other tribes who are living outside their homes. But that is transitory, because after all different tribes have different languages, practices and customs. It is then that the pull of home becomes stronger, Secakuku said.
“You become connected to them because you’re all Indian in some way, but each tribe is very different,” she said. “We all have our own language and our own customs and our own teachings. To really, I think, in the end become Hopi, you need to move back home, and learn of it there and be a part of it there.”
And it is not something that is done lightly.
“It takes a lot of commitment for you to participate in these ceremonies,” Secakuku said. “It takes time, committed time on your part. Nowadays it takes some financial commitment to purchase things or to contribute. So you have to plan ahead as well to do this. You can’t … just jump in. You have to really think about it.”
Hopi also have changed over time both in response to outside influences and on their own.
“We are really going through a time of big change in Hopi,” Secakuku said. “A lot of it has to do with acculturation into American culture and society and being really influenced by a lot of things that are hard to get away from: the TV, the pop culture, the materialism and individualistic view of families and individuals. So we have a lot of traditional things and ceremonial lifeways that we still practice, but it’s hard, to some degree, almost to justify some of the values or the lessons.”
For example, farming and stewarding the land has been a foundation of Hopi culture for centuries, and one of the winter ceremonies they celebrate involves a Katsina who brings a certain kind of special, sacred bean sprout with which they make a stew that is a herald of springtime for the Hopi.
“It’s kind of like the first taste of fresh greens that we have for the year,” she said. “And that made sense when we were completely subsistent on farming and ate exactly what we grew in our backyards. But today, we’re like all Americans: we can go to the store and get produce all year long. We can get cherries in the middle of winter and apples … So how do you teach this notion that these are special spiritual beings that bring you good things in life and you should still grow things when you can go to the store and buy them? So those are some of the challenges that we have as modern tribal people in trying to maintain who we are.”