Hopi Pottery and the Cosmos

Hopi Pottery and the Cosmos

Matriarchy vs. Patriarchy – Part Three

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Auguries of Innocence by William Blake (1757-1827)

A 1920s postcard depicts Nampeyo (1860-1942)

A 1920s postcard depicts Nampeyo (1860-1942), a Tewa-Hopi woman who lived on First Mesa in northern Arizona and was arguably the most famous potter in history. She created an entire industry, passing her art down to daughters, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. Some of her large pots sold in the 1990s for over $30,000.

Matriarchal societies celebrate women as the givers of life, the nourishers. The feminine is supreme. In the Americas the Great Goddess is synonymous with the water bottle or pot of plenty, an Old World concept that with the coming of patriarchy was turned into a witch’s cauldron. The original Paleolithic and Neolithic idea of death was joyous rebirth, not the depressing notion of ghostly flibbertigibbets we find in Greek epic, say, or the Aztec idea of being swallowed up by a black void. In this final part of “Matriarchy vs. Patriarchy,” we will see that it is spirituality, a belief in the culture of life which makes the Hopi people so attractive to patriarchally-oppressed people of the modern world.

Beyond invoking the word “traditional,” no one knows quite what to call the religion of the Hopis, which is incomprehensible to outsiders. Is it polytheism? No, their kachinas are not gods, and in any case, they only came into the picture after 1300, when Hopi religion was reorganized into a superimposed patriarchal structure by the chiefs. Nature worship? Perhaps a Mesoamerican rain cult? A sun religion? No, they do not worship the sun, moon, stars or clouds or plants or animals. Some sort of snake cult? It is true they have the famous Snake Dance at Walpi every other year, but on alternate years they have a Warrior Society Dance, and in any event, the snake ceremony is only one among many sacred festivals. It is combined with the antelope ritual, whereby the snakes are associated with the power of females and the antelope with the power of males.

Perhaps it is animism? No, it is far more institutionalized and communally organized. And at the same time, it is not like Christianity or Judaism or Islam. It has no scriptures, no creed, no theology, no famous figures. Nor is it like Hinduism or Greek thought or any other religion or philosophy. It is similar to other Pueblo and certain Mexican Indian practices, but not precisely the same by any stretch of the imagination.[2]

A Pew survey in 2017 found about a quarter of Americans (27%) said they were spiritual but not religious. Maybe the Hopi have always been part of this trend? But what distinguishes spiritual from religious? Vine Deloria defined some of the differences in God Is Red—for example, religion is something you “do” in a sacred place (church, synagogue or temple), on a set day (Sunday, the Sabbath), while spirituality is not bounded by time or place. Half of Americans in the same poll responded they were both religious and spiritual. We’d have to say the same about the Hopi, but that still begs a lot of questions.[3]

Because of their isolation, their non-confrontational nature and the extreme poverty of their desert villages, the Hopi of northern Arizona have long been by-passed by modern civilization. When they finally received an agency and visitors from the outside, they were regarded as “probably the most primitive aborigines in the United States,” as one of the first anthropologists among them wrote to his patrons back east.


Unadorned, utilitarian Casas Grandes

Unadorned, utilitarian Casas Grandes pot “killed” with a hole in the bottom, like so many pots in graves. Mimbres, Mogollon, Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, Chaco Canyon, Aztec Ruins and Casas Grandes were all located on a corridor of matriarchal trade and manufacturing settlements up and down the 110th degree of longitude west in the American Southwest and North Mexico. This large olla for storing water comes from around 1300 CE and has a tri-line in relief around the shoulder symbolizing the Triple Goddess in her role as the transformer of dead souls, lunar deity or queen of the underworld.

“My wish is to study these people and to record their ceremonials so that when they have disappeared, the word ‘superstitious’ will not be the only description of their religion,” said Jesse Walter Fewkes (1850-1930).

Whether those superstitions and ceremonials are primitive and primordial or complex and advanced, the Hopi by nature seem to relate to other small and obscure figures. They still pray for wisdom to Grandmother Spider, who is too holy to be portrayed as a kachina. This mother goddess, small and disappearing like her namesake, led them out of chaos and darkness on a fragile reed and originally guided them across the Pacific Ocean from Southeast Asia to the western coast of the Americas. She is the source of all life—celestial, human, animal, vegetable and mineral (for it was believed that minerals grew like plants).[4]

The dragonfly, horny toad, moth, tadpole and Ant People are favorite subjects of Hopi storytelling and myth.

The people themselves are humble, peace-loving and light-hearted.  Although the tribe today is small in number, split and confused by U.S. government policy and easily overlooked in importance, their religious and cultural practices are beautiful and profound. They believe they are keeping the whole earth in balance with their prayers.

Preserving the ‘Primitive’

The First Hemenway Expedition to the American Southwest was launched in 1886 to record Hopi lifeways and beliefs before they became extinct. Its leader, the eccentric Frank Cushing, however, went at first to the Rio Salado near Phoenix in pursuit of a pet theory about Pueblo Indians and never made it to Hopi. Cushing was replaced by the unfocused and overbearing Fewkes, a Harvard-trained zoologist, who again went off in the wrong direction, spending the summer in Maine conducting investigations of Indian folklore.

The unlikely sponsor in this case was Mrs. Mary Porter Tileston Hemenway. The wealthy widow wanted to house a ready-made Hopi collection that Fewkes ended up buying from the trader Keams for $10,000 in her mansion in Boston, but it was first shipped to Spain. Here, at the behest of Isabella II (known as the Queen of Sad Mischance), it was exhibited as part of the 1892 Columbian Exposition commemorating the fourth century of the Spanish colonization of the New World.

The Hopi did not have good memories of the Spanish: They poisoned the first missionary among them and murdered all the Spaniards left in 1680. Fortunately, Mrs. Hememway’s wishes were obviated by her early death, in 1894, and the collection went eventually to the Peabody Museum at Harvard, where it resides today, mostly in storage.[5]


Zella Cheeda (1901-1997)

Zella Cheeda (1901-1997) redware bowl (upside down) signed with her personal Antelope Woman hallmark, ca. 1970. This little First Mesa Hopi bowl is typical for its symbolism-of-three combined with sacred crook (gnwela, gneu-gneu-pi) growing from wave or water motif encircling it, representing the eternal cycle of the agricultural year and transformative forces of nature. Such bowls were made of local clay and natural pigments. The potter designed their composition to be unique, formed from traditional motifs of rainbirds (tci-zur, small birds that flock together in seasons of ample rainfall), swirling pools of water, clouds, lightening, kachina costumes, kiva murals and the like. Each pot was an act of prayer for the continuity of the community. Goddess-marked pottery was also used in funerary contexts and votive offerings.

Rape of Hopiland

Once the Hopi villages were on the map, massive amounts of pottery and other household artifacts were removed. During the 1880s, “literally tons of clothing, basketry, kachina dolls, toys, religious objects, blankets, looms, cradleboards, gourds, dance masks, stone implements and pottery were obtained from village households and excavated sites in both the Zuni and Hopi regions to be sent to Washington.” There was such an insatiable craze for ethnologic objects during those years it is a wonder any utensils were left for everyday life, not to mention family heirlooms tucked away on overhead beams.

James Stevenson, one of the first to ransack Hopi, took nearly two thousand pounds of “kachina dolls, water jugs and jars, bowls, cooking vessels, ladles, baskets and other domestic implements” in 1879. In 1880 and 1881, under his direction, forty-nine hundred specimens were harvested for the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnology and National Museum. It was reported that “material secured from Hopi alone weighed twelve thousand pounds.”

In 1882, Washington directed workers surveying the new Hopi Reservation to “’clean out’ Oraibe—ethnologically speaking.” From Second Mesa, the Mindeleff brothers finagled “twelve hundred more objects, of which 150 were ancient pottery…the most valuable items in the collection.” Anthropological observers carried off the pick of pottery, silverware, weapons, domestic fabrics, utensils and “ancient vessels.” Thomas Keam, who opened the first trading post in 1875, snapped up prize items for himself besides arranging with Washington to send 40,000 pounds of Hopi pots to museums in Europe in exchange for foreign “curiosities.” Somehow, the national museums of Germany in Berlin and Finland ended up with very large Hopi collections.[6]

Either out of necessity to replenish their own utensils or make new pottery to sell to collectors, Hopi women got busy. In 1890, 365 women reported their occupation on census forms as potter, though by 1900 only two were left. One of these was the celebrated Nampeyo of Hano (Sand Snake), who lived in her Corn Clan house at the top of the trail on First Mesa. Her brother was Tom Polacca, a Tewa leader and interpreter. She became the model for a spiritual, artistic pottery sold to visitors, while Tom, who converted to Mormonism, became the face of Hopi and Tewa society to the outside world. As Susan Peterson wrote in evaluating Nampeyo’s work, “She gave her people a new direction, bringing them an era of prosperity and renown” (p. 54)

At the height of the Hopi frenzy, Fewkes complained he could hardly tell the difference between a beautiful ancient vessel excavated from an archeological site and a new pot freshly made for the tourist trade. Although the complaint is strange from one point of view, from another it’s revealing as it underscores Hopi women’s easy traditionalism, skill and adaptiveness.


Why Can’t Women Get Any Credit

The style of pottery made world-famous by Nampeyo, though it was not the exclusive style she used, is known as Sikyatki Revival, named for the ruins of a village a couple of miles from Hano. It used to bethought that Nampeyo cribbed her designs by tagging along with her husband Lesso and he was one of the workmen for the Fewkes excavation. This, however, turns out to be one of Fewkes’ self-serving lies. It was Lesso who accompanied Nampeyo on her field trips, and she was already mentally copying ancient designs fifteen years before Fewkes excavated Sikyatki in 1895. Nor did Fewkes or any other person ever advise her on anything. Everything was her own original idea.[7]

The genesis of Sikyatki Revival—still today the most popular Hopi pottery—becomes clear if we discount Fewkes’ testimony or at least his conclusions and look at some of the work of others (which he always disparaged). We should bear in mind that all these interpreters of Hopi culture were male. None of them spoke in depth with female informants.[8] Nampeyo herself was quiet and self-effacing.

Heinrich R. Voth was a Russian-American who served as a Mennonite missionary on Third Mesa from 1892 to 1903. He wrote extensively on Hopi culture, especially mythology, language and religion. The Hopi, he observed, believed in a future state and continued existence after death. Their religion centered on hikvsi, the breath of life or spirit in each living creature, which was immortal. The missionary thought it scandalous the Hopi were so uncaring about the approach of death. He discusses in detail four cases of Hopi men who apparently showed no concern at all for the sick and dying and hardly bothered to mourn for relatives when they passed. He went on to describe the crude graves in crevices and ”dreary” burial practices, which included covering the face with cotton to represent a cloud, tying a prayer feather to the hair in front or over their heart to show the deceased was “good of heart and pure of breath (spirit)”  and placing a bowl of food graveside on the third day.[9]

Voth concluded that “death, or even approaching death, strikes such terror to the Hopi heart, that he shuns and flees the sick-bed and death-chamber as much as possible.” But that may be a Christian’s projection. Possibly, the Hopi were not afraid of death because they viewed it simply as a transformation. Spirit was eternally reborn.

Certainly among the Hurons, another matriarchal society, mortal sickness and death were not attended by dread, but rejoicing. As reported by the French missionary Jean de Brebeuf in 1636, tribe members on their death bed “are frequently enshrouded, after their custom, before they have expired, and they hold a feast of farewell to their friends, during which they sing, sometimes without showing any apprehension of death, which they regard very indifferently, considering it only as a change to a life very different from this” (Relations des Jesuites, translated by Nora Thomas, “Supplemental Note: Burial Ceremonies of the Hurons,” in Cyrus Thomas, Burial Mounds of the Northern Sections of the United States [N.p: Loki’s Publishing, 2018; originally published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1887], p. 118). The Indians’ “solemn feast of the dead” centered around reburial, distribution of clan goods and “boiling the kettle,” the kettle being the time-honored symbol of the Mother Goddess’s bounty.

Voth also observed that the burial grounds were scattered around the mesas and “not marked or enclosed, nor taken care of in any way whatsoever… tombstones or similar signs or monuments … are unknown.” Only the graves of certain women were distinguished!

Traditionally, all Hopi learned the story of “Maski, the Land of the Dead” (Courlander, pp. 101-110). The son of the village crier chief of Oraibi (chakmongwi) goes to the Underworld to see for himself what happens after death. He confirms what his father told him, “My son, it has been told to us that way by the old people. When a person dies, his body is placed in the earth and there it rests. But the breath of life goes on.” After many adventures, he learns that “the spirits of the dead residing there send us clouds to water our fields.


Hopi Way of Death

“We live surrounded by fields of flowers,” the dead inform him. “Things are not bad for those of us who led good lives before we died. But sometimes the living forget us. Remind the people to make pahos for us at the time of the Soyal (farewell to kachinos) ceremonies. In exchange for these pahaos we can do things to help the people of Oraibi. We will send clouds to water their fields.”

At another point of the hero’s adventures, the ghosts of his ancestors and associates at Oraibi tell him, “Let the people make pahos for us at the time of the Soyal ceremony. We shall be grateful to them. We shall send rain clouds in return” (p. 109).

So the men (sometimes women) in the kiva spend a lot of their time making very individualized pahos (prayer feathers with a stick of cedar or sumac and cotton tie) for the dead in their clan, and the kiva chief specifies where on the grounds of the village these pahos are to be placed, and when, and for how long. There is a lot depending on these religious acts—appeasement of the ancestors and the gods, reward of the pious among the living and rain bringing germination and growth to the food plants, hence continuation and survival of the clan and its traditions.

David Mowa is a village chief of Shugnopavi on Second Mesa. He explained to us in 2000 that one of the serious problems for his people was that foreign tourists trampled the prayer feathers (pahos) that were set out for the dead on the perimeter of the settlements. Sometimes, people stole them as souvenirs. Without the pahos, he said, our corn might be in danger of withering, and the souls of our ancestors are offended.

Death was a part of life. Nampeyo, the founder of the Sikyatki Revival style, and for several decades its doyenne, was not being morbid when she admitted that she was inspired by broken sherds in graveyards. “When I first began to paint, I used to go to the ancient village [Sikyatki near Walpi] and pick up pieces of pottery and copy the designs [mentally, not literally].  That is how I learned to paint [pottery]. But now I just close my eyes and see designs and I paint them.”[10]

Sikyatki seed and food bowls as much as five centuries old represented the acme of the Pueblo potter’s art. “The famous finds [in Berlin, Washington, Chicago and Boston] are all mortuary pottery…[though] no two Sikyatki pieces exactly alike. The same might almost be said of modern Hopi ware.”[11]

The potters did not have to go out of their way to study the glories of the past:

The ruin of Sikyatki is about two miles northeast of Hano and the women go there, especially after heavy rains, and gather potsherds from the great quantities that cover the mound. So far as I have been able to learn, they do not do any systematic digging for pottery below the surface. All the pieces shown to me were the smallest sherds, with the merest fragments of designs. Better pieces are sometimes found but they are immediately sold to traders, as good pieces of Sikyatki ware command high prices. When a woman finds a piece of pottery with good painting, she tries to study out “the line of the design,” her own imagination and her knowledge and feeling for the Sikyatki style filling in the gaps in the very fragmentary material.[12]

Women, it should be said, were always the potters, just as it was men who did all the weaving. Moreover, as is true of other surviving matriarchies such as the Tuareg of North Africa, there were separate men’s and women’s religions existing side by side.[13] At Hopi, women could pray to Muingwa, the Germination God, but had to have Muingwa deliver messages to Masau, the male god par excellence.


Controversy over Symbolism

Not everyone who is familiar with Hopi pottery believes its designs have any religious significance. Ruth Bunzel, who spent two summers in the mid-1920s studying Pueblo pottery in Arizona and New Mexico, believed there was little symbolism at all, just representations of birds and the like and “geometrical” patterns. If you asked three native sources what any given figure was (and she did), you would get three different answers. The names of designs—batwing, knife feather, cloud terrace, migration—were subjective and conventional, without any deep meaning.

Anthropologists compare pottery designs to rock “art.” Alex Patterson wrote guides on both subjects, and he quotes Jane Young, a folklorist, who described one of her field experiences with a Zuni religious leader who spent some three hours pondering the meaning of a panel of petroglyphs. “Finally the elderly man said, ‘I don’t know what it means, but I know it is important.’”[14] I do not take such a dim view of American Indians, contemporary or not.

Perhaps the misunderstandings start when we speak of Hopi pots, or Hopi petroglyphs, as “art.” Although a four inch high seed pot sold as a souvenir to a tourist may have a market, and buyers or collectors may be involved, it is clear that neither the personal profit motive nor an aesthetic sense dictates its value or purpose.

The collector/critic Gregory Schaaf thought an “artist” like Nampeyo worked like Picasso and Braque:

Design elements were compressed, reduced to basic forms and abstracted. For example, a parrot design sometimes would be divided into four quadrants. The curling beak, the flowing wings and sharp-tipped tail feathers were rotated in space and then fit back together like a mosaic. The effect is sophisticated and ingenious, like a great Cubist painting.[15]

Nampeyo, who as a girl wore as a badge of honor the taunt of other Hopi women that she made pottery “just like old lady,” would have smiled at these words.[16]


A Corn Clan Potter’s Story

Dextra Quotskuyva is one of Nampeyo’s great-granddaughters. She is Corn Clan like Nampeyo, was born in 1928 in Polacca and has won awards for her innovation and perfection, a delicate but bold design that “seems ancient, yet modern at the same time.” I think we get closer to appreciating the true nature of Hopi pottery by listening to her humble, but confident and inspiring words.

“I started my pottery work around 1967 [i.e., in her late 30s] and have been working on it constantly ever since. My mother, Rachel [Namingha, aka Du-y-hi-yu, ‘Boss Girl’], watched and supervised me. I would help my mother with the firing but began to fire on my own. I have experimented with the use of shells and turquoise on my pottery like some of the potters at San Ildefonso. My mother isn’t happy about the break from tradition. I am always working on new experiments. I want to keep my pottery unique.”

“I had a dream . . . of being at Sand Hills where all the trees were in the midst of the sand dunes. It was so beautiful . . . . We used to play there all the time, rolling down those big hills. In this dream I was sitting on the hill by myself. I kept smoothing the sand and then I felt something round. I went ‘What is this?’ I kept digging on the right hand side, and finally I saw a pot. I dug it out, and it was really pretty with beautiful designs on it. I kept picking up pots, all with those beautiful designs. There were so many of them! After that, I thought the dream was wiped away, but when I was firing, it came back. Then it dawned on me that some of those designs were on one of the pots that I had designed . . . .

“Sometimes I put my designs on the pot just thinking about other people. Not just people within this area. I think of people being sick, and that this pot might do something for someone….

“You’re talking to clay all the time. It’s like talking to another person. Once clay gets hold of you, you drop everything. The clay has a lot of energy…the clay wants you home. It’s got that energy to pull you back…I’m just in my own world. Once you start feeling that way, the clay wants to work along with you, and let you make this beautiful pot. These are things that you feel, but I hever really felt I was an artist….

“Our old ways have a lot of value. At some time, your culture will help you. It’s important that you know about it….

Dextra studied… an olla [by Frog Woman, Paqua Naha]. “Paqua’s pot has a lot of spirit. It does something to you. I could just remember her in my mind….”[17]

Dextra was not the first, or last, to whom the design of a pot came in a dream. Veronese artisan Francesca Bortolaso got the idea for her first work in clay in a dream. Read “The Goddess in the Americas” (blog post, September 28, 2019).

Dextra Quotskuyva

Dextra Quotskuyva. Photo: Jkinnor/ Wikimedia.

Leah Garcia Nampeyo

Leah Garcia Nampeyo ca. 1972. Photo credit Rick Dillingham.

Elva Tewaguna Nampeyo ca. 1972

Elva Tewaguna Nampeyo ca. 1972. Photo credit Rick Dillingham.

A Bear Clan Potter’s Words

Another master potter who speaks with reverence and profundity about the potter’s art is Gwen Setalla, aka Aäs-Ku-Mana, “Mustard Juice Girl” and Heck-Pah-Tahwee, “Blue Spruce Song.” She was born in 1964 the ninth of ten children and is related to the Navasie (Kachina/Parrot Clan, 2nd Frog Woman) and Naha (Spider Clan, 1st Feather Woman) families of potters. She is Bear Clan and uses the Bear Paw hallmark with a water symbol in it on her work. She lives in Mishongnovi on Second Mesa.

“When I am working with clay, I am always reminded of what my parents taught me as a child, ‘When you create a pot (as with any kind of art), you bring it to life and breathe life into it. Always treat it with respect, as you would your own child, and always be thankful for the wonderful talent and knowledge that the Great Spirit has blessed you with….

“As I am creating my pottery, I say a silent prayer, giving thanks for my talent and also blessing the pottery, praying that it brings happiness to the person that purchases it or to whom it is given. I also pray that they find appreciation in it, just as I did in creating it.

“Today, most of my designs consist of the Eagle, rain and water symbols (clouds, rain drops, snow flurries), the corn symbols and the Kokopelli. The Eagle is used to represent the breath of life and well-being. The feathers of an eagle are used in Hopi traditional practices… All my designs have some significant meaning.”[18]

We perceive from these brief remarks by two leading contemporary practitioners that Hopi pottery is definitely religious in its symbolism and purpose. When I gave a little bowl to a Chippewa elder, he recognized its value immediately and wrote back that it has already been used for ceremony—probably for smudging.

Small polychrome bowl presented to George Starr-Bresette (Bad River Chippewa)

Small polychrome bowl presented to George Starr-Bresette (Bad River Chippewa), ca. 1955, signed by Leah Garcia Nampeyo (1928-1974). This is an exceptional work by an admired artist who was the daughter of Fannie Polacca Nampeyo, sister of Elva Tewaguna Nampeyo, Harold Polacca Nampeyo, Sr., Tonita Hamilton Nampeyo, Tom Polacca, Elsworth Polacca and Iris Youvella Nampeyo; wife of Lewis Garcia; mother of Melda Nampeyo, James Garcia Nampeyo and Rayvin Garcia; and granddaughter of Nampeyo. It is about 2″ high and 4″ across. Notice the emphasis on three, the number of the Goddess. The design, conceived as a whole and painted to work both in the positive and negative registers, has conventionalized feathers (pahos), germinating seed leaves (cotyledons), squash blossom, water droplets, clouds, rain and snow. Possibly there are also eagle or parrot beaks and a na-somp (female hair coils) on either side of a tri-line. At the top is the “sky band” of the night sky, at the bottom the surface of the earth or Muingwa line. The shape is bulbous or swelling.

Unsigned Hopi black painted orange-ware pot of the 1930s

Unsigned Hopi black painted orange-ware pot of the 1930s in the Sikyatki Revival style made famous by Nampeyo. The design emphasizes the numbers three and four, signifying the Great Goddess and Earth Mother as giver, sustainer and transformer of life. Symbols are of growth, water, nourishment, germination and rebirth. Elements include the sky band, underworld, ceremony ground, avian motifs, angular sacred crook, scallop/crescent, leaf, knife edge and prayer feather, all abstracted and unified in a harmonious spiritual composition.

Elva Tewaguna Nampeyo (1926-1985)

Elva Tewaguna Nampeyo (1926-1985) polychrome pot alludes to the goggle or owl eyes of the rain deity and Neolithic Bird Goddess. At the same time its two tendrils/cotyledons evoke the Germination Deity, Muingwa/Aloseka. The bowl has four ceremony grounds with iron butterflies (hourglass shapes), symbols of eternal life, along with eight tri-lines of the Great Mother.  Interspersed are pahos (prayer feathers from the kiva to insure rain and continuance of life). These same double whorls or owl eyes occur all over the world (Gimbutas, see picture below; Neumann, The Great Mother, esp. Trojan face urn, p. 121).[19] Elva was expert at forming compositions in such a manner that the painted design and the unpainted surface exhibited different emblems, like the optical effects of Escher. In the above example, the owl-eyed symbol looks like almost closed circles (curved gnwela) and also mountain sheep horns.

Migration desig

Migration design seed pot with conventionalized prayer feathers, or wingtips in threes, and water symbols, made about 1996, 5″ tall by 5.5” in diameter, signed by Elton Tewaguna Nampeyo (born 1953). He is the son of Elva Tewaguna Nampeyo and great-grandson of the Corn Clan’s Nampeyo. Represented are the three colors of the Great Goddess: black, red and white. This migration design was originated by Nampeyo and is only allowed to be used by her descendants. According to Elva Nampeyo, the fine lines of the migration motif represent the people and the “upper scroll symbolizes clan migrations in the Northern Hemisphere” while “the lower scroll refers to clan migrations in the Southern Hemisphere” (Schaaf, p. 99).


Is It Goddess Religion?

If more clues are needed pointing to Hopi religion being goddess-based, and their society being matriarchal, we might consider the germination deities, Muingwa and Aloseka, whose symbols are the gnwela or crook and squash blossom. Muingwa is the god of rain and conventionally male, but only women pray to him. Aloseka is either male or female, the tutelary divinity of the Mishongnavi on Second Mesa. The name means Horned. At one time, the people of Mishongnavi had four-foot-tall carved statues of a horned god and goddess which they kept in a secret cave (see picture). Stephen reported:

Their festival is celebrated once in three years, at which time the priests visit the shrine and after many devout ceremonies redecorated the images and hang votive offerings upon them. The female figure is painted in gaudy colors and the choicest offerings adorn her, as she, they say, sends the rain and fructifies all plant life. The figure of the male they merely daub with white clay for they say no good comes from him, he knows nothing, can give nothing, he only carries the seed.[20]


The owl eyes of the female Aloseka are the same transformational symbol of life we notice on pottery. They are identical to the Bird Goddess of Old Europe and are also reflected in the mask of Tlaloc, the rain god of Mexico. The horns may be vestiges of the altar of consecration found on Minoan Crete and throughout Anatolia. Both the bucranium and owl were established cult fixtures as early as 7000 BCE in the ancient city of Çatalhöyük. In the Hopi language, the word for chief is the same as that for owl.


Lost wooden Aloseka (Horned)  images, as sketched by Stephen in 1890 (Patterson, p. 78. Bird Goddess from western Ukraine, early fourth millennium BCE (from Gimbutas, p. 46).Eye idols representing the Great Mother engraved on cow bones from Neolithic Spain (Neumann, p. 111).


The sacred crook seen so often on Hopi pottery is not a patriarchal staff of power but a matriarchal symbol used in the kiva to knock on the floor and seek permission from the earth for a boon expressed then in a prayer. It was made of cedar, with a curved top. The same symbol is found on Mesolithic and Neolithic standing stones and tombs such as Carnac and New Grange, where it represents the honor due to the ancestors and, like the spiral (in Hopi usage, the Whirlwind or Breath Spirit, ho-bo-bo) is part of the language of the Goddess, standing for the transformation or rebirth of the soul.

Hopi pottery symbols (or patterns, as some call them) are often designated as “geometric,” but better, we feel, is to say they represent something esoteric, organic and multifaceted in meaning. Gimbutas would use “schematic,” and Neumann “abstract” to describe the intellectual process of trying to capture the numinous and sacred. Maybe the best term for the spirituality expressed in Hopi art is just to call it “the Hopi religion.” Most people know it when they see it. At its center are prayers for rain, abundance and survival. Obviously, it represents a combination of patriarchal forms imposed on originally matriarchal principles. But when its principles are trespassed upon it is a matter of life and death.

Rare look into a Hopi kiva, “Ceremony of Washing the Snakes’ Heads,” from Harper’s Weekly, Aug. 8, 1896. The men sitting on the side and the standing attendant in the foreground are holding prayer feathers (bahos) they have made from split tail feathers, cotton string and a cedar stick.


See also

Lisa Namoki, Hopi Potter (18:54 video interview by Reggie Van Stockum, Jr., Nov. 19, 2022, on blog/podcast Life and Landscapes)

Three King-Sized Books on His-Story: Matriarchy vs. Patriarchy – Part One (blog post, Feb. 1, 2022)

Bottle Woman: The Great Goddess in America Matriarchy vs. Patriarchy – Part Two (blog post, Feb. 4, 2022)

The Goddess in America (blog post, Sept. 28, 2019)

On the Trail of Spider Woman (blog post, Dec. 31, 2010)

The Goddess Gene (DNA test)

Emergence Petroglyphs Pacific-Wide (blog post, Feb. 5, 2011)

[1] Gregory Schaaf, ed. Richard M. Howard, Hopi-Tewa Pottery: 500 Artist Biographies ca. 1800-present with Value/Price Guide featuring over 20 years of auction records (Santa Fe: CIAC Press, 1998), p. 91. See biography by Barbara Kramer, Nampeyo and Her Pottery (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996).

[2] See Frank Waters, Masked Gods: Navaho and Pueblo Ceremonialism (Chicago: Sage, 1950); Hamilton A. Tyler, Pueblo Gods and Myths (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984).

[3] Pew Research Center, “More Americans Now Say They’re Spiritual But Not Religious,” by Michael Lipka and Claire Gecewicz (web page accessed Feb. 24, 2022). Vine Deloria, Jr., God Is Red: A Native View of Religion (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1973).

[4] See Frank Waters, The Book of the Hopi, drawings and source material recorded by Oswald White Bear Fredericks   (New York: Viking, 1963); Carol Patterson-Rudolph, On the Trail of Spider Woman: Petroglyphs, Pictographs, and Myths of the Southwest (Santa Fe, N.M.: Ancient City Press, 1997).

[5] Edwin L. Wade and Lea S. McChesney, America’s Great Lost Expedition: The Thomas Keam Collection of Hopi Pottery from the Second Hemenway Expedition, 1890-1894 (Phoenix: Heard Museum, 1980).

[6] Kramer, Nampeyo and Her Pottery, pp. 28-33.

[7] Kramer, Nampeyo and Her Pottery, p. 190. Many of the falsehoods about Nampeyo are conveniently disproved in Kramer’s Appendix A: Published Fallacies and Erroneous Photographs.

[8] Fewkes’ main work was his huge compilation on Sikyatki in the Seventeenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian, Part 2 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1898), available online. He also wrote Designs on Prehistoric Hopi Pottery (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1919), also available online, e.g. at the Open Library.

[9] H. R. Voth, “Notes on Modern Burial Customs of the Hopi of Arizona,” Publications of the Field Museum of Natural History. Anthropological Series 11/2 (1912), Brief Miscellaneous Hopi Papers. The Stanley McCormick Hopi Expedition (February, 1912), pp. 99-103. One of the informants in Harold Courlander’s book, an elder from New Oraibi, said that Voth was a stern and pushy man. “Most of the stories they told Voth is because they didn’t want to tell him the true story.” See The Fourth World of the Hopi: The Epic Story of the Hopi Indians as Preserved in Their Legends and Traditions (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987), p. 230.

[10] Ruth L. Bunzel, The Pueblo Potter: A Study of Creative Imagination in Primitive Art (New York: Dover Publications, 1972; orig. published by Columbia University Press in 1929), p. 56.

[11] Bunzel, The Pueblo Potter, p. 55. We can see the differences between Hopi and other Pueblo pottery in Rick Dillingham, Fourteen Families in Pueblo Pottery, foreword by J. J. Brody (Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press, 1999). This book is based on one of the most famous exhibitions of Pueblo pottery, that at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology in Albuquerque in 1974, and was expanded in 1994. It has black-and-white portraits or snapshots of the potters and color photos of their work. Included, in addition to Hopi-Tewa such as the Nampeyo and Navasie families, are Acoma, Zia, Cochiti, Santo Domingo, Santa Clara and San Idefonso.

[12] Bunzel, The Pueblo Potter, p. 55.

[13] On the separated religion of the cattle-herding Tuareg, with the men publicly professing Islam and the women privately practicing a Goddess-based religion, see Heide Goettner-Abendroth, Matriarchale Gesellschaften der Gegenwart, vol. II: Amerika, Indien, Afrika (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2022), pp. 243-276.

[14] Alex Patterson, Hopi Pottery Symbols, Based on The Pottery of Tusayan Catalogue of the Keam Collection Unpublished Manuscript Dated December 29, 1890, By Alexander M. Stephen (1845?-1894)…& The Keam Collection of Hopi Pottery, Peabody Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Illustrated by Alexander M. Stephen, William Henry Holmes (1846-1933) & Alex Patterson (Boulder: Johnson Books, 1994).

[15] Gregory Schaaf, Hopi-Tewa Pottery: 500 Artist Biographies ca. 1800-Present with Value/Price Guide (Santa Fe, N.M.: CIAC Press, 1998), p. 93.

[16] Kramer, p. 14.

[17] Schaaf, Hopi-Tewa Pottery, pp. 136-40.

[18] Schaaf, Hopi-Tewa Pottery, pp. 149-51.

[19] Marija Gimbutas, The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe 6500 – 3500 BC: Myths and Cult Images (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007); Erich Neumann, The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype, trans. by Ralph Manheim (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972).

[20] Alexander M. Stephen quoted by Alex Patterson, Hopi Pottery Symbols, p. 78.


  Comments: 1

  1. I want to learn how art connects ancient america to other ancient tribes thru-out the world.

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