The Hopi of Oraibi & tino rangatiratanga: Te Aitanga a Pōkai Whenua 3

Te Aitanga a Pōkai Whenua students holding Tauranga Moana flags at Oraibi in the Hopi Nation
Te Aitanga a Pōkai Whenua students holding Tauranga Moana flags at Oraibi in the Hopi Nation

We visited two First Nations’peoples, and I had initially thought to write about them together. However, the Navajo and the Hopi are so different from each other that it didn’t make sense.On our first full day we visited Oraibi (it is said Orayvia) village on the Second Meza (a meza is a plateau) in the Hopi reservation, where we were guided by Jamie, a local resident from the village. Oraibi is the traditional community who maintained a separation from other Hopi who are more open to western society. They are, in many ways, as different from other Hopi as they are from other tribes.

Oraibi is the oldest constantly occupied settlement in North America, and the original village of the Hopi. In centuries past it has had a much larger population, but it is now about 30 houses. It has no running water and no electricity. Like the western part of the Navajo reservation, it is a dry environment dominated by small thorny plants and sharp grasses, red powder soil, and large red and yellow rocks. The pathways are dominated by ancient, broken pottery pieces mixed with a more modern mix of broken glass and plastic. It strikes you as an impossibly harsh and barren environment on first encounter, yet this is far from the case.

The Hopi dispersed from Oraibi over the three meza during their war with the Spanish in the seventeenth century. They dispersed essentially to establish watching posts. The Hopi have a close familial connection to the south with the Pueblos, and at a point at which the war was going poorly they asked for their assistance. The collapsed Mennonite church stands as a symbol for their own endurance; their ancestors prayed against the missionaries, and the church was struck by lightning, twice. On the second time, the missionaries abandoned them for easier picking. It’s rumoured there are missionaries who died in the collapse, but the people of Oraibi refused to enter the building to help in any way. After the war the various villages they had established remained. This dispersion is symbolised by the greasewood tree. Initially they were all together in the trunk, but as it dried its seeds came away, leaving many holes. Today the Hopi have many clans: snake, fruit, fire, tobacco, corn and others. Each clan has a particular responsibility, related to their name.

The Oraibi village is a combination of cinder block homes, hardboard homes and traditional stone brick homes. When one home falls down, the family will build a home on top of those ruins. Some of the older homes have foundations that are about storey high. There are wells that collect a combination of artesian spring water and the very small amount of rain water, though sometimes water has been trucked in.

The ceremonial centres of Oraibi are the three kiva and the plaza. Kiva are underground, square, brick walled and roofed communal chambers. Each kiva is associated with different clans, and men and women are initiated into their clans, and their kiva around 11 or 12 years. The plaza at the centre of the village is a palce for communal ceremonies and dances and includes a shrine. Most often the prayers at the shrine are to the sun and are seeking rain. The Oraibi Hopi are in a constant cycle of ceremonies. Jamie told us about a few: the initial planting of seeds until sprouting is done in the kiva; preparation of tobacco for ceremonies is done in the kiva; a young woman’s initiation includes four days grinding corn in a darkened room; after giving birth, a woman takes a 21 days fast from anything that is not traditional Hopi food, and at the end of that time the baby is given its first Hopi food as it’s welcome to the community; and funerals are four days during which the mourned is fed his or her last Hopi food and bathed and prepared like a baby in the foetal position. These ceremonies extend outside the kiva and plaza to other situations. For example, if a snake enters the house, it is killed as bringer of bad tidings and energy; but if it is outside the house, it is captured and returned to wild with a prayer for rain.

The Hopi people are known as gardeners. From the meza, you can see large corn fields and other crops. The Oraibi Hopi eschew irrigation. They have a long stick that they drive down to the groundwater level, and plant the seeds there where it is moist. Their eyes are always to the sky; rain is the difference between life and death here. The crops they grow in this environment is truly impressive: many types of corn; melons; squash; stone fruits.

Jamie was concerned to excuse the state of some of the homes at the start of our tour. As I commented, the homes reflect that the peoples’ hearts are not with possessions, but with their community and their communal spaces. They reflect a beautiful soul that has been subject to constant attack from the colonising State.

The position taken by the Oraibi Hopi against the State, against western culture, and the constant cycle of ceremonies are the key to how they have held their community together for so long. However, it is under significant strain from the sheer riches that tempt their young people and families away. It is a difficult lifestyle, and more so when barely 10 minutes down the road are people with flatscreens, cable, and a beer fridge. There is honour in the fight taken by the Oraibi Hopi, and yet I fear they will end as so many pottery pieces, a scattered remnant of a proud tradition.

Which has given me pause for thought about how we do our battle for tino rangatiratanga and particularly te reo Māori. Speakers of the reo are declining, as is the quality. Young men and women who have been part of our revolutionary language movements are choosing to send their own children to mainstream education. Most whānau in immersion education don’t choose to speak te reo at home. And so, those of us who feel committed to the kaupapa can be caricatured as trying a strategy of protesting more angrily, shaming others more and shouting louder, as though that will convince our cousins to take another path. Like the lifestyle of the people of Oraibi, if our language is to survive, we need to find a different pathway to revitalise te reo Māori that sees more of us desiring to return to the heart of the greasewood trunk.