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Hopi Social Order (1-4)

D.K. Jordan

A famine is a very tragic event, causing people terrible suffering whenever it occurs. Its initial phase is usually marked by crop failure. As time passes, all the stocked corn and other food reserves are slowly depleted. At the point when nothing is left to consume anymore, the famine is on. Not until a god has compassion for the people and rights the wrong committed by them can recovery begin. The Hopi have experienced famines on many occasions . [Note]

1. Introduction

How can a farming people, living in relatively small, permanent villages, avoid social conflict without state-level institutions? One example of such a society is the Hopi of Arizona, [Note] and the answer that we draw from the Hopi is twofold. First, much depends upon cross-cutting loyalties created by kinship and by participation in "voluntary societies," that is, in non-kinship based groups that people elect to join. Second, much also depends upon a widespread ethic of non-violence and cooperation and upon cultural mechanisms to provide constant reinforcement of that ethic.

This brief account ignores actual events, and especially recent events, in Hopi history and seeks to describe Hopi life as a stable system of standing institutions more or less as it would have functioned over a century ago and before. I generally have used the past tense for features of Hopi society that either are no longer prominent or were far more important in the past, and the present tense for broad statements that are more or less continuously true of Hopi society both in the longer past and today.

2. The Setting

picture link

The Hopi are a people living today in small towns in north central Arizona, located on their own reservation, which in turn is a squarish "island" in the middle of the Navajo reservation. Like other Puebloan peoples of the American Southwest, they are almost certainly modern descendants of the ancient Anasazi (Hisatsunon) people, who were distributed over much of northern Arizona and New Mexico, and parts of southern Nevada, Utah and Colorado between about AD 100 and 1300 and/or the Mogollon people, who were distributed over much of southern Arizona and New Mexico and northern Chihuahua. [Note]


Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park
Perhaps the Most Famous Anasazi Structure

The Hopi lands of recent centuries are extremely dry, and sources of water are few. A number of year-round natural springs in this area provide some drinking water, but not enough water for use in agriculture. There are no permanent rivers or streams flowing through modern Hopi territory. Thus people are dependent entirely upon rain to water farmlands. However the annual rainfall is quite restricted: about 10 inches per year. In some years there is insufficient rain to sustain crops and violent sand storms can add to the crop damage; in other years sudden summer thunderstorms or flocks of hungry crows can destroy crops. A good year is one in which rainfall is neither too much nor too little, but many years are not good years.

The growing season is also short. In spring and summer the days are warm, but because of the high altitude (about 6,000 feet), temperatures dip at night, and frosts begin early in the fall. Not only must crops be drought resistant; they must mature rapidly.

Hopi villages are necessarily small, usually around 500 or so inhabitants. This is roughly the limit of what the environment will support. The villages are permanent, however, and have been on their present sites for about seven centuries. picture link Each consists of stone and adobe houses from one to three stories in height built, along paths. Each house contains one or more square rooms. Most houses have no entry at the ground floor level. Instead, one mounts a ladder to the roof of the ground floor rooms. Usually living space is located on the second or third level. The ground floor is used for storage, and is entered through a whole in the ceiling. [Note] An exception to this arrangement is the famous kivas, which are circular, largely subterranean rooms used as social gathering places and as the locations for rituals.

In her autobiographical account of living in such a village early in the last century, Helen Sekáquaptewa gives vivid accounts of two features of life in her childhood that point up the fragility of human welfare in this environment.

In one chapter (pp. 17-22) she describes the well that the village of Oraibi used for its drinking water until about 1920. It was located about a mile away from the high mesa top where Oraibi was located. The well was in a natural basin about thirty-five feet deep and perhaps a hundred feet across. At the bottom stone steps led down a series of terraces to the basin, where water seeped slowly in through the sandy soil. Each village woman would bring her two-to-five gallon water jug to the basin, and they would stand in line to wait for water to seep into the well. The water flowed very slowly, and each user easily exhausted the small accumulation, leaving her successor to wait for the basin to refill. In summer, we are told, the water bearer sometimes slept on the ground at the well to keep her place in line while waiting for the slow seep spring. The well required cleaning twice a year, a major project that required labor from all village people. Even then it couldn't provide as much water as was needed, and families all had cisterns to catch rain water or snow. Access to cisterns was a major source of conflict in the village. "You never asked for a drink when visiting at a neighbor's house, but went home to drink from your own water" (p. 22).

Elsewhere (p. 38) Sekaquaptewa describes the treatment of corn in Oraibi. Every family tried to have two years worth of corn in storage in order to be defended against a dry year. Even then things didn't always work out, and some families would go for weeks before the summer harvest without enough to eat, sifting the ashes of old fires or piles of old corn cobs in hopes of finding an occasional remaining seed. In bad years there was nothing to do but migrate or starve. Then one would try to find hospitality among the Pueblo peoples of the Rio Grande valley in New Mexico, 250 miles distant, where Hopi could sell themselves into temporarily slavery in exchange for food (p. 43). Sometimes babies or old people were allowed to starve (p. 44). [Note]

John Wesley Powell (1834-1902), a Civil War veteran and important explorer of the Southwest (and the later head of the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Ethnology) visited the Hopi for two months in the late fall of 1871, one of the earliest visitors to leave us an English account of Hopi life. He confirms Sekaquaptewa's account of the need for very careful marshalling of resources in this harsh landscape (1875: 18):

They are very economical people; the desolate circumstances under which they live, the distance to the forest and the scarcity of game, together with their fear of the neighboring Navajos and Apaches, which prevents them from making excursions to a distance — all combine to teach them the most rigid economy. Their wood is packed from a distant forest on the backs of mules, and when a fire is kindled but a few small fragments are used, and when no longer needed the brands are extinguished, and the remaining pieces preserved for future use.

In conditions this severe, life was close to impossible without close cooperation, and Hopi social organization must be understood at least in part as a human adaptation to this forbidding environment.

3. Households and Lineages

The guiding logic of Hopi social organization centers on kinship units called lineages. Generically a lineage is a group of people descended from a common ancestor, whom anthropologists refer to as the "apical" ancestor, since he or she is at the top or "apex" of the descent line. Hopi trace their lineage membership only through women, so their system is specifically called "matrilineal" and its descent groups are called "matrilineages." The apical ancestor of each lineage is female, and the lineage members are her sons and daughters, her daughters' sons and daughters, the sons and daughters of those daughters, etc. Hopi children are all born into their mother's lineage and remain affiliated with it throughout their lives. A woman's children are, of course, all part of her lineage in such a system; a man's children are never part of his lineage.

The Hopi are also "uxorilocal" ("wife-dwelling"), that is to say, at marriage the newlyweds go to live with the wife's family's household. A household typically consists of an older woman and her husband, their unmarried sons, their daughters and daughters' husbands, if any, and daughters' children if any. Their married sons, of course, have moved out to live with their wives' families.

A household can potentially be quite large, sometimes stretching over several adjacent house structures and containing several different married pairs and their various children; as an economic unit, this means the many tasks are distributed over quite a large group, with all members sharing household tasks and looking after each other. The most important figure in the household is, in theory at least, the "senior woman," she from whom many of the members are actually descended. Her opinions carry the most weight in the coordination of household activities. When she dies, she will be succeeded as household head by her oldest daughter. An excessively large household may split into separate households, but Hopi believe it is proper to try to avoid this. [Note]

When a man moves into his wife's household it hardly means that he loses contact with his siblings and parents and other lineage mates. A man visits his original household frequently and plays an active role in their affairs. He may even act as a disciplinarian for his sister's children, who are, after all, his own lineage mates.

Thus each household includes people from more than one lineage, since the married men are all from outside. Just as a household includes people from several lineages, the membership of a lineage is spread over many households. Within the lineage there is a seniormost woman, who allocates a room in her house to store objects used in lineage ceremonies. These include masks, pipes, figurines, feathers, and rattles, for example. But the most important ritual object that is kept is an ear of corn, which symbolizes the lineage and its members. It is kept wrapped up in feathers and cloth on an altar allocated especially to it.

4. Clans

Hopi tend to see lineages as part of a much larger and more important system, however, and that is the system of clans.

As anthropologists use the term today, a clan is a social group whose members consider themselves to be related by common ancestry, although they are not able to trace the links. We can imagine a clan as being like a lineage, but a lineage where the apical ancestor is so remote — sometimes even mythical — that the links are forgotten. Not surprisingly a clan is potentially much larger than a lineage. Among the Hopi a clan is a higher-level grouping including several lineages.

Unlike lineages, Hopi clans all have names, being named after animals such as Hawk, Eagle, Badger, Coyote, Butterfly, or plants (Cactus, Squash) or even weather (Fog, Snow). The clan is ritually headed by a senior woman referred to as the "clan mother"; she is the proprietor of the prayer-stick that is a symbol of clan authority. An important function for her outside of ritual is to mediate disputes among clan members.

The fact that descent runs through a female line does not at all mean that men are insignificant in Hopi social organization. The clan mother's brother is a powerful figure in clan affairs, both in practical matters and in ritual and ceremony. And we shall see that men, acting through "ceremonial societies," are a major political force in Hopi life.

Clans have members in many different villages. Clan members are expected to help each other, lending labor, goods, or just support and comfort as necessary. When a clan member visits from a different village, he or she is given hospitality without question. Thus clan membership (and sufficient genealogical knowledge to demonstrate that it is real) is a Hopi's passport throughout the Hopi territory. In each village where it has female members, a clan has a designated "clan house," the home of one of the clan women, where ritual objects are kept.

The kinship terms that are used with family members (words meaning "sister," "father," and so on) are extended to all members of a person's clan, stressing the kinship relationship with them, and thus implicitly the obligation to help one another.

Hopi clans are "exogamous" ("out-marrying"), so that a young person absolutely cannot marry another member of his or her clan. Furthermore, marriage with a member of one's father's clan is also considered highly objectionable. One effect of these prohibitions is that no household is ever made up entirely of members of a single clan. Clans and households necessarily cut across each other.

Clans, not individuals or households, hold land. This fact alone would make clans a central feature of Hopi society even if they had no other functions. Each clan's land is marked by boundary stones painted with distinctive markings. The clan land is allocated by clan mothers among the lineage heads, who then assign particular parcels to their daughters for their husbands to farm. Thus access to land is based on kinship relations, not on buying or selling.

Land allocation is complex. Because the growing conditions are so unpredictable, it is important for every farmer to have several different parcels of land, each in a different place, so that if one field dries out or floods or freezes or is infested with insects, another field may still be productive.

A household has an obligation to its principal clan that can involve its role in rituals that are conducted by that clan. The household which slacks in its obligations to its principal clan, either through inattention or because it comes to lack enough people, may have the obligations transferred to other households. The household is also supposed to organize its marriage links in ways that are beneficial to the complex interrelations among the clans and lineages.

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