The Hopi Reservation is located in Northeastern Arizona on 2,500 square miles in the middle of the Navajo Reservation. The Hopi Tribe currently has less than 20,000 enrolled members, a tiny tribe compared to the Navajo Reservation surrounding them. The name “Hopi” is a shortened version of the longer name they call themselves, Hopituh Shi-nu-mu, which means “The Peaceful Ones”. This concept of peacefulness and balance permeates Hopi life and culture. Finding a peacefulness and reverence with all things is central to the Hopi way of life. Their religious ceremonies are performed and observed for the benefit of all mankind- to bring balance to Earth and her inhabitants.
The Hopis had already settled three mountain tops or “mesas” prior to initial Spanish contact in the 16th Century. The Hopis built their villages on the mesa tops and dry farmed in the ravines running down the mountain sides. In 1540, the Spanish recorded the Hopi Village, Old Oraibi, as having 1,500 - 3,000 residents. Old Oraibi is still an active Hopi village and community and is considered the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in North America. To this day, residents of Old Oraibi choose to continue a traditional lifestyle and live without modern comforts such as electricity, plumbing, or running water.
Hopis are known for their colorful and traditional culture, with Kachinas being central to their religion and art. Kachinas are spiritual beings believed to live on the sacred San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Arizona. Hopi men wear elaborate masks and costumes to embody Kachina spirits and perform dance ceremonies in the central plazas of their villages. The Hopis believe these Kachina spirits allow all mankind to live in harmony with nature.
Hopi Kachina carving began hundreds of years ago as a teaching tool for Hopi children. Hopi men would carve “old-style” Kachina figures and gift them to their children prior to an upcoming dance. There are more than 200 individual kachinas and this helped Hopi children to become familiar with the Kachinas that would be visiting during the upcoming ceremony. Hopi Kachina carving has grown from simple old-style dolls to elaborate hand carved sculptures in stunning realism. One thing has not changed, however. Hopi Kachinas are always carved out of the root of the Cottonwood tree. This has religious significance, as the Cottonwood tree’s roots are very aggressive water seeking roots. As dry-farmers who rely on rain for their crops, this is the only type of wood used for Kachina carving. Much of their religion and symbolism has to do with asking for water and rain.
Hopi pottery is hand coiled and traditionally fired outdoors. Their clay is gathered from traditional sites and pieces are hand polished and painted after firing. Modern Hopi pottery design was significantly influenced by the excavation of Sikyatki in 1895. Sikyatki is a large Hopi village that was abandoned in the 1500s. During its excavation, an amazing wealth of beautifully painted pottery was discovered. Hopis observed these ancient designs and led by Nampeyo, they began making new pottery in Sikyatki polychrome style.
In silversmithing, Hopis are best known for their intricate overlay designs. Their overlay designs are cut out entirely free-hand from either sterling silver or gold. Subject matter can range from simple symbols, such as rain clouds, to extremely intricate scenes depicting Kachina dances, Kivas, storm clouds, lightning, and pueblo buildings.
Recommended Further Reading: The Book of Hopi by Frank Waters