Fall 1993, Volume 10.3
Levi S. Peterson
The Native American
Levi S. Peterson (Ph.D., University of Utah) is Professor and Chair of the Department of English at Weber State University. His publications include two collections of short stories, The Canyons of Grace and Night Soil, a novel, The Backslider, and a prize-winning biography, Juanita Brooks.
White settlement in northeastern Arizona lies between the Navajo and Hopi reservations on the north and the White Mountain Apache reservation on the south. As an amateur anthropologist, my father had great respect for the Apaches, Navajos, and Hopis who were his near neighbors. Yet my father did as much as anyone among his white peers perhaps he did even more than most of them to hasten the demise of primitive Indian culture. That demise was as inevitable as it was tragic, for whites of the very best intentions were as helpless to forestall it as the Indians themselves. Furthermore, it was a phase in the dying of wilderness in America, for primitive culture is rooted in the wild.
My father was born in 1874 in Lehi, Utah. His parents, immigrants from Sweden, named him Joseph after the founder of Mormonism. He passed a bucolic childhood in Lehi and graduated from Brigham Young Academy with the equivalent of a modern high school diploma. He married Amanda Andelin, also of Swedish descent, and they became the parents of six children.
In 1898, he was called on a church teaching mission to establish a high school curriculum in a stake academy in Snowflake, Arizona. In September of that year, he traveled via the Union Pacific from Provo to Barstow and there caught the Santa Fe for Holbrook, Arizona, the seat of Navajo County. He was conveyed by wagon to Snowflake, thirty miles south. Amanda waited several months for the birth of their first child before she followed.
It won't do to call Joseph and Amanda pioneers in the heroic sense, because even in Arizona they were a generation behind those who founded the first white settlements. Still they came to Arizona when white culture had made little visible change in the wilderness. White civilization, such as it was, lay chiefly along the Little Colorado and its major tributary, Silver Creek. Rolling plains, well grassed in those days, stretched away on either side of the Little Colorado. To the north of this temperamental and intermittent river, the plains gave way to the colorful erosions of the Painted Desert. To the south the plains became hills covered by junipers and then mountains forested by handsome ponderosa pines.
Such signs of domestication as my father met upon his first arrival were agrarian. On the thirty mile trek to Snowflake, he passed through only one village, Woodruff, where lived a six-year-old girl who would become his second wife and my mother. His road was no more than a wagon track. There were no power lines, no pavements, no billboards, no service stations. Cattle grazed the juniper-covered hills, and it's possible he saw cowboys from the large Hashknife cattle outfit. There were no fences, and the animals of lesser owners mingled with those of the Hashknife outfit on an open range where private and public lands were indistinguishable. In time he came over a final hill and there was Snowflake, an oasis of eighty or ninety houses, mostly of simple pioneer construction. Nearby were fields, green with late crops or yellow with harvested stubble, and beyond them, the verdant, tree-lined course of Silver Creek.
My father found a place to board and took up the duties of principal and teacher at the academy. Assisted by other teachers, he instituted the first year of high school for a group of young people ranging in age from fourteen to twenty-one. It appears he was instantly popular, having a natural dignity and eloquence and an intuitive moral harmony with a frontier town thirsty for the cultivated graces. From the beginning they called him Professor Peterson and would go on doing so throughout his life, despite the fact that he would take a number of furloughs from teaching. Even now, fifty years after his death, I meet people in Snowflake who still call him Professor Peterson.
Not long before my father's arrival, the aboriginal inhabitants of the region had become reservation dwellers and wards of the U.S. government, and their primitive culture had already begun to show signs of receding before the culture of their conquerors. The majority of them still lived in wickiups, hogans, and rough stone pueblo houses of prehistoric pattern. They hunted, gathered berries and seeds, and practiced primitive agriculture, yet they had also begun to raise sheep and cattle and to depend on rations distributed through governmental agencies. They practiced both traditional and newly learned handicraftssilver smithing, rug weaving, basket making, pottery making, kachina carving, boot and saddle making, and so on. They bought ready-made clothes from traders or sewed colorful shirts, blouses, and skirts from velvet and calico acquired from the same source.
I imagine my father at the moment when, perhaps as he gets off the train in Holbrook on that September day in 1898, he sees his first Navajo man, clad in buckskin moccasins, wool pants, velvet shirt, and high, round-domed Stetson, his hair tied into a bun at the nape of his neck by repeated loopings of cotton string, his chest adorned by a necklace of silver and turquoise. This man's bearing is colored by a primitive grace, whose existence, so I imagine, my father has never before even guessed at. From this moment my father wants to become an anthropologist.
He attended his first Hopi snake dance in August 1899, at either Walpi on First Mesa or Mishongnovi on Second Mesa, where it is known that snake dances were held that year. He traveled by wagon in the company of Homer Bushman, a part-time Mormon missionary to the Indians. This was the first of many times my father crossed the Painted Desert, which he described in the following lines of a letter to my mother in 1924: "As is usual when the desert sands become warm the mirages were frequent with their lakes of clear water surrounding islands of bushes and trees. Even the buttes were floating as great ships in the sea. Then we came to the painted bad lands. Here all colors imaginable are blended in ridges & hollows barren of all vegetation. They say there are twenty-seven different colors or shades represented. I think there are many more."
My father and Homer camped the first night on the Navajo reservation, which surrounds the Hopi reservation. The next evening they made camp near the Hopi pueblo that was their destination. Before dawn the next morning they climbed the steep trail to the pueblo, and soon after daylight, from the cliffs that bounded the ancient town, they watched the progress of Hopi racers across the distant valley floor and looked on while costumed Indian celebrants dusted the arriving racers with sacred cornmeal. After that my father and his companion and a variety of other white onlookers loitered through a hot day, until, in the late afternoon, dancers from the Snake and Antelope societies emerged from their kivas.
The dancers wore kilts, head bands, moccasins, and turtle-shell rattles, the latter strapped to the calf of one leg. They had geometric designs painted in white and black upon their torsos, arms, and faces. They formed pairs and shuffled past a small brush shelter, where one of each pair received a writhing snakea rattlesnake or a bull snake or occasionally a snake of a rarer specieswhich the dancer held in his hands and teeth. His companion positioned himself a little behind, stroking the other's back with eagle feathers, as if it were important to soothe, not the writhing snake, but the man who held it. Those who carried rattlesnakes were not struck, as if a mystical truce had been achieved between human being and venomous reptile. When each pair had completed a prescribed round, the dancer with the snake deposited it within a circle of sacred cornmeal upon the ground, and the pair returned to the brush shelter for another snake. When all the snakes writhed in a heap on the ground, runners grasped them by the handsful and dashed away in the four cardinal directions to deposit them at shrines on the valley floor, where, so the Hopi believed, they would crawl into their various dens and crevices and inform the forces of the Underworld of the Hopi need for rain.
I have modeled these details upon H.R. Voth's observations on snake dances held at Oraibi on Third Mesa in 1896, 1898, and 1900, published in 1903 with dozens of astonishing black and white photographs. A Mennonite missionary, Voth had the advantage of living among the Hopi and of speaking the Hopi language probably better than any other white of his time. He also had a rude indifference to Hopi wishes, for he boldly entered kivas during sacred ceremonies to make observations at first hand, relying on the reluctance of the peaceful Hopis to eject him physically from the forbidden places of worship. As a Christian missionary, he was of course dedicated to the extinction of the primitive culture which he so carefully described in this and a half dozen other anthropological works.
I suppose my father's companion, also a missionary, was equally dedicated to the extinction of pagan ceremonies among the Hopis. Though my father may have had a somewhat more tolerant view, it appears the ceremony he had observed left him in a state of anxiety, as the following episode, which he recounted to my sister, suggests.
That night the two Mormons camped along the road toward home. While establishing camp, they uncovered a nest of scorpions, which they killed. They got into the bedroll they shared, and as they settled into sleep, they heard the shrill barks, yips, and howls that characterize the always startling music of coyotes. At some point in the night, my father dreamed that one of the wild canines had clamped his jaws about his throat. He awoke with a frightened shout, threw off the blankets, and kicked Homer onto the sandy soil.
Some days after their return to Snowflake, my father discovered that Homer was soliciting opinions as to whether this newcomer to the Mormon community in northern Arizona might not be susceptible to possession by evil spirits. My father responded in the best possible way. He began to tell the story of his nightmare around town with a good deal of laughter directed at himself, thus deflecting what could have been a serious threat to his status.
A primitive culture, closely encountered, often challenges those from a more developed culture. This is because the primitive culture is likely to have intrinsic beauties that have been cast aside by the more developed culture. So I think my father's nightmare derived not only from scorpions and coyotes but also from his first intimate encounter with an extraordinarily powerful primitive mythology, the Way of the Hopi.
The Way of the Hopi has been treated in an abundant literature, and the brief sketch I give of it here will suggest only a few of its values. Living in the close quarters of their stone-and-adobe pueblos, the Hopis traditionally relied on public opinion and gossip to enforce their rules. They valued tranquility of spirit above all else. In fact, the word Hopi means having a peaceful heart, not only in the sense of being nonviolent toward others but also in the sense of maintaining a cheerful spirit free from anxiety, despair, or anger. There is evidence the Hopis practiced limited warfare in prehistoric times, yet had little taste for it and willingly relinquished it when required to do so by white law.
The Hopi universe was divided into an Upperworld and an Underworld. Each day the sun passed over the Upperworld from east to west; each night it passed over the Underworld from west to east. Subterranean passages connected the two worlds. It was through such a passage that the Hopi people emerged at the beginning of their mythical history. At death, the breath-body, or spirit, of a human being returned to the Underworld. The Underworld was also the home of a multitude of other spirits called kachinas. Characterized by grotesque faces and fanciful costumes, the kachinas could influence events for good or evil in both worlds. For instance, they could cause a spring to dry up or to resume its flow. Some of them kept quarters in the San Francisco Mountains southwest of the Hopi mesas, where they could be induced through the proper ceremonies to change into Cloud People, gather in the sky, and shower rain on parched crops. For the Hopis, even inanimate nature was alive, and all natural phenomenaclouds, rocks, and mountains as well as plants and animalspossessed a spirit.
A remarkable aspect of Hopi ceremonialism was their impersonation of the kachinas. Throughout winter and spring, Hopi men donned kilts, furs, rattles, and grotesque masks and appeared in their village, making declarations and performing rituals. Little children were allowed to believe in the reality of these masked figures, and the initiated, young and old alike, attributed the sacred power of actual kachinas to their impersonators.
In addition to the cult of the kachinas, the Hopis maintained an astonishingly complex ceremonial calendar. Major ceremonies typically lasted for nine days, and there were many lesser observances attached to them or occurring before or after. For example, the snake dance my father viewed followed eight days of rites conducted largely within the kivas of the Snake and Antelope societies, where the celebrants engaged in praying before an altar, ritual smoking of a pipe, making of prayer sticks, and practicing new songs and dance patterns for the ninth day.
Each ceremony was governed by one or more societies associated with such a multiplicity of clans that, on almost every day of the year, one society or another within a traditional Hopi village was preparing for or carrying out a ceremony. The major point of this elaborate ceremonialism was the control of nature. Under primitive conditions, the Hopis led a precarious existence. Though internal dissension and nomadic raiders were a constant danger, crop failure was their greatest threat, deriving from infertile seeds, late frosts, and especially drought. Having done all that their limited technology allowed by way of actual control of nature, they resorted to sacred gestures, motivated by the conviction that a human rite, if it were correctly performed, could affect the annual progress of the sun, the formation of rain clouds, the banishment of disease, the relief of pain, and the fertility of their own bodies as well as of the seeds they planted.
As I say, there are many intrinsic beauties in the Way of the Hopi. I will here emphasize the one that strikes me as the most important for the consideration of an all too arrogant Euro-American culture. The beauty I refer to is the intimacy Hopi culture allowed with nature. Admittedly, human beings have to have culture. They aren't human without it. But it's a mistake to think they need only culture and can dispense with a harmonious, non-destructive relationship with the wilda mistake of Euro-American, not of Hopi, civilization.
I have a sense of Hopi intimacy with nature from first-hand observation. At age thirteen in 1947, I first attended a snake dance at Mishongnovi. When I arrived at the mesa and saw how the Hopis actually lived, I was repelled. There was so little greenery anywhere. Their rock houses, their plazas and paths, were raw, unalleviated extensions of the desert. Their small fields of corn and squash offered no relief. I was astonished at the very existence of these fields, there being no creek at hand, no irrigation ditch full of rich brown water. I had been sheltered from the general barrenness of my native ground by the green valleys of Silver Creek.
At twenty-nine in 1963, I attended another snake dance at Mishongnovi. In retrospect I now recognize a serious diminishment in the ceremony. The dancers consisted of only four elderly snake handlers and a somewhat larger group of younger men dancing in accompaniment. Their costumes seemed ragged and makeshift, and the bodies of even the younger men struck me as small, emaciated, and dusty. Young and old, they milled about and did nothing for considerable periods, as if they were unfamiliar with the ceremony. They didn't have many snakes, and of those only a couple were rattlesnakes. The primitive village on the mesa still appeared much as it might have in Coronado's time. At the foot of the mesa, however, was a modern village, Polacca, with electricity, indoor plumbing, and automobiles.
I couldn't fault the Hopis for their slow drift toward the modern. Yet I was old and experienced enough to envy the primitive way of life whose evidences were yet discernible. I envied it because I could see that it had placed them into the most intimate relationship with wilderness. Their rock houses and small cultivated fields did not sever them from nature. Neither had their mythology alienated them from wilderness, for it was immediately associated with natural objects and creatures.
Traditional Hopi religion endowed natural things with spirit. It attributed life to clouds, rocks, and mountains. It made shrines of springs and cliffs, where worshipers could pray or sprinkle sacred cornmeal. A culture that projects such intense meaning onto natural objects is itself an element of the wild. It doesn't merely co-exist with wilderness. It is wilderness.
My father's interest in anthropology led him, when the term of his teaching mission ended in the spring of 1903, to leave Snowflake and enter the University of California at Berkeley. In 1903 Berkeley was a small, beautiful city uncorrupted by the congestion that makes the Bay Area so unpleasant today. Its neat domiciles sat upon wooded hillsides that, on rare sunny days, offered a spectacular view of a bright blue bay and the gleaming, house-studded hills of San Francisco. As for the university, in both campus and faculty it bore a fresh, edenic character. Under the presidency of Benjamin Ide Wheeler, the institution was in the process of rapid adolescent growth in almost every department. It boasted a cluster of august stone and brick buildings, wooded retreats, and a Greek theater where lyceums and pageants held forth.
My father enrolled in classes during the summer and fall of 1903 and the spring and summer of 1904. His courses included history, English, French, Spanish, German, education, philosophy, botany, mineralogy, geology, and anthropology. His principal instructor and academic adviser was a young assistant professor, Alfred L. Kroeber, fresh from Columbia with a Ph.D. taken under a luminary of American anthropology, Franz Boas.
Kroeber, who has been memorialized in a biography by his widow, came to Berkeley in 1901 at the invitation of President Wheeler for the double purpose of founding a curriculum and a museum of anthropology at the university. Of special interest is the impassioned spirit of preservation that Kroeber had imbibed from his mentor at Columbia. An undergraduate English major, Kroeber took a course by Franz Boas on the linguistics of primitive peoples and was converted to a career in anthropology. Accord ing to Mrs. Kroeber, Boas transmitted his extraordinary esteem for threatened primitive cultures to her future husband, who in turn, I will surmise, transmitted it to that hopeful but ultimately failed anthropologist, Joseph Peterson: "The time was late; the dark forces of invasion had almost done their ignorant work of annihilation. To the field then! With notebook and pencil, record, record, record. Rescue from historylessness all languages still living, all cultures. Each is precious, unique, irreplaceable, a people's ultimate expression and identity, which, being lost, the world is made poorer as surely as it was when a Praxitelean marble was broken and turned to dust" (Kroeber 51).
Kroeber established an ambitious program for collecting the archaeology of vanished cultures in California and contiguous areas in the United States and Mexico. Initially he did this on funds provided by Phoebe Apperson Hearst, widow of mining magnate George Hearst and mother of William Randolph Hearst. A regent of the university, Phoebe Hearst was the founding patron of the new museum of anthropology, where she deposited her own considerable collection of classical antiquities, purchased in Europe. Among the earliest excavators retained by Kroeber was my father, who engaged in extensive digging in northern Arizona following his unplanned return to that arid region.
Early during the fall session of 1904, my father withdrew abruptly from a full schedule of courses, citing ill health in his petition to the university for honorable dismissal. He and Amanda made plans to return, not to Arizona, but to Utah. On the eve of their departure came a telegram from the stake president in Snowflake, asking my father to resume his post as principal and teacher in the academy. So they returned to northern Arizona, abandoning forever all notion of living elsewhere.
The summers of 1906, 1907, and 1908 found my father excavating prehistoric ruins along the creeks and dry washes of central Navajo County and shipping artifacts and skeletons to Kroeber in California. My father surveyed ruins over an area extending as far north as Winslow and as far south as Showlow, concentrating within about a ten-mile radius of Snowflake. The map he drew shows some 40 ruins of varying size and importance, of which he excavated 10. Most of the ruins were near water courses that are now dry and perhaps were intermittent even in the period of occupancy, since primitive agriculture favored sandy wash bottoms which tend to hold subsurface moisture late into the summer. Fallen walls, stoneware, and pottery shards made the ruins easy to find. A plenteous array of petroglyphs decorated nearby sandstone cliffs.
My father's correspondence with Kroeber mentions teams of men he had hired to do the digging. Sometimes he himself engaged in digging. He purchased or begged a certain number of artifacts that had been turned up by tillage in the fields around Snowflake. In August, 1906, he shipped 15 cases and 3 crates of specimens to Berkeley; in July, 1907, 13 boxes and 9 bales; in July and August, 1908, 24 boxes. The more-than-300 specimens that he shipped consisted of stone axes and mallets, arrowheads and spear points, grinding stones and mills, pottery in many sizes and shapes, awls and other bone objects, human skeletal remains, and, oddly, the complete skeleton of a turkey, apparently buried with rites.
These specimens remain in the museum of anthropology at the University of California. When I examined them in 1961, they were contained in twenty or thirty drawers in a large storage area filled to the ceiling with long rows of drawers. As recently as 1992, the museum mounted an exhibit of materials acquired through the generosity of Phoebe Apperson Hearst. Among the displays was a modest glass case containing artifacts collected by Joseph Peterson. As it turns out, the collection he assembled is the largest of any by excavators funded by Mrs. Hearst.
In my own university office, I keep fragments of a flat grinding stone and hand-held grinder taken from my father's private collection. From time to time I pause from grading papers or preparing lectures and contemplate the impropriety of a domesticated environment for these artifacts and, indeed, for the entire lot of materials my father collected for the museum. From dark drawers in atmospherically-controlled rooms, such artifacts stubbornly radiate the wild.
One argument for digging up artifacts is that if you don't, someone else will. Pothunting went on in Navajo County during my father's time, and it still goes on. The tool of choice for pothunters now is a backhoe, not a very subtle instrument. The laws against taking artifacts on public land are difficult to enforce, and pothunters have a good deal of motivation in the fact that a handsome pot will bring thousands of dollars on the black market.
Another argument for digging up the past is that antiquity endows even humble artifacts with beauty. Among the pottery pieces in the recent display of my father's accessions at Berkeley was a large water urn decorated with a rich geometric design in black and white. That urn evokes and makes immediate the human imagination that conceived it, the human hands that coiled and shaped its sides and painted its meticulous design, the human back that carried wood for firing it. Despite its visible irregularities, it has a kind of consummate perfection, for the simple fact of its rescue from the oblivion of time makes it a thing of beauty.
In 1909, supposing his health would be better if he abandoned the schoolroom and went into ranching, my father moved his family onto a homestead at Lakeside, a hamlet situated in a pine forest a mile or two north of the Mogollon Rim. Ironically, the next year finances forced him to return to the classroom, and each weekend for the following four years, until the homestead had been proved up, he commuted the thirty miles between Lakeside and Snowflake on the back of a trotting horse.
Once the homestead was secure, my father ran for county school superintendent and was elected. He bought a used Model T, and for six years, the familynow complete with six childrenspent winters either in Snowflake or Holbrook and returned each summer to the ranch at Lakeside. Then in August, 1919, came the stunning blow of Amanda's death from typhoid. The next winter my father collapsed with the flu and lay prostrate for months in a rented room in Snowflake. The next summer he returned to the ranch, and for a year he and his six children, three of whom were young adults, lived a hand-to-mouth existence on such produce as the stony soil of the ranch offered. There's many a story in our family's lore about that penurious year, when for one two-week period the family ate nothing but parched corn, coarsely ground and variously prepared as gruel, pudding, or pancakes.
Then my father was elected to the office of county supervisor and began to correspond with my mother, who had two daughters by a previous marriage. They married in August of 1924, my mother at thirty-one, my father at fifty. Setting out bravely with an instant family composed of his three younger children and her two, they quickly added five more sons, of whom I am the youngest.
In 1924 my father returned to the classroom in what was now a public high school. His subject was English, rather than the science and math he had formerly taught, and under the stimulus of the grand masters of English and American literature, he underwent a personal renaissance in the humanities, discovering that he himself had some flair for poetry. Conceding to my mother's wish to live in Snowflake, he deeded the ranch at Lakeside to Amanda's children, and he and my mother bought a fifty-acre farm near Snowflake. He lived to farm it for only a few years after his retirement from teaching, for he died of cancer in June, 1943. At his funeral, a male quartet sang "The Teacher's Work Is Done," a Mormon hymn first sung at the funeral of Karl G. Maeser, the former president of Brigham Young Academy who had recommended my father's call to Arizona:
Come, lay his books and papers by,
He shall not need them more,
The ink shall dry upon his pen,
So softly close the door.
He had taught a total of thirty years, and, that's how people would remember him, as a teacher, a formal medium for the rapid transfer of the rudiments of Euro-American culture to ever new generations of the young and uninformed.
From the time he finished his excavations for the university museum until the moment he himself became a fit subject for archaeological study, my father maintained a hobbyist's interest in the anthropology of the Indians of northern Arizona. He also made the Indians the subject matter of his belated literary productions. One of his best poems, "A Navajo Tale," recounts the fate of a Navajo brother and sister, who, while herding sheep, commit incest. Upon the girl's becoming pregnant, the young couple attempt suicide by leaping from a cliff in one another's arms. The boy survives, is tried for murder according to white law, and remains, as the poem ends, in the Arizona penitentiary:
Lament with me if you have deigned to read
The story through. Remain awhile to mourn
For this unhappy pair, who reaped the meed
Of crime, and on the tide of sin were borne
To dreadful end, and learn the thing, perchance,
Was less of wilful deed than melancholy circumstance.
It's a genteel, Longfellowish poem, but possessed of a rhythm and succession of words that persuade me, had he lived in a different milieu, he might have become the accomplished poet he wished to be.
He also wrote and directed pageants which were performed by graduating classes of the high school in a natural amphitheater about ten miles northwest of Snowflake. Lit by a portable generator and affixed with rows of stone seats along its sloping sides, this natural phenomenon, called Pioneer Sink, had perfect acoustics by virtue of its inverted parabolic shape. The plots of the pageants often called for horses, easily accommodated in a bottom longer and wider than a football field.
The pageant my father wrote and directed for the Class of '39 was "Geronimo." Its plot collapses the Spanish conquest, the era of the mountain man, and the subjugation of the Apache Indians by the U.S. cavalry into the single lifetime of the famous Apache war chief Geronimo and his fictitious lover Yucca Blossom, whom he never marries because she has converted to Christianity. "They take our ponies, feed on our pastures, pen us on reservations," says Geronimo of the whites, "and if we dare to be men they imprison or murder us." General Crooke, an officer who pursues him, though not without sympathy, replies: "You must yield to civilization."
In this local manner my father voiced the dilemma regarding primitive Indian culture experienced by even the best intentioned of whites, who in the same breath could both admire and condemn primitive culture. Whites have been feeling guilty over the extinction of the Indians for a long time. James Fenimore Cooper first alluded to that tragedy in The Pioneers of 1823, then made it the center of The Last of the Mohicans in 1826. Moreover, the physical extinction of many Indian tribes is only a part of the tragedy. After all, some tribes are far more populous today than in prehistoric times; the Navajos, for example, number more than 220,000. What has died entirely, even among surviving tribes, is primitive culture.
During the summer of 1991, my wife and I stopped for a hamburger at MacDonald's in Page, Arizona, on the border of the Navajo reservation. In the booth next to us were a young Indian couple with two children, probably Navajo. They spoke standard English. They dealt with their children exactly as my nephews and nieces deal with theirs. They were dressed and groomed in neat permanent-press, middle-class American style. When they had eaten, they went out to the parking lot and got into a new Ford station wagon. Unquestionably, their culture was Euro-American.
As for the Hopis, if you want to look in closely on the transition between the primitive and the modern in their culture, I recommend reading the diary of Mischa Titiev, an anthropologist who lived at Oraibi for six months during the fall and winter of 1933 and 1934. Interspersed among Titiev's daily entries from 1933 and 1934 are bracketed comments written retrospectively in the early 1970s as he prepared this work for a belated publication.
Oraibi is the prototype of the various Hopi pueblos. When first visited by Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century, it was the largest and the most remote. In 1906 it suffered a schism between inhabitants favoring cooperation with whites, called Progressives, and inhabitants opposing cooperation, called Conservatives. The Conservatives, a full half of a population of more than 800, moved away some miles to establish the new pueblo of Hotevilla. By 1932, when Titiev first visited Oraibi, its population counted a mere 132. That small population of Progressives nonetheless maintained a meticulous calendar of traditional ceremonies. Thirty years later, a slightly larger population had suffered an almost total lapse of ceremonies.
The simple truth is that the Hopis are no longer a primitive people but are a part of a modern American ethnic group. Today the Hopis watch the weather report on the ten o'clock news and know as well as other Americans that high and low pressure systems and the moisture content and temperature variations of the air create the weather. They can no longer believe that ceremonial gestures on the part of pious Hopis, directed toward the kachinas dwelling in the San Francisco Mountains, will cause the rain to fall on Hopiland tomorrow afternoon. Some of the Hopis will continue to eat piki bread, make pottery, and wear long hair, moccasins, velvet shirts, and turquoise jewelry. They will maintain vestiges of their ancestral culture just as Greeks, Mexicans, and Norwegians in the United States maintain vestiges of their homeland cultures. Even those who insist upon a militant observance of tradition will make unknowing compromises with the modern, as is exemplified in the case of an elderly woman whom Titiev noted in 1932. Invited to eat lunch in the house where Titiev was staying, this woman refused canned sausages and condensed milk because they were non-traditional Hopi foods, but happily accepted a slice of store-bought bread and a cup of coffee (Titiev 352).
As I have said, the loss of primitive Hopi culture is tragic. The loss of any functional culture is tragic. A culture may be considered as a collective work of art. The beauty of primitive Hopi culture is the beauty of the water urn of which I have spoken, with its long neck and tiny looped handle and precisely etched geometric lines of black upon white, multiplied by every artifact, custom, and ceremony making up the entirety of Hopi culture. The loss of this collective beauty, compounded by the beauty of all the other lost tribal cultures, is a major subplot in the tragedy of the perished American wilderness.
I note my father's local role in the demise of primitive culture merely by way of clarifying how it happened. In keeping with his time, he defined civilization as culture brought to perfection, and he regarded the ideal aspects of his own Euro-American culture as authentically civilized. He took satisfaction in knowing the bones and artifacts he was uncovering in 1906, 1907, and 1908 would join the Greek and Roman antiquities with which Phoebe Apperson Hearst was aggrandizing the reputation of a new Oxford in the West. He did not consider it equally imperative to preserve primitive culture among living Indians.
His widely shared bias is often associated with Lewis Henry Morgan, probably the most noted and influential American anthropologist of the nineteenth century, who pursued the science of anthropology as an avocation while making a handsome living as a lawyer and investor. A student of the Iroquois of upper New York, where he was raised, Morgan founded a society whose members dressed in authentic Iroquois costumes and conducted night meetings at campfires. Before he was thirty, he had been made an honorary member of the Seneca nation for defending their land rights against white claims. Yet his most influential book, Ancient Society: or, Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization, 1877, assumes the inferiority of primitive culture. As the title of this book implies, culture is understood to evolve, under the impress of environment and invention, through stages of increasing complexity and rationality until it reaches an ideal condition called civilization.
It is no longer fashionable to believe in the superiority of Euro-American culture. We are now sometimes warned to speak of culture, not as civilized or primitive, but as developed or undeveloped. Truly, there is much of a disagreeable and uncivilized character about Euro-American culture. It has developed into innumerable subcultures insecurely cemented by a common esteem for wealth, technology, electronic entertainment, and other leisure activities. It has made a science of warfare and mass destruction. It is plagued by crime and inequality between rich and poor. It has exhausted natural resources and polluted the globe. It has, within this century, to say nothing of earlier centuries, annihilated local primitive cultures by the thousands.
My father's modest contribution to all this was chiefly made in the classroom, where he probably would have had the same impact even if he had considered it impolite to believe in the superiority of Euro-American culture. Despite the bad odor which the word civilization has acquired with some, culture remains an evolutionary process. It grows from rudimentary toward more complex or developed forms by virtue of the fact that, on the whole, human beings find power, convenience, and luxury to be irresistible. Accordingly, if people of a less developed culture are consistently exposed to a more developed one, they are fated to assist in the demise of their primitive culture. The only way to safeguard a primitive culture is to leave it in isolation.
I doubt my father considered how he violated the isolation of the Indians of northern Arizona in the seemingly removed confines of a classroom in Snowflake. He introduced his young white charges to the masterpieces of the Occident. He taught them the rudiments of science, mathematics, logic, and grammar. He made them more conversant with capital and finance, more tolerant of the specialization of labor, more dependent on machines and manufactured goods. As one school term succeeded another, his students left the classroom and went abroad in their own county, and the Indians of the county found themselves confronted with increasing frequency by the seductive traits of a multifarious and alien culture.
If anthropologists have done as much as any other social type to hasten the demise of primitive culture, they must at least be thanked for preserving knowledge about it. They are scientists and, within the limits of their own personal and cultural biases, have practiced an objectivity that allows some confidence in the authenticity of their descriptions.
There have been cases of modern Indians referring to those descriptions for the revival of ceremonies that have fallen into disuse. When the chief of Oraibi died in 1947, his successor was forced to rely upon the description of the Powamu winter ceremony made by H.R. Voth, the detested Mennonite missionary. A grandson translated Voth's text for the new chief, who couldn't read English. When the grandson died in 1952, the chief abandoned the attempt to revive the ceremony (Titiev 342).
As for myself, I find the most important lesson to be learned from the study of primitive culture is harmony between culture and wilderness. The history of Euro-American culture shows a steady movement away from the wild. In its large scope, in fact, Euro-American culture has defined itself as the opposite of the wild. It assumes you can't have both culture and wilderness. The long-term result of this assumption will be, first, the annihilation of the wild from the face of the earth and, later, the demise of developed culture because of the exhaustion of natural resources. I'm not against developed culture. I accept and admire the wide range of accomplishment in art, science, sports, and so on that a developed culture makes possible. That's all the more reason why I want Euro-American culture to correct its mad, excessive course toward self-destruction.
A culture that is truly civilized will live harmoniously with the wild. By that standard, the primitive Hopi culture my father knew and loved and unwittingly helped destroy was a true civilization. The best I can do to honor my long-dead fatherhimself a native American by virtue of the fact that he, as much as any Indian, was born on American soilis exert my effort, such as it is, toward seeing that the vast and energetic culture he helped to propagate shall also become fully civilized.
Kroeber, Theodora. Alfred Kroeber: A Personal Configuration. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.
Morgan, Lewis Henry. Ancient Society: or, Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization. 1877. Ed. Eleanor Burke Leacock. Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1963.
Titiev, Mischa. The Hopi Indians of Old Oraibi: Change and Continuity. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972.
Voth, H.R. The Oraibi Summer Snake Ceremony. Anthropological Series 3.4. Chicago: