Spiritual Beliefs and Ceremonies of the Hopi Tribe

The Hopi people are native Americans who have lived in the high mesas for several thousand years. Today there are several hundred villages, all autonomous, each with their own form of self- government based on religious observance.

The clans are matriarchal and matrilineal, but religious observance is led by the men.

Men own the livestock and fruit trees, but women own the land.

The Hopi culture is based on their religious concept of harmony with nature and cycles of rebirth.  From birth to death, every event is marked by ritual and throughout the year ceremonial lessons are given.  The most important rituals concern rain and corn, the two essential elements of Hopi life.

For ceremonial occasions, men wear elaborate masks, headdresses and body paint.  Unmarried girls wear their hair in elaborate braids over their ears.  Married women wear their hair long and loose.   Men wear their back hair in a pony tail with the side hair hanging straight down and a fringe over the brow.

The Hopi world-view accepts that time and distance are linked concepts and that that symbolism equates to reality. They believe a form of reciprocity between men and spirits, so that if men observe the rituals that give spirits form, the spirits are obligated to hear their petitions, send rain and protect the harvest.

The spirits are the kachina, who take three forms, ancestral spirits, supernatural beings who reward good actions, human representatives, masked performers who keep the kachinas present for six months of each year by personifying them, and tihus dolls, used as teaching aids for children.  The carving of masks and dolls is an important task of the men.

The kachina are further divided into chiefs, of whom there is one for each clan, guards, who keep order and protect the tribe, and clowns, who point out wrong actions by ridicule.  The kachinas are not worshipped as gods, but treated as allies and friends. They are thought to number about 350, but much of the Hopi religion is secret and not revealed to strangers.

There are three major ceremonies for the kachina, held in an underground chamber or kiva in each village, symbolising lower worlds from which men emerged led by Spider woman.  So far men have inhabited and destroyed three worlds and are believed to be about to move the fifth.  There are also three creation dances and other dances to celebrate the buffalo who once sustained them and the Navajo Indians, closely associated with the Hopi.

There is long, ritual preparation for each ceremony, involving  sacred cornmeal, feathered prayer-sticks and tobacco smoke, representing both spirits and rain.  Prayers are stamped on cottonwood floor-covering in the kivas, before the ceremonies begin.  Then dancers and drummers are led by a  central “Grandfather” figure in an anticlockwise  direction,

In December, at winter solstice, masked men representing the kachinas act out awakening and emerging from a long sleep in the Soyal ceremony.  Dancers perform rites to secure the next harvest.  The dances last 16 days.

In February, the Bean dance is held.  Beans are sprouted in the kivas and distributed to the village.  In an area starved of water, sprouted beans are a nutritious and efficient food source, which do not need to be cooked and have twice the nutrients of the dry seed.  This ceremony is to encourage the growth of newly sown maize crops.

When the maize ripens, at summer solstice, the third ceremony, the Niman or Home dance, is held.  It is a harvest celebration to thank the kachinas for their help.  The kachinas then go back to their mounds in the mountains to sleep.

In November, another 16-day dance is held, the Wuwuchim, a Creation dance,  honouring the sun with a fire dance and initiation for young men.

 In August the Snake dance is performed with venomous snakes. Every other year, this is substituted by a Flute dance.   For the snake dance, rattlesnakes are collected during two weeks of preparation.  The priests hold them in their mouths with no ill-effects, but this dance only lasts half an hour.  The Flute dance is held at the village spring, and dancers walk over corn-meal which represents rain clouds.

In September, the women hold their healing Marawu dance, and their Lakon, or Basket dance, to celebrate the last of the harvests.

In October, another woman’s Basket dance, Owaqlt, is a celebration of woman’s fertility and centres around prayers for conception, healthy pregnancy and safe birth.

November is time to begin again with the Creation dances of which there are three throughout the year.

Other events are also ritualised, including birth, marriage, death and healing.

The healing pipe ceremony is more a form of meditation and affirmation and can be performed at any time, with or without a priest.

A mother thanks the sun for her newborn child, putting corn meal in its mouth and saying “This is what you are.”  Historically, corn formed 90 percent of the Hopi diet.

For marriage, a bride wears a white robe, made by her uncles, and carries a second robe in which she will eventually be buried. Both robes are tasselled to symbolise rain.

At death, the corpse is buried upright, with a cane in the ground to lead the spirit out after three days. A brief ceremony is held to lead the spirit away from the village and close the path to return. 

There are many different ceremonies and sacred stories, passed down orally by the grandparents, having interesting parallels with the religions and creation stories of other cultures, and many historical possibilities, but the real fact of life for the Hopi is their sacred duty to Maasawu, the Earth god, to maintain the balanced harmony of nature.  Their entire lives revolve about their spiritual and ceremonial observance of the responsibility this entails.