Words And Places native literature from the american southwest
 

Iisaw: Hopi Coyote Stories

With Helen Sekaquaptewa

Helen Sekaquaptewa
Helen Sekaquaptewa

Introduction

Setting

 

Helen Sekaquaptewa told these stories to her children and grandchildren at her home in New Oraibi, Arizona, December 20, 1976. The occasion was a gathering of members of the Eagle clan. The time, during the month of Kyaamuya (December-January), is the favored season for telling stories among Hopi people.

The opening sequence of shots on this videotape is intended to help establish the season and place in which these stories are told. The village pictured is New Oraibi, and the views of Hopi fields and orchards were recorded near New Oraibi, largely on land farmed by Helen Sekaquaptewa and her family. Helen Sekaquaptewa is pictured planting near her daughter's house. The small branches she places beside her plants are traditional windbreaks. She sings a Hopi lullaby under the opening sequence.

New Oraibi is one of four villages on Third Mesa on the Hopi Reservation in north central Arizona. The other three are Bacabi, Hotevilla, and Old Oraibi. Old Oraibi is considered to be the oldest continuously occupied village in North America. Helen Sekaquaptewa was born at Old Oraibi in 1898. Both stories Helen Sekaquaptewa tells are set at Oraibi. Note that in the first she asks her audience whether they know the rock called "Oraibi" for which the village is named.

Me and Mine: The Life Story of Helen Sekaquaptewa (Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press, 1977) is a very warm and full account of Mrs. Sekaquaptewa's life. This is how she came to be called "Helen":

Naming

 

"So, one morning, I was 'caught.' Even then, it was the rule among mothers not to let the child go voluntarily. As the policeman reached to take me by the arm, my mother put her arm around me. Tradition required that it appear that I was forced into school. I was escorted down off the mesa to the schoolhouse, along with several other children. First each was given a bath by one of the Indian women who worked at the school. Baths were given in the kitchen in a round, galvanized tub. Then we were clothed in cotton underwear, cotton dresses, and long black stockings and heavy shoes, furnished by the government. Each week we had a bath and a complete change of clothing. We were permitted to wear the clothes home each day, but my mother took off the clothes of the detested white man as soon as I got home, until it was time to go to school the next day. Names were given to each child by the school. Mine was 'Helen.' Each child had a name card pinned on, for as many days as it took for the teacher to learn and remember the name she had given us."

Me and Mine, page 12.

Later in the book she speaks of her memories of the month of kyaamuya and storytelling:

Storytelling

 

"The month of December is sacred and special. However, the time is not counted by the calendar but from new moon to new moon. They watch for the little line in the sky that marks the beginning. During this moon there must be an atmosphere of quiet and reverence and prayer-fulness throughout the village; none must forget to keep this sacred moon. There has been a time of preparation. There must be no chopping of wood because it makes noise; wood enough to last a month has been chopped and piled near the house. No digging to disturb the earth. No parching or grinding of corn, and no one speaks loudly or shouts, and even the children should be quiet in their play. If you must go outside the house after dark, you should take a little ashes from the fireplace and mark your face with it to ward off the spirit of death who is hovering about and might take you, especially if you have not observed to do all these things.

This time is set apart for teaching the young. The uncles (mother's brothers) go to the homes of their sisters in the evening to teach her children. An uncle is treated with respect, and the family gathers around to listen as he tells about the advent of the Hopi, recites traditions and prophecies, and gives instructions. We call it "Pbutsquani" which is like the Ten Commandments. Besides the universal laws as given in the Ten Commandments, he says:

'Don't add to the already heavy burden of the sun by causing him to have to awaken you; get up before he does.

Don't be lazy; don't lie in bed after sunup.

When you get up, first thing, run out into the cold air to the water and dash in with your naked body.

Don't eat or drink hot stuff.

Keeping your body cold will make it strong so you can resist disease.
Be industrious.

Be courageous.

Keep your mind clean.'

The rule for the girls and women is to get up early and go outside and breathe the fresh air for a little while, and then get morning exercise from grinding corn to be ready to feed the men when they come in.

I can distinctly picture our family in Old Oraibi when I was a little girl, all sitting around the fireplace, with the light from the fire on our faces as we listened to our uncles' voices. I would get so sleepy I thought I could not stand it, as they talked on and on, but if my head nodded, someone would punch me and tell me to listen. I remember the teachings though. Repetition served then as now in remembering.

One special night in December, the night for the story teller, I looked forward to. A good storyteller would be invited to come and tell the stories that go with the traditions. There would be special refreshments, and we liked it."

Me and Mine, pp. 228-30.

Return to the contents page for
Iisaw: Hopi Coyote Stories

By This Song I Walk: Navajo Songs | Seyewailo: The Flower World Yaqui Deer Songs | The Origin of the Crown Dance: An Apache Narrative and Ba'ts'oosee: An Apache Trickster Cycle | Iisaw: Hopi Coyote Stories & Hopi Songs | Natwaniwa: A Hopi Philosophical Statement | Running on the Edge of the Rainbow: Laguna Stories and Poems | Songs of My Hunter Heart: Laguna Songs and Poems | A Conversation with Vine Deloria, Jr. | Home