Way Back  in the Distant Past


Albert Yava

A descendant of the Tewa Pueblo people who emigrated to Hopi country several centuries ago, Albert Yava was educated in two native American cultures: the Hopi and the Tewa. The following segment from his autobiography Big Falling Snow (New York: Crown Publishers, 1979) tells how Hopi people came into this world.

I am going to recall some of the things I know, the way I saw them or heard them, or the way they were taught to me. Maybe our young people will get an inkling of what life was like on this mesa when I was a boy, or how it was in the time of our fathers and grandfathers. If I seem to say a lot about myself, it is really my times that I am thinking about. I am merely the person who happened to be there at a particular time. It is hard to put down something with myself as a center of interest - that is, to say I did this or that. It makes me out as important, which isn't the way I see it. We Tewas and Hopis don't think of ourselves that way. In our histories and traditions we don't have individual heroes with names to remember. It is the village, the group, the clan that did this or that, not a man or woman. If an individual happens to stand out, we probably don't remember his real name, and if a name is required we probably have to make it up. Anyway, I am going to tell about some of the things that I know or remember, and you will understand that I am really talking about my people, the Tewas and the Hopis, and their experiences and recollections.

Way back in the distant past, the ancestors of humans were living down below in a world under the earth. They weren't humans yet, merely creatures of some kind. They lived in darkness, behaving like bugs. Now, there was a Great Spirit watching over everything, and some people say he was Tawa, the sun. He saw how things were down under the earth. He didn't care for the way the creatures were living. He sent his messenger, you might say his representative, Gogyeng Sowuhti - that is, Spider Old Woman - to talk to them. She said, "You creatures, the Sun Spirit who is above doesn't want you living like this. He is going to transform you into something better, and I will lead you to another world."

So Tawa made them into a better form of creatures, and Gogyeng Sowuhti led them to another world above the place where they were living. This was the Second World, still below the ground. The creatures lived here for some time, but they were still animals in form, not humans. There were some with tails, some without. The ones that were eventually to become human did not have tails.

But life in the Second World wasn't good. The creatures didn't behave well. They didn't get along. They ate one another. There was chaos and dissension. So the Great Spirit sent Gogyeng Sowuhti down again after he transformed those beings without tails into a humanlike form. But they weren't yet true humans, because they were undisciplined wild and uncivilized. Gogyeng Sowuhti led them to another world up above, the Third World. Things were better at first, but after a while there was more chaos and dissension. Evil individuals caused all kinds of difficulties. There were sorcerers who made people fall sick or quarrel with one another. The evil ones made life hard for everyone.

When at last things became too difficult to bear, the ones who wanted to live orderly and good lives said, "This must come to an end. When the Great Spirit brought us up here he wanted us to be better than we were before. How can we get away and leave the evil ones behind?"

Gogyeng Sowuhti told them, "Above us is a Fourth World. Up there life will be better for you. But to get there we have to go through the sky of the Third World. And there are other problems. The Fourth World is owned by Masauwu, the Spirit of Death. You will have to have his permission to go there."

The way this story is told by our old ones, there were four layers of worlds. You might say that this idea describes a way of existing, the transformations that had to be gone through for the people to become truly human. In the Fourth World they were supposed to acquire good values and become civilized.

The people who wanted to escape from the Third World decided to send a scout up to see what it was like up there and make contact with Masauwu. They chose a swift bird, the swallow. The swallow was swift, all right, but he tired before he reached the sky and had to come back. After that they sent a dove, then a hawk. The hawk found a small opening and went through, but he came back without seeing Masauwu. Finally they sent a catbird. He was the one that found Masauwu.

Masauwu asked him, "Why are you here?"

The catbird said, "The world down below is infested with evil. The people want to come up here to live. They want to build their houses here, and plant their corn."

Masauwu said, "Well, you see how it is in this world. There isn't any light, just greyness. I have to use fire to warm my crops and make them grow. However, I have relatives down in the Third World. I gave them the secret of fire. Let them lead the people up here, and I will give them land and a place to settle. Let them come.

After the catbird returned to the Third World and reported that Masauwu would receive them, the people asked, "Now, how will we ever get up there?" So Spider Old Woman called on the chipmunk to plant a sunflower seed. It began to grow. It went up and almost reached the sky, but the weight of the blossom made the stem bend over. Spider Old Woman then asked the chipmunk to plant a spruce tree, but when the spruce finished growing it wasn't tall enough. The chipmunk planted a pine, but the pine also was too short. The fourth thing the chipmunk planted was a bamboo. It grew up and up. It pierced the sky. Spider Old Woman said, "My children, now we have a road to the upper world. When we reach there your lives will be different. Up there you will be able to distinguish evil from good. Anything that is bad must be left behind down here. All evil medicine must be thrown away before you go up. Sorcerers cannot come with us, or they will contaminate the Fourth World. So be careful. If you see an evil person going up, turn him back."

The people began climbing up inside the bamboo stalk. How they got through the bamboo joints I don't know, because the story doesn't explain about that. The mockingbird guarded them on the way up. He was like a scout. He went ahead, calling, "Pashumayani! Pashumayani! Pash! Pash! Pash! - Be careful! Be careful!" The people came up in groups, until everyone reached the top. The opening in the place where they came out was called the sipapuni. The people camped near where they emerged. The light was grey and they didn't know where they would be going.

Spider Old Woman - that is, Gogyeng Sowuhti - said, "Well, we are all here. Did you leave the evil ones down below?"

They said, "Yes, we didn't see any evil ones coming up."

Spider Old Woman said, "Good. Now plug the bamboo up with this cotton."

All this time, the mockingbird was telling the people how to arrange themselves, some over here, some over there, group by group, and he gave each group the name of a tribe. So there were Utes, Hopis, Navajos and so on, and one of the groups was called Bahanas, or white people.

After the bamboo was plugged with cotton, it turned out that an evil one had come up without being detected. When they discovered him he laughed.

They said, "We don't want you here. It was because of people like you that we left the Third World."

He said, "You couldn't get along without an evil one. I have a part to play in this world."

So according to this version of the story, the evil one taught them how to make the sun, moon and stars and to loft them into the sky to make the world light.

There are other explanations of who put the sun, moon and stars in the sky. Some say that Spider Old Woman told the people how to do it. There is also a story that Coyote scattered the stars in the sky. Over in Oraibi some of the traditions say that the spirit Huruing Wuhti, Hard Substances Old Woman, put the sun up there. But the way it was told to me, it was the evil one who came through the sipapuni with the people who showed them how to get the sky work done. Sometimes you hear that the evil one was a powaka, a witch or sorcerer. Because he came into the upper world instead of staying below, sorcery and evil have plagued the people ever since. In my version of the story, sorcery and knowledge were sort of linked together. A sorcerer was supposed to know how to do things that ordinary people couldn't do. I suppose that in the old days they would have said that he was a man with powerful medicine. That's how the evil one knew what to do about making the sun and moon.

When the Hopis left the sipapuni to begin their migrations, they told the sorcerer that he couldn't come with them, because the whole purpose of the emergence was to get away from evil. So he went with the Bahanas, or white people, instead, and the Hopi leaders said that everyone must be wary of Bahanas if they met them anywhere, because their possession of the sorcerer would give them more knowledge than the Hopis could cope with. But time and again in later days other sorcerers found the Hopis and caused dissension and corruption in the villages.

You can see that the theme of dissension and evil, and of the search for a place of harmony, starts with the emergence story. I've told only a little of that story, because it's very long. Different villages and clans have their own special details, and different explanations. A clan in Shongopovi or Oraibi has different explanations than the same clan in Walpi has. The reason is that clan groups kept branching off during the migrations. The Bear Clan was going in a certain direction, then part of the clan left the group and went another way. They all expected to meet again somewhere, maybe at the place foretold in their prophecy. When the Water Clan was coming north from Palatkwa, it was the same thing with them. So you had different branches of clans scattered all across the country, and then they started coming together again at the Hopi mesas. By that time the fragments of the clan had accumulated different experiences. Up to the point when they'd separated, they all had the same traditions, but after that each branch acquired experiences of its own. When they came together again they couldn't tell the same story any more.

Nevertheless, the tradition that the people emerged from the underworld with the guidance of Gogyeng Sowuhti is accepted by most Hopis. The emergence through the sipapuni is commemorated in a great many ceremonies. Sometimes it is discussed and debated in the kiva. Like one night we were talking about it and someone said, "Now how in the world could all those people come through a bamboo? How could they get in? How could it hold their weight? How could they get through the joints?"

Those clowns that come out when a big dance is going on, they are there to entertain the people, of course, but they have a special meaning in some of the things they do. For older people like myself, they're a part of the serious ritual, though most spectators aren't aware of it. There used to be a Clown Fraternity in the old days. If you were initiated into that group you were a clown as long as you lived. That Clown Fraternity doesn't exist here any more. Nowadays when they need clowns they invite certain members of the community to be performers. I can't say for sure about the Hopi clowns, but our Tewa clowns have to go through preparations just as the dancers do. They abstain from various things to purify themselves and make themselves ready. They stay away from their women, don't have any intercourse with them. Sometimes they sleep in the kiva. They deny themselves salt or meat. It is a tribute to you if you are asked to be a clown. If you accept the invitation, your aunts on your father's side will furnish you with food.

I was telling you about the emergence from the underworld. Now, that tradition is involved in the clown rituals. Before they go to perform, the clowns have their own ceremony in the kiva. just as in other ceremonies, the central themes of their ritual is rain. They sit in a circle, go through prescribed routines and sing. When they are finished with the song they all holler, "Yah hay!" Then they reenact the coming from the underworld. The leader climbs the ladder to the top. He sticks his head out, says, "Yah hay!" and ducks his head down again. He does that four times. Says , Ne talat aou yama, I came out into the light!" After that, the next fellow does the same thing. It's a reenactment of the emergence into the upper world.

When they are all outside the kiva, they go to different places in the village. First they go to the home of the eldest woman of the Corn Clan or of the Tobacco Clan. This woman offers them piki, and they take small pieces four times. They thank her. They have in mind that corn is life, that it is the substance of our bodies. They have in mind that all things come from the Great Spirit. The piki that they receive from the woman is symbolic. It gives them the strength to perform. These things take place the day before the dance. They go to where the dancers and kiva leaders are having their rehearsal, and they rehearse with them, planning what they are going to do to entertain the spectators. They stay there all night, and early in the morning they return to their own kiva for a while before they make their appearance at the ceremony.

photo by Owen Seumptewa
photo by Owen Seumptewa


Many of the things they do in their performance are mischievous or, you might say, naughty. This behavior is really telling people how not to behave. Sometimes the things they do refer to certain individuals in the community. If someone has been acting in an improper manner, the clowns' actions or dialogue allude to this. They can be criticizing even an important person. While it may seem funny to many of the spectators, some of them understand that it is serious criticism. Those clowns are freed from the usual restraints, and it gives them an opportunity to say things that ordinarily wouldn't be said. But a lot of things they do are just nonsense, as if they didn't understand any proprieties. You see, they sort of represent people as they were when they came from the underworld. They are funny looking and they don't understand good manners. They are, you could say, uncivilized, as people were when they first emerged. By their actions they remind everyone how important it is to be decent and respectful and harmonious in their way of living.

From: Albert Yava. "In the Beginning" from Big Failing Snow: a Tewa-Hopi Indian's Life and Times and the History and Traditions of His People (Crown Publishers, 1978), edited by Harold Courlander. Copyright ©1978 by Harold Courlander. Reprinted by permission of Harold Courlander.

As printed in Larry Evers, ed. The South Corner of Time. Tucson, Ariz.: The University of Arizona Press, © 1980, p. 8.