Iisaw: Hopi Coyote Stories and Hopi Songs

With Helen Sekaquaptewa

Video Credits

Watch Iisaw with English captions

Larry Evers, Producer
Dennis Carr, Director 
Michael Orr, Post Production Supervisor 
Allison Lewis, Translator 
Emory Sekaquaptewa, Principal Consultant 
Richard Pauli, Field Engineer
Andy Peterman, Engineer-In-Charge 
In Cooperation with the University of Arizona Radio-TV-Film Bureau 
© Arizona Board of Regents 1978 
This program was made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities





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":



"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:



"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.


Do you not have a story, 
our grandmother?

Yes, well, a short one I will tell. Tell us a story.

All right.


("Oo," you must say. 

Aliksa'i! (You are not answering.
It is known that the storyteller is touchy;
If you do not respond she may pout and not tell a

We are told at Oraibi was life.
Well, as a matter of fact, people lived there then.

Over there,
well, birds,
also, it's said, were many around there; well, they would in their way
usually flock together and fly about like this ....
Well, it's said, they would, when the season moved toward winter,
prepare to store some food
and, that's why, it's said, when all the different kinds of grasses
would mature. 
Then they would go about
below the village, and also even higher along there, where the mesa has
a ledge, right along there, where things grew in abundance; and
when the grass seeds
matured, then they would go about
like ....
picking them; that is, small plaques
they had, and into them they would harvest like this ....
when they gathered the bea. . . I mean, the seeds
in large amounts. Then they would
gather together somewhere, then, as you are here (in a circle),
would set themselves down.
Then, with their plaques filled, they would rub the seeds and the
coverings would be crushed.
Then they would all move the plaques
like this .... and, while singing, winnow.
It is a fact that working at something is toilsome, so
to break the routine
they would all settle roundabout and sing.
That song you most likely know:
         pota, pota, pota
         pota, pota, pota
         yowa'ini, yowa'ini
         ph, ph, ph, ph
As they did this . . . . , then the seed-coverings would fly away.
The winnowing done,
then they would place the seeds in something. 
When again they would gather more around there, 
they would crush them; then they would repeat the process. All day they did that and each time they would sing:
         pota, pota, pota
         pota, pota, pota
         yowa'ini, yowa'ini
         ph, ph, ph, ph
It's said, that was what they were doing when Iisaw
from the southside somewhere climbed up. 
And, it's said, that was Oraibi, 
big rock. (Are you not familiar with it? Oraibi? 
That, in fact, is Oraibi, that big rock, standing as it is.)

... ah, village . . .
Toward the southside
of the village,
from there, it's said, while hidden, he secretly peered at them
while they were winnowing.
Well, as we know,
such creatures always go around hungry, and probably he went to the
trashpile to look for something,
anything, maybe bones which
people are apt to throw away. And that is what he was looking for and
why he climbed up. And when he happened upon them,
doing what they were doing, he contemplated them: "mmm, I wish I could

kill some of these and enjoy a good snack."
This was what he was thinking as he watched them;
well, at first he
decided not
to reveal himself.
But then, unable to restrain himself, he approached them.
When they saw him, at first they
wanted to fly away. "I wouldn't do anything to hurt you," he said to them.
"You are so delightful to watch; that's why I have come to you.
Maybe I can join in with you?"
When he said this to them,
they looked at each other, this way ....
as though seeking approval from one another.
It's said they all appeared to give consent, and so he sat down with them, too.
So too they provided him with a plaque and there he was doing what they
were doing.
Once, again, they filled the plaques, and once more as they sang, well,
as we all might imagine, Iisaw could not yet know the song, and
so he could not quite imitate them.
As they sang again:
         pota, pota, pota
         pota, pota, pota
         yowa'ini, yowa'ini
         ph, ph, ph, ph 
they would do this ....
then they placed the plaques here and there, and they would fly high up above somewhere.
For awhile, they would go about like this, then again they would come down, and when they did this, Iisaw, not being a feathered creature, was, 
poor thing unable to fly, and would watch them longingly. Now that they were so far away there was no way to catch them. However, 
when they came down they did the very same thing, so then …
"Maybe, I... perhaps, couldn't you, when you give me some of your feathers, your down . . .
then maybe, I will be able to fly with you," he said to them. They quickly consented.
Then, since they gave him permission, they, the birds, began plucking feathers from themselves and placing them on Iisaw. 
Wherever on their body they plucked a feather, on that spot on Iisaw they stuck it.
It's said, this was how they placed them on him, 
on Iisaw.
After they had carefully placed enough to cover him, they started up again. Again, they filled the plaques; then, again, they repeated it:
         pota, pota, pota
         pota, pota, pota
         yowa'ini, yowa'ini
         ph, ph, ph, ph
He took great delight along with them, 
for he learned the song quickly.
And so, they set their plaques down round-about, then . . . "TSIII-RO-RO-RO," they would say and up they . . .

And it happened that Iisaw flew aloft with them.
And he didn't just fly up once with them. Then, when they went up
the last time,
no, I mean,
for about the fourth time. . .
when, on coming to the fourth, then
those birds among themselves secretly
"Now! Now!
It's time!" they said.
Once more, for the last time, they took flight, and again they went
away up higher: "TSIII-RO-RO-RO"
As they said this and glided about, Iisaw, it's said, glided about with them.
And then
They came together saying to each other, "O.K., now, let's begin.
It's time!"
Suddenly, they closed in on him!
Each one would pluck from him, his own feather.
Whichever feather he gave, that one would he pluck:
his own tail. . .
his own down . . .
everything they plucked.
Then, poor Iisaw, down he came, this way (gestures), turning over and over,
landing far below somewhere, and, poor thing, died!
When they came back down, it's said,
they laughed at him.
It's said,
"See how it is.
This is the fault of your own heart.
It's because of your own doing.
You came among us thinking to eat us," they said, it's said,
"So we just figured that if we killed you, then you would not be able
to eat us . . ."
That was what they said to him.
From then on, they worked and gathered by themselves.
Very likely, they
gathered a lot of food
around there, on that day.
This is as far as the story goes.

Children, long ago, some of us,
when we were your age, learned, as a matter of course,
to have a repertoire of songs;
and these songs were sung to us.
Some were parts of stories and some were songs by themselves.
So now I'm going to sing one of these songs to you,
so you can learn to sing it.
Long ago, at one time, coyotes would come close to the villages
looking for food around the trashpiles and even within the village,
scavenging right outside houses for whatever might be there.
And so they would come there. And it seems
one of these was doing just that, when a coyote from Payutmovi
came upon him and said to him,
"Don't you go scavenging around here anymore. 
Let's go to Payutmovi to my home,
and then you will no longer be wasting your time around here."
It's said,
he said to him,
"You are not just any coyote, you are a Water-Coyote,"
it's said he told him.
"Over there at Payutmovi we eat rabbits, antelopes, deer, and jackrabbits.
Deer is what we eat over there."
So now, I'm going to sing the song to you.
When I sing to you,
you might not be able to understand the meaning and
that's why I first told you this story.
                  Coyote, coyote longingly watching
                  Coyote, coyote longingly watching.
                  You aren't coyote, but you are Water-Coyote-Little-Boy.
                  We will go together south to my home in Payutmovi.
                  You will no longer be wasting things around here.
                  We eat rabbits, antelopes, jackrabbits, deer.
                  We eat, eat.
                  Ali ali wa' wa',
                  Ali ali wa' wa'.

When he had finished telling him this,
then he barked and then repeated saying "ali ali wa' wa'."
Since they ate rabbits, jackrabbits over there,
and these are good to eat,
that's why he said "ali ali wa' wa'" and then barked.

For Comment and Discussion



One of the reasons stories are told to Hopi children is to teach them the values which are important to Hopi people. "Lisen to the stories," an uncle told Helen's audience before we videotaped, "They will tell you how to be a Hopi. That's something very, very important."

Both stories reinforce what Helen's; family calls "the Hopi work ethic." Since their emergence into this world Hopi people have prided themselves on their ability to sustain themselves through their own labors. They are taught from birth to work hard at growing and storing food. The Iisaw stories on this tape are stories about what happens to one who would avoid hard work. Compare this theme in the stories with the quotations from Me and Mine above, and also with George Nasoftie's statements about Hopis and work in "Natwaniwa: A Hopi Philosophical Statement."

A second value reinforced by these Iisaw stories is pride and self-confidence. "You're not just any coyote, you are a Water-Coyote," the scavenging coyote is scolded by his cousin from Payutmovi in Helen's concluding song. The message seems clear in her first story as well: don't try to be something you are not. Be proud and satisfied with what you are.



This story is called a tuuwutsi in Hopi—a story about make believe things. Tuuwutsiare distinguished from stories which are ka’atsa (not false), stories which actually happened, Hopi history. "Aliksa'ii" is the traditional opening for Hopi stories. It's meaning is not known, but many speculate that the interjection "ali" which means "good or delightful" has something to do with it. (Notice how "ali, ali . . ." is used in this sense in the coyote song Helen sings.) When the storyteller says "aliksa'ii" the audience would respond "oo." Be sure to note Helen Sekaquaptewa's comments on that custom early in the story. "Paiyukpölö" is the traditional closing for a Hopi story. It means literally "now to here it ends." "Pölö" is a shortened form of the verb pölölawhich has at least two relevant senses. Pölöla is the action of giving form to something, say shaping a ball of clay. It also is used to describe the manner in which birds and animals consume grasses down to the stub. Both of these senses seem very appropriate metaphors for storytelling.

Compare these formulaic openings and closings with those used by Apache teller Rudolph Kane in his Ba'ts'oosee stories in this series. Dennis Tedlock writes on the function of such formulaic frames in his superb essay "Pueblo Literature: Style and Verisimilitude," in Alfonso Ortiz, ed., New Perspectives on the Pueblos(Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico, 1972).

Songs and Stories


Folklorists might call the first story Helen tells a cante fable, a singing tale, because it includes a song within the telling. The song Helen includes translates as follows:

plaque, plaque, plaque
plaque, plaque, plaque
that which is contained, that which is contained,
ph, ph, ph, ph

She says that other tellers of this story may use other songs. For example, a neighbor of hers tells the story using a song with Navajo words, presumably for greater comic effect.

We should also note that Helen remembers learning two kinds of songs: "Some were parts of stories, and some songs by themselves." Note that the final coyote song is in that sense the reverse of a cante fable in that it is a song which contains a story. Compare the way these two coyote pieces are told/sung.



Many of the stories which Rudolph Kane tells on this videotape have been recorded far from Cedar Creek, Arizona. Folklorist Stith Thompson reports that "The Theft of Fire" episode alone was told by at least sixty-five different tribes over virtually the whole of what we now know as the United States. The Tarbaby episode, which many of us know from the Uncle Remus of Joel Chandler Harris and Walt Disney, has an extremely wide international distribution. Despite years of intense study, folklorists are unable to agree as to how to account for the wide distribution of stories of this sort. Some argue that the story must have originated in one place and diffused out from there; others speculate that the same story can spring up of its own accord in a number of widely separated cultures.



The word for bird in Hopi is tsiro . Notice how Helen Sekaquaptewa uses that word in her telling, shaping it into the onomatopoeic expression "Tsiii-ro-ro-ro." Consider other vocal and gestural ways Helen enhances the story. How important is it that we see the telling? That we hear it? 



The following is another version of the first Iisaw story Helen tells. It was recorded at Old Oraibi (from Quoua'waima) and published by H. R. Voth.

"In Oraibi the people were living. At Ishmovala the Coyote lived. Away over there at Kahkangwovakaavi lived a great many Chiros, and they were always dancing there. One time the Coyote was walking about east of their village. The Chiros saw him as they were dancing. They were singing as follows.

Ishawu, ishawu, hohoongyanikay colmoki
Coyote, Coyote, to dance is longing.
Ishawn, oomii hongina.
Coyote upward dances,
Aatkamii hongina,
Downward dances,
Machiwa, machiwa, chirorororo.
Is called, is called chirorororo.

The Coyote was looking at them and wanted to dance along. 'Very well,' the Chiros said to him, whereupon each one of them gave him some feathers: one some wing feathers, another some tail feathers, and so on. They made for the Coyote wings and a tail, and put small feathers into his body, whereupon the Coyote was very happy. 'Thanks,' he said, 'that you have made wings for me. I am going to dance with you now.' Hereupon they danced, again singing the same song. The Coyote danced with them. Now they were flying upward somewhere and arrived somewhere away high up. Now they crowded around the Coyote and said: 'Why, this is my wing;' why, this is my tail; why these are my feathers;' some of them had given him these things, and now they took everything away from him, and alas! they began to descend. He arrived at the earth and died. The Chiros laughed at him. 'Thanks,' they said, 'that you have died, because you very often do commit depredations on someone's property. That is why you were going about again.'

H. R. Voth, Traditions of the Hopi 
(Chicago: Field Museum, 1905) pp. 201-02.

The Recording


All original tapes recorded for this program have been archived in the Southwest Folklore Center at the University of Arizona. Copies of this videotape without English subtitles are available to Hopi speakers through the Division of Media and Instructional Services, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85721.

This program was made possible by a grant from the Education Programs Division of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Related Readings


There are nearly three thousand entries in W. David Laird's annotated Hopi Bibliography (Tucson: Univ. of Arizona, 1977). It is the most comprehensive bibliography of writing about Hopis available.

In addition to Helen Sekaquaptewa's Me and Mine (Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press, 1969), other Hopi life histories are of interest: Elizabeth White's No Turning Back(Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1964) and Don Talayesva's Sun Chief(New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1942). More recently Harold Courlander has published Albert Yava's life story as Big Falling Snow (NY: Crown, 1978).

Ekkehart Malotki's collection Hopitutuwutsi: Hopi Tales (Flagstaff; Museum of Northern Arizona, 1978) offers readers ten stories from Third Mesa in a bilingual format. Malotki's introductory essay gives a succinct overview of Hopi storytelling. Truth of a Hopi: Stories Relating to the Origin, Myths and Clan Histories of the Hopi (Flagstaff: Northland Press, 1967) has been a preferred source on Hopi stories since its first appearance in 1936. It was written by Edmund Nequatewa.

Four of Helen Sekaquaptewa's lullabies are the subject of an essay by her son Emory and Kathleen M. Sands. "Four Hopi Lullabies: A Study in Method and Meaning" appeared in the American Indian Quarterly, 4 (1978), pp. 195-210. The "so'yok manawya" lullaby Helen sings at the beginning of this videotape is translated and discussed there

Larry Evers, ed., The South Corner of Time: Hopi, Navajo, Papago, and Yaqui TribaT Literature (Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press, 1980) gives a full range of Hopi oral and written literature.

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