Saints without Halos
Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton
Helen Sekaquaptewa: Traditions of the Fathers
[p.116]”Oraibi” is the name of an ancient Hopi village in northeastern Arizona. Strategically located at the end of a mesa, Oraibi is protected on three sides by steep, rocky cliffs. It has been inhabited continuously for five centuries. In 1890 Oraibi was divided into two factions: traditionalists (called Hostiles), who opposed white man’s ways, and progressives (called Friendlies), who favored accommodation.
In 1898 an Oraibi traditionalist woman, Sehynim, gave birth to her third child, a daughter named “Dowawisnima” (dew-wow-iss-nima), which means a “trail marked by sand.” Many years later, Dowawisnima recalled, that as a young child she used to watch the principal and the truant officer start out from the school below the mesa and walk up the trail to round up the traditionalist children. Sehynim and her husband Talashongnewa hid their children, but one day Dowawisnima was caught and escorted down the mesa to the school. There she and the other traditionalist children were bathed, dressed in white man’s clothes, and given white man’s names. Dowawisnima became “Helen.”
The parents who voluntarily entered their children into school were given an ax, a hoe, a shovel, and a rake to farm [p.117]their lands. But the traditionalists spurned modern implements, preferring their homemade tools of wood and stone. When Helen returned from school each day, her mother took off “the clothes of the detested white man,” and, like the other traditionalist parents, warned, “Don’t take the pencil in your hand. If you do, it means you give consent to what they want you to do. Don’t do it.”
Helen rather liked the school. It was warm inside, and the clothes were comfortable. But the children of the progressives began to tease Helen and the others, calling them “Hostiles,” and refusing to play with them. Occasionally, “the Friendly children ran ahead up the trail and gathered rocks and threw them down at us. When I learned that the kids were ‘hostile’ to us, I didn’t want to go to school.”
Tensions between the two sides mounted. When Helen was seven, the progressives physically drove the traditionalists from their homes. The federal government tried to reconcile the two camps, but the traditionalists insisted that the chief who had departed from the Hopi way must be beheaded. The government superintendent declined that proposition but was unable to find an acceptable alternative.
Winter was approaching, but rather than risk bloodshed, the traditionalists, actually a majority, moved five miles away to Hotevilla springs. There was no time to quarry sandstone to build a pueblo, so the men cut down cedar trees and built Navajo-type hogans. Within a few weeks, forty to fifty domed hogans were ready. But the Hopis were not accustomed to the Navajo method of cooking over an open fire in the center of the home, and for a time something caught fire nearly every day.
Soon federal troops arrived. Seventy-five fathers were arrested and, with their eighty-two school age children, taken forty miles away to Keams Canyon. Seven old men, a handful of younger ones who promised to cooperate, twenty-three preschool children, and sixty-three women were all that remained.
At Keams Canyon the men were sentenced to ninety days of hard labor. The children were taken to a government boarding school. It was night when they arrived, and Helen was [p. 118]bewildered by the electric lights. “I had never seen so much light at night. I was all mixed up and thought it was daytime.” Again their Hopi clothes were taken and they were dressed in white man’s clothes. “We got real homesick,” Helen recalled. “Evenings we would gather in a corner and cry softly so the matron would not hear and scold or spank us. … We didn’t understand a word of English and didn’t know what to say or do. … At night when the doors were closed and locked … [some of the progressive girls] would take our native clothes from the boxes and put them on and dance around making fun of us.”
One morning Helen heard the clinking sounds of a chain gang coming down the road. She and the other children ran to the wire fence surrounding the compound. There came the Hotevilla fathers on their way to build a canyon road. Chained together in two’s, they had difficulty walking but did not appear ashamed “because they knew in their hearts they had done no wrong.” A guard prevented the fathers from stopping to talk with their children, but every morning the children ran to the fence to wait for their fathers. “We would cry if we saw them and cry if we didn’t.” Helen saw her father only once before he and several other leaders were sent to prison at Fort Huachuca for a year.
Back at Hotevilla, without the men and older children, life was lonely and the hardships severe. The corn baskets were soon empty and survival everyone’s preoccupation. With only a mule for transportation, Helen’s mother was able to visit her daughter only once.
At the end of the school year, progressive parents came in wagons, on horseback, and on burros to take their children home. Traditional parents would not promise to bring their children back in September, so they remained virtual prisoners in the boarding school.
In September 1907 Helen watched as government wagons descended the canyon road her father had helped build. When the wagon train reached the campground, out came the prisoners of Fort Huachuca. Helen spotted her father. “He was dressed in an old military uniform and looked fine and young [p.119]and straight to me, and I was proud of him.” Talashongnewa visited overnight with Helen and then hurried home on foot to Hotevilla.
After four years at the Keams Canyon school, Talashongnewa and the other traditionalist fathers obtained permission to take their children home for two weeks. It was a joyful caravan of fifty boys and girls, each riding a burro with their fathers walking alongside, that made the forty-mile journey to Hotevilla. Finally Helen lived in the traditional Hopi stone houses the fathers had built to replace the hogans. When September came, the children did not return to school. Instead, Helen spent the year, “learning from my mother the things a Hopi girl should know.”
But the following year, the soldiers came again and loaded them into the wagons for Keams Canyon. The school had a new superintendent. “If I had my way you would never see your homes again,” he told them. “You would live like white people.”
Nevertheless, Helen made the most of her opportunities. She earned money running the post laundry during the summer and occasionally worked in the homes of government employees. But more important, Helen learned. She enjoyed learning. “I was a good reader and got good grades. The teachers favored me and whenever visitors came they always called on me to recite. I was not the most popular girl and my ability did not help me socially, it only made the others jealous.”
In 1915 Helen completed the sixth grade and wanted to continue her education elsewhere. She and a friend were permitted to go home on condition that they would return in two weeks. “We will humor our parents,” they decided. “We will do what they want; dress in Hopi traditional clothes; let them fix our hair in whorls while we are there, anything to please them.” Anything to get their permission to go on to the Indian school at Phoenix. Apparently successful, the girls returned to Keams Canyon in ten days and soon were on their way to Phoenix.
Discipline at the Phoenix Indian School was “military [p.120]style,” the most unruly being whipped with a harness strap. Runaway girls were set to work “cleaning the yards, even cutting grass with scissors, while wearing a card that said, ‘I ran away.’ Boys were put in the school jail. … Repeaters had their heads shaved and had to wear a dress to school.”
Helen saw injustice and cruelty all around her. She vowed she would never be unkind to others but would help whenever she could. “If someone does you wrong,” her father had taught, “do not try to pay him back and get revenge; rather, be humble and feel in your heart, ‘Some day I will do something good for that person, and do it.’ “She also remembered his saying, “Anytime you have more than others—more blessings—you should share. Whenever you see other people suffering want, if you have something, give them some.”
In Phoenix, Helen met Emory Sekaquaptewa, whose story paralleled hers in many ways. “I had always been a wallflower, and Emory was the best looking (and the best) boy in school. When we would read the story of the ugly duckling in our school reader, I always thought of myself as the ugly duckling. Now it was like the story; I felt like a beautiful swan.”
When she graduated from high school, Helen returned home after what had amounted to a thirteen-year absence. But she was no longer a traditionalist. She refused to wear the traditional costumes her brother had woven especially for her. Instead, she gave them to her older sister Verlie. Verlie had no sympathy for Helen’s new ways of thinking, but their mother was so happy to have Helen back, she no longer insisted that Helen follow the traditions.
Soon after her return, Helen met Sarah Abbott, a middle-aged nurse who had learned the Hopi language and traveled on foot and on horseback to visit the sick throughout the reservation. They became close friends; and whenever Helen felt the tension was too great at home, she went to Miss Abbott’s.
In the fall of 1918 an influenza epidemic swept through the reservation. Helen was among the few who escaped serious illness, but her mother and a brother died. Because she was unmarried and living at home, Helen felt it was her duty to [p.121]make a home for her father and younger brothers, but Vetlie moved her family in, and Helen went to work for Miss Abbott. She fed babies, chopped firewood, and cooked cornmeal mush for the sick.
At home the pressure intensified—Helen took too many baths, she washed her clothes too often, she read books. Emory was needed at his home to care for sick relatives, and Helen was lonely.
Finally, after several weeks, Emory visited Helen again. Their common experiences during the epidemic had brought them even closer together, and they decided to be married.
Hoping that a traditional ceremony would improve feelings in the family, Helen and Emory arranged for the elaborate Hopi ritual. First came a pre-dawn washing of their hair, then the twisting together of a strand from each “as a symbol of acceptance of the new in-law into the clan and also to bind the marriage contract as they said, ‘Now you are united never to go apart.'” Then, their hair still wet, Emory and Helen walked to the eastern edge of the village and prayed in silence “for a good life together, for children, and to be together all of our lives and never stray from each other.”
That same morning, Emory’s father distributed cotton throughout the village, where it was cleaned in one day. Over the next few nights the men carded it, and in one day spun it into thread and wove it into one large robe, one small robe, and a long girdle to be tied around the waist. (Later, as part of the ceremony, the bride’s father would thank the men for making the apparel that would “make his daughter eligible to enter the world of the hereafter.”)
As the days of ritual continued, Emory and Helen were troubled. They wanted to be married “legally” as well. So they made arrangements for a Mennonite service. But with inner harmony came outer discord. Helen’s family was so upset, that she went to the home of one of her school teachers to dress for the service. Symbolically, the white dress, like her Hopi dress, was handmade. Helen had earned the money, bought the material, and sewed every stitch herself. It had won second prize in the state fair, and Helen had worn it only once before [p.122]her wedding.
In February 1919 Helen and Emory were married by a Mennonite missionary. Then they returned to Emory’s village to complete the Hopi ceremony. In accordance with traditionalist custom, the couple lived with the bride’s family for a time. But the tension proved too great and they soon struck out on their own for Idaho.
Idaho was cold and the winter quickly consumed their savings. In 1920 they returned to Hotevilla, bought a wagon and four horses, and started freighting supplies from Winslow and Flagstaff to Oraibi. Emory also farmed on clan land twelve miles southwest of Hotevilla and worked on government construction projects in Keams Canyon.
At first they seemed alien to the traditionalist community at Hotevilla.
Our lives were a combination of what we thought was the good of both cultures, the Hopi way and what we had learned at school. Whenever we departed from the traditions, our neighbors would scorn us. They were greatly offended because we were friendly with the government workers, the teachers, and the nurses, and even let them come into our house. When I washed my clothes and hung them out to dry or worked in my little garden plot, I could feel critical eyes following my every move. When I went to the spring for water, nearly every time I would meet a woman on the trail or at the spring who would bawl me out about something; even the clothes I wore on my back were taboo. I didn’t wear the traditional dress. I did not enter wholeheartedly into all of the community social and religious events. Good traditional Hopi women sit all day in the plaza, maybe several days at a time, watching the dances. They have so many that I begrudged the time. I would rather stay home and care for my house, or read, which I often did. I was aware that my neighbors were talking about me, mimicking, and generally belittling me all the time.
When a serious skin disease infected the village, Helen and Emory voluntarily accepted the treatment, bathing in a treated solution provided by the government. But most Hotevilla residents refused. Because the infection could not be eradicated unless everyone cooperated, the health department was prepared to enforce compliance. Emory went to Keams [p.123]Canyon and brought back large steel water troughs. One was put on one side of the school house for the men and the other on the opposite side for the women. The traditionalists gathered at the chief’s home, where the police rounded them up and drove them to the schoolhouse. “A few women would not budge,” Helen recalled, “so the police picked them up one by one screaming and kicking and ducked the women, clothes and all, with much splashing and shouting.”
Following the dip, many sat down in the sand and defiantly rubbed dirt all over their bodies. One woman stopped at Helen’s house on her way home and shouted, “Take your children and get out. Go and live with the white people.” The resentment was deep, but Helen and Emory refused to abandon their people or their principles. They remained, not to fight, but to convert. “Destroy your enemy by making him your friend,” they decided.
And it worked. Over the years, with repeated acts of kindness and concern, they won over many former enemies. In 1953 the Hopi Tribal Council nominated Emory as a tribal judge. Approved by the government superintendent, he commuted to Keams Canyon twice a week to help administer justice among his people. In spite of animosity between the tribes, Helen and Emory adopted a Navajo boy and later another boy and a Hopi girl. Helen reared them with the eight of her own ten children who survived infancy.
Once, when a group of Mormons passed through Hotevilla, Helen went to hear the sermon. She remembered hearing some of the older people talk about the Mormon “Jee-co-ba,” as they called Jacob Hamblin, and listened with interest. But the first full-time missionaries did not come until 1951. When they heard that Helen’s oldest son was thinking of going to BYU, they encouraged him so persuasively that he left right away. “What they taught sounded good to me,” Helen said, “like a familiar philosophy, like the teachings we were used to, like the Hopi way.” The Book of Mormon “sounded like a familiar story.” The Bible and Book of Mormon “helped us to understand the Hopi traditions, and the Hopi traditions help us to understand these books of scripture. … I was really [p.124]converted the first week and believed everything, although I was not baptized right soon.” Feeling sorry when her neighbors closed their doors to the missionaries, Helen invited the missionaries to come to her home whenever they felt lonesome, homesick or sad.
Ironically, it was Helen’s father, stubbornly opposed to white culture, who was the unwitting agent preparing his daughter’s family for Mormonism. During the longer winter evenings he recited, over and over, “the teachings of the kiva.” He acknowledged that oral transmission had created some inaccuracies but, as Helen recalled, he insisted that “the written record will be brought to the Hopis by the white man. There will be many religions taught. You will need to be wise to recognize and choose the right church. It will teach you to be humble and will not try to force you into it. When that time comes we should all forsake our native religion and join this true church.”
Helen’s son Wayne joined the church in Phoenix and baptized his mother, a brother and a sister there in 1955. Helen moved to Phoenix in 1954 to be with her five children who were attending the Phoenix Indian School. Emory took care of the ranch, worked in the Oraibi trading post and attended to his judicial responsibilities. Helen spent six winters in Phoenix until the children completed their schooling and then returned to Hotevilla.
Called to be district Relief Society president, Helen routinely walked the twelve miles from the ranch to Hotevilla, slept over night, and then hitchhiked into Holbrook for district meetings. She tried to attend every Relief Society meeting in her district, even though it meant long walks to do so. “If I’m not there,” she explained, “some of them don’t hold meetings.”
When Emory began complaining about the time she spent away from home, Helen thought that perhaps she should resign her Church calling. “I thought about it all day long and toward evening I just couldn’t do it. I had dedicated myself to this work.” She said nothing to Emory during dinner and went to bed. Soon she heard someone open the screen door, walk [p.125]across the floor, and sit on her. She was terrified. She could not scream or struggle. Mentally she commanded, “Get behind me, Satan, in the name of Jesus Christ.” The intruder “stepped right down and walked out the same way he came in.” Shaken, Helen lay in her sweat-soaked bed through the night.
In the morning she told Emory what had happened. He grumbled that he hadn’t heard anything, but “from then on he started to soften his heart. He started to come to church with me.” Emory never did join the Church, but he participated in meetings and spoke and prayed when invited.
Desiring to be both a good Mormon and a good Hopi, Helen routinely visits the homes of her many friends and neighbors, whether they are members of the Church or not. She watches for signs that food or clothing is needed, respectfully visits the aged and, when needed, quietly does their laundry.
Such acts of Christian service have enhanced the reputation of the Church in northeastern Arizona. In recent years it has grown slowly but steadily. Through the united efforts of the Navajo and Hopi Saints, the Moencopi Chapel was erected at Tuba City and dedicated in January 1965 by Elder Spencer W. Kimball. In 1974 the branch became a ward, part of the Page Arizona Stake.
“When I think upon my children and the kind of people that they are,” Helen reflects, “a feeling of joy and pride fills my heart, and I say to myself, I have had a good life. … My childhood, my school days, and marriage, those years were only laying the foundation for wifehood and motherhood—the best years of my life, the real living.”
Perhaps this intense devotion to family was Helen’s quiet triumph in her quest to unite Hopi ways and a traditionally white church. She married Hopi family pride to the Mormon doctrine of family exaltation. Despite his years of opposition to Helen’s choices, her father finally admitted, “You are a good daughter. You have good children. I marvel at the way you stood up against people … And we all lived better because of it.”