Just before a chilly dawn in the autumn of 1700, shadowy figures slipped into the Hopi town of Awat’ovi through a gate that could only have been left unguarded by one of its own citizens. The invaders proceeded to kill most of the adults they found, thrusting burning torches and crushed red peppers into the kivas—underground ceremonial chambers—where the men and boys had spent the night in religious celebration. Young women and children were claimed as booty, but the attackers quarreled about who would get whom, until fury prompted them to mutilate and kill scores of their captives. A few of the women managed to survive by promising to share their arts of rainmaking. By noon, Awat’ovi, a centuries-old community once home to about 800 people, was emptied. It has never been occupied since. Eric Polingyouma, of the Hopi Nation’s Bluebird Clan, once told a 20th-century archaeologist that the ruins have been “considered an evil place. No one at Hopi claims it.”
The most disturbing thing about the attack is that the people of Awat’ovi were massacred not by any of their traditional adversaries: not nomadic raiders like the Ute and the Navajo; not the Spanish, who had been driven off the mesas by the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and had only just begun to tentatively reestablish missions in towns like Awat’ovi. The killers were, instead, the victims’ neighbors and in some cases even their relatives, people from other villages on the mesas that make up what the Hopi have long regarded as the center of the world. It was an event that seemed entirely out of character for a people often idealized for their peaceable, orderly ethos.
Why did they do it, and why has the tragedy at Awat’ovi echoed through the succeeding years of Hopi history, an event both unspeakable and unforgettable? These and other questions are asked by James F. Brooks, a professor of history and anthropology, in his new book Mesa of Sorrows: A History of the Awat’ovi Massacre. “The crisis at Awat’ovi,” he writes, “sculpted the very core of [the Hopis’] values, as the epic of Troy provided the rootstock for Western ideas about honor, shame and the ruinous consequences of pride.”
In addition to the Trojan War, events that unfolded only a few years earlier on the other side of the continent also come to mind: the Salem Witch Trials. In 1892, Sáliko, a Hopi woman and descendant of an Awat’ovi survivor, told an ethnographer that the town’s leader, a man named Ta’polo, had not only left Awat’ovi’s gate open but had actually requested the massacre itself, petitioning warriors from nearby villages to wipe out his own people. The reason? Witchcraft and the bad behavior it brought on: Awat’ovi men were said to have stolen game from hunting parties, raped women, and attacked workers in the fields, in addition to whatever debaucheries went on in the large “sorcerer’s kiva” that Ta’polo pointed out to the attackers who came to obliterate his town. Salem responded to a similar crisis with the well-documented trials, while the assault on Awat’ovi resembles an act of war and was remembered as part of an oral tradition, but both were outbreaks of communal violence perpetrated by leaders who felt their communities were spinning out of control and into danger and depravity. Both were framed as justice.
Mesa of Sorrows deploys a blend of oral histories, archival research, and archaeological evidence; Awat’ovi has long been of keen interest to Western scientists because the site has been relatively undisturbed for so long. Much of the early Western documentation of the massacre—secondhand from Hopi sources to begin with since no Europeans were present at the time—has been warped either by Eurocentric contempt or the romanticism of what Brooks memorably describes as “non-Indian fetishists.” More recently, Hopi writers like Nuvayoiyava in the 20th century recorded their own versions of the story. Mesa of Sorrows argues that what happened at Awat’ovi, while extraordinary, was not unprecedented in Hopi history and legend and that the concept of “prophetic violence in the interest of cultural purification,” intended to restore “communitarian harmony and balance,” had deep roots in Hopi culture, shaped as it has been by the challenges of survival in the Southwest.
This effort to reconstruct the Hopi view of history and human nature is Mesa of Sorrows’ great strength. Brooks’ writing has a winningly mournful streak of lyricism: “We know full well that our own homes and towns and cities are destined to lie in rubble at some point in the future, and that our remains may someday be carried as ash on the wind or as bones, gnawed by rats under a decaying city’s moon.” But Mesa of Sorrows often lacks the connective tissue of narrative it needs to put all of its elements in context. Readers will have to do some of that work for themselves, but it’s well worth it.
The people called the Hopi didn’t always see themselves as a cohesive group. They identified as members of a particular village or clan and sometimes didn’t even speak the same language as Hopis from other towns. What bound them together in 1700 was a shared faith in the katsina (a.k.a. kachina) religion, whose numerous gods and spirits show, many scholars believe, a strong influence from Mesoamerican civilizations like the Aztecs. With the rest of the Puebloan peoples—the Keres, Towa and Zuni—the Hopi were heirs to a complex culture that once flourished in the Southwest: the Ancestral Puebloans (called the Anasazi by the Navajo, although the Pueblo peoples themselves reject that name).
Centered around Chaco Canyon in what is now western New Mexico, this culture was responsible not only for the iconic cliff towns identified with the region but also, as Brooks writes, “massive masonry ‘Great Houses’ counting hundreds of rooms, expansive ceremonial spaces and platforms, ancillary residential villages and sophisticated astronomical devices used to forecast planting and harvest cycles.” Thousands of people from an area comprising Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, the Mexican state of Chihuahua, and Arizona would gather in the canyon for seasonal pilgrimages. Beginning in the 11th century, this cultural system presided over more than 200 years of tranquility that Brooks refers to as “Pax Chaco,” only to fall apart after 1125, probably as a result of unrest brought on by deforestation and decades of drought. Archaeological excavations show that during this period, violence erupted among people who had lived beside each other so long in peace.
The arrival of the katsina faith would help regain some of the old coherence, but as Brooks recounts, to be Hopi was to inhabit a history of schism, migration, wandering, and reintegration, befitting a people who believe that this world is the fourth in a series that humanity has inhabited. Clans would leave a town for one reason or another—clashes with the leaders, a shortage of resources—travel for a while, then petition to join a new town by showing its chief what they had to offer, such as powerful ceremonies to bring rain and grow crops. A Hopi town could be ancient but the few hundred people living in it might be quite diverse, a mix of old-timers, newcomers and even people from other tribes, like the Tewas, as well as Franciscan friars and their converts, in time. And Awat’ovi was more diverse than most.
Hopi history and legends feature several accounts of communities that went bad, fell into koyaanisqatsi, or “disorder and transgressions of the sacred,” and had to be brutally purged, typically at the instigation of village elders. The villagers’ wickedness often took the form of excessive gambling and the presence of women in the kivas. “Women figure centrally in all extant Hopi narratives of destruction,” Brooks writes. Older men and the more established clans commanded more power and resources than younger men and newcomers. The Franciscans took advantage of this, drawing converts from women, the young and other disgruntled community members. Given the Franciscans’ tyrannical reputation, you wouldn’t think they’d seem like much of an improvement, but Brooks reports that excavations in Awat’ovi show signs of persistent, if highly irregular, Catholic practices after the friars were kicked off the mesas in the 1680 Pueblo Revolt and their church buildings in Awat’ovi were converted into residences.
Brooks’ theory for what precipitated the Awat’ovi massacre hangs on a mysterious corpse found by archaeologists in the ruined church west of the town. It was the body of a young European man who had been buried beneath the church’s altar, but buried according to Hopi customs and interred after the Pueblo Revolt, when Awat’ovi had been entirely reclaimed by the Hopi. Brooks theorizes—although he stresses that his history is not definitive but “one author’s journey into a distant time and an enigmatic past”—that a new sort of religion had kindled in the town. In the sorcerer’s kiva, archaeologists also found a mix of katsina and Catholic ritual objects and perhaps even signs of the presence of women. This sort of syncretic or fusion faith could easily have struck Awat’ovi’s leaders as corrupt and threatening, especially at a time when the Franciscans had begun attempts to worm their way back onto the mesas. The fact that drought had once more afflicted the area would have only confirmed the judgment that Awat’ovi’s people had abandoned and polluted a sacred tradition, inviting catastrophe.
“Accusations of witchcraft and sorcery,” Brooks writes, “are commonplace across human societies, past and present, especially in small communities when misfortune arrives from unseen forces.” Or, for that matter, when outsiders and newcomers seem to endanger longstanding customs and identities. What happened at Awat’ovi might bear the signs of particularly Hopi beliefs, but there’s something universal about it as well. After all, the dangerous idea that a people can become so disobedient and depraved that they must be wiped out also occurs in the Bible, not once but three times: the Flood, the Tower of Babel, and Sodom and Gomorrah. In the modern era, the impulse to purge “corrupting” elements has taken the form of attempted genocides in Germany and Rwanda, and in the demonization of Muslims and immigrants by right-wing politicians like Donald Trump. Mesa of Sorrows opens an enthralling window into an ancient culture but when it comes to the story of Awat’ovi, it also offers a reflection that any society forgets at its own peril.
Mesa of Sorrows: A History of the Awat’ovi Massacre by James F. Brooks. W.W. Norton.
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