Turning the Power
The life and katsinam of Wilson Tawaquaptewa
The life and katsinam of Wilson Tawaquaptewa.
The story of the life of Wilson Tawaquaptewa is familiar to many ardent katsina collectors but foreign to many others. This version will emphasize a different theme in his life, that of “turning the power,” according to Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert in his Education beyond the Mesas: Hopi Students at Sherman Institute, 1902-1929.
Tawaquaptewa was born in 1873 in the ancient village of Orayvi on the Hopi reservation in North Central Arizona. At the time of Tawaquaptewa’s birth, Orayvi was the largest and most important Hopi village. Tawaquaptewa was born into his mother’s Bear Clan, the most religiously significant group. After a youth immersed in traditional Hopi culture and religion, in 1904, Tawaquaptewa assumed the most prominent religious and political position in the village, that of Kikmongwi, or Village Chief. He remained in this position until his death in 1960, with a few interruptions related to political imprisonment or health challenges.
In assuming the position of Kikmongwi, Tawaquaptewa entered center stage in a major controversy. The conflict involved a split between two Hopi groups, recently referred to by Hopi scholar Gilbert as “Resisters” versus “Accommodators.” Tawaquaptewa was the leader of the Accomodator faction, and, as the name implies, he and his followers supported limited cooperation between the Hopi people and representatives of the United States government (primarily the Bureau of Indian Affairs, BIA). In contrast, the Resisters were adamantly opposed to any assimilation or compromise with “the White man’s way of life.” As one example of the conflict, the Accommodators supported the attendance of Hopi children at schools run by the
The Resisters were adamantly opposed to such school attendance in part because Hopi students were required to adopt Anglo names and dress and to speak only English while in school.
Tawaquaptewa’s position as an Accommodator was that the influence of Anglo culture was inevitable and, in some cases, advantageous (e.g. literacy, Western medicine and agricultural tools), and that the wisest course was for the Hopi to pursue a strategic cooperation. In contrast, the Resister group accused Tawaquaptewa and his followers of abandoning traditional Hopi ways and selling out Hopi children and culture for the material advantages offered by the Anglos. As with most bitter conflicts, there may have been reasonable and irrational elements to the positions assumed by both sides.
Fueled by the escalating intrusiveness of the U.S. government, the conflict between the Accommodators and the Resisters reached an explosive crescendo in 1906. In September of that year, the two factions engaged in a ritualized pushing match near Orayvi, which resulted in the expulsion of the Resisters from the village. Over the next several years, the Resisters established new villages at Hotvela and Paaqavi, which survive to this day.
Ostensibly the “winner” of the long-standing conflict, Tawaquaptewa must have been shocked and outraged when two months later, in November 1906, the U.S. government insisted on shipping 71 Hopi, including Tawaquaptewa and his family, to the Sherman Institute in Riverside, California. The Sherman Institute was one of many BIA schools designed to eradicate Indian culture and transform Natives into homogenized U.S. citizens. This decision was intended to punish Tawaquaptewa for behaving in an “un-american way” by forcing the Resisters to leave Orayvi.
Remarkably, Tawaquaptewa adjusted very well to his “schooling.” He was said to have learned English in less than five months and was frequently cited as a positive role model for Hopi children and other Native students. He encouraged the young Hopi students to take advantage of the positive aspects of their education, but he also consistently fostered their learning about Hopi religion and culture in a remote place. For example, he organized performances of a traditional Eagle Dance, which helped sustain Hopi culture in the Anglo school setting. Moreover, in 1907, he and his students provided the dance at an annual meeting of the National Education Association in Los Angeles. As Gilbert noted, Tawaquaptewa “helped preserve the Hopi way through an institution designed to destroy it. Tawaquaptewa exerted great agency and succeeded.” Tawaquaptewa was said to have “turned the power.” And it was not to be the last time.
After three years of “schooling,” Tawaquaptewa was allowed to return to Orayvi. The Tawaquaptewa of 1909 was apparently a changed man. As noted by BIA Indian Agent Leo Crane, “As his Indian agent, I tried for eight long years to make a sensible human being of him, but failed, for lack of material. After having tried him as an Indian judge, and then as an Indian policeman, in the hope of preserving his dignity and authority as hereditary (sic) chief, he was found to be the most negatively contentious savage and unreconstructed rebel remaining in the Oravyi community.”
In this racist rant, it is indeed striking that Crane failed to refer to Tawaquaptewa’s three-year
incarceration as impacting his subsequent conduct and lack of cooperation with the government. Be that as it may, it is clear by 1910 that Tawaquaptewa could no longer be considered an Accommodator in relation to the U.S. government. This was by no means surprising given the treatment accorded him by the authorities in response to his cooperation and spirit of compromise. By consistently resisting, he had again turned the power.
On his return, Tawaquaptewa found himself presiding over an ever-shrinking number of subjects. With the departure of the Resisters, Orayvi lost its status as the most populous and religiously important of the Hopi villages. Instead, Orayvi increasingly became an under-populated town of deteriorating sandstone structures. In Tawaquaptewa’s later years, some Anglos viewed him as an embittered loner, a tragic figure who had attempted to lead his people into the 20th century only to be abandoned by his own people and the government he had attempted to appease. But as indicated in the following, there is much more to the story.
Sometime after his return to Orayvi, perhaps in the 1920s, Tawaquaptewa began to carve and sell Katsina dolls. This initiative became another example of Tawaquaptewa “turning the power.” He became a familiar figure to the ever-increasing numbers of Anglo tourists. He offered tours of the village which culminated at his doorstep in Orayvi, where he sold his carvings for 50 cents or a dollar or two. In the past, many other Hopi had sold katsina dolls to Anglos, but Tawaquaptewa’s were unique.
What made Tawaquaptewa’s carvings utterly different was that he made sure each of his carvings was not an accurate portrayal of a katsina. He again “turned the power,” by selling what the customers believed to be “authentic Hopi katsina dolls,” which, in fact, were anything but. Instead, his carvings were strange combinations of characteristics from different katsinam in addition to features from his own fertile imagination. His dolls are immediately recognizable in that they are decorated with weird, often bizarre, amalgams of oversized ears, crossed eyes, jagged jailhouse stripes, stinger-like snouts and frenetic patterns of polka dots. If one looks carefully at the photos of his carvings in this article, it would be hard to conclude that Tawaquaptewa became an embittered nihilist. His carvings are frequently comic, even hilarious, in their execution.
Why did Tawaquaptewa carve in this fashion? As I was preparing an earlier article on his work in 1997, I met with Tawaquaptewa’s adopted son, Stanley Bahnimptewa, in Orayvi (Bahnimptewa was then in his 70s and is now deceased). During our long conversation, Bahnimptewa explained he used to sit with his father on his doorstep as he was carving his
dolls. Asked if Tawaquaptewa had any favorite katsinam that he carved, Bahnimptewa replied, “Well, he didn’t do them the right way, the way the katsinas really looked. He didn’t think they should be made like the ones given to the girls by the katsinas at the dances.”
Barton Wright, author of 13 books on Hopi and Zuni culture, confirmed Bahnimptewa’s opinion, in saying, “As Kikmongwi, Tawaquaptewa had a special relationship to all the Katsinas. He had a knowledge of and responsibility for the Katsinas that no one else had…with that privilege went a duty and a responsibility, and a traditional proscription, that the Kikmongwi do nothing in relation to the Katsinas that would be improper or disrespectful. Therefore, to use katsinas, or the carved representations of them, in any way that was commercially exploitive or opportunistic would be unthinkable.”
Therefore, the conclusion is that Tawaquaptewa deliberately distorted all his carvings in order to be consistent with his religious convictions and role as Kikmongwi. He gave the Anglos what they wanted, but also turned the power, made a few dollars to support his family and maintained his religious integrity.
One can classify his carvings as falling into two categories: 1) dolls that resemble actual katsinam, but which have been deliberately distorted or modified, and 2) dolls which bear little or no resemblance to any actual katsina, and are the product of Tawaquaptewa’s idiosyncratic imagination. I refer to these two types as “mixed up” versus “made up.”
In turning to the carvings in this article, it is easy to find prominent examples of both types. More specifically, consider the katsinam in Figure 1. These three are excellent representatives of Tawaquaptewa’s distorted or mixed up type. On the left is an approximation of a cicada, in the middle is a carving that resembles a chipmunk and, on the right, a Hooli. With all three examples, Tawaquaptewa has been careful to make modifications that render the figure “not a real katsina.” More specifically, he has added polka dots on all three carvings that do not occur on accurate versions of the katsinam. In addition, on all three, the body paint designs do not exist on any real Hopi katsina. And as another example, it is quite nonsensical for a “chipmunk” to have bear claws on his face! This is Tawaquaptewa being playful.
Examples of the entirely “made up” katsinam are well represented in Figure 2. On the left is a figure with multicolored ears of corn on his head, along with amoeba-like figures on his face. No such katsina exists. The same can be said for the carving in the middle, a hilarious figure with scalloped ears and stunted koshare-like horns. He also bears an amusing undulating serpent on his chest. And on the right is a katsina with slender antennae and spools for ears. None of these figures exist in the Hopi pantheon. Another example of a made-up assemblage is shown in Figure 3. This carving has Hopi rabbit sticks for ears, unusual hash marks on his cheeks and a long, striped snout.
The “katsina” carvings depicted in this article are entirely representative of Tawaquaptewa the artist, the man and the historical figure. Tawaquaptewa was an individual of complex contradictions and intriguing incompatibilities. He was a traditional Hopi chief of the prestigious Bear Clan, yet he was also an assimilationist, an “accommodator.” In the past, he has been viewed by some as a sellout to the U.S. government and by others as a selfless, strategic protector of the Hopi way. A more current view is to recognize his strategic acumen in “turning the power.” He encountered massive challenges to Hopi culture, deflected their impact, and facilitated survival. He did this during his time at the Sherman Institute, after his return to the reservation, and via his unique katsina carvings. Tawaquaptewa’s katsinam are now valued by collectors, art dealers and museums for their distinctiveness, their aesthetic humor and charisma, and their symbolic meaning and significance.
1. Three “mixed up type” katsinam
2. Three “made up type” katsinam
3. A “made up type” katsina