A mesa lost to history James F. Brooks, author of Mesa of Sorrows, lectures on the Awat’ovi massacre at the Hotel Santa Fe
Historian James F. Brooks on the Awat’ovi massacre
After its founding in the early 1300s, the fortressed Hopi village of Awat’ovi fended off invasions by the Spaniards, Utes, and Navajos. It endured for centuries on the Antelope Mesa of northeastern Arizona before the fall of 1700, when most of its 800 residents were slaughtered in a single night. Details of the massacre emerged in 1892, when Hopi-speaking ethnographer Alexander Stephen transcribed the story of the Awat’ovi destruction from Sáliko, a Hopi woman descended from one of the captive survivors of the attack. According to Sáliko’s account, the assailants were fellow Hopi. The killings were facilitated by the Awat’ovi’s leader, Ta’polo, who left open a gate to the walled city. In Sáliko’s retelling, Ta’polo had been orchestrating the attack in collusion with Hopi warriors from nearby villages. Together, the Hopi men would attack the people of Awat’ovi at dawn, when invading tribesmen pulled ladders out of the kivas, trapping men and boys who were resting from all-night religious ceremonies.
“Here was a sense of savagery that many historians thought could not have taken place precontact (with Europeans),” said James F. Brooks, a historian, anthropologist, and the former director of Santa Fe’s School for Advanced Research, in an interview with Pasatiempo. This winter, he published Mesa of Sorrows: A History of the Awat’ovi Massacre (W.W. Norton). “In Awat’ovi, I don’t think there is an essential evil. The book is more about the question, ‘How do perfectly decent people do really terrible things?’ ”
Mesa of Sorrows begins with Brooks’ own personal trips to Awat’ovi, examining the grounds’ ruins, where cooking vessel and pottery shards give way to the remains of human bones. But much of the book is consumed with explaining the vast religious tensions that roiled Hopi society in the Spanish colonial era.
Brooks combs through oral histories, multiple archaeological field notes, Spanish colonial documents, and anthropological accounts to piece together a theory of why the Hopis massacred a village of their own people more than 300 years ago. Rather than spell out a direct cause for the attack and the religious discord that preceded it, Brooks situates the Awat’ovi massacre in the context of several centuries of Hopi religious and intertribal conflict, going back to the introduction of the katsina religion in the 14th century, when the Hopi Mesas were “a particularly popular destination, receiving thousands of immigrants.” At the same time, many of the ritual stories that were part of the Hopi belief system emphasized what Brooks calls “purification through obliteration,” setting the theological precedent for a religioninspired massacre.
Brooks will speak on Monday, July 11, at the Hotel Santa Fe, about the Awat’ovi massacre, in a lecture sponsored by Southwest Seminars. He is now a professor of history and anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his earlier book — Captives & Cousins: Slavery, Kinship and Community in the Southwest Borderlands (University of North Carolina Press, 2002) — was a pathbreaking study of Indo-Hispano slavery practices in the Spanish colonial era of Arizona and New Mexico. For that book, Brooks nabbed virtually every major award for historical research that befits a book about the American Southwest — the Bancroft Prize, Frederick Jackson Turner Award, Francis Parkman Prize, and an American Society for Ethnohistory Prize.
In Mesa of Sorrows, Brooks depicts Awat’ovi in 1700 as a flashpoint for cultural debauchery and religious tensions that had long since passed the boiling point and were headed straight into scorched earth. During that year, some villagers had rebuilt the Catholic church and had begun baptizing their children in the manner taught by Catholic missionaries. According to Sáliko’s account, the men of Awat’ovi “went in small bands among the fields of other villagers and cudgeled any solitary workers they found. If they overtook any woman they ravished her, and they waylaid hunting parties, taking the game, after beating and sometimes killing the hunters.” Ta’polo believed his people had become sorcerers and must be destroyed. The whole scene reminded many Hopi of the mythical story of Palatkwapi, an earlier Hopi village whose residents took up gambling games and adultery as they descended into social chaos. In the Hopi language, Awat’ovi had lapsed into — a state of moral corruption and religious transgression.
Hopi oral history is full of allegorical narratives of what happens to those have fallen into koyaanisqatsi. But none end as violently as Awat’ovi. So why were so many Hopi killed by their own people?
Brooks outlines a possible theory of events, built upon the deep and lingering social tensions Spanish Catholic missionaries had introduced at Awat’ovi and other Hopi villages. Foremost among his clues is the dead body of an European man buried underneath an abandoned church at Awat’ovi. Not only was he buried in traditional Hopi manner, but according to excavation dating, he was buried there between 1680 and 1700, when the Pueblo Revolt had driven all Europeans out of the region. In the months prior to the massacre, social tensions were ratcheted up as