An In-depth Look at Hopi
Native American Rituals
Death Ritual- Pahos
Death, too, comes to the Hopi Indians, and a plentiful supply
of the essential eagle feathers must be at hand for the
making of pahos. When the medicine man seeks to drive away
the evil that causes illness, he places a paho of eagle feathers
on the path leading away from the village. Otherwise, the evil spirit may not even know which direction to
travel. Should the ministrations of the medicine man prove ineffective and the patient die, the spirit must be
helped on its journey to the Underworld.
The bodies of the plucked eagles are buried in the eagle burying ground at the foot of the mesa.
Food is placed in the grave and prayers are offered, as in the case of a human. After the death of a
Hopi Indian, a woman of the family washes the hair with yucca-root suds and otherwise prepares the
body for burial. A cotton mask is tied over the face. A prayer paho, of the finest eagle down, is
bound to a lock of hair with cotton yarn and made to fall forward over the face.
In the case of a woman, her wedding robe is used as her shroud; a man is wrapped in an ordinary
blanket. The body is arranged in a sitting position in a corner of the room.
An official mourner is designated by members of the family, and it is the duty of this individual to
scold the dead person for going away and causing sorrow in the village.
The burial is conducted at night by the father or nearest male relative, with one male relative to
assist in carrying the body from the mesa to the burial ground in the flat below. Here the corpse is
placed in the grave in a sitting position. No train of mourners accompanies the funeral party.
The men return to the house and participate in purification ceremonies which include the house as
well as their persons. Sacred meal is sprinkled throughout the room, pinon twigs are burned in the
fireplace and the men bathe hands and feet. Only then may they rejoin the family circle and the
routine of family life be resumed.
Prayer feathers, attached to cotton yarn, are placed at the grave to point out the direction the
spirit must travel to its future home in the Underworld. For four days food and prayer-feathers
are placed at the grave. During the ensuing months new pahos are placed in rock shrines at a
distance from the village, where they may be found by the spirit of the dead.
Niman Kachina Ritual Dance
During the latter part of July, each village holds its Niman Kachina or Going Home dance. This is the
last dance of the Hopi Indian year in which the Kachinas participate. At the end of the dance these
half-gods, kindly guardians of village well-being, disappear over the edge of the mesa and off into
the distance toward the San Francisco mountains.
There they will remain until the first winter ceremony is held in November. The Niman Kachina
ceremony lasts for eight days. The first seven days are spent in the kiva, an underground
ceremonial room, where the participants conduct the secret rites and make the pahos to be
presented to the Kachinas during the public dance on the eighth day.
As many as fifty fantastically costumed dancers may participate in the dance, each wearing a
grotesque mask and colorful headdress. The dance drama is brilliantly performed to the difficult
rhythms of chanted story songs. The vibrant booming of the single accompanying drum reaches to
the farthest corner of the village, its hypnotic cadences hurrying the people toward the dance plaza.
The dance lasts all day, with brief intermissions during which the mud heads, or clowns, perform
their comic pantomimes for the entertainment of the audience. Spectators perch themselves at
every available vantage point, including the roofs of the houses surrounding the plaza.
Late in the afternoon, just before the last appearance of the dancers, all the village brides,
married since the last Niman Kachina dance, enter the plaza. After her wedding, no bride may
attend any village dance until the next Niman Kachina dance.
Now, accompanied by her mother-in-law, each bride takes her place behind the
dancers. Dressed in complete wedding costumes of pure white robes, buckskin
moccasins and leggings and long fringed woven belts, and carrying the
traditional reed rolls, the brides present a very pretty picture.
Right: Snake Dance
Snake Dance Ritual
The Niman Kachina dance is hardly over until preparations are begun in the kiva
for the best known of all Hopi Indian dances, the Snake dance. The ceremony lasts eight days, with
the public dance limited to a short period late in the afternoon of the last day.
The rites are announced by the village crier, who ascends to a housetop, and, in a voice of amazing
carrying power, informs the villagers that the ceremony will begin after so many days. In four days,
members of the Snake society go out into the desert to hunt for the snakes to be used in the
dance, each day heading in a different direction: Each hunter carries a large sack to hold the
captured snakes, a sack of sacred cornmeal and a feathered snake whip.
The snakes are tracked down, sprinkled with meal and then stroked with the snake whip until they
uncoil, when the hunters seize them behind the head and thrust them into the snake sacks.
While some of the snakes will be common bull snakes, the most desirable and the largest number
will be vicious desert rattlesnakes. The snakes are taken to the kiva for purification ceremonies.
Here they are washed and sprinkled with sacred meal, in preparation for their public appearance in
the dance. On the day of the dance, a snake house of cottonwood branches, or kisi, is constructed in
the dance plaza, over a hole in the rock.
A bag of snakes is placed in this hole just before the dancers enter the plaza, and the hole is
covered with a board. Soon the Antelope dancers appear. They circle the dance area four times, and
as each dancer passes the snake hole, he stamps his foot vigorously on the board.
This is to advise the snakes that the dance has begun. The Antelope dancers sprinkle the area with
sacred meal, chanting a weird song of forgotten origin, and then form a line across the plaza. Now
the Snake dancers enter the plaza, their painted faces and bodies frozen in the rigid postures of
the fanatical dance.
They circle the plaza four times, and they, too, stamp violently on the board covering the snake
hole. A new chant is begun by the Antelope dancers, and the Snake dancers assume positions facing
them. The kisi is blessed by a Snake priest. The Snake dancers divide into pairs and, as each pair
approaches the kisi, the Snake priest thrusts his arm into the hole and draws out a snake.
The snake is quickly passed to one of the two partners, who thrusts it out in front of his face, while
his partner gently strokes the hissing reptile with his feather whip, attracting its attention from
the carrier. Now the dancer places the twisting snake in his mouth, holding it at about the middle of
its length. The snake's head and tail are free to twist in any direction.
The pair of dancers completely circle the dance area, and the snake is then dropped to the ground.
Another dancer, called the gatherer, will confine the now fighting mad snake to the limits of the
dance area by the judicious use of his feather snake whip.
Other pairs of dancers receive their snakes from the Snake priest, circle the plaza and release
the snakes. Soon the entire dance area is a mass of twisting, squirming snakes and grotesquely
painted dancers, gyrating against a background of ancient chants and the colorful costumes of every
last spectator who could squeeze into the limited space around the plaza. Truly, it is a barbaric
festival, but it is an important tradition for the Hopi..
Finally, the supply of snakes is exhausted. A large circle of sacred meal is inscribed in the center of
the plaza, and all the snakes are gathered within its limits. At a signal from the Snake chief, certain
of the dancers catch up great handfuls of the writhing snakes, rush down the trails to the desert
below, and there release them to carry the message of the Hopi Indians' need for rain to the Rain
The runners return to the village, and all of the dancers go to the kiva for purification rites.
Before the night is over, the rain will come. It never fails. No sickly drizzle follows the Snake
dance, but a downpour of cloudburst proportions. They are Hopi Indianng that the Snake brothers
of the Hopi Indians were pleased with the ceremony and have interceded with the proper gods. Was
not the Snake dance the enactment of a prayer for rain?
The excitement of the dance had barely subsided when Chochu's family had occasion for a
celebration of its own. A new baby was born to Chochu's oldest sister, and while the home already
was crowded, room would be found for the newcomer. Hopi Indian babies are always welcome.
When a Hopi Indian woman goes to her ordeal, she goes alone. Carrying a perfect ear of corn,
selected when she first learn that she is to have a child, she enters the prepared room and closes
the door. No one may enter until the first cry of the newly born child is heard. The grandmother
then goes in to the room to assist in caring for the baby. For nine days, the mother must remain in a
darkened room, and for twenty days, the sun may not shine on her, nor may she wear her moccasins.
The passing of the days is recorded by scratching marks on the wall of the room; a perfect ear of
corn is placed under each mark. Later, this corn will be ground into the sacred meal to be used in
the naming ceremony, on the twentieth day.
During the nineteenth night, pigame, a kind of sweet mush pudding, has been baking in an
underground pit, A mutton and hominy stew boils over the fire. Soon the guests begin to arrive,
each bearing trays of finely ground meal or perfect ears of corn. Bowls of yucca-root suds are
prepared for the washing of the mother and child.
Four lines of sacred meal are drawn on the floor of the room; an eagle feather paho is placed where
they cross in the center. A bowl of yucca suds is placed over the paho, and here the mother kneels
and dips her hair into the bowl.
The baby is washed with yucca suds, and its entire body rubbed with ashes from the fireplace. Corn
pollen is sprinkled on the baby's face, and white cornmeal is patted over its body. All present,
except the mother, dip ears of corn into the yucca suds and lightly touch the child's head, at the
same time suggesting names for the newest member of the family.
The father leaves the room and climbs to the housetop, to watch for the coming of the sun. The
baby is placed in a cradle-board, its face carefully covered with a tiny blanket. Now, the father
warns that the sun is about to rise above the distant horizon. Below: Hopi Indian Naming ritual.
The grandmother casts a handful of sacrificed meal toward the sun, at the same time repeating the
name she has selected during the naming ritual at the washing rites.
Family and guests now return to the house to enjoy the feast of good things prepared during the
night. Only the mother may not participate. She must go to the sweat-house to complete her
purification rites, and only then may she resume her normal place in the home.
Chochu's mother reminded her that the time for returning to school was near, and that preparation
for this event must be started at once. The girl shyly replied that she had no intention of returning
to school; that, instead she would remain at home and marry that young man who had courted her all
through the summer.
Her announcement caused neither surprise nor objections on the mother's part; all through the
summer she had watched the budding of the romance, pleased that her daughter had limited her
attentions to this one boy.
When a Hopi Indian girl decides that she wants a certain man for a husband, she grinds cornmeal
very fine, piles it and rolled piki high in a basket plaque, and carries the plaque to the home of the
young man's mother. She places the plaque on the doorstep and hurries home to await the outcome
of her proposal.
If the girl is acceptable to the young man's mother, the plaque is taken into the house and the piki
eaten by the boy and his near relatives. If, by any chance, the girl is not wanted as a
daughter-in-law, the plaque remains on the doorstep until a brother or other male relative of the
girl secretly removes it, thus saving her public embarrassment.
The cornmeal and piki offered by Chochu were readily
accepted by Edward's family, and soon the mothers
were busy planning for the wedding. No definite date
was set; that would depend on the grinding of the
cornmeal with which the bride must pay for her
At Right: Hopi Making Piki
For nearly a month Chochu, with the help of women
friends and other women of her family, knelt at the
grinding stones many hours each day. The stacked
baskets of meal grew mightily.
One evening, just after dark, Edward came to the home of his bride, to escort her to his mother's
house. Now it was time for the ceremony to begin. With Chochu carrying a large plaque of cornmeal,
the pair returned across the plaza to Edward's home, where the real task of earning her husband
confronted the girl.
Early the next morning, Chochu was up and at the grinding stones. Many of the boy's maternal aunts
came to the house during the day. They carefully examined the fineness of the ground meal, and
loudly protested the wedding, claiming the boy to be theirs.
Threats were hurled against the girl, for wanting the boy; and against his father, for consenting to
the wedding. The aunts finally left the house, but with a warning that further trouble could be
Carefully concealed from visitors, the bride spent all of the next day at the seemingly endless task
of grinding corn. She ground corn for Edward's mother, his grandmother and his aunts, and for all
the families in his immediate relationship.
The boasting of the boy's aunts that trouble could be expected was not idle talk. On the morning of
the third day after the bride went to the boy's home, they assembled a large group of the women
of their families at one of the homes, making especially sure to include those whose sharp tongues
would lend zest to the day's program.
Stringing out across the plaza toward the boy's house, each woman carried a large bowl or basket of
very sticky mud. The women gathered before the house and began a fairly mild discussion of the
bride's lack of qualifications and the general undesirability of the wedding.
The pace of the discourse soon quickened, and all traces of mildness disappeared from the
statements of the visitors. The bride's faults, real and imaginary, were proclaimed to all who would
listen, and by this time quite an audience, all women, had gathered.
At the first indication that this was to be the day of the aunts' visit, all the men had retired to the
kivas or gone down to the fields. If the man was caught in the area, his clothes would be torn off,
and his body smeared with mud.
The name-calling continued, the voices of the embattled women becoming louder and their
statements more caustic. Doubt was expressed concerning the habits of the young lady, and even
her morals were questioned.
Suddenly, someone threw some of the sticky mud, and now the battle was on in earnest. The
answers from within the house became just as rowdy as the statements from outside. The aunts'
party attacked the door of the house and finally pushed it open.
Rushing to the hiding place of the little bride, they daubed her face with mud, as they heaped abuse
on her quivering shoulders. The father of the boy was found and dragged out into the village street.
Of all the men, only he was obligated to remain at home to participate in the undignified roughhouse
that is a part of every Hopi Indian wedding.
The women cut his hair and pelted him with mud until he was completely unrecognizable. They again
turned their attention to the house and threw great gobs of mud at the outside, then the inside,
and finally, at everyone in the vicinity. The place became a shambles, the inside a mud hole.
Tiring, at last, and running out of both mud and invectives, the women retired from the scene and
returned to their homes. Chochu and her parents-in-law immediately began the task of cleaning
themselves and the house. By evening, some semblance of order had been established, and the house
was sufficiently clean for the return visit of the women.
This time they brought peace offerings of plaques, stacked high with piki. The bride's parents and
relatives came to the house later in the evening, and brought great trays of cornmeal, previously
ground by the bride and her friends, to be used in the actual wedding ceremony.
The following morning, long before daybreak, the families of the bride and groom assembled for the
wedding. Two bowls of yucca suds were prepared and placed on the floor, side by side. The bride
and groom took their places behind the bowls, squatting on the floor. The two mothers unbound and
washed their hair, proclaiming them to be married and accepting them as son and daughter of both
families. At Right is Hopi Indian girl wearing Wedding Manta.
The bodies of the bridal pair, from the waist up, were washed in the
foaming suds and, after resuming their blouses, Edward and Chochu
rose from the floor to mingle with their guests. They were now
husband and wife. This is how all Hopi Indians enter marriage.
During the next few days many of the village people came to
Edward's home to express their good wishes for the happiness and
prosperity of the couple, and to bring gifts. Many brought native
wild cotton, to be spun into yarn for the weaving of the bride's
wedding robes. The next day the cotton was taken to the kiva
where Edward belonged, and the work of spinning the yarn began.
For a week many men of Edward's family spent every spare moment
spinning the great balls of yarn that would be required. The women
were equally busy preparing food for the spinners, who must be fed
at the home of the bridegroom's parents.
Much of the cooking and household drudgery fell to the new bride,
who would remain in the house of her mother-in-law, working for her
husband's family, until the robes had been woven.
A great feast was held on the day the weaving was begun. The men set up the looms in the kiva, and,
after the warps were thrown, gathered at the bridegroom's house to consume great quantities of
hominy and mutton stew. Day after day the weaving continued, with many of Edward's relatives
taking turns at the looms. The bridegroom secured the reeds for the making of the reed roll.
Other relatives completed the buckskin moccasins and leggings, whitening the soft leather with
finely ground clay. At last, everything was finished, even to the attaching of the small bundles of
eagle prayer-feathers at each corner of the robe and the embroidered, feather trimmed tassels at
the bottom corners. The men sent word from the kiva that the bridal procession would take place
after four days.
On the appointed day the weavers delivered the wedding robes to the bride, and were rewarded
with more mutton stew. Assisted by all the women of the household. Chochu donned the beautiful
garments and prepared for the return to the home of her mother.
Carrying the reed roll in her outstretched arms, she stepped daintily through the doorway and into
the plaza as the women of the groom's family, carrying bowls of food, started in the direction of
the bride's family home.
Chochu, glancing neither to right nor to left, walked alone across the plaza, her shining white robes
accenting the soft brown of her face and the brilliant black of her hair. There was an air of great
excitement at the door of her mother's house as the little bride was joyfully welcomed home.
Soon the bride was back at the endless task of grinding corn. Not until hundreds of pounds of meal
were ground would payment for her husband and wedding robes be completed; not until then could
the bride claim her husband and bring him home. Again her women friends helped, and at last the
gigantic task was finished.
The cornmeal was piled high on basket plaques and taken to the mother-in-law's house. That evening,
after dark, Chochu clasped Edward by the hand and led him across the plaza. Her mother's home
would be their home from now on, or at least, until such time as the coming of their children would
require the building of additional rooms to the house or the construction of a separate house close
The young couple quickly slipped into the routine of adult village life. Each day Edward went to the
fields or to tend the sheep. Chochu assumed a substantial share of the homemaking tasks and
devoted much of her spare time to the weaving of the basket' for which her village is famous. At
the end of the day, as they watched the great red ball of the sun sink below the desert's rim,
either might be heard to say softly. "Lo-lo-mai" (Life is good).
Hough, W. (2009). The Hopi Indians.
Water, F. (1977). Book of the Hopi.