Peter M. Whiteley: Hopi gift culture and its first encounter with the United States

Roundup: Talking About History

[Peter M. Whiteley was co-curator of the exhibition “Totems to Turquoise: Native North American Jewelry Arts of the Northwest and Southwest,” which was featured at the American Museum of Natural History from October 30, 2004, to July 10, 2005. A curator in the Division of Anthropology at the Museum, Whiteley also teaches anthropology at Columbia University and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His doctoral degree, from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, was based on fieldwork with the Hopi in the U.S. Southwest. He is the author of several books on Hopi culture and history, including Rethinking Hopi Ethnography (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998), which won the 1999 Border Regional Library Association’s Southwest Book Award.]

In 1852, shortly after the United States had nominally annexed Hopi country, in northern Arizona, the Hopi people arranged for a diplomatic packet to reach President Millard Fillmore at the White House. Part message and part magical gift, the packet was delivered by a delegation of five prominent men from another Pueblo tribe, the Tewas of Tesuque Pueblo in New Mexico, who wanted to gain legal protection from Anglo and Hispanic settlers who were encroaching on their lands. The delegation traveled for nearly three months, on horseback, steamboat, and train, from Santa Fe to Washington, D.C., more than 2,600 miles away. The five men spoke fluent Spanish, the dominant European language of the region at the time—which made them ideally suited to convey the gift packet and its message to the president.

At the time, no U.S. government official had visited the Hopi (and few would do so before the 1890s). Their “unique diplomatic pacquet,” in the words of the nineteenth-century ethnologist Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, offered “friendship and intercommunication . . . opening, symbolically, a road from the Moqui [Hopi] country to Washington.” The packet was in two parts. The first part comprised two pahos, or prayer-sticks, at either end of a long cotton cord, dyed for part of its length [see illustration below]. Separating the dyed from the undyed part of the cord were six varicolored feathers, knotted into a bunch. The pahos “represent the Moqui [Hopi] people and the President [respectively],” Schoolcraft wrote; “the cord is the road which separates them; the [bunch of feathers] tied to the cord is the meeting point.”

As well as encoding a message, the pahos were an offering of a kind that Hopi deities such as Taawa, the Sun god, traditionally like to receive. By giving the president pahos worthy of the Sun, the Hopi signaled their expectation that he would reciprocate. Just as the Sun, on receiving the appropriate offerings, would send rain clouds for sustaining life and growth, so, too, the president would send protection for Hopi lives and lands—in this instance, protection from assaults by neighboring tribes such as the Navajo.

The second part of the packet comprised a cornstalk cigarette filled with tobacco (“to be smoked by the president”) and a small cornhusk package that enclosed honey-soaked cornmeal. According to the Tesuque delegation, the honey-meal package was “a charm to call down rain from heaven.” When the president smoked the cigarette, he would exhale clouds of smoke, which would sympathetically attract the clouds of the sky. Then, when he chewed the cornmeal and spat the wild honey on ground that needed rain, the Tesuque statement concluded, "the Moquis assure him that it [the rain] will come."

In sum, the packet was three things at once: message, offering, and gift of magical power. In conveying those elements, the Hopi sought to open diplomatic relations with the U.S.

But their intent appears to have been lost on their recipient. As so often happens when two cultures make contact, deep misunderstandings can arise: What does a gift mean? What, if anything, does the gift giver expect in return? Do the giver and the recipient both assign the same value to the gift? In twenty-five years of ethnographic fieldwork with the Hopi, it has been my goal to learn something of their history and culture. Recently I turned my attention to certain important events, such as the Millard Fillmore episode, that might shed light on how Hopi society changed as the U.S. developed. In that context Hopi gift giving and the ways it functions as a pillar of Hopi social organization have been central to my studies. One lesson of my work shines through: When nations exchange gifts, all the parties would do best to keep in mind the old adage, "It’s the thought that counts."...

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