A Work of Nonfiction by Sheila Seclearr
A tiny wail pierces the early morning darkness like a fractal of starlight. The breeze at the edge of Second Mesa lifts the little cry and carries it along the row of small rock and cinder block homes built on the narrow shelf overlooking the desert. Morning light slices Shipalovi’s eastern indigo horizon but the newborn baby will not see it. For the first nineteen days of his or her life, a newborn Hopi lives sheltered from the sun. The maternal grandmother’s home is traditionally host to the new family in the baby’s first days. Many other family members visit and care for the young mother. Windows or doorways, especially those facing east, may be covered with a blanket to block the sun’s direct rays.
The mother’s ordeal is acknowledged along with the baby’s. According to ancient tradition, she’s not to eat meat or salt until the baby’s naming day and drinks only warm water or Juniper tea. In a purification rite soon after the birth, she washes her hair in yucca root suds. This will be repeated again on the fifth, tenth and fifteenth days after giving birth. The tradition held that, until the fifth day, she was to stay indoors out of the light and refrain from wearing shoes or doing any work.
The window coverings stay up until the twentieth day when in a small ceremony, the baby is taken to the edge of the mesa, introduced to the sun and given a name. The quietly sacred twenty days may be related to the twenty day signs on the sacred calendar of the Mayans, the Hopis’ sun worshiping cousins. There is no written record of their connection, but many believe these cultures are united and once were one culture. Both have a focus on oneness and unity consciousness, as well as embracing all life forms as a manifestation of Spirit. They are in touch with nature’s rhythms and the stars and planets. They both provide modern-day road maps to spiritual life.
The Hopi newborn is washed in yucca suds soon after it is born then rubbed with ashes. Yucca root is high in saponin, toxic to eat, but highly anti-bacterial and lathering. It has been used as natural soap by Southwest Indians since antiquity. Both Hopi and Navaho have a ceremonial tie between yucca and childbirth. Ashes are calming to the skin and filled with cleansing prayers.
The yucca and ash ceremony is repeated on the tenth and fifteenth days. The baby is strapped into a cradle with a perfect ear of “Mother corn” tucked into the blanket. The traditional Hopi cradle has a woven wicker base about two and a half feet long. An arch formed by small twigs extends in a bow a few inches from the head end of the basket to protect the baby’s face. The baby is placed on a blanket-lined cedar bark mat with a blanket folded over the baby’s straightened arms and a woolen cord securely looped from either side of the cradle.
On day nineteen, relatives begin to arrive for the naming ceremony. In the past, Hopis brought gifts of bowls and plaques filled with fine cornmeal. Today they’re likely to bring something much more practical, like a blanket. Preparations are begun for a feast of mutton and corn stew (nuq-kwi-bi) and sweet corn mush (pi-ka-mi). The godmother, usually the paternal aunt or grandmother, arrives on day nineteen to take charge of the cooking. She boils Juniper boughs, which also have antiseptic qualities, and pounds the yucca root to release its ceremonial suds.
At the earliest light on the twentieth day, the godmother rises and makes small lines of fine cornmeal in the four cardinal directions on the walls around the house, then on the ceiling and floor. This signifies the provision of a house for the baby. The mother kneels by a bowl of yucca suds as the godmother dips an ear of corn in the suds and touches it to the mother’s head four times. The father’s female relatives repeat this to honor the mother then lay the corn aside. The godmother washes the mother’s hair, arms, and legs in the Juniper decoction. Some is poured onto hot rocks and steam envelopes the mother. Great care is taken to clean the house and ceremonially discard impurities.
A smaller bowl is used to make suds for the baby. A similar ceremony follows with all the father’s female relatives touching the soft suds to the baby’s head with an ear of corn. The baby is washed and rubbed with fine cornmeal, then wrapped in a blanket and handed to the mother. Passing the ceremonial ears of corn, prayers are said for the baby’s long life and abundance of corn. Relatives offer names for the baby. The mother thanks them but only one name is embraced, usually chosen by the godmother. Godmother places the baby in the cradle and lays ceremonial corn on the blankets. A line of cornmeal is made to the doorway where the mother waits.
The moment the sun peeks over the horizon, the father calls out an announcement from outside. Godmother picks up the cradle and a handful of the fine-ground cornmeal while mother follows to greet and thank the sun with a handful of meal. Godmother removes the cover from the cradle and holds the fine meal to the baby’s mouth, saying a short prayer and sprinkling the meal toward the sun. Mother says a prayer and throws her cornmeal toward the sun.
Everyone returns to the house to the feast they have prepared with the baby first to be fed. Still in the cradle, the Godmother gives the baby a tiny taste of each traditional dish.
The relationship between the Hopi and corn is powerful. When corn is mentioned in Hopi songs, it is referred to as ‘mother’. In the naming ceremony, life is proclaimed sacred over and over: the honoring of the corn, juniper and yucca plants; the honoring of the father’s relatives along with the mother’s care and cleansing; the abundance of the cornmeal and its special presentation; the handmade bowls, plaques, blankets; and the delicious traditional feast. The message to the baby is a message of hope for a long life and a community to show the way.
This is what we eat. This is what we do.
This is your Father, the Sun.
This is your Mother, the Earth.
With the same sacred honor intended, a great deal of time and care is spent on the corn crops. A Hopi farmer may sing to the cornfield as he works and refer to the crops as his “children”. He sings the story of how important corn is to Hopi life. The corn has thrived for a thousand years in the Arizona desert climate. Depending entirely on nature’s rain and snow, the Hopi domesticated this semi-arid land. Their oldest towns are the longest, continually inhabited communities in North America. Archaeologists place their descendants in the area as early as 500 AD.
When I first saw a Hopi cornfield, I thought I had entered another time dimension. My car rounded a curve at an elevation outside of Hotavilla and the scene below the mesa’s shadow seemed the only important place in the world. I pulled immediately over. It was late afternoon on a scorching August day. The sun lowered and the light diminished as the day’s heat peeled away. The air waffled with temperature variations, waving a distorted world like a colorful flag, captured and displayed.
Everything true seemed to spiral through the cosmos and pull me, as if I rode on the tail of a comet into the desert scene below. Clumps of green and yellow corn stalks stretched for acres across the far-reaching desert. Planted in traditional Hopi style in clusters of short stalks, gathered like bushy teepees five or six feet apart. The field had no tall, even rows like I’d see at home in Illinois by August. My comet could have fallen a thousand years ago and seen this farmer’s ancestors at work in the same field.
There was no sight of irrigation equipment, no stream or even ditches in sight. Nothing I’d ever learned about gardening was at work here and I had farmer grandparents on both sides of my family. Jagged fissures in the soil from relentless dry, hot weather collected occasional rain. I’ve seen photographs of tender seedlings showing a Hopi farmer prop flat rocks to protect young shoots with their cool shadows. I peered over thousands of corn plants and wondered if a farmer had nursed each one through its vulnerable youth. I was aware that I knew nothing.
Later I learned that one way of plotting a field is to space the older men at distant ends and have a young boy run back and forth through the field, from elder to elder. They plant corn in every third or fourth footstep. When the plants emerge, men and boys both clear weeds and get rid of pests and birds.
Either I imagined that I heard singing or the absent farmer’s song hung in the heat waves waffling over the field. Do corn plants shiver when a farmer hums the songs of their youth? I’ll have to ask if the same songs are sung to babies and corn:
You are part of this world. You came out of the earth. You have strong roots that grasp the earth and sustain you. Grow and blossom and become a carrier of life. What do your roots tell you as they reach into the earth? Is there enough life here to sustain you? Do you feel the earth’s vibrations as you stretch deeper? You grow in a cluster that reaches for the evening star. Your clan surrounds you. You grow in a field. The village gathers and sustains you. The same sun and the same rains feed us all. Father Sun. Mother Earth. You are part of this world.
My feet would not budge from the jagged edge of the twenty-first century. I pulled myself away to search for teachers–the farmers, the mothers, the babies. Dusk thickened the sky and the wavy atmosphere relaxed into starlight.
The Dark Womb
Indigenous people who revere the sun also have a vast respect for the sun’s absence. Fear is released with confidence that the sun will always return the next day with due honor. Night is powerful, whether one is asleep or awake. It’s a time for ceremony, visions, for resting and rejuvenating from the day’s work. The Mayan cousins implore their all-knowing Hunab Ku to take care of them when the night hand closes in darkness. They surrender to the place they believe “everything happens” just as in human birth, through the dark womb. Take care of me, they implore, surrendering their body and spirit to the creative night.
A Hopi woman also understands life beginning within the darkness. She learned that the earth is mother, corn is mother. She understands that she is only one of her baby’s caregivers. She and her family and her clan will raise her children to know and respect the power of the inner world. They raise him or her to know that darkness holds powerful feminine energy where everything begins and where all living things are born or rejuvenated.
Feminine energy is naturally magnetic, robust, and glowing, like a healthy pregnant woman or a fertile plant. The creative seed may be spawned in quiet darkness, but within that nurturing space is the collective information necessary for the development of seed, egg or idea. Given its due space and time, is an incubator and a creator of healthy environments, whether for crop, embryo, or community.
The Kiva Womb
Hopi men create community in the kiva, the symbolic masonry womb. It’s the gathering place for men’s clan and society meetings, their ceremonial and teaching center. Women are rarely invited into the kiva proper. I feel my feminist ruffling of feathers, but I attempt to understand how the kiva serves as the men’s way of honoring women. Wise men balance themselves by meeting in circles to celebrate creative life connections.
In quiet meditation, we all follow our breath to the inner retreat, the timeless womb. There, we are all equally male and female in the instant of creation. Balancing yin and yang, feminine and masculine energy reaches for equal partnership.
The kiva reminds the Hopi of their emergence from the underworld and the story of their eventual return. The ancient Pueblo people lived in pit houses below the earth so when houses began to be built above ground, the kiva became ceremonial. To the Hopi, everything that lies beneath them is sacred. Their creation stories describe the present world as the fourth one created by Tawa, the Sun Spirit. They ascended to this world from out of the earth, seeking guidance from birds that flew to the present world.
The birds instructed them to climb up a hollow reed that provided passage from their former world that had filled up with greed and avarice. They ascended to what they hoped would be a better place. Upon arrival, they intended to close off the passage behind them to anything unclean. But soon they learned that the bad energy had followed them. Today little holes, sipaapuni, in the floors of their ceremonial kivas, symbolize the entrance from the underworld.
The darkness within the earth is not reflected as fearful. The darkness is not expected to be a place of danger, even though some of the kachina dances may provoke a temporary fear. Kachinas are the spiritual beings that live in the Hopis’ nearby San Francisco Mountains and visit them between winter and summer solstice. They are spiritual helpers who bring blessings from earth and sun spirits.
The darkness is seen as essentially holding humanity’s history. It holds all the wisdom that their ancestors learned about life and passed along to them in sacred trust. It is mother, just as the corn is mother. From deep in the earth and deep in the womb comes life. In darkness, everything has its beginning.
With this understanding, women, the embodiment of the dark, creative womb, are revered. The Hopi, unlike other previously matriarchal societies that capitulated to a conquering patriarchal culture and the habitual oppression of women, continue to allow the women to hold power. Women own most of the property and are involved in discussions and decisions about important matters. Men tend the corn crops but turn the harvest over to the woman owner.
The Hopi social and political structure is divided into groups called clans. The clans have powerful origin stories that bind them, usually with a mythical ancestor or character: bear clan, beaver clan, spruce clan and more. Clan relationships are traced through the mother’s family and women can inherit property through the clan of their mother.
Wings flutter at the side of the mesa and I smile again at the field below. Songs float to the corn mother:
This is what it’s like to be alive. We send down roots to the earth mother. We join in clusters and clans. Hopi pray for rain and never for wind. We sing because a person who cannot see in the darkness, can still hear.
What must the Hopi infant sense as it hears the songs and stories that are passed from one generation to another? The Hopi keep their traditional ways because they believe they live at the center of the world, a place intended to be more peaceful than the bumpy world outside. On the wheel of life, there are less shocks and disturbances in the center, they believe, if one holds to the ancient ways.
The babies, like seeds steeped in songs and prayers, hopefully sense that the conditions are right, that there is moisture and life. Roots reach into the dark earth to anchor firmly. The earth soaks up the warm sun’s rays and at night, dew forms moisture for the young plant to survive until the next rain.
Hold me and nurture me, a plant implores the earth.
Hold me and nurture me, a baby implores the womb.
Both seeds and babies are held by mother.
The Pottery Womb
The Hopi are world-renowned for exquisite pottery designs. Traditionally, potters are women and the weavers are men, although there are exceptions. Because women were instrumental in the emergence of artistic Hopi pottery, I look to the pots for the creative feminine reflection of our world.
On First Mesa where much of the pottery is made, there is a young woman who assists her mother, an expert potter. She watched and helped until she became confidant enough to try it on her own. Everything on the pottery is natural and comes from mother earth.
Mud is our simplest form of information. It’s the broken-down mixture of everything on earth, the final remains of all that has existed. Hopi potters roll it into coils, shape one coil atop another, balance and blend, build something new and beautiful from mud. Women have daughters who may learn to make pottery. Many other women teach other things to their daughters, passing information and skills to new generations.
Some women paint the pots, blending traditional patterns and native ingredients with their own visions from personal meditations. A woman may never venture from her Hopi homeland environment, but there is a feeling of vast universal wisdom in her pots.
In a small bowl sits the form, feeling and contents of all life. The coil is the spiraling coil of time, knitting together all existence. The pot is fired in a pit outdoors, covered with broken pieces of old pots and dry sheep dung. Painted images reflect an artist’s vision of emergence into a new world where rain and corn are plentiful. If the pot is especially beautiful, it’s filled to the brim with precious corn seeds. Female hands made or taught the making of this container of life. It’s a prayer for life made in the shape of a pot.
This is what we do.
The Womb of Creation
Life’s instructions are eagerly sought in a world that seems to be in a downward crashing spiral. We may get some instructions from our own families or various cultures. I’ve looked far and wide among other cultures, curious about life’s instructions from all around the world. I have hope of finding something my busy people may have overlooked.
I remember being very small, maybe around 4 or 5 years old when I witnessed my first Native American Powwow in a valley outside Salt Lake City. I knew nothing of the bright colored people with feathered outfits that looked to me like flowers or birds. I understood none of their words or songs, but their call of connection to life came through, clear and resounding. I felt invited into the nest with the other birds.
This is what it’s like to be alive. We are here together.
In my busy world, I especially appreciate people who can live life more slowly. The Hopi seem to grasp my racing mind with their time-woven lasso, flip it upside down, sweep a few sacred loops around my feet and implore me to focus on what’s right beneath me. I’m not allowed into the ceremonial kiva, but in my spirit life or dream life, I can go there on my own. I descend the bone ladder of time into the heart of darkness.
Inside the womb of creation I see a solitary old man, frail and withered, but eyeing me with glistening eyes mixed with sadness and pride. His eyes and heart tell an old story, one with volcanoes and oceans and massive fluttering feathers. His language is so thick I can only feel it. But it fully opens my heart. He pours forth salt and ash, water, and the juice of blue corn. It spreads out as thin as sheets of piki bread, rolled and stacked as far as my eyes can see. Beyond that, the pull of planets tells me there is more.
Patience is born in this cosmic kiva. The old man appears to know the entire story and can’t love it any more or any less. His breath is steady; his heartbeat joins the rhythm of the waves and starlight. He has grown old while his partner, the divine mother, learns the power of her fertility. But he knows with certainty that her darkness is his place for seeking and finding answers.
Darkness is the place for healing. Our offspring will see the comet fall.
They will climb up the bone ladder to enter another world
of peace and joy.