An Evening with the Hopi Tribal Council
The Hopi tribe is governed by an American-style system of representative democracy more or less imposed on them by the Bureau of Indian Affairs back in 1936.
In the days when I was dealing with Abbott, the Hopi Tribal Council consisted of about twenty representatives, each serving two-year terms. The representatives were elected from the various Hopi villages: Upper Moenkopi, Bacavi, Shungopavi, Kykotsmovi, Sipaulovi, Walpi, Sitchumovi, Tewa, Hotevilla, Oraibi and Mishongnovi.
But that’s where the similarity to American-style governance ended. The traditional Hopi form of village administration (including a village leader, or kikmongwi, from a specific clan) continues to this day, exactly as though the BIA had never existed. The American system is simply superimposed, rather awkwardly, over the traditional village system, which is at least 1,000 years old.
For example, the representatives to the Tribal Council aren’t expected to vote their own consciences; they are expected solely to represent the interests of the villages that elected them. If you are wondering how a representative figures out what a village of a thousand people wants, that’s because you aren’t a Hopi.
Also, at least when I was on the Hopi reservation, some villages didn’t bother to elect representatives to the Tribal Council at all. But this didn’t mean they weren’t represented – they fully expected the other representatives to look out for their interests, apparently by osmosis.
In addition to the twenty elected representatives to the Tribal Council, there were a dozen or so people who showed up at most Council meetings who weren’t elected, but who participated fully in the Council’s deliberations. Apparently, some of these were the traditional village kikmongwi who didn’t bother to stand for election but who were at least as influential as the elected representatives.
Finally, Abbott Sekaquaptewa wasn’t precisely the Chairman of the Hopi Tribe; he was the Chairman of the Hopi Tribal Council—a very different thing. Under the Hopi Constitution (apparently, the Hopi snuck this in under the noses of the BIA), the executive branch of the tribe had very little power, as did the judicial branch. Virtually all power was vested in the Tribal Council.
So, summoned by Abbott one evening, the Hopi Tribal Council began assembling in the Tribal Council chambers. No specific time was set for this event—not, say, 6 p.m. No, the time was set as “this evening.” Some people, apparently having nothing much to do that day, arrived shortly after 4 p.m. Others rolled in around seven.
When Abbott decided that most of the important people were in attendance, he stood up, welcomed everyone, and asked the representatives to speak English in honor of the distinguished guest at the meeting—i.e., me.
As I understood it, at most Tribal Council meetings some people would speak English and some people would speak Hopi. Some representatives didn’t speak English and some didn’t speak Hopi, but no one thought this was a problem.
After Abbott sat down, nothing happened. I mean, nothing happened. For at least twenty minutes there was dead silence in the room. It was like I had happened upon a Quaker meeting where everyone was stoned out of their minds.
Eventually, a guy cleared his throat and said, “Mesa and desert do not meet.” Everyone nodded sagely. Then, nothing. After another twenty-five minutes or so another guy said, “Earth Mother send wind but not rain.” Everyone nodded sagely.
At this point I leaned over toward Abbott and said, “What the hell’s going on?”
“Shh,” said Abbott.
Roughly three hours after it convened, the meeting of the Hopi Tribal Council adjourned. The entire transcript of the meeting is as I have reported it above.
Needless to say, my head was ready to explode. I followed Abbott back to his office and remonstrated with him rather severely. But Abbott was serenity itself. “Sit down,” he said. “Breathe deeply.”
Abbott told me that the reason the Tribal Council meeting hadn’t gone well was because a large part of the tribe hadn’t bothered to show up – they had, as a matter of fact, boycotted the meeting.
“Well, then,” I suggested, “the hell with them, Abbott. They obviously don’t care one way or the other.”
But Abbott told me that for many centuries the Hopi Tribe had only made important decisions by consensus. It didn’t matter what three-fourths of the tribe wanted to do if the other fourth disagreed.
“But that’s insane!” I announced. “How can you ever get anything done?”
“Let’s go for a walk,” said Abbott.
I followed Abbott out of the tribal headquarters and across the parking lot and out into the desert. I had imagined that we were walking along the desert floor, with the high mesas behind us. But, actually, we were on top of a lower mesa.
When we reached the edge of this mesa, looking south, Abbott stood and stared off into the distance. Eventually, he said, “All this, everything you see, was Hopi land. Bigger than the King Ranch in Texas. Hopi land for two thousand years.” He shook his head sadly. Then he sat down.
I sat beside Abbott, staring into the darkness, and Abbott explained why members of the tribe had boycotted the council meeting. He spoke for more than an hour and, later, back in Pittsburgh, I wrote a poem about that evening called “A Night in the Arizona Desert” (available here).
We’ll hear what Abbott had to say next week.
Next up: Abbott Sekaquaptewa, Part IV