'Book of the Hopi' 50 years later

Published 50 years ago by Penguin, the “Book of the Hopi” had a cult following during the ’60s. The book continues to have relevance for those wanting to understand the tribe’s culture and religion.

Joan Livingston
Posted 10/14/13

"The first world was Tokpela [Endless Space]."

So begins the "Book of the Hopi" by the late Frank Waters, one of Taos' most famed authors, who lived from 1902-1995.

With the aid of a translator, Waters related the Hopi view of the world, as …

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'Book of the Hopi' 50 years later

Published 50 years ago by Penguin, the “Book of the Hopi” had a cult following during the ’60s. The book continues to have relevance for those wanting to understand the tribe’s culture and religion.

Posted

"The first world was Tokpela [Endless Space]."

So begins the "Book of the Hopi" by the late Frank Waters, one of Taos' most famed authors, who lived from 1902-1995.

With the aid of a translator, Waters related the Hopi view of the world, as told to him by 30 tribal members.

Published 50 years ago by Penguin, the “Book of the Hopi” had a cult following during the ’60s. The book continues to have relevance for those wanting to understand the tribe’s culture and religion.

Waters spoke about the “Book of the Hopi” in a 1992 Tempo interview to mark his 90th birthday.

“I believe in that Hopi life and teachings completely. They’re good people. They have a good religion. Doing that ‘Book of the Hopi’ taught me a lot. We’re a right-brain people, a rational thinking people, a rational mind; we figure things out. But the Hopis are a left-brain people. They go by intuition and that intuition is geared to the religious side of things. We’re geared to the materialistic side. They don’t have, as we do, a Sunday religion,” he said.

Waters also said in the interview that during the ’50s he worked for the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, as it was called then, and in Las Vegas, Nev., for the atomic tests at Yucca Flat and Frenchman’s Flat. He said witnessing the detonation of about 100 nuclear bombs made him realize “how delicate a grasp humanity has on controlling the destructive powers in the universe as described in the Hopi teachings.”

During his lifetime Waters wrote 27 books, many of which reflect his deep interest in American Indian culture and religion. Among his most popular is “The Man Who Killed the Deer,” published in 1942 and based on a true story of a Taos Pueblo man arrested and fined for shooting a deer days after hunting season ended in Carson National Forest.

Waters, whose father was part Cheyenne, said his early books on American Indians gained little attention.

A Coloradan by birth, Waters found his way to Taos in the 1940s. Mabel Dodge Luhan, patroness of the arts, and her husband, Tony, befriended Waters. He wrote and edited El Crepúsculo, Taos’ bilingual newspaper for two years.

Waters was nominated numerous times for the Nobel Prize for Literature and was awarded seven honorary doctorate degrees from Southwestern colleges.

His widow, Barbara Waters, also an author, began the Frank Waters Foundation to foster literary and artistic achievement in the Southwest.

Three years

The “Book of the Hopi” took nearly three years to complete. Much of the time Waters lived in harsh conditions on the Hopi Reservation below Pumpkin Seed Point.

In the late ’50s Oswald White Bear Fredericks, a member of the tribe’s Coyote Clan, approached Fredrick Howell, director of the Charles Ulrick and Josephine Bay Foundation, to finance a history of the Hopi people. Eventually Waters was chosen as the writer.

Waters wrote about his experiences in “Pumpkin Seed Point: Being Within the Hopi,” published in 1969.

In the book he describes going to a Wall Street office to meet people — he does not identify any by name including a woman he called “The First Lady of Wall Street” — who told him they wanted to help the Hopis “by persuading them to relate freely, for the first time, the complete history and religious beliefs of their people.” They wanted the book to be useful and not an academic study that would end up in museums and libraries.

Waters wrote in “Pumpkin Seed Point” the project appealed to him immediately. “All my life I had known Indians and had written about them, and I felt I now owed them some constructive help in return for all they had given me.”

His research included Fredericks, who translated the recordings of tribal members from Hopi to English. Fredericks was married to Naomi, a white woman who called herself Brown Bear.

“White Bear collected most of our research material. He would take down on a little battery-run tape recorder the discourses of our Hopi spokesman. Later he would play them back translating them in English to his wife who would type them for my use. He also served as my interpreter when I interviewed Hopis, guided me to all the mentioned sites of ancient ruins and hidden shrines, and made drawings of pictographs and petroglyphs carved on rocks,” Waters wrote in “Pumpkin Seed Point.”

The “Book of the Hopi” is divided chronologically into sections: The Myths — Creation of the Four Worlds; The Legends — Migrations of the Clans; The Mystery Plans — The Ceremonial Cycle; The History — The Lost White Brother.

Waters doesn’t get in the way of the Hopi message. His writing is straightforward and unadorned.

Alexander Blackburn, an author and retired professor from the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs who wrote “A Sunrise Brighter Still: The Visionary Novels of Frank Waters,” says Waters likely wrote in that style because he worked off transcribed notes. He remarked on the access Waters had among the Hopi.

“He was the one they trusted,” Blackburn said.

Blackburn noted a book Waters wrote, “Masked Gods: Navajo and Pueblo Ceremonialism,” in 1950 preceded the Book of the Hopi.

Blackburn, who has co-edited with John Nizalowski a yet-to-be published book containing 40 years of critical essays about Waters’ writing, called him a masterful storyteller.

“I think of him in the top tier of American writers of the 20th Century,” he said.

Waters wrote in the opening notes of “Book of the Hopi”: “the Hopi spokesmen willingly and freely gave the information they were qualified to impart by reason of their clan affiliations and ceremonial duties.”

None were paid.

“Each regarded the compilation of this book as a sacred task — a monumental record that would give their children and their children’s children a complete history of their people and their religious belief,” he said.

This article originally appeared in Artes, a part of the annual series Tradiciones.

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