North-South-East-West: American Indians and the Natural World

Water: The Substance of Life

TabletaIn a land of limited water resources, the Hopi have developed an elaborate system for attracting rain. The need for water is at the heart of the Hopi ceremonial system—drinking water in the springs and cisterns, rain for the fields, and snow to renew the earth. Before running water was available at Hopi, hauling water in large, ceramic containers was one of the major daily tasks in the life of a Hopi family.

Hopi people play an active role in bringing rain. Both as a community and as individuals, the people are responsible for attracting water, thereby turning the cycle of agriculture. When everyone comes together during the ceremonies and everything is done in the correct way, it rains. Otherwise, there is no rain.

Katsinas and the dolls that represent them, or tihus, wear the clouds and the rain. On their heads are stacks of clouds. Embroidered rain falls from their colorful dance kilts. On the rain sashes each knot is a cumulus cloud from which long fringe swishes like pouring rain. Some tihus illustrate water in special ways, holding a lightning bolt or wearing a water board on their backs. Bull roarers, with their whirring sound, attract the wind, which in turn brings the rain. Everywhere there is the prayer for rain.

Cloud and rain motifs are frequent designs on all Hopi arts. Rain clouds are regularly depicted as stylized terraced triangles, often with vertical stripes of rain showering from them. Painted and sculpted birds, butterflies, flower blossoms, and the sun all represent those things that appear after a rain shower and signal a fruitful growing season.

CanteenWhen the Water Comes
Hauling water was one of the major daily tasks in the life of a Hopi family. Women carried water in large, globular pottery canteens that they transported in cloth burdens slung over their backs. Hopi women preferred this method to balancing pottery jars on their heads as the women at Acoma and Zuni did. When metal buckets became available, the Hopi were quick to appreciate their light weight and durability.

Hopi people were ever prepared to utilize the rains that came in July and August. Women collected water from hollowed-out cisterns an the mesa top or from springs at the base of the mesa. They stored the water in canteens or poured it into larger pottery jars at home. Today many of the mesa top villages are still without running water.


CanteenImage 1: Tableta
Hopi, ca. 1904
Hopi teenage girls wear these headdresses in the autumn Butterfly Dance. Their young uncles and nephews make the tabletas, which the girls keep as mementos of their youth.
On the top of this headdress are birds and sunflowers with a terraced cloud in the center. Two sun katsinas flank towering clouds and falling rain. On the reverse side are sun and sunflower designs. All of these elements are associated with summer rains.
Pine? (Pinus sp.), commercial and mineral paints, laundry blueing, commercial leather, tanned deer? hide (Odocoileus sp.), commercial cotton, unidentified large owl feathers, cotton (Gossypium hirsutum); W 49.0 x H 44.0 cm; 3165-301

Image 2: Canteen A
Hopi, ca. 1900
A smallpox epidemic following upon a drought and famine caused numerous Hopi families to flee to Zuni Pueblo in the 1860s, where they remained for several years. When they finally returned home, Hopi potters brought with them Zuni pottery designs, which they applied to their own pottery.
Clay, mineral paints; L 28.0 x W 25.0 x H 21.0 cm; 1946-59

Image 3: Canteen B
Hopi, ca. 1900
This plainware canteen was made for everyday use and held several gallons of water. It was wrapped in cloth and carried up the steep mesa on a woman's back. The canteen and the water together weighed over thirty-five pounds.
Clay, commercial cotton, unidentified resin; L 33.0 x W 37.0 x H 29.0 cm; 1946-99999d

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