Why North America's Oldest Colony Split Up

Tornado Science, Facts and History

Some people point to 1906 as the year of the Great San Francisco Earthquake, but, for anthropologists who study American Indians, it is the year that split the Hopi community of Orayvi, the longest continually occupied settlement in North America.

The break-up — which came two mornings after the last complete Snake Dance ever performed in that pueblo and in which half of the pueblo's residents were forced to leave — has been the subject of anthropological debate for the century that followed. Hoping to resolve the debate, Peter Whiteley, an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, offers a new analysis in the book, "The Orayvi Split: A Hopi Transformation."

"One and a half days after a Snake Dance led by 'hostiles,' or people who did not want to go along with the white man's way, the 'friendlies' drove them from Orayvi," said Whiteley. "Recently, anthropologists have argued the split owed to competition over material resources — it's been called a 'flight of the landless' — but the Hopi themselves say that it happened because the ritual system had become corrupt."

In his book, Whiteley agrees with the Hopi: The split occurred because the ceremonial system was no longer an effective means of integration as outside pressure on Orayvi accelerated divisions among different factions.

Support for this idea comes from Whiteley's detailed reconstruction of the exact population in 1906 and a new interpretation of Hopi social structure, both of which show that the community divided by household rather than among maternal lineages within clans. This is in contrast to accepted anthropological wisdom.

"Hostiles" from multiple clans were physically carried from their homes before leaving Orayvi to establish three new villages within a six-mile radius and enlarge a fourth 40 miles to the west — all within modern Arizona. Within 30 years, Orayvi became a ghost town as less than 10 percent of the original population remained.

In addition to three years' field work on the Hopi Reservation, Whiteley spent years poring over surveyor's maps, culling archival material and refining early census records in order to reject conventional hypotheses for the fissure of Orayvi. These hypotheses include environmental degradation, overpopulation and the 19th century incursion of others.

The historical record showed that poor harvests could not be to blame for the fission, because flood irrigation of the cornfields continued until 1911 (refuting the supposition that the Orayvi Wash was deepened before the split).

Overpopulation could also be rejected because the pueblo was not even close to its maximum numbers in 1906; emigration to farm land near what is now Tuba City meant that an escape valve for population pressure was already in place.

Navajo immigration and Mormon encroachment did affect the Hopi — one chief asked for help from the federal government because the Navajo's sheep were taking over their water holes — but this too was not enough to cause the rupture.

Orayvi dates to at least the 12th century. This community was always remote, and the Hopi maintained their autonomy and unique cultural identity by chasing out intruders (they played a major role in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680) and by allowing the Tewa — refugees from the Rio Grande — to act as translators and mediators between themselves and the rest of the world.

Orayvi managed to absorb European horses and sheep without dramatically altering their subsistence practices. Yet the pressure on the Hopi increased in the late 19th century with the railroad, Thomas Keam's trading post and the U.S. government's insistence on school attendance and land surveys. The Hopi who tore up surveyor's stakes were imprisoned and ultimately became the "hostile" faction. By 1906, the division among the residents was too great.

"Orayvi is interesting because it was thought to be a pristine Puebloan society," Whiteley said. "Because the Hopi were monolingual, engaged in subsistence agriculture, and had a very active ceremonial life with no European influence, anthropologists tend to think of the Orayvi split as a model of Puebloan abandonment throughout southwestern prehistory."

But the Hopi story is much more complex, as Whiteley's careful detective work demonstrates, work that, in addition to its analytical purpose, seeks to give the Hopi of today a sense of their historical record and impact since European contact.

Live Science Staff
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