Sipapuni #AtoZAprilChallenge


When a stranger comes to the village, feed him. Do not injure one another, because all beings deserve to live together without injury being done to them. When people are old and cannot work anymore, do not turn them out to shift for themselves, but take care of them. Defend yourselves when an enemy comes to your village, but do not go out seeking war. The Hopis shall take this counselling and make it the Hopi Way.

– from the Palatkwapi story

In the beginning there was only Tokpella, Endless Space. Nothing stirred because there were no winds, no shadows fell because there was no light, and all was still. Only Tawa, the Sun Spirit, existed, along with some lesser gods. Tawa contemplated on the universe of space without objects or life, and he regretted that it was so barren. He gathered the elements of Endless Space and put some of his own substance into them, and in this way he created the First World. There were no people then, merely insect-like creatures who lived in a dark cave deep in the earth. For a long while Tawa watched them. He was deeply disappointed. He thought, ‘What I created is imperfect.These creatures do not understand the meaning of life.’

So Tawa called his messenger, Goyeng Sowuhti, Spider Grandmother, and told her to go down and prepare the living creatures for a change. Spider Grandmother went down. She spoke to the insect creatures, saying, ‘Tawa, the Sun Spirit who made you, is unhappy because you do not understand the meaning of life. He says: ‘The creatures are fighting among themselves. They see but they do not comprehend. Therefore I will change things. I will make a new world, and I will perfect all things that have life in them.’ This is the message Tawa asked me to bring. Therefore prepare to leave this place to enter the Second World.’

… When at last they emerged into the Second World they looked quite different. They were animals that somewhat resembled dogs, coyotes and bears. There was fur on their bodies, their fingers were webbed, and they had tails. They lived in the Second World and were happy at first. But because they did not have any understanding they grew bitter and warred upon one another, even eating one another. Tawa saw how the creatures of his Second World were living. He saw that they did not grasp the meaning of life. And so again he sent Spider Grandmother to lead them on another journey.

While they travelled, Tawa created the Third World. He made the atmosphere a little lighter and gave them water to moisten their fields. When the creatures followed Spider Grandmother into the Third World they discovered their bodies had changed again. Their fur, their webbed fingers and their tails had disappeared. Spider Grandmother said to them: ‘Now you are no longer merely creatures. You are people. Tawa has given you this place so that you may live in harmony and forget all evil. Do not injure one another. Remember that Tawa created you out of Endless Space, and try to understand the meaning of things.’

… The people made their villages. They planted corn. They lived on. They were in harmony, and they were grateful to the Sun Spirit who had created them and given them a new world to live in. Yet things were not perfect. There was a chill in the air, and the light was only grayness. Spider Grandmother came and taught people how to weave blankets and cloth to keep their bodies warm. She taught the women how to make pots out of clay so that they could store water and food. But the pots could not be baked and they broke easily. And the corn did not grow very well because warmth was lacking.

Then one day a hummingbird came to where the people were working in their fields. The people asked, ‘Why are you here?’ The hummingbird answered, ‘I have been sent by my master.’ They said, ‘Who is your master?’

The bird replied, ‘He is Masauwu, Ruler of the Upper World, Caretaker of the Place of the Dead and the Owner of Fire. He has observed how you live here, and he says, ‘The crops do not grow well because the people do not have warmth.” The people said, ‘Yes, it is true. Warmth is lacking.’ The hummingbird said, ‘I have been sent to teach you the secret of warmth.’ And he gave them the secret, showing them how to create fire with a fire drill. After that he departed.

Now that the people had the knowledge of fire, they gathered grass and wood and made fires around their fields, and the warmth made their corn grow… They learned the secret of baking pottery… Those who had received the secret of fire from Masauwu’s messenger became known as the Firewood or Fire People. They said, ‘Masauwu is our relative.’ Now things were better in the Third World.

It was the powakas, or sorcerers, who brought disruption and conflict among the people. They made medicine to injure those whom they envied or disliked. Worse yet, they turned the people’s mind from virtuous things. The younger people grew disrespectful of the older. Husbands sought other women, and wives sought other men. Instead of caring for their fields, men spent their time in the kivas gambling. And instead of grinding corn, women went to the kivas to join them. Children wandered about unclean and uncared for, and babies cried for milk… Dissension spread everywhere. Instead of seeking to understand the meaning of life, many began to believe that they had created themselves.

In the beginning , life in the Third World had been good. But because people succumbed to the evil unleashed by the powakas, things began to change. The cornstalks in the fields withered before the ears were formed. The flowing rivers moved more sluggishly and the springs dried up. Clouds drifted over the fields but did not release their rain. Squash and melon stopped growing, and sickness came into many houses.

Now, those who had not forgotten that Tawa was their father worried greatly about the way things were going. Night after night they met in the kivas to discuss the corruption that was spreading in the Third World. They encouraged the lazy to work, admonished women for their promiscuous ways, threatened the powakas with punishment and sought to create order, yet nothing changed. There was evil and chaos all around them.

Tawa saw what was happening to the world he had made. He called Goyeng Sowuhti, Spider Grandmother, and sent her to the people with a message. Spider Grandmother… entered a kiva where the people were gathered. She said, ‘Tawa, the Sun Spirit, is displeased with what he has created. The powakas have made you forget what you should have remembered. Therefore all people of good heart should go away from this place and leave the evil behind.’ The people said to one another, ‘Where can we go? Is there another place?’ But they did not know of another place anywhere, and they were troubled.

Then an old man said, ‘Have you not heard footsteps in the sky, as though someone is walking there?’ And other old men replied, ‘Yes, there has been someone walking above us up there. We have heard it many times when the air was still.’ Other people said, ‘Let us discover what is there. Let us send a messenger to investigate things…’

So began the search for the ‘hole in the sky’, the doorway to the Upper World. The chiefs resolve to send messengers to seek the passage, and contact whoever lived ‘up there’. Eventually a catbird finds the way.

So the catbird flew up and passed through the opening in the sky… He came to a place of sand and mesas. He saw large fires burning alongside gardens of squash, melons and corn. Beyond the gardens was a single house made of stone. A person was sitting there, his head down, sleeping. The catbird alighted nearby and waited. The person awoke and raised his head. His eyes were sunken in deeply, there was no hair on his head, and his face was seared by burns and encrusted with dried blood. Across the bridge of his nose and his cheekbones two black lines were painted.  Around his neck were two heavy necklaces, one made of four strands of turquoise, the other of bones…

The catbird recognises Masauwu, Spirit of Death, the Owner of Fire and Master of the Upper World. The catbird explains the state the Lower World is in, infested with evil, and that many people wish to come and live in the Upper World. “The people of good heart ask for your permission to enter the Upper World and build their villages here.”

Masauwu said, ‘You see how it is in this place. There is no light, only grayness here. There is no warmth, and I must build fires to make my crops grow. But there is land and water. If the people wish to come, let them come.’

The catbird left Masauwu and returned to the opening through which he had passed. He went down to where the chiefs and the medicine men were waiting. They asked him, ‘Did you arrive there and find the one who walks in the sky?’

The catbird explains what he saw, and Masauwu’s willingness to have the people come to the Upper World.

Hearing this, the chief of Fire People spoke. He said, ‘Masauwu is our spirit. We are the ones to whom he sent the secret of fire. He is our relative. Therefore we are willing to go.’ Others said, ‘Yes, let all of us who wish to escape from evil go there. The Fire People can lead us and speak for us to Masauwu. Let us prepare for the journey.’

It was agreed, then, but the chiefs and medicine men looked upward, saying, ‘How shall we ever reach the sipapuni, the doorway in the sky?’

Once again Goyeng Sowuhti, Spider Grandmother, comes to the rescue, with her young grandsons, the warrior gods Pokanghoya and Polongahoya. She sends her grandsons to find chipmunk, the planter.

Spider Grandmother said to the chipmunk, ‘It is you who have been chosen to make a path for the people into the sky. For this you will always be remembered.’ And she explained what had to be done.

The chipmunk planted a sunflower seed in the center of the plaza. By the power of singing the people made it grow. If they stopped to catch their breath, the sunflower stopped growing, and Spider Grandmother called out, ‘Sing! Sing!’ As soon as they started to sing again, the sunflower continued growing. In time the sunflower stalk reached toward the sky, but just as it was about to pass through the sipapuni it bent over from the weight of its blossom.

Then the chipmunk planted a spruce seed, then a pine seed, and all failed to reach the sipapuni.

Once more the chipmunk planted. This time it was a bamboo. The people sang hard and made the bamboo grow straight and tall… Spider Grandmother went back and forth exhorting the people to sing the bamboo into the sky. Thus it went on. The people began to fear that they did not have breath enough to do what was required of them. But finally Spider Grandmother called out, ‘It is done! The bamboo has passed through the sipapuni!’

The road to the Upper World was finished, and the people rested. Spider Grandmother spoke, telling of the things to come. She said, ‘The journey will be long and difficult. When we reach the Upper World, that will be only a beginning. Things there are not like things here. You will discover new ways of doing things. During the journey you must try  to discover the meaning of life and learn to distinguish good from evil. Tawa did not intend for you to live in the midst of chaos and dissension. Only those of good heart may depart from the Third World. The powakas and all who perform wicked deeds must stay behind. As we go up the bamboo to the Upper World, see that no one carries evil medicine in his belt. See that no powakas go with us. Leave your pots and grinding stones behind. Up above you will make more of these things. Carry nothing that has to be held in your hands, for you will need your hands for climbing. When we have arrived in the Upper World I will tell you more about what is expected of you. Meanwhile, remember this: In the Upper World you must learn to be true humans.’

… The people prepared, and on the fourth day they gathered at the foot of the bamboo. The chiefs stood in front – the village chief, the crier chief, the singer chief and the war chief. Behind them the people stood waiting for the journey to begin… Spider Grandmother went up the bamboo first, followed by the boy warrior gods. The people moved toward the bamboo to begin to climb. But now the chief of the Fire People protested, saying, ‘Wait. We are the ones who are entitled to go first, for Masauwu is our special benefactor. We shall take the lead.’ The others deferred to the Fire People. After the Fire People began their ascent, whoever could get to the bamboo took his turn. The mockingbird fluttered around the bamboo, calling out, ‘Pashumayani! Pashumayani! Be careful!’ This the way the people departed from the Lower World. They moved slowly upward, and in time the entire bamboo stalk was covered with human bodies.

As the first climbers emerged through the sipapuni and stepped into the Upper World, Yawpa the mockingbird stood at Spider Grandmother’s side and sorted them out. ‘You shall be a Hopi and speak the Hopi language,’ he said to one. ‘You shall be a Navajo and speak the Navajo language,’ he said to another. ‘You shall be an Apache and speak the Apache language,’ he said to a third. He assigned every person to a tribe and a language, and to each tribe he gave direction to go in its migrations. He named the Paiutes, the Zunis, the Supais, the Pimas, the Utes, the Comanches, the Sioux, and the White Men…

More people were coming up the bamboo stalk. Finally the chiefs decided that “all those who chose to depart from evil are here. Therefore, let no more come through the sipapuni.”

The village chief went to the opening and called down, ‘You who are still climbing, turn and go back. It is because of you that we chose to leave and come to the Upper World. Do not follow us. You are not wanted here.’

But the climbers persisted, saying that they also wanted to be in the Upper World. So the warrior gods, Pokanghoya and Polongahoya, grasped the bamboo stalk and pulled its roots from the ground. They shook it and all those clinging to it fell back into the Lower World like seeds falling from ripe grass. The chiefs said, ‘Now we are secure from the evil ones. Let us make camp.’ The people camped near the sipapuni and rested.

From: The Fourth World of the Hopis, The Epic Story of the Hopi Indians as Preserved in their Legends and Traditions, Harold Courlander, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, © 1971 by Harold Courlander

Image: Tim Nicola, Woman With Shawl, ca. 1992, Alabaster Marble, Courtesy Tucson Museum of Art


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