January 4th was the start of Alcatraz's most 'unique' incarceration. 19 Hopi men. But why?

Hopi prisoners at Alcatraz
January 4 was a fairly inauspicious day in history… in 46 BC Julius Caesar defeated Titus Labienus, in 1896 Utah became the 45th state, and in 1958 Sputnik 1 fell to Earth from orbit.

For the Hopi tribe, they remember this day in 1895 as when nineteen brave Hopi men began sentences at Alcatraz, having sacrificed themselves to stop Hopi children being forced into a government school regime where they were routinely beaten if they spoke their Hopi language or made any attempt to practice their religion. This was the largest group of Native American prisoners ever held at Alcatraz, and in the 140-year history of incarceration on the Rock, no one else was ever imprisoned for opposed forced education.

But the Hopis were understandably reluctant to hand over the education of their children to outsiders, given that they fully understood the intended result was to erase Hopi language and religion

The Hopi’s history of contact with outsiders was limited, but not good (theft, murder and enslavement being some of their experiences) and it had not eluded the Hopi that Government programs that attempted to move the People off the mesas and onto individual allotments of land, were intended to weaken family and clan relations and traditional social structure.

The journey to Alcatraz for the nineteen heroes was on foot, by horse, train and boat, and it took a month for Heevi'ima, Polingyawma, Masatiwa, Q'tsventiwa, Piphongva, Lomahongewma, Lomayestiwa, Yukiwma, Tuvehoyiwma, Patupha, Q'tsyawma, Sikyakeptiwa, Talagayniwa, Talasyawma, Nasingayniwa, Lomayawma, Tawalestiwa, Aqawsi, and Q'iwiso to arrive in San Francisco.

According to official records they were "held in confinement, at hard labor, until . . . they shall show . . . they fully realize the error of their evil ways . . . until they shall evince, in an unmistakable manner, a desire to cease interference with the plans of the government for the civilization and education of its Indian wards." Conditions at Alcatraz for the Hopis were just terrible and even a post surgeon described the prison as being "totally unequal to fulfill its legitimate purpose." Sanitation and ventilation were dreadful and the entire building was known to be a fire-trap.

The prisoners were taken on periodic ‘field trips’ to local schools so they would be able to see ‘the harmlessness of the multiplication table’. But the Hopi were (unsurprisingly) unconvinced and when in August 7, 1895 they were released and permitted to travel home to the Hopi Mesas, the people of Hopi continued to resist the policies of Washington. Despite their horrible experiences (and sadly, while they were away the wives of two of the prisoners gave birth to children who died during their incarceration!) the effect on the community was probably just to make their resistance stronger!

Today if you visit the Hopi Mesas you will find people of extraordinary strength, who live largely the same way they did back in the Old Times. Some of the villages on the Mesas are 1400 years old, and still inhabited. The clan system is still intact, the lifeway and Hopi religion is held safe within the Kivas, and ceremonies are not open to outsiders. And today if you visit the Mesas with us, your guide is the great grandson of one of these brave Hopi men!

Photography in the villages is forbidden (which has nothing to do with the ridiculous old myth that Native people are scared that cameras will steal their souls – it actually originates from negative experiences with ‘historic photographers’ like Edward S Curtis who had reluctant models posing at gunpoint). Should you be caught sneaking photos, someone will probably (rightly!) challenge you, but for ethical travelers, when you arrive you can already feel the sanctity of the land and most understand why the Hopi ask you to keep your memories of their homeland in your heart, not on your iPhone.

The villages on First, Second and Third Mesa are very much open to visitors and the people are generally very welcoming. Before you go, you should know that all Hopi guides have to be sanctioned by the tribal government and the etiquette for visitors is very clearly laid out. When you come to this area, you are exploring and learning about an incredibly beautiful culture, about people whose ancestors purposely chose a tough way of life to ensure their descendants’ future – knowing they would never have the luxury of being able to get lazy. People on the mesas still live without electricity or running water. They still grow the short blue corn that has ensured their physical, cultural and spiritual survival through the centuries, and they still hold dances to the same heart-stopping songs that have been sung since the People came to the surface of this earth. A trip to Hopi will take you to the heart of cultural and spiritual endurance.

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