Hostile Hopi (English, 2021)

The following text is the premise of an art project I recently completed (May 2021; see Keams Canyon, May 1896) involving various photographs taken by Aby Warburg during the spring of 1896 in the northeastern sector of present-day Arizona (USA).

The Hopi are a Native American tribe established between the 8th and the 13th centuries in the desert territories bordering present-day New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona. Since 1934, the Hopi constitute a self-governing tribe occupying a reduced area within the larger Navajo reservation.

The Hopi’s first contact with Westerners dates back to 1540, when the conquistador Francisco Vásquez de Coronado learned of their existence and carried out an initial census. Subsequently the Spanish conquerors attempted to convert them to Catholicism. In 1629, thirty Franciscan friars arrived in their territory.
The year 1680 saw the great revolt of the united Pueblo and Hopi, which took the Spanish twenty years to quell. At the end of the 17th century, the only village that the missionaries had succeeded in converting was Awatowi. In the winter of 1700-1701, groups from other Hopi villages attacked Awatowi. All the men were killed, while the women and children moved to other villages, and their houses were burned to the ground. The Spanish eventually gave up their attempts to colonize the Hopi, and their presence on Hopi land became sporadic.

The first contact with the new occupants, the United States of America, occurred in 1850 (two years after the end of the war in which the US incorporated 55% of Mexican territory).
In 1875 Loololma (also known as Lololomai), the head of the village of Oraibi (considered the most traditional of the Hopi settlements) was taken to Washington to meet with the President of the United States. He returned convinced of the need to build schools in order to provide access to American “civilization” and to produce larger quantities of maize, the Hopi’s staple food.

In 1887 the first school was built at Keams Canyon. This initiative represented a genuine attempt to convert the Hopi and, as a result of the passive resistance on the part of many members of the tribe, the few pupils attended the school (1). Eventually in 1890 US federal troops forced children to attend by threatening to arrest non-compliant parents.
In 1893 a new school opened in Oraibi. The following year, a group of parents refused to send their children there. The US army intervened, arresting nineteen fathers and eventually deporting them to Alcatraz prison, where they remained detained for several months (November 1894-September 1895) (2).
Finally, in 1906, as a result of inter-community conflicts related to education as well as land ownership issues, the village split into two factions: those who collaborated (the “Friendlies”) remained in Oraibi; while those who resisted (the “Hostiles”), under the leadership of Lomahongyoma, head of the Spider clan, established a new settlement, Hotevilla.

In the winter of 1895-1896,  after a stay in Washington where he conferred with ethnographers at the Smithsonian Institute, Aby Warburg visited several Native American villages in New Mexico and attended certain ceremonies (but not the Snake Dance). From Albuquerque he travelled to Laguna, then to Acoma; in San Ildefonso he observed a performance of the  Antelopes Dance. In late April 1896, after a stay in California, he returned to the Hopi territories. After a two-day trip in a buggy across the desert, he arrived at Keams Canyon and proceeded to Walpi and Oraibi, where he witnessed the humiskatcina dance.

Therefore, Warburg was in Oraibi some seven months after the release of the nineteen “Hostile” fathers from Alcatraz prison. Although in the account of his journey (as recounted in his well-known Kreuzlingen lecture of 25 April 1923) (3), Warburg does not mention this episode, it is highly unlikely that he was unaware of it. And, while his entire lecture revolves around the question of the conflict between the “Hopi soul” and Western culture and the subject of education is repeatedly referred to, Warburg does not seem to be familiar with the methods of forced education practiced by the US government. He only mentions difficulties that the head of the village of Acoma encountered in convincing reluctant Indianers to enter the church.

Figure 27 of the Kreuzlingen lecture shows a small group of school children “gracefully dressed and in aprons”, who no longer believe in to the “pagan demons”. But this observation, apparently ironic, is followed by a striking affirmation: “Children standing in front of a cave. Leading them to light, is the task not only of the American school, but of humanity in general”.

The first four photos that follow illustrate the different phases of the arrest and internment of the nineteen Hopi parents (among them, at the center, the head of the “Hostile” faction, Lomahongyoma). The next two photos were taken with Warburg’s Kodak camera: they show Neel, the teacher, with two Hopi girls and a group of children in front of a cave .


(1) “The Keams Canyon School was organized to teach the Hopi youth the ways of European-American civilization. It forced them to use English and give up their traditional ways. The children were made to abandon their tribal identity and completely take on European-American culture. They received haircuts, new clothes, took on Anglo names, and learned English. The boys learned farming and carpentry skills, while the girls were taught ironing, sewing and “civilized” dining. The school also reinforced European-American religions.”
This quote, as well as the information above and most of the following, is taken from the wikipedia article “”.

(2) For additional information on this deportation  and the four related photographs, see the website of the Alcatraz National Park:
See also: S. Rushfort, S. Upham, A Hopi social History, Austin, Texas, 1992; M. S. Gilbert, Education beyond the Mesas: Hopi Students at Sherman Institute, 1902-1929, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2010; H. C. James, Pages from Hopi History, Tucson, Arizona, 1974; Peter M. Whiteley, Deliberate Acts, Changing Hopi Culture Through the Oraibi Split, The University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1988.

(3) A. Warburg, “Il rituale del serpente”, aut aut, 199-200, January-April 1984, pp. 17-39; see also the fundamental B. Cestelli Guidi, N. Mann, Photographs at the Frontier. Aby Warburg in America, 1895-1896, London 1998. And without overlooking Aby M. Warburg, Images from the region of the Pueblo Indians of North America, Translated with an interpretive essay by Michael P. Steinberg, Ithaca and London, 1995, and David Freedberg, “Pathos at Oraibi: What Warburg did not see”, in Lo sguardo di Giano: Aby Warburg fra tempo e memoria, ed. C. Cieri Via e P. Montani, Torino 2004), pp. 569-611.

Note: this is a revised automatic translation from the Italian (see my Hostile Hopi 2017-2021).
(The images disappeared from this page. Please refer to the Italian version of this article.)
The nineteen “Hostile” in Alcatraz.

Hopi and Western children at Keams Canyon, photo by Aby Warburg (1896). From B. Cestelli Guidi, N. Mann, Photographs at the Frontier. Aby Warburg in America, 1895-1896, London 1998.

A page from the Hopi petition, March 1894.



The religious chiefs symbols.


2021, Keams Canyon 00, 40×30.


The final pages of the Kreuzlingen (1923) lecture, in “Il rituale del serpente”,  aut aut, Gennaio-aprile 1984.