"They create desolation, and call it peace."
Awat'ovi Pueblo is among the loneliest of places I've walked. Once the most vibrant town in the ancient Puebloan Southwest, center of a vast exchange network of decorated pottery, maize, and cotton textiles, rich in ceremonial life and eastern gateway to the Hopi mesas, it now hosts little but the wind and sun.
Mesa of Sorrows
tells a story of its rise and fall. One story, crafted from many. The destruction of Awat'ovi, at the hands of neighboring Hopi warriors, has troubled the minds of their Hopi kinsmen, Franciscan missionaries, archaeologists, historians, and ethnographers for more than 300 years. How could Hopis — the "Peaceful People" — lie at the heart of one of the most devastating stories in the greater Southwest?
I came to this story obliquely. I've lived off and on in New Mexico and the greater Southwest (by which I include my current residence, the Spanish colonial presidio and mission town of Santa Barbara, California) since 1973. Even before then, my mother cultivated a curiosity for Southwestern archaeology and history in me, in part due to the fact she had grown up a neighbor to the legendary archaeologist Earl Morris in Boulder, Colorado, where she formed a lifelong friendship with his daughter, archaeologist Elizabeth (Liz). Among the books featured on our shelves were Liz's mother Ann's Digging in the Southwest
(1933) and Edgar Lee Hewett's Ancient Life in the American Southwest
(1930). Family vacations involved road trips, sprawled unbuckled (seat belts?) in the back of our 1958 Chevy Impala wagon to places like Bandelier National Monument, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, Chaco Canyon, and the Hopi mesas, which I first beheld in 1963. I recall wreaths of smoke from my father's Pall Malls, the scent of a warming can of Coors on the dashboard, a flash-flood at Chaco, drums, dancers, and piki bread at First Mesa — we must have visited during Home Dance, given the season.
Education and professorial appointments, thankfully, failed to stunt my fascination.
How could Hopis — the "Peaceful People" — lie at the heart of one of the most devastating stories in the greater Southwest?
Until Mesa of Sorrows
, my writing about the American Southwest focused on violence between
peoples — the long centuries during which Indians and Spaniards crafted a "low intensity peace" by capturing, and absorbing, each other's women and children — as slaves, kinspeople, sometimes both. Captives and Cousins
told that story.
Even as I finished that book, however, I wondered if women and children might also figure in cases where communities turned violence inward
, upon their own members. The fate of Awat'ovi has long been known — a Spanish governor dispatched a punitive expedition to settle accounts within some six months of the massacre — and variously referenced in scholarly writing for more than a century. Some Hopi narratives had hinted at rage and mutilation aimed at some of the women of Awat'ovi. As had whispers that some women and children were spared and distributed as rewards to the attackers — or rescued from a still-worse, if unstated, fate. Yet the sources seemed too thin to do more than wonder.
Around the same time I read Jan T. Gross's Neighbors
, a harrowing account of the humiliation and murder of some 1,600 Jewish residents of the Polish village of Jedwabne on a single day — July 10, 1941. Their Catholic neighbors — with whom they had long coexisted, hence the title of the book — turned torturers and executioners within an atmosphere of hatred nurtured by Nazi occupiers. Grotesque sexual violence against women and children took place that day — rape, torture, and mutilation. Some women sought to take charge of their own end, leaping into the nearby river with their babies. Their neighbors cheered them on.
Seven survived, however. As would, it now seems clear, some score of women and children at Awat'ovi (as well as, perhaps, a few ceremonially important men). The survivors of Jedwabne would form the kernel from which the truth eventually emerged. So, too, would the survivors of Awat'ovi — distributed among the assailants and integrated as kinspeople among the hostile villages — form a strain by which the story would come down across the centuries.
Why explore such sorrow? In part, at least, because history owes survivors the dignity of their story, however fragmentary that may prove. In part, as well, in that these moments of rage and terror seem to suggest a universal aspect of the human experience. One epigram in Mesa of Sorrows
quotes The Iliad
on the fall of Troy, an event that began the western humanistic tradition of employing urbs capta
, or the fall of cities, to underpin both history and poetry. Tacitus's words, likewise, speak not only to the Roman Empire's relentless expansion of warfare in the name of "peace," but also to a belief in human affairs that peace can only be obtained when "outsiders" — whether they be Jews, Christians, Muslims, indigenes, barbarians, sorcerers, immigrants, refugees, or heretics — recant their differences and adhere to orthodoxies. Great cities attract envy, resentment, and eyes to plunder. They also host, even as did the "universal citizenry" of ancient Rome, heterodoxies of many stripes. Ask the unfortunate Christians accused of arson by Nero, who were "covered with the hides of wild beasts" to be "worried to death by dogs" as pubic amusement. Was something similar in the tension that ignited the conflagration at Awat'ovi?
Still, why write of an event that many feel best remain untold, or at least within the bounds of Hopi memory and culture? My decision to tell this story — again, but one story — lies in this sense of its universality. Acts of rage and rampage are not limited to any one people; each and all of us harbor that inhumane capacity. Empires are built on stories of greatness, and built around silences about the atrocities that underlay that greatness. So, too, for the stories that make individuals, families, clans, tribes, and nations. Those silences can haunt the hearts and minds of those who sense them, even in faraway voices. Mesa of Sorrows
sifts through a vast and scattered array of faint stories, or threads of evidence, in the hope that once we place them in conversation with each other, a sense of understanding may emerge. As I suggest in the book, it may be that the very essence of "Hopiness" today, an ethic that emphasizes self-sublimation toward the greater good of the community, is a "lesson learned" from Awat'ovi's history. It is only when we sense a truth beyond the silence that forgiveness may become manifest. Maya Angelou
has written, "It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes....If we all hold on to the mistake, we can't see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror; we can't see what we're capable of being. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one's own self." My hope is that Mesa of Sorrows
will not only open a conversation about forgiveness on the Hopi Mesas, but also in any family, clan, village, state, or nation that has itself been perpetrator or victim. We are a wretched species, and yet capable of startling grace.
÷ ÷ ÷
James F. Brooks
is professor of history and anthropology at University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of Captives and Cousins
, which received the Bancroft, Francis Parkman, and Frederick Douglass Prizes, and the new book Mesa of Sorrows
. He lives in Santa Barbara.