The Moqui Indians

The Indians of Arizona are, perhaps, the most interesting of any of the American aborigines. They are as unique and picturesque as is the land which they inhabit; and the dead are no less so than the living.

The Pueblo Indians, with which the Moquis are classed, number altogether about ten thousand and are scattered in twenty-six villages over Arizona and New Mexico. They resemble each other in many respects, but do not all speak the same language. They represent several wholly disconnected stems and are classified linguistically by Brinton as belonging to the Uto-Aztecan, Kera, Tehua and Zuni stocks. He believes that the Pueblo civilization is not due to any one unusually gifted lineage, but is altogether a local product, developed in independent tribes by their peculiar environment, which is favorable to agriculture and sedentary pursuits. 1

The houses are constructed of stone and adobe, are several stories high and contain many apartments. None of the existing pueblos are as large as some that are in ruins which, judging by the quantity of debris, must have been huge affairs. Since the advent of the Spaniard the style of building has chsomewhat to conform to modern ideas, so that now some families live in separate one-story houses having doors and windows, instead, as formerly, only in large communal houses that were built and conducted on the communal plan.

Their manners and customs are peculiar to themselves and make an interesting study. Their civilization is entirely original, though modified to some extent by centuries of contact with the whites. They understand the Spanish language, but have not forgotten their mother tongue. They hold tenaciously to their old customs and have not changed materially during the past four hundred years.

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During that time the Catholic missionaries endeavored to convert them to Christianity, but with only partial success. While they appeared to acquiesce, by giving formal obedience to the requirements of the new religion, they yet held sacred their old beliefs and in the privacy of the estufa practiced in secret the rites and ceremonies of their ancient faith.

The Spaniards undertook to conquer a free and independent people by teaching them dependence and submission, but signally failed. After a struggle of two hundred and eighty years Spanish civilization withdrew and left the Pueblo civilization victorious.

Under successive Spanish, Mexican and American rule the Pueblo has preserved itself intact which fact stamps the Pueblo people as being eminently valiant, self-reliant and persevering. They are peaceable, industrious and hospitable and are said to be the best governed people in the world. As nearly as can be ascertained they are free from every gross vice and crime and Mr. C. F. Lummis, who knows them well, believes them to be a crimeless people.

The Moquis of Arizona are the most primitive of the Pueblo Indians and are worthy representatives of their race. They are of the Aztecan branch of the Shoshonean family and probably the lineal descendents of the cliff dwellers. Their home is on the Painted Desert in northeastern Arizona where they have lived for many centuries. It is a barren and desolate spot and has been likened to Hades with its fires extinguished. Nevertheless it is an exceedingly interesting region and furnishes many attractions. The landscape is highly picturesque and the phantasmagoric effects of the rarified atmosphere are bewitching.

In the early Spanish days Moqui land was designated as the Province of Tusayan and was shrouded in mystery. The seven Moqui towns were at one time regarded as the seven Cities of Cibola, but later it was decided that Zuni and not Moqui was the true Cibola.

When Coronado, at the head of his intrepid army, marched through the land in the year 1540, he procured native guides to aid him in exploring the country, hoping to find fabulous wealth which failed to materialize. He heard of a race of giants whom he wished to meet, but instead of finding them discovered a river with banks so high that they “seemed to be raised three or four leagues into the air.” What he saw was the Colorado River with its gigantic canon walls and wealth of architectural grandeur and beauty. The bewildering sight naturally astonished him as it does every beholder. Think of a fissure in the earth over a mile deep! But the Grand Canon of Arizona is more that a simple fissure in the earth. It is composed of many canons which form a seemingly endless labyrinth of winding aisles and majestic avenues–fit promenades for the Gods.

The land of the Moquinos is full of surprises and, although they are not all as startling as the Grand Canon, they are sufficiently striking to make Arizona a wonderland that is second to none on the continent.

The Moquis live in seven towns or pueblos which are built upon three rocky mesas that are many miles apart. The mesas are about seven thousand feet above sea level and from six to eight hundred feet higher than the surrounding plain. Upon the first or eastern mesa are located the three towns of Te-wa, Si-chom-ovi and Wal-pi. Tewa is the newest of the three towns and was built by the Tehuan allies who came as refugees from the Rio Grande after the great rebellion of 1680. They were granted permission to build on the spot by agreeing to defend the Gap, where the trail leaves the mesa, against all intruders.

Upon the second or middle mesa are the towns of Mi-shong-novi, Shi-pauli-ovi and Shong-o-pavi; and on the third mesa is O-rai-bi, which is the largest of the Moqui villages, and equal to the other six in size and population. The entire population of the seven Moqui towns numbers about two thousand souls.

In 1583 Espejo estimated that the Moquis numbered fifty thousand, which, doubtless, was an over estimate, as he has been accused of exaggeration. However, since their discovery their numbers have greatly diminished and steadily continue to decrease, as if it were also to be their fate to become extinct like the ancient cliff dwellers.

The Moqui Pueblos are well protected by natural barriers upon all sides except towards the south. Perched upon their high mesas the people have been safe from every attack of an enemy, but their fields and flocks in the valley below were defenseless. The top of the several mesas can only be reached by ascending steep and difficult trails which are hard to climb but easy to defend. The paths on the mesas have been cut deep into the hard rock, which were worn by the soft tread of moccasined feet during centuries of travel, numbering, perhaps, several times the four hundred years that are known to history.

The houses are built of stone and mortar, and rise in terraces from one to five stories high, back from a street or court to a sheer wall. Some of the remodeled and newly built houses have modern doors and windows. The upper stories are reached from the outside by ladders and stone stairways built into the walls. The rooms are smoothly plastered and whitewashed and the houses are kept tidy and clean, but the streets are dirty and unsanitary.

In these sky cities the Moquis live a retired life that is well suited to their quiet dispositions, love of home life and tireless industry. The men are kind, the women virtuous and the children obedient. Indeed, the children are unusually well behaved. They seldom quarrel or cry, and a spoiled child cannot be found among them. The Moquis love peace, and never fight among themselves. If a dispute occurs it is submitted to a peace council of old men, whose decision is final and obeyed without a murmur.

They are shy and suspicious of strangers, but if addressed by the magic word lolomi, their reserve is instantly gone. It is the open sesame to their hearts and homes, and after that the house contains nothing too good to bestow upon the welcome guest. They are true children of nature, and have not yet become corrupted by the vices of white civilization. The worst thing they do is that the men smoke tobacco.

Their industries are few, but afford sufficient income to provide for their modest needs. They are primarily tillers of the soil, and as agriculturists succeed under circumstances that would wholly baffle and discourage an eastern farmer. Several years ago a man was sent out from Washington to teach the Moquis agriculture, but before a year had passed the teacher had to buy corn from the Indians. They make baskets and pottery, weave cloth and dress skins for their own use and to barter in trade with their neighbors. They like silver and have skilled workmen who make the white metal into beads and buttons and various trinkets for personal adornment. They care nothing for gold, and silver is their only money. Chalchihuitl is their favorite gem and to own a turquoise stone is regarded as an omen of good fortune to the happy possessor.

Just how the Spaniards got the notion that the Moquis loved gold and possessed vast stores of that precious metal is not apparent unless it be, as Bandelier suggests, that it originated in the myth of the El Dorado, or Gilded Man. 2 The story started at Lake Guatanita in Bogota, and traveled north to Quivera, but the wealth that the Spaniards sought they never found. Their journey led them over deserts that gave them but little food and only a meager supply of water, and ended in disaster.

The mesas are all rock and utterly barren, and their supplies are all brought from a distance over difficult trails. The water is carried in ollas by the women from springs at the foot of the mesa; wood is packed on burros from distant forests; and corn, melons and peaches are brought home by the men when they return from their work in the fields. A less active and industrious people, under similar circumstances, would soon starve to death, but the Moquis are self-supporting and have never asked nor received any help from Uncle Sam.

In the early morning the public crier proclaims in stentorian tones from the housetop the program for the day, which sends everyone to his daily task. They are inured to labor and do not count work as a hardship. It is only by incessant toil that they succeed at all in earning a living with the scanty resources at their command, and the only surprise is that they succeed so well. There is scarcely an hour during the day or night that men and women are not either coming or going on some errand to provision the home.

The men travel many miles every day going to and from their work in the fields. If a man owns a burro he sometimes rides, but usually prefers to walk. What the burro does not pack, the man carries on his back. He often sings at his work, just as the white man does in any farming community, and his song sounds good.

The burro is the common carrier and, because of his sterling qualities, is a prime favorite in all of the pueblos. If he has any faults they are all condoned except one, that of theft. If he is caught eating in a corn field he is punished as a thief by having one of his ears cut off; and if the offense is repeated he loses his other ear in the same manner.

The area of tillable land is limited and is found only in small patches, which cause the farms to be widely scattered. The soil is mostly sand which the wind drifts into dunes that sometimes cover and destroy the growing crops. The peach trees are often buried in sand or only their top branches remain visible. There are no running streams of water and rains are infrequent.

Corn is the principal crop and support of the Moquis. If there is a good crop the surplus is stored away and kept to be used in the future should a crop fail. The corn is planted in irregular hills and cultivated with a hoe. It is dropped into deep holes made with a stick and covered up. There is always enough moisture in the sand to sprout the seed which, aided by an occasional shower, causes it to grow and mature a crop. The corn is of a hardy, native variety that needs but little water to make it grow. The grain is small and hard like popcorn and ripens in several colors.

It is carried home from the field by the men, and ground into meal by the women. The sound of the grinding is heard in the street and is usually accompanied by a song that sounds weird but musical. The meal is ground into different grades of fineness and when used for bread is mixed with water to form a thin batter which is spread by the hand upon a hot, flat stone. It is quickly baked and makes a thin wafer that is no thicker than paper. When done it is removed from the stone by the naked hand and is rolled or folded into loaves which makes their prized pici bread. It is said to be only one of fifty different methods which the Moquis have of preparing corn for the table, or about twice the number of styles known to any modern chef.

The Moqui woman is favored above many of her sex who live in foreign lands. As a child she receives much attention and toys galore, as the parents are very fond of their children and devote much time to their amusement. They make dolls of their Katcinas which are given to the children to play with. A Katcina is the emblem of a deity that is represented either in the form of a doll carved out of wood, woven into a plaque or basket, or painted on tiles and pottery. There are between three and four hundred Katcina dolls each one representing a different divinity. When a doll is given to a child it is taught what it means, thus combining instruction with amusement. The method is a perfect system of kindergarten teaching, which the Moquis invented and used centuries before the idea occurred to Froebel.

When the girl is ten years old her education properly begins and she is systematically inducted into the mysteries of housekeeping. At fifteen she has completed her curriculum and can cook, bake, sew, dye, spin and weave and is, indeed, graduated in all the accomplishments of the finished Moqui maiden. She now does up her hair in two large coils or whorls, one on each side of the head, which is meant to resemble a full-blown squash blossom and signifies that the wearer is of marriageable age and in the matrimonial market. It gives her a striking yet not unbecoming appearance, and, if her style of coiffure were adopted by modern fashion it would be something unusually attractive. As represented by Donaldson in the eleventh census report the handsome face of Pootitcie, a maiden of the pueblo of Sichomovi, makes a pretty picture that even her white sisters must admire. After marriage the hair is let down and done up in two hard twists that fall over the shoulders. This form represents a ripe, dried squash blossom and means fruitfulness.

Her dress is not Spanish nor yet altogether Indian, but is simple, comfortable and becoming, which is more than can be said of some civilized costumes. She chooses her own husband, inherits her mother’s name and property and owns the house in which she lives. Instead of the man owning and bossing everything, as he so dearly loves to do in our own civilization, the property and labor of the Moqui husband and wife are equally divided, the former owning and tending the fields and flocks and the latter possessing and governing the house.

The Moquis are famous for their games, dances and festivals, which have been fully described by Dr. J. Walter Fewkes in various reports to the Smithsonian Institution. They have many secret orders, worship the supernatural, and believe in witchcraft. Their great fete day is the Snake Dance, which is held in alternate years at Walpi and Oraibi, at the former place in the odd year and at the latter place in the even year, some time during the month of August. It is purely a religious ceremony, an elaborate supplication for rain, and is designed to propitiate the water god or snake deity.

Preliminary ceremonies are conducted in the secret Kiva several days preceding the public dance. The Kiva is an underground chamber that is cut out of the solid rock, and is entered by a ladder. It has but a single opening on top on a level with the street, which serves as door, window and chimney. The room is only used by the men, and is, in fact, a lodge room, where the members of the several secret orders meet and engage in their solemn ceremonials. It is a sacred place, a holy of holies, which none but members of a lodge may enter, and is carefully guarded.

The snakes used in the dance are all wild, and captured out on the open plain. Four days prior to the dance the snake men, dressed in scanty attire and equipped with their snake-capturing paraphernalia, march out in squads and scour the surrounding country in search of snakes. One day each is spent in searching the ground towards the four points of the compass, in the order of north, west, south and east, returning at the close of each day with their catch to the Kiva, where the snakes are kept and prepared for the dance. The snakes caught are of several varieties, but much the largest number are rattlesnakes. Respect is shown for serpents of every variety and none are ever intentionally harmed, but the rattlesnake is considered the most sacred and is proportionately esteemed. Its forked tongue represents lightning, its rattle thunder and its spots rain-clouds. The number of snakes they find is surprising, as they catch from one to two hundred during the four days’ hunt on ground that might be carefully searched by white men for months without finding a single reptile.

The snake men are very expert in catching and handling serpents, and are seldom bitten. If one is bitten it is nothing serious, as they have a secret medicine which they use that is both prophylactic and curative, and makes them immune to the poison so that no harm ever results from a bite. The medicine is taken internally and also applied locally. Efforts have been made to discover its composition but without success. If a snake is located which shows fight by the act of coiling it is tickled with a snake-whip made of eagle’s feathers, which soon soothes its anger and causes it to uncoil and try to run away. It is then quickly and safely caught up and dropped from the hand into a bag carried for that purpose.

Visitors who attend the dance are under no restrictions, but are free to come and go as they please, either sightseeing or in search of curios. If the visitor has a supply of candy, matches and smoking-tobacco to give away he finds frequent opportunities to bestow his gifts. The children ask for “canty,” the women want “matchi,” and the men are pleased with a “smoke.”

On the morning of the dance both the men and women give their hair an extra washing by using a mixture of water and crushed soap-root. The white fibers of the soap-root get mixed with the hair, which gives it a tinge of iron gray. The children also get a bath which, because of the great scarcity of water, is not of daily occurrence.

To the Moquis the snake dance is a serious and solemn affair, but to the visitors it is apt to be an occasion for fun and frolic. Owing to a misunderstanding of its true meaning, and because of misconduct in the past on similar occasions, notice is posted on the Kiva asking visitors to abstain from loud laughing and talking. In other words it is a polite request made by the rude red man of his polished (?) white brother to please behave himself.

The dance begins late in the afternoon and lasts less than one hour, but while it is in progress the action is intense. The snakes are carried in a bag or jar from the Kiva to the Kisa, built of cotton-wood boughs on one side of the plaza, where the snakes are banded out to the dancers. After much marching and countermarching about the plaza, chanting weird songs and shaking rattles, the column of snake priests, dressed in a fantastic garb of paint, fur and feathers, halts in front of the Kisa and breaks up into groups of three.

The carrier takes a snake from the Kisa puts it in his mouth, and carries it there while dancing. Some of the more ambitious young men will carry two or more of the smaller snakes at the same time. The hugger throws his left arm over the shoulder of the carrier and with his right hand fans the snake with his feather whip. The gatherer follows after and picks up the snakes as they fall to the ground.

After the snakes have all been danced they are thrown into a heap and sprinkled with sacred corn meal by the young women. The scattering of the meal is accompanied by a shower of spittle from the spectators, who are stationed on, convenient roofs and ladders viewing the ceremony. Fleet runners now catch up the snakes in handfuls and dash off in an exciting race over the mesa and down rocky trails to the plains below where the snakes are returned unharmed to their native haunts.

While the men are away disposing of the reptiles the women carry out large ollas, or jars, filled with a black liquid, which is the snake medicine that is used in the final act of purification by washing. When the men return to the mesa they remove their regalia and proceed to drink of the snake medicine which acts as an emetic. With the remainder of the concoction, and assisted by the women, they wash their bodies free from paint. After the men are all washed and puked they re-enter the Kiva, where the long fast is broken by a feast and the formal ceremonies of the snake dance are ended.

The snake dance is annually witnessed by many visitors who gather from different sections of the country and even foreign lands. As there are no hotels to entertain guests every visitor must provide his own outfit for conveyance, eating and sleeping. Even water is scarce. Local springs barely furnish enough water to supply the native population; and when the number of people to be supplied is increased from one to two hundred by the visitors who attend the dance, the water question becomes a serious problem.

On the lower portion of the road which leads up from the spring to the gap at Walpi on the first mesa, the trail is over drifted sand which makes difficult walking. To remedy this defect in the trail, a path has been made of flat stones laid in the sand, which shows that the Moquis are quick to recognize and utilize an advantage that contributes to their convenience and comfort.

The Santa Fe Pacific is the nearest railroad, which runs about one hundred miles south of the Moqui villages. The tourist can secure transportation at reasonable rates of local liverymen either from Holbrook, Winslow, Canon Diablo or Flagstaff. The trip makes an enjoyable outing that is full of interest and instruction from start to finish.

Some years ago the government, through its agents, began to civilize and Christianize these Indians and established a school at Keam’s Canon, nine miles east of the first mesa, for that purpose. When the school was opened the requisition for a specified number of children from each pueblo was not filled until secured by force. As free citizens of the United States, being such by the treaty made with Mexico in 1848 and, indeed, already so under a system of self-government superior to our own and established long before Columbus discovered America, they naturally resented any interference in their affairs but, being in the minority and overpowered, had to submit.

When the object of the school was explained to them, they consented to receive secular instructions but objected to any religious teaching. They asked to have schools opened in the pueblos on the plan of our public schools where the children could attend during the day and return home at night, and their home life be not broken up, but their prayer was denied.

The reservation school was opened for the purpose of instructing the Moqui children in civilization, but the results obtained have not been entirely satisfactory. The methods employed for enforcing discipline have been unnecessarily severe and have given dissatisfaction. As recently as the year 1903 the children of this inoffensive and harmless people were forcibly taken from their homes and put into the schools. The time selected for doing the dastardly deed was during the night in midwinter when the weather was cold and the ground covered with snow. Under the orders of the superintendent the reservation police made the raid without warning or warrant of any kind. While the people slept, the police entered their houses, dragged the little children from their comfortable beds and drove them naked out into the snow and cold, where they were rounded up and herded like cattle.

The indignity and outrage of this and other similar acts have embittered the Moquis until they have lost what little respect they ever had for Christianity and civilization. The policy of the government is to make them do whatever they do not want to do, to break up the family and scatter its members. The treatment has created two factions among the Moquis known as the “hostiles” who are only hostile in opposing oppression and any change in their religious faith and customs; and the “friendlies” who are willing to obey the boss placed over them and comply with his demands.

Religion is the dearest treasure of mankind, and when assailed always finds ready defenders. Possessed by this innate feeling of right and rankling with the injustice of the past, is it surprising that they should spurn any proffered help? They remember what they have suffered in the past and do not care to repeat the experiment. To this day the Moquis hold the mission epoch in contempt and nothing could induce them to accept voluntarily any proposition that savored ought of the old regime. Every vestige of that period has been obliterated from the pueblos that nothing tangible should remain to remind them of their undeserved humiliation.

They are a highly religious people worshiping after their own creed, and are sincere and conscientious in their devotions. Almost everything they do has some religious significance and every day its religious observance. Their religion satisfies them and harms no one, then why not leave them in peace? We believe that we can benefit them, which is doubtless true, but might they not also teach us some useful lessons? It would sometimes be more to our credit if we were less anxious to teach others, and more willing to learn ourselves.

Next to their religion they love their homes most. The rocks upon which they live, are they not dear from associations? Is it not the land of their birth and the home of their fathers during many generations? They cling with stubborn tenacity to their barren mesas and nothing thus far has succeeded in driving them away; neither war, pestilence nor famine. Repeated attempts have been made to induce them to leave, but without success.

Tom Polaki, the principal man of Tewa, was the first man to respond to the call to come down. He left the mesa several years ago, and went to the plain below to live. Having captured the bell wether it was presumed that the balance of the flock would soon follow, but the contrary proved to be true. At the foot of the bluff near a spring on the road that leads up to the gap Tom built a modern house and tried to imitate the white man. But the change did not suit him, and after living in his modern house for a number of years, he finally sold it and returned to his old home on the mesa. A few others at different times have tried the same experiment with no better success. The man would stay for a short time in the house provided for him, but never made it a permanent home for his family.

That the Moquis are changing is best illustrated by reference to one of their marriage customs. It is the custom when a youth contemplates matrimony to make a marriage blanket. He grows the cotton, spins the yarn and weaves the cloth, which requires a year or more of time to finish. Since the children have gone to school it is not deemed necessary for a young man to go to so much trouble and expense as to make a marriage blanket, but instead, he borrows one from a friend in the village, and after the ceremony is over returns it to the owner. Even now it is not easy to find such a blanket, and very soon they will be priceless as no more such garments will be made.

The only reasonable explanation why any people should select a location like that of the Moquis is on the hypothesis of choice. There is much of the animal in human nature that is influenced by instinct, and man, like the brute, often unconsciously selects what is most congenial to his nature. Thus instinct teaches the eagle to nest on the highest crag and the mountain sheep to browse in pastures which only the hardiest hunter dare approach. For no better reason, apparently, do the Moquis occupy their barren mesas; they simply prefer to live there above any other place.

Safety has been urged as a motive for their conduct but it alone is not a sufficient reason for solving the problem. Their position is safe enough from attack but in the event of a siege their safety would only be temporary. With their scant water supply at a distance and unprotected they could not hold out long in a siege, but would soon be compelled either to fight, fly or famish.

Again, if safety was their only reason for staying, they could have left long ago and had nothing to fear, as they have been for many years at peace with their ancient enemy the predatory Navajo. But rather than go they have chosen to remain in their old home where they have always lived, and will continue to live so long as they are left free to choose.

The modern iconoclast in his unreasonable devotion to realism has, perhaps, stripped them of much old time romance, but even with all of that gone, enough of fact remains to make them a remarkable people. Instead of seeking to change them this last bit of harmless aboriginal life should be spared and preserved, if possible, in all of its native purity and simplicity.


Munk, Joseph Amasa. Arizona Sketches. 1905.

  1. The American Race, by D. G. Brinton, 1891.[]
  2. The Gilded Man, by A. F. Bandelier, 1893.[]

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