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Helen Sekaquaptewa: A Native American Woman Living in an Anglo World as a Dual Citize

Updated on February 18, 2014
Artist rendition of Oraibi.  Oraibi pueblo was built by the Hopi Indians some 900 years ago.
Artist rendition of Oraibi. Oraibi pueblo was built by the Hopi Indians some 900 years ago. | Source

At the turn of the 18th century, the U.S. Government began restructuring the way American Indians lived. Among the many changes that took place were the allotment of tribal lands, growing of non native crops, introduction of money, required education of youth, imprisonment of American Indians who were considered hostile toward the U.S., and the conversion of Indigenous religion to that of a variety of Christian and Catholic religions. These changes were documented in American Indian communities all over the U.S. Helen Sekaquaptewa observed the change. Her story of transition is told in Louise Udall’s Me and Mine: The Life Story of Helen Sekaquaptewa. The book outlines how Helen was a young Hopi girl when the change began and the ways in which it affected her life. Helen was forced to negotiate her Indigenous culture and the culture of the Anglo people. Helen was in essence a dual citizen torn between two worlds and lived in both through adaptation, negotiation, and her own personal moral ethic.

Location of Hopi land throughout time.
Location of Hopi land throughout time. | Source

Helen Sekaquaptewa “was born into conflict, a state of life she would not escape until she became elderly” (Bataille, 87). The conflict spoke of here is seen in the conflict of her dual identity. It began at a young age. Helen was born in her native Hopi village Oraibi in 1898. She was named Dowawisnima in the traditional Hopi way. This was her name until she was about five or six years old, when she was forced to go to school. The school gave her the name Helen. The transition of her name, her identity changing from Dowawisnima to Helen greatly affected the way in which she came to identify herself. Later in life, after completing high school, she was not known as Dowawisnima, she was known as Helen. Rather than adopting a name like Helen Dowawisnima, she became Helen Sekaquaptewa. Helen adapted to her new name and preferred to be called by her Anglo name.

Source
A young Hopi girl at Walpi circa. 1900 with "squash blossom" hairdo indicative of her eligibility for courtship.
A young Hopi girl at Walpi circa. 1900 with "squash blossom" hairdo indicative of her eligibility for courtship. | Source

Helen education is as follows: she was forced to go to a day school near her home up to third grade, then she was essentially kidnapped and sent to school at a dorm school several miles away from her village in Keams Canyon, finally Helen voluntarily went to the Phoenix Indian School. Education outside of her hometown provided several changes for Helen. First, Hopi children learned about life by “imitating elders” (Udall, 7). This was the way children learned how to cook, clean, build adobe houses, participate in their Native religious ceremonies, and so forth. They simply watched and when they thought they were able to do these things they would naturally join in. School was different. School began by learning English. Helen’s teacher taught her the names of objects in their classroom. The traditional Hopi language Helen knew was slowly replaced by English. In her later years, Helen and her family lived in Phoenix, Arizona, where the primary language spoken was English, but at the same time Helen knew her traditional Hopi language as well. Rather than adapt solely to the English language, Helen negotiated the two by learning and retaining both languages throughout her life. Second, the Hopi people traditionally wore homemade wool kilts for males and wool mantas for females. The wool was obtained from the sheep herded by the Oraibi community. Upon entering school, Helen was required to wear a readymade cotton school uniform. The clothing her people had worn for centuries was taken from her. Later in life, these uniforms and traditional attire were replaced by store bought cloth, Levi’s, and western shirts (Udall, 48). She had no choice but to adapt to the clothing change, in fact, later in her adult life, Helen worked as a seamstress and actually made uniforms for students attending one of the American Indian boarding schools. Third, and finally, while attending the Keams Canyon boarding school, when she had a senior standing, Helen was paid fifteen dollars a month for laundry duty. It was “the only money [she] had ever had” (Udall, 124). Before this time, the Hopi land provided everything she, her family, and her community ever needed. The land provided food, water, shelter in the form of mud and lumber, clothing, and even toys, such as bone dolls. In addition, if there were ever something the Hopis could not grow or make, they would trade for it. During Helen’s lifetime, barter and trade were still quite acceptable in and around the Hopi community. She was able to negotiate with both money and trade by buying and selling goods through by means. The vast changes Helen went through during her time in school changed her entire life and she once stated that she “had lived at the school so long that it seemed like my home” (Udall, 133).

Traditional Hopi homes circa. 1906.
Traditional Hopi homes circa. 1906. | Source

Upon leaving school Helen married a Hopi man who had gone all through high school at the Phoenix Indian School, Emory Sekaquaptewa. They built a happy life together but were often ostracized for their slight Anglo-like lifestyle in which they negotiated both Hopi and Anglo lifestyles. In fact, at one point in Helen’s life a Hopi woman yelled, “Go live with the white people,” (Udall, 196) at Helen. The Sekaquaptewas managed to cope with these types of prejudice. To begin with, Helen and Emory had both a traditional Hopi wedding and obtained a marriage license. They both thought it would be best to get a marriage license, even though Helen’s father and older sister disapproved. This disapproval caused much controversy in Helen’s new marriage. In the Hopi way, newlyweds “went to live at the home of the bride’s mother until such time as they could build a house of their own” (Udall, 50). However, Helen’s mother had recently died at this time and her home, which should have been inherited by Helen, was now the home of her older sister. Emory initially went to stay with Helen and her family but the tension was so strong Emory soon left to live in a cabin provided by his job. A few days later, Helen broke with traditional Hopi customs and went to live with Emory. The desertion of her family home shows how much Helen had changed. The Hopi people always went by tradition and she had broken one. In addition, later in life Helen and Emory had a house built out at their ranch, where they would farm and live isolated from the Hopi community. This also broke traditions because “Hopis build their houses close to each other to remind them that they are supposed to love each other. If one should build his house away from the others, they would say, ‘He is selfish. He does not love his neighbors’” (Udall, 51). In this sense, Helen and Emory were considered selfish because they chose to live outside of the Hopi community. Later, when they had children, Helen and Emory would take them to get their vaccinations at the health clinic. In addition, the children were treated at home by Helen with natural Hopi remedies when they were sick but if this did not help the children were taken to the clinic to see a doctor. However, many Hopi people “called the medicine men [when they were sick] and wouldn’t let the doctor touch their children” (Udall, 190). These little things were cause for some Hopis to be prejudice toward Helen and Emory, but “After many years of patience and long suffering, the enmity between ourselves and our relatives and neighbors has at last almost melted away” (Udall, 203).

Oraibi Pueblo main street circa 1899.
Oraibi Pueblo main street circa 1899. | Source

The animosity Helen’s neighbors expressed toward her and her family was often unwarranted, as seen in the food and water transition. Traditionally, Hopi relied very much on growing corn to maintain their livelihood. Corn was ground and could be used in a variety of ways. In the old days, “It had been predicted that there would come a time when the Chief would so stray from the traditions of the past that the best corn land would be destroyed. This has literally come to pass. The rich land that once furnished the corn for the chief men of the village of Oraibi has now reverted to desert” (45). As the Hopi world changed, so too did the way in which they obtained food; Helen explains the contrast between how she and Emory led their lives and the way in which their Hopi neighbors lived theirs in the following excerpt:

We still raised our food; besides corn we had meat and fruit and vegetables and eggs and milk…We lived well and were always healthy. Our neighbors spent their money for bread and foods in cans at the store and bought ice cream and pop. They didn’t spend time grinding corn and preparing food like their parents before them did (Udall, 218).

Although Helen and her family had to adapt to new ways of living, they continued to farm their land and the farm was their primary source of food. Most of the other Hopi people eventually began having to buy store bought items and they were usually not the healthy vegetables the Hopi people traditionally ate. In this way, Helen and her family were the ones who stayed more traditional. They adapted by adding new crops and animals to their farm, such as fruit, beans, pumpkins, chickens, and cows. In fact, the Sekaquaptewas produced much more food than they needed and were able to sell their surplus items at the local grocery store, in contrast to the old days when surplus items were stored or given to those who had less. Helen and her family were successfully able to adapt to Anglo ways of farming without having to negotiate very much with their traditional Hopi ways to produce food.

Little girls praying beside their beds at the Phoenix Indian School circa 1896-1900.
Little girls praying beside their beds at the Phoenix Indian School circa 1896-1900. | Source

During adulthood, Helen was confronted with the conversion of her primary religion. From a young age Helen was introduced to different religions at school. Each religion tried to convert Helen into believing and accepting their way of life, but Helen could not see their relevance in the things she was taught at home. Similarly, Helen had a hard time participating in the tradition Hopi ceremonies and religion. Her opinion states, “While the ritual part of the Hopi religion had no appeal to me – it was crude – the things my parents taught me about the way to live were good” (Udall, 234). The most important thing to Helen was to lead a good, sensible life. This is where the Mormon religion came into play. Helen and Emory had “heard of and read the Book of Mormon it sounded like a familiar story. Reading the Bible and the Book of Mormon has helped us to understand the Hopi traditions, and the Hopi traditions help us to understand these books of scripture” (Udall, 236). This religion made sense to Helen. Although Emory never joined the Church (Arrington, 125), Helen was baptized a Mormon and lived by it for the remained of her life. Later in life, when asked about her choice to convert to Mormonism, Helen said, “I have no doubt I did right…It has made a better woman of me, and I have surely been happy in my church” (Udall, 242). In this instance, Helen was able to negotiate between the Hopi and Mormon religions because in her mind, they were extremely similar.

An undated picture of Helen Sekaquaptewa.
An undated picture of Helen Sekaquaptewa. | Source

Helen’s dual citizenship led to the negotiation of Hopi and Anglo customs and adaptation of some Anglo customs. Her autobiography Me and Mine has been hailed as a “serene and forgiving autobiography” (Coleman, 87) because Helen did not lead a very hard life while transitioning into the Anglo world but at the same time a few bad things that happened to her while she was transitioning did not have a major negative impact on her or her family. In this way, Helen “proved unwilling to accept the role of victim” (Jacobs, 186). She was strong enough to overcome the obstacles of negotiating and adapting in her changing world. Helen and Emory “chose the good from both ways of life” (Udall, 247) and lived a much better life because of this philosophy. Most other American Indians of this era did not fair as well as Helen. They were set in their traditional ways and loathed the customs, culture, and language of the Anglo people. These traditional American Indians created a world for themselves in which they were unable to negotiate and adapt; therefore, their situation was actually worsened. The prevailing Anglo society and their lack of adaptation prevented them from growing and kept them on the reservations they are still on today. The key to survival, in this case, is dual citizenship through adaptation and negotiation of both cultures.

Works Cited

Arrington, Leonard J., and Bitton Davis. Saints without Halos: The Human Side of Mormon History. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, c. 1981

Bataille, Gretchen M., and Kathleen Mullen Sands. American Indian Women, Telling Their Lives. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, c. 1984.

Coleman, Michael C. "The responses of American Indian children and Irish children to the school, 1850s-1920s." American Indian Quarterly 23.3/4 (1999): 83-112. Ethnic NewsWatch (ENW). ProQuest. UNM Libraries, Albuquerque, New Mexico. 1 Apr. 2009 <http://www.proquest.com.libproxy.unm.edu/>.

Jacobs, Margaret. "Making savages of us all: White women, Pueblo Indians, and the controversy over Indian dances in the 1920s." Frontiers 17.3 (1996): 178-209. GenderWatch (GW). ProQuest. UNM Libraries, Albuquerque, New Mexico. 1 Apr. 2009 <http://www.proquest.com.libproxy.unm.edu/>

Udall, Louise ed. (1993). Me and Mine: The Life History of Helen Sekaquaptewa. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1969.

© 2014 morningstar18

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