Big Sorrow

Old letters from a Hopi woman to an East Coast friend paint a fascinating picture

Hopiland is a mama's boy's paradise.

Up on the mesas, it is generally women who own the homes, and it is up to the man to find one who'll let him move in. If he fails at this, or gets kicked out--divorce in traditional Hopi society is relatively easy--he always has a home with his mother, or his sisters, his aunts or even his nieces. Clearly, the women of Hopi are extraordinary.

One hopes, after reading Carolyn O'Bagy Davis' excellent new book--Hopi Summer: Letters From Ethel to Maud, out now from Rio Nuevo--that, however extraordinary, few Hopi women have had to endure such sadness as that of Ethel Muchvo, a Hopi potter from First Mesa who lost 12 of her 13 children to tuberculosis and other ailments.

The wider world wouldn't know Ethel Muchvo had she not struck up a pen-pal relationship with a patrician Yankee housewife in the summer of 1927. Fortunately, a few years ago, O'Bagy Davis happened upon some old pictures of the Hopi Mesas in a journal and was intrigued. Those photos in turn led the writer to the Melville family, the descendents of Maud Melville, who--with her husband and three children--took a nine-month road trip to the wild lands of the West long before people did such things. The family visited the Hopi along the way, in the late '20s occupying an impossibly remote land, and Maud developed a deep friendship with Ethel, staying for weeks in a place they'd planned to stop for just a few days, and loading up the family's already overburdened Model T with pottery, baskets and kachina dolls.

Working only from Ethel's letters to Maud (Ethel, living a much more hand-to-mouth life, didn't save paper but rather reused it), O'Bagy Davis reconstructs a decade of this fascinating relationship. The letters aren't printed in full, but are selectively quoted, revealing Ethel's untutored style at its most affecting.

"We have big sorrow over us," the Hopi woman wrote to Maud one winter after the 11th of her then 12 children had succumbed to tuberculosis, likely infected, as were the other children, by Ethel's husband, Wilfred, who suffered with the disease for decades but outlived all but one of his offspring. A portrait of Ethel and Wilfred's marriage accumulates throughout the book, and it is a sweet, brave relationship--a true partnership, one that stood up to the stress of unbelievable sadness and disappointment. Ethel charmingly wrote a letter to Maud's daughter on the eve of the daughter's marriage, offering the simple, true advice that a marriage should above all be a friendship and a partnership between equals.

In another letter, Wilfred's sweet character comes through when Ethel describes how, after receiving a hand-me-down winter jacket in the mail from Maud, the middle-aged Hopi man "walked up the rocky trail to the mesa to let his mother see him."

After returning from her visit to the Mesas, Maud became a lecturer and expert on the Hopi, speaking for a fee at various social clubs in New England and donating her earnings back to the Mesas, particularly to the Baptist Church in Polacca, whose missionaries worked tirelessly, and mostly unsuccessfully, to turn the Hopi into Christians and away from the religious traditions they and their ancestors had followed for thousands of years. That Maud, who in so many ways bucked the expectations of her time and class, continued to financially support the mission even after befriending the Hopi, is one of the most disappointing aspects of her character. It's as if, for all her interest in the Hopi culture, in the end, she couldn't see beyond even the most hypocritical institutions of her own.

That's not to say that missionaries to the Hopi have never done any good; surely, they have. But to celebrate an ancient culture, to speak about it, make yourself an expert on it and endeavor to teach others its secrets, while at the same time working financially to undermine those very traditions, seems to be a slightly schizophrenic way to exist. But O'Bagy Davis doesn't spend a lot of time on such things, instead choosing to mine Ethel's letters for rare details of everyday life on the Mesas during a time when that mystical land still seemed very isolated from mainstream American life.

Fortunately for the Hopi, while things have certainly changed, their ancient ways and religious traditions survive today in stacked-rock villages occupied since at least 1100 A.D.--and as long as there are brave, smart and monumentally strong Hopi women like Ethel Muchvo living in those villages, those traditions will likely live on indefinitely.