Remembering Polingaysi Qoyawayma

Nineteen years ago on December 6, 1990, Polingaysi Qoyawayma (Elizabeth Q. White), passed away with family at her side in Phoenix, Arizona. Born in 1892, Polingaysi was from the village of Orayvi on Third Mesa, and she is perhaps best known for her book (as told to Vada Carlson) No Turning Back: A Hopi Woman’s Struggle to Live in Two Worlds. I never had the honor of meeting Polingaysi, but her story is often told among our people. In November 1906, shortly after an internal dispute in her village, Polingaysi left by wagon with a group of Hopi children to the small town of Winslow, Arizona. From there she boarded a Santa Fe train to San Bernardino, California, then traveled south to Sherman Institute in Riverside. She experienced a different life in the “land of oranges,” and she wrote at length about her time at Sherman in No Turning Back. After spending almost three years at the school, Polingaysi returned to Orayvi and found it difficult to acclimate to reservation life. She eventually became the first Hopi to teach at a Hopi day school, and she encouraged her students to take the best of Hopi and American culture to succeed as a people. Although Polingaysi is often associated with No Turning Back, she also wrote a second book in 1941 titled The Sun Girl, which was illustrated by Hopi artist Komoki. In this children’s book, Polingaysi retells a story of a young girl named Dawamana (“Sun Maiden” or “Sun Girl”) from Orayvi who learns the Butterfly Dance at the village of Moencopi. In the foreword to the book’s 1978 edition, Robert Breunig of the Museum of Northern Arizona notes that “Mrs. Qoyawayma told this story many times to her school children. They became so enthralled with it that they asked that it be repeated again and again, and they learned it almost word for word, correcting deviations from one telling to the next. Finally, Mrs. Qoyawayma wrote the story down in the hope that all children would enjoy it.” Nineteen years after her passing, Polingaysi’s life and work are still remembered. She is one of the most revered teachers and writers in Hopi history, and her example and words continue to have great meaning and relevance for those in the present.

Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert

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13 Responses to “Remembering Polingaysi Qoyawayma”


  1. 1 Debbie Reese December 7, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    Years ago I read NO TURNING BACK, and I recommend it for young adult readers. I’m really glad to learn that Qoyawayma wrote a book for younger children. I’ve ordered a copy and look forward to reading it.

  2. 2 paulreimer1 January 1, 2010 at 12:58 pm

    I remember the many nights I spent listening to Polingaysi “Butterfly among the flowers” speak around a campfire next to her house in New Oraibi. She called me “The Dog Person” because I always had the village dogs around me. The stories she told us about the air, the earth, the corn I will never forget. One afternoon I drove her into Winslow to get supplies. We were rebuilding her house which had burned down. I was playing a Cat Stevens 8-track and the song “Old man/Young Man” (I can’t remember the exact name) was playing. Elizabeth (Polingaysi) started crying and started talking about the blessing of a long life.. I can’t remember exactly what she said but as a 17 year old, I was profoundly moved. So lucky to have known her.

  3. 6 Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert January 7, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    No problem, Paul. There are a few different websites where people can purchase the film, but going through the 716 Productions/Learning Who We Are link that’s on my blog is the least expensive option. Also, just to let you and others know, Beyond the Mesas will be shown several times on the internet later this month. I will make a blog post about it next week. For more information, go to the “Showings” page on my blog and read the UI-7 showing blurb.

  4. 7 Nate Ginsberg April 16, 2012 at 12:27 am

    After reading Polingaysi Qoyawayma’s book i was also profoundly moved. I am a music teacher to small children and her ‘natural way’ of insidious teaching – where students were so interested they didn’t realize how much they were learning’ is a definite part of my teaching as well. Her story was not only educational but touching and I think brought home the true nature of the Hopi culture and symbolism – which I was not aware of being a mixed race cauacsian…(plain white guy….Teh song paul is referring to is ‘Father and Son’ from Cat Stevens….Thanks -I would have loves to have checked out the movie as well….You are doing meaningful work Gilbert….

    • 8 Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert May 21, 2012 at 9:50 am

      Thanks, Nate, and please forgive me for taking so long to respond to your comment! A lot of work has yet to be written on the life of Qoyawayma. She had a remarkable life and influence on education among the Hopi. And I agree with you that her story has touched the lives and hearts of many people. Thanks again!

      • 9 Nate Ginsberg May 21, 2012 at 10:34 am

        Hi Matthew –
        I’m honored you even responded – all the best to you – and kudos to you for your work to chronicle Ponlingaysi’s thoughts and life.

  5. 10 Gra March 23, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    As a child I met Mrs. Elizabeth White at my Great Aunt Laura’s home in Huntington Park, CA. Aunt Laura was officially adopted by the Hopi at Oraibi for her work with the service personnel during the Second WW. Mrs. White gave me a signed copy of “The Sun Girl”. Mother, Aunt Laura and I took a young man named Calvin home to Second Messiah after a serious injury while in the service. His sister made me a lovely Kachina to thank me. I treasure the memories and the book today as I’m about to celebrate my 78th Birthday.

  6. 11 Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert March 24, 2014 at 6:38 pm

    Gra, thanks so much for comment. I really appreciate your story. Qoyawayama’s “Sun Girl” is one of my favorite Hopi books.


  1. 1 Beyond the Mesas co-executive producer publishes new book « Beyond the Mesas Trackback on December 13, 2009 at 8:54 pm
  2. 2 Hopi children’s books at Walnut Canyon National Monument « Beyond the Mesas Trackback on November 24, 2010 at 10:14 am

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© Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert and BEYOND THE MESAS, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert and BEYOND THE MESAS with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

About the author

Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert is enrolled with the Hopi Tribe from the village of Upper Moencopi in northeastern Arizona. He is an associate professor of American Indian Studies & History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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A Second Wave of Hopi Migration (History of Education Quarterly, August 2014)

Sun Chief: An Autobiography of A Hopi Indian by Don C. Talayesva, New foreword by Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert (Sept. 2013)

Marathoner Louis Tewanima and the Continuity of Hopi Running, 1908-1912 (Western Historical Quarterly, Autumn 2012). Winner of Spur Award for Best Western Short Nonfiction, Western Writers of America (2013)

“Hopi Footraces and American Marathons, 1912-1930″, American Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 1, March Issue 2010 (Click image to download article)

Hopi runner Philip Zeyouma’s trophy cups featured on cover of American Quarterly

Education beyond the Mesas: Hopi Students at Sherman Institute, 1902-1929 (University of Nebraska Press, 2010)

Education beyond the Mesas – Introduction (click image to download)

“‘The Hopi Followers': Chief Tawaquaptewa and Hopi Student Advancement at Sherman Institute, 1906-1909″, Journal of American Indian Education, (Click image to download article)

The Indian School on Magnolia Avenue: Voices and Images From Sherman Institute (Oregon State University Press, 2012)

Arizona English Teachers Association highlights Hopi authors (click image to download)

Constitution and Bylaws of the Hopi Tribe (With all amendments, click to download)

Click to listen to KUYI On-Line

Matt’s Goodreads

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