When I received my advanced degree in history from UC Riverside my grandparents made the trip from Moencopi to Southern California to see me graduate. We had a big celebration and one of the gifts my grandparents gave me was a card with a check inside. After opening the card I immediately thanked my grandmother, but I waited to thank my grandfather until I was able to do so in Hopi. As my grandfather was sitting in his truck, ready to make the trip back to the reservation, I said to him: “Kwa’a, kwakwha’ um nuy siiva maqa” (“Grandpa, thank you for the money that you gave me”). He looked up at me and said one word: “owi’.” The literal English translation of “owi'” is “yes,” but in this context it meant much more. At that very moment I connected with my grandfather at a level that would have been impossible in English. Hopi was his first language and it is the language that he prefers.
Growing up in the mountain community of Flagstaff, I thought my grandfather was a man of few words. I do not recall having long conversations with him when I was a child. But as I got older I realized that my grandfather was a man of few words in English and not Hopi. I sometimes wonder how my relationship with my grandfather would be different if I knew how to speak more Hopi. In my immediate family we say that kwa’a only listens to my dad, because my dad speaks to him in Hopi. We say this jokingly, but there is truth to it. Even today when our family gets together my dad and his father can be heard conversing in the Hopi language.
A lifelong goal of mine is to be able to speak fluent Hopi. I have a long way to go before I reach this goal. Hopis are proud that much of our culture remains intact. Many of our ceremonies continue, we remain on portions of our ancestral lands, and Hopi is still spoken. But our parents and grandparents will tell you that fewer and fewer Hopis are able to speak their language. Fortunately, efforts are being made by people such as Sheilah E. Nicholas of the Hopilavayi Project and many others to encourage and help Hopis reverse this problem.
On a related note, Louellyn White, one of our American Indian Studies postdoctoral fellows at the University of Illinois, and Teresa McCarty of Arizona State University, recently informed me about a new story that National Public Radio (NPR) released on Hopi language and youth. The title of this program is “Hopi Teens Worry About Loss of Culture.” This program briefly examines Hopi language loss at U.S. government schools and the issues Hopi youth face as they try to live as Hopis in today’s world. It is a fascinating story. If you would like to listen to the 5 minute program and/or view the transcript, click here.
Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert