Hopis and Christmas at Indian schools

Over the years I have come across several documents and other sources, including children’s books and newspaper accounts, that involve Hopi students and Christmas at Sherman Institute and the Phoenix Indian School. Many Hopis at off-reservation Indian boarding schools looked forward to Christmas, but not every Hopi enthusiastically celebrated the holiday.

In the children’s book Climbing Sun (1980), Marjorie Thayer and Elizabeth Emanuel note that prior to Hubert Honanie’s first Christmas at Sherman in the late 1920s, the school’s superintendent, Frank M. Conser, mandated that students attend church the Sunday before Christmas day. While Hubert sat in the chapel service, he listened carefully to what the minister said about the birth of Jesus, but he did not see why this baby was so important. Hubert concluded that Christmas held little significance. Although he liked having the day off from school and he enjoyed eating the traditional Christmas food of turkey and cranberries, he would have “preferred stewed rabbit or mutton and corn” prepared according to Hopi custom.

By the 1930s the tradition of Christmas had become very popular among Hopi children on the reservation. In The Hopi Indians of Old Oraibi (1972), anthropologist Mischa Titiev observed that in December 1933, Hopi women walked to Kykotsmovi at the foot of Third Mesa to purchase Christmas presents for the Orayvi children. Titiev noted that several children had taken part in “Christmas programs” at places such as Sherman and the Phoenix Indian School, and several of their parents enjoyed giving them presents on Christmas. Afraid that the children would be disappointed if they did not receive gifts, the women purchased enough presents for each child in the village.

Although the Christmas tradition continues with many Hopis today, Hopis incorporate their culture into the holiday as well. Hopi artists demonstrate this through their art, and some Hopis, particularly those who belong to church congregations on the reservation, still sing Christmas carols in the Hopi language.

Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert

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[Portions of this post were adapted from a newspaper article that I wrote titled “Christmas experiences at Sherman Institute and Phoenix Indian School”, Hopi Tutuveni, December 21, 2005, Issue 26, p. 6]

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© Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert and BEYOND THE MESAS, 2009-2017. 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 in the Department of History and a Dean's Fellow and Conrad Humanities Scholar in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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