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Hopi Renaissance man Sekaquaptewa dead at 78

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TUCSON — Emory Sekaquaptewa was at once a visionary and a realist — a combination few are blessed with, but a paradoxical trait that produced a lasting legacy.

Not everyone can look back and say they wrote their nation's first dictionary and helped revive a language that faced extinction, but those are just a few of the things he accomplished in his lifetime.

Sekaquaptewa was a professor, an anthropologist, a judge and a loving husband, father and grandfather.

He died Dec. 14, leaving a legacy hallmarked by his efforts to preserve the Hopi language.

He never missed an opportunity to bring up Hopi language and his love of silversmithing, said his wife, Mary.

"When somebody came to the house, he'd want to take them out and show them the silver bench," she said. "I always think of him as a Renaissance man because he was so multifaceted and complex."

Mary described herself as "his biggest fan," and did everything shecould to support her husband's plethora of work.

Sekaquaptewa and his older brother Wayne are credited with developing a technique of texturizing oxidized patterns on silver jewelry. The method, called matting, allowed contrasting metallic patterns to last much longer and was widely adopted by the industry.

For all his accolades however, Sekaquaptewa remained focused and humble.

"Emory was always shy, he didn't like the limelight," said longtime friend Gordon Krutz. "He is what I consider a national treasure. He is the Noah Webster of the Hopi nation."

Krutz met Sekaquaptewa in 1968 at the University of Arizona, where they eventually helped form and promote the department of American Indian Studies, a program unique to the UA at the time.

After earning his law degree in 1970, Sekaquaptewa taught classes at the university.

"He never had anything bad to say about anybody. His students loved him. It was full up every time he opened the class, and a few even learned some Hopi," which is an extremely complex language, Krutz said.

Sekaquaptewa's success at teaching was due in part to his enthusiasm to share knowledge. "There was this twinkle in his eye when he explained things, it just made you want to be a part of it," said Ginny Healy, director of development for the college of social and behavioral sciences at the UA.

Healy is in charge of fundraising for Sekaquaptewa's last project, a children's book that will teach the Hopi language to the next generation.

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The Hopi Children Workbook is designed to teach visual word association, much like the popular Richard Scarry books, only with a Hopi twist.

Sharing his nation's culture with others was a task at which Sekaquaptewa excelled.

"When he spoke, it was captivating," Mary said. "Any opportunity would launch him into language preservation."

One of Sekaquaptewa's largest accomplishments was a 30-year project that resulted in the Hopi language's first dictionary. The underlying drive behind all of his endeavors — his law degree, his 34 years of university teaching — was to preserve the Hopi way of life.

"He was always putting down words on little cards and after a while he decided it would be a good idea to put those together into a dictionary," Krutz said.

Sekaquaptewa left behind a network of support at the UA that will help realize his dream.

"He was the first one to really put the language in print, so the next step was to meet with donors and talk about the Hopi language and literacy project," Healy said. "This was his next step to preserve the Hopi language. The biggest fear was that it would become extinct."

In addition to his educational career, Sekaquaptewa stayed involved in the Hopi community in northeastern Arizona, where he was believed to have been born in 1928. His actual birthday was never recorded, but Mary said they decided to celebrate it on Dec. 28.

He served as appellate court judge of the Hopi Tribe, where he settled clan conflicts and other cases. Despite living in Tucson, he managed to preside over the cases, which were collected and heard three or four times per year in the Hopi nation.

His legal career was highlighted by the part he played in settling Hopi-Navajo land disputes.

He also convinced the Hopi elders to start teaching their language to the children in schools, instead of counting on them learning it at home.

With the advent of television and now the Internet, "a lot of the children don't even speak their native language and they are losing their culture," Krutz said.

Sekaquaptewa's goal to integrate the Hopi language into school curriculum has helped preserve the difficult-to-learn language, and, consequently, the Hopi culture, Healy said.

Despite all his accomplishments, Sekaquaptewa kept his feet on the ground, near his people and the work he felt needed to be done, Mary said.

In October, he received the fourth-annual Heard Museum's Spirit of the Heard award for educating the public on the art and culture of native peoples. When he was congratulated by peers, his response was characteristic of his outlook on life: "I was surprised but grateful for the recognition," he said, according to a press release. "I'm not really doing these things for recognition; I enjoy doing them and feel it has to be done."

He was privately laid to rest near his place of birth at the Third Mesa in Hopi land.

A memorial service will be announced at a later date.

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