A loud KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK interrupted the quiet fall morning of the Hopi Mesas in 1929. The door to the adobe home opened, letting in sunlight and the voice of Edmund Nequatewa, who offered a Hopi greeting and a strange request.
Nequatewa knocked first on every door at all 12 Hopi villages, speaking to nearly 400 of his people about a proposed show at the new at the Museum of Northern Arizona, the first ever Hopi Craftsman Exhibition. Waiting behind him were museum founders Harold and Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton.
“Edmund was an orator and [was] very persuasive,” Harold Colton wrote. “[He] acted as interpreter to Mary-Russell in her attempt to sell the idea of an exhibition to the Hopi. He did so well that we were able to gain their cooperation.”
Thanks to Nequatewa, the first Hopi Craftsman Exhibition in early July 1930 was a huge success. Now called the Hopi Festival of Arts & Culture, the festival has been held on 4th of July weekend for the past 86 years. It was one of many times that Nequatewa would open doors for MNA staff and researchers.
Nequatewa’s role at the MNA did not stop there. Although initially the Colton’s gardener and interpreter, he came to be recognized for numerous other roles at the Museum, including ethnologist, philosopher, wise counselor, and folklorist. Nequatewa opened a window into the Hopi culture that Western eyes had yet to look through, and his induction as a Museum of Northern Arizona Distinguished Fellow this year finally recognizes the importance of his contributions to MNA and the fields of anthropology and ethnology.
“His significance [has] been too long overlooked,” said Susan Olberding, Northern Arizona and MNA historian.
Nequatewa was born on July 5th, 1878 in the Hopi village of Shungopovi on Second Mesa. He was born into the Sun Forehead Clan, a family of hereditary chiefs.
“Edmund was chosen by his father... to learn the oral traditions of the people,” said Olberding. “Edmund recognized how the Hopi culture would change as more Euro-Americans brought their own ways to Hopi.”
As a boy, he was sent to the Phoenix Indian School to learn new ways of preserving the oral traditions. By the time he had started working with the Coltons, Nequatewa had already begun writing the Hopi folklore and history that had been passed down to him.
“He was initiated into traditional Hopi society and its navoti; traditional cultural knowledge,” said Dr. Robert Breunig, emeritus director of the Museum of Northern Arizona. “Although much of this knowledge is privileged to members of specific Hopi ceremonial societies, Nequatewa shared the basic outlines of Hopi cultural memory and oral history in writings in the museum periodical, Museum Notes, and in his book, originally published by the museum, Truth of a Hopi.”
Nequatewa ended up authoring and co-authoring at least 10 publications about Hopi life and history through the Museum’s periodicals Museum Notes and Plateau. He was also an asset in the research of others, including Alfred Whiting’s paper on ethnobotany titled, “Leaves from a Hopi Doctor’s Casebook,” in the journal Bulletin of New York Academy of Medicine in 1939.
Nequatewa also worked with Mary-Russell and Katharine Bartlett, MNA’s anthropologist and first curator, to document the traditional Hopi life through the 1930s and 40s.
“With anthropology [the scientific study of people and human behavior as well as societies in both the past and present] being such a new science at this time, techniques and methods evolved through trial,” Olberding said. “Suggestions and ideas were invited, explored, and tweaked as necessary. It is a great fortune that Edmund could provide a Natives’ point of view.”
On February 23, 2019, Edmund Nequatewa was inducted as a Museum of Northern Arizona Distinguished Fellow, the highest honor given by the museum. He is the first Hopi to receive that honor, joining the likes of Edward Danson, Terrence Merkel, Edwin McKee and Walter McDougall.
“[He was] a pioneer in a line of indigenous scholars who have shared their cultural knowledge to build bridges and cultural understanding among peoples of diverse backgrounds,” Dr. Breunig stated.
Nequatewa’s legacy was honored in front of living relatives on July 5, during the award ceremony of the 86th Annual Hopi Festival of Arts and Culture, the festival he helped found.