The Unconquered Remnant: The Hopis and Voluntaryism

By Peter Spotswood Dillard

From Number 129

What is the oldest voluntaryist society existing in the continental United States? The answer may surprise you.

Perched atop three mighty mesas in northeastern Arizona, the Hopi Indians have developed a peaceful, nonviolent, and anarchistic society that has endured for at least a millennium. Archaeologists believe that the Hopis are descendants of the prehistoric Anasazi, or “Old Ones,” who occupied the Four Corners region before disappearing in the late 13th century. Hopi tradition teaches that their people ascended into the present world through a hole in the bottom of the Grand Canyon called Sipapuni. They soon met Maasaw, ruler of this world, who divided them into clans and instructed them to find the center of the earth. After wandering for many years, the clans converged on the Hopi mesas. The Bear Clan established the Third Mesa village of Oraibi and required the other clans to demonstrate some skill or special knowledge before establishing their own villages.

There is no “Hopi Nation.” Before the U.S. War with Mexico, when the Mexican government decided to make a boundary around the Hopi country, the “Hopi thought the boundary lines to be so ridiculous that they laughed about it.” [Yamada 20] “The Hopi Nation” is simply a bureaucratic fiction imposed by the Spanish, Mexican, and United States governments in order to deal with a group of people whose ancestors have always lived in a decentralized collection of independent and autonomous villages. As anthropologist Wayne Dennis remarked, “The native system of [Hopi] government is, in effect, a practical form of anarchy.” [Hennacy, 200]. Hopi unity is expressed, not in allegiance to a monolithic Hopi state, but through voluntary commitment to a common spirituality known as the Hopi Way. Even here, the clan structure ensures that spiritual authority does not become concentrated in the hands of any one person or group. Each clan possesses its own expertise or ceremony indispensable to the Hopi Way. Hopi clans are matrilineal, with members of a given clan living in different villages whose inhabitants are also connected by ties of marriage, kinship, and shared history.

Nothing for certain is known about how decisions are made in the village councils and sacred kivas. Nevertheless, a statement from Heremequaftewa of Shungopavi village provides a window onto what is essentially a voluntaryist philosophy:

The Hopi knows it is not right to go about trying to change people who have religious beliefs that are different from their own, and he will not try to force them to follow the Hopi way of life. I would not try to force the young people of the white man to live and believe my way. I will not even force my own young people to be initiated into our religious societies. I will only ask them if they want to join or be initiated into them. If they say “no,” it will be respected. This is the very basis of our life, we must not force other people to change their ways.” [Yamada, 55].

Heremequaftewa’s statement indicates a form of decision making in which no arms are twisted (authoritarianism) and no votes are taken (majoritarianism), but a voluntary unanimity among individuals is sought. Thus, Hopi decision making resembles the traditional village councils of other Southwestern Indian tribes, such as the Pima and the Tohono O’odham. However, it could be best compared to the Quaker “sense of the meeting,” in which the group attempts to find unity, and where the principled dissent of even one individual is enough to prevent the meeting from moving forward on a given matter.

Geographical factors have blessed the Hopis with a strong natural defense against invaders. The name Hopi, which means peaceful, has always been indicative of a people who shied away from war. The Hopi Way forbids fighting and killing, and there have been numerous Hopi conscientious objectors and draft resisters, since they were granted U.S. citizenship in 1924. [Waters, 317, 332; Clemmer, 198; Bonvillain,14] As one of their traditional leaders, Dan Katchongva wrote, the Hopi must not participate in war. “It is the only way we can get right with the Great Spirit. If we turn loose our bow and arrow on anyone, we will receive an even greater tragedy than our victim.” [Yamada, 46] Fortunately, the remoteness of their region and its scant natural resources have discouraged the incursion of greedy aggressors. Six thousand feet above sea level, and accessible only by twisting roads and torturous switchbacks, the mesas are well nigh impregnable fortresses. Rarely have the Hopis resorted to military force, a notable exception being their participation in the Pueblo Revolt against the despotic Spanish in 1680. Perhaps the tragedy at Awatovi, in which men from the villages of Walpi, Shungopavi, and Oraibi attacked and destroyed the Christianized village of Awatovi in 1700, turned most Hopis’ hearts against the use of violence. The Hopi are probably one of the few Indian tribes that have never fought a war against the United States government, nor promised to be subject to its jurisdiction. [Hennacy, 199]

Conflicts are usually resolved without bloodshed. Faced by irreconcilable disagreements, Hopis prefer going their separate ways rather than fighting to the death. An example is the 1906 split at Oraibi between the traditionalists and the progressives. Yukiuma, the leader of the traditionalists, drew a line in the sand and stepped across it, saying that if the progressives could push him back over the line then the traditionalists would leave Oraibi, but that if they couldn’t then the progressives would have to leave. Yukiuma’s supporters lined up behind him, the progressives lined up behind their leader, and a shoving match ensued. Several hours later, Yukiuma was finally pushed over the line. True to his word, he and the other traditionalists promptly left Oraibi.

Concerning property, for centuries the Hopis have practiced a form of anarcho-communism. Lands were owned collectively by various clans, after having been partitioned and distributed by the Bear Clan. Unlike more virulent forms of communism, which regard the institution of private property as an inherent evil to be eradicated by any means necessary, the Hopis never attempted to impose their system upon anyone else. Unfortunately, their exemplary tolerance was not reciprocated.

In 1848, under the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, the U. S. government took control of the Hopi lands from the Mexican government. The Hopi Indian Reservation was established “forever” by a Presidential Executive Order in 1882. A few years later, in 1890, without consulting the Hopis, the U.S. Congress passed the Dawes Act, which allotted to each Hopi family 100 acres of land with title of ownership. Since there were only a few hundred Hopi families and allotment sizes were never increased, millions of leftover acres were sold to white settlers for a huge profit. In engineering this spectacular rip-off of the Hopis, Congress apparently forgot that legislation imposed without consent was the prime reason their ancestors declared their independence from Great Britain.

Shortly prior to the land allotment fiasco, the U.S. government had initiated a program of compulsory schooling that affected the Hopis. A number of Hopi parents were arrested, and even imprisoned, when they refused to comply with orders to send their children to government-run schools. Their children were then kidnapped and forced to attend Indian agency day and boarding schools where they were indoctrinated into Christianity and Anglo-American culture. The conflict between the traditional and progressive Hopis began at this time, when some Hopis refused to cooperate, while other Hopis adopted those of the white man’s ways they deemed beneficial. The fundamental moral issue, however, was not whether certain aspects of white culture were beneficial, but whether any Hopi, traditionalist or progressive, should have been forced to adopt them. Certainly none of us would acquiesce to compulsory education by Martians visiting our planet, even if Martian culture were light years ahead of ours!

These depredations culminated in the 1934 government decision to hold a referendum among the Hopis to see if they would endorse a Tribal Council to represent the Tribe, and accept a tribal Constitution, and By-Laws. Much ink has been spilled over whether the minimum 30% of eligible Hopi voters necessary for the vote to be valid actually voted, with traditionalist sympathizers (e.g., Waters) arguing that only 29% voted and their progressive opponents (e.g., Page and Page) using lower total population estimates to counter that 48% voted. Such number crunching is beside the point. No people steeped in the voluntaryism of Heremequaftewa would regard voting as a legitimate form of deciding any serious matter. Sadly, those willing to vote about whether to leave the traditional Hopi Way had already left it. “By staying away from the vote, most Hopis showed their disapproval of the entire process,” even though a Tribal Council “was elected in 1935, and a formal constitution was adopted the following year.” [Bonvillain, 85] In referring to the referendum, Thomas Banyacya, a Hopi traditionalist, noted that “A small percentage of the [Hopi] population voted in favor of it, a slightly larger percentage voted against it, but by far the largest percentage didn’t vote at all. Yet it was forced upon us and its bitter fruits are being pushed down our throats even to this day.” [1957]. [Yamada, 61]

The traditional Hopi argue that the United States government has no authority over them because the Hopis never signed a treaty “acknowledging the U.S. Government’s right of existence.” Nor do they recognize the right of the U.S. government or Christian missionaries to pressure them to follow the white man’s way of life. According to the traditionalists, the Hopi Tribal Council, which was brought into existence as a creature of the U.S. government, “has no authority beyond that granted by their politico-religious leaders,” such as the Kikmongwis and the mongwis. [Clemmer, 190] During the late 1940s, these traditionalists refused to file any claims before the U.S. Government Lands Claim Commission “on the ground that ‘they had already claimed the whole Western Hemisphere long before Columbus’ great-great grandmother was born. We will not ask a white man, who came to us recently, for a piece of land that is already ours’.” Nor would the “assent to having a white man’s court decide whether or not it belonged to them.” [Waters 322, 324]

The traditional Hopi have always had an ingrained “trait of shying way from anything that smelled of government control.” [Waters, 316] Their leaders have protested against Hopi acceptance of government welfare because they believed that the government would take away their land in return for government benefits, and that dependence upon the government would destroy “the faith of the Hopis in their own independence and reliance upon their Creator.” [Waters, 327] Throughout the years, traditionalist Hopi leaders have issued eloquent pleas for self-determination to U.S. presidents and other government officials. When Yuikuma met President Taft in 1911, the message he delivered was that “all he wanted was that he and his people be left alone.” [Miller, 112] Forty years later, Dan Katchongva, a son of Yukiuma, was still delivering the same message:

Our people are a proud people. We have taken good care of ourselves and our land for thousands of years. We do not need any instruction from the Indian Bureau either in government or farming. If they want any instruction from us, we will give it to them without charge. [Yamada, 6].

We want a right to live as we please, as human beings. We want to have a right to worship as we please and have our own land. We don’t want to have someone plan our lives for us, issue us rations, social security or other dole. [Yamada, 9]

Writing on behalf of the traditionalist leaders, George Yamada echoed these powerful sentiments:

Self-determination is sovereignty–self-rule. Self-determination means that a people have the sovereign right to determine and carry out their own destiny without any alien authority to say whether their acts are good for them or not. Under self-determination a people have a right to make their own mistakes and be accounted for them. The Indian Bureau cannot give self-determination to the Hopi. All it can do is get out of the way. For the truth is, the Hopi want to run their own lives, without a boss over them to restrict it. Nor do they want to boss anyone else around, … . [Yamada, 5].

In a Meeting of Religious Peoples, August 4-5, 1955, Hopi religious leaders noted that

The laws of the Great Spirit must be followed even though they might conflict with other [political] “laws.” All the various instructions of the Great Spirit came from “the seed of one basic instruction: ‘You must not kill; you must love your neighbor as yourself.’ From this one commandment to respect and reverence life, came all the other commandments: To tell the truth, to share what we have, to live together so we can help each other out, to take care of our children and old people, the sick and the strangers, friends and enemies, to not get drunk, or commit adultery or lie or cheat, or steal, or covet, or get rich because all of these negative acts cause fights and troubles which divide the community into groups too small to support and carry on the life stream. [Yamada, 18]

In short, “the Hopis strive to live with their families and neighbors according to these ideals of peace and cooperation. They believe that people should help one another, be generous and kind to those in need, and be friendly and good-natured to all.” [Bonvillain, 14] One would be hard-pressed to find a better statement of basic voluntaryist principles.

It would be an exaggeration to say that pure voluntaryism flourishes everywhere on the Hopi mesas today, or that the Hopis are a perfect people. Clearly many Hopis have reached an accommodation with the Tribal Council, the state of Arizona, and the U.S. government. Yet a formidable remnant of Yukiuma’s traditionalist faction survives. More significantly, most Hopi progressives are members of the clans, which continue to oversee collective ownership of tribal lands, to maintain ceremonial life in a highly decentralized manner, and to control access to sacred roads and shrines. The most important decisions are made without voting, and violence is rejected as the solution to all conflicts. Though not voluntaryist in letter, Hopi culture is certainly voluntaryist in spirit. And in all likelihood it will remain so a thousand years hence.


  • Bonvillain, Nancy. The Hopi. New York: Chelsea House, 1994.
  • Clemmer, Richard O. Roads in the Sky: The Hopi Indians in a Century of Change. Boulder: Westview Press, 1995.
  • Hennacy, Ammon. Chapter 12, “Yukeoma, The Hopi,” in The One-Man Revolution in America. Salt Lake City: Ammon Hennacy Publications, 1970.
  • Miller, Donald Eugene. The Limits of Schooling by Imposition: The Hopi Indians of Arizona. Dissertation presented for the Doctor of Philosophy Degree, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, June 1987.
  • Page, Susanne and Jack Page. Hopi. New York: Abradale, 1982.
  • Waters, Frank. Book of the Hopi. New York Penguin Books, 1977.
  • Yamada, George. The Great Resistance, A Hopi Anthology. New York: G. Yamada, 1957.

I would like to thank Carl Watner for helpful suggestions that improved this article.

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