Maria Suarez: Hello. Welcome to the Arizona State Museum podcast. My name is Maria Suarez. I'm a Creative Writing senior here at the University of Arizona. In October 2008, I talked to Sheilah Nicholas, who's from the Hopi Nation and currently lives in Tucson, Arizona. The interview starts when I asked her about growing up speaking both Hopi and English.
Sheilah Nicholas: My first language was Hopi. That was the only language I spoke. So, when I went to learn English, it was at school when I was about six years old. And then I imagine I picked up in second grade and we moved to Winslow, Arizona. I think I was in the third grade, and I think my mom confirmed this for me, that I had trouble speaking English appropriately. And I would get teased. And so she told me at the time to speak more English than Hopi and that's what I did and then just quit speaking Hopi. From then on, I spoke only English but I always understood Hopi. So, the positive part about that is I always understood my grandparents, always understood our people when I went out there, because I did spend a lot of my summers with my grandmother. So, I think the benefit was that I could still be a member of my community, but I was beginning to be a member of mainstream society.
When I was an adult, I met my clan uncle, Emory Sekaquaptewa, who was at that time a research anthropologist in the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology at U of A. And he had been working for 30 some years on the language, refining the writing system and working on a Hopi language dictionary. And I met him and I started working with him. And started thinking, "What happened to my language? What happened to Hopi? How come I can't speak it anymore?"
At that time, I started getting involved with the American Indian Language Development Institute and Emory was an instructor here in the language, for the Hopi language at that time. I got interested reading and writing Hopi, but at the same time questioning what happened to my speaking ability. And so, since about then, by reading and writing Hopi, I have actually brought it back.
So, I guess, in a sense, both languages were always there for me ‑ just the fact that I didn't use the language to speak to other people, to my family. Even when my children were born, I didn't use it. Being exposed to it again, to the use of it, started impacting me, probably a lot more. Using it to create a new path for my life, actually, at that point.
But as far as how it impacted me and my world view, it's not so much the language that impacted me, it's the principles and values that came through how someone would say something in response to an event. Some of them insignificant, it seems, listening to people and seeing how they stated things. Yeah. It really makes a big difference. And you do have, definitely, a very Hopi ‑ or I did anyway, have a very Hopi cultural perspective on everything that I did.
Hopi is a matrilineal clan. For that reason, their role is very, very significant in, not only the culture, the society, but in the home. The woman is the nurturer, is the sustainer of the culture. And when a female child is born, there's a lot of happiness because she carries on the clan and she carries on the culture.
When a boy is born, we are just as happy, but there's always this thought, "That's your son." Because he will go with his wife away from you. So, the female is the pillar in the community and in the home in that sense. But, on the other hand, the male is very much an important person that, I mean, one is not more important than the other, but a female has a very strong, stable effect in the community.
I think, I really realize that because my birth mother and the mother who raised me are sisters. We used to spend quite a bit of time at my birth parents’ home. We would come home and we would gather there. If she was working, you could really have this sense of people not knowing what to do, you know, it just wasn't organized. But, the minute she walked through the door, [we knew] exactly what to do. So, I really saw that sense of cohesiveness that a female brings in the home. That everybody kind of gathers around the female.
And I really noticed that when she passed away, my father, our father got us all together after she was buried and said to us that the boys with mothers and their sisters and their aunts because without a mother there is no home. And that was very significant there.
And then traditionally, all things—the children, the produce from the fields, the home— belong to the mother because she was the one that would always be there to raise the children. That was another important thing to a woman.
I think, if you really think about [it], in comparison to many other cultures where women don't seem to have that same status—I'm saying this only because of my own understanding of it—Hopi women are revered, because they can generate life. That is just so awesome.
There's nothing that a man can really do even though he contributes to that process. I think a female has a very, very significant role traditionally and today. But because of a lot influence from outside of our community, a lot of that is deteriorating. It's not deteriorating because the principles aren't there anymore. It's just that, that particular view of women is not lived or modeled like it used to be.
I was brought up the Hopi way. Even though it was for a short period of time, it carved the kind of person I am. I've always lived with the philosophy that your major responsibility as an individual to yourself is to make the right choices. Everybody, every culture, has that. The reason is that I'm trying to be, I'm striving to be, the ideal Hopi. I may never get there, but the belief and the path to that is laid out, it's there. I just need to travel it.
I guess people can be compelled. For what I thought about Western America is that just like Hopis they have this ideal they want to be. Well, white people call it social justice. That's their goal. Equity ‑ every man is created equal. It's kind of the same, but every "man" is created equal becomes the issue. Here, it's the ideal Hopi. There is no gender associated with it, it's just being the ideal Hopi.
Maria: What do you think will be the most pressing issue for Hopi women in the future?
Sheilah: I think, it's to reclaim their responsibility for being nurturers and sustainers of our community, which issue—Emory, before me, many times said this in our work with language revitalization: it's always women. That is, mainly we have had women. I said, "Why is it that we only have women?" He just said, "Women are going to be the ones to do it." He said, "A woman can bear children, be a mother, be a homemaker, but they can also have a career and do a great job there too." Women have the ability to take on a lot. We need to be the ones to make things right and be willing to do that. It'll be better, but right now, what I notice in our community is that people are still reeling from the legacy of oppression, boarding school, and they are still in the stage of self‑victimization—that somebody did this to me, and I'm this way because somebody did it to me. They're not willing to say, "But I'm in charge of my own life from here until tomorrow."
Our men are probably having the most difficult time [because of] all these changes that have been brought about, especially for Hopi. When the Euro-Americans brought new things to Hopi, it didn't change a female's role, but it changed, like traditionally men were the leaders. They were the ones who crocheted. While the white American women came, they taught us quilting and crocheting and all that. They took that away from them. We don't plant as much; they took that away from them.
I noticed that you have a lot of women across the cultures wanting to look at women, but nobody takes a look at the men. The men are just in dire straits as women are. That's something that I've always thought about saying, "Why are men so involved in substance abuse, domestic violence?" Their needs haven't really been fully addressed. We've been concentrating on women all the time, not the men. It's imbalanced again.
I think that's going to be the issue. There's a lot of issues coming and going. It's all this stuff that keeps coming at us. They are not being groomed again to be stewards of the land. Who is going to do that but the women, because they are the first teachers.
Maria: Thank you for sitting down today and talking to us.
photo of Sheilah Nicholas by Maria Suarez Ruiz