Collecting Hopi: Researching Proprietary Tribal Knowledge

Hannah McElgunn, PhD Student, Sociocultural/Linguistic Anthropology

Just before entering Kykotsmovi (Kiqötsmovi in Hopi), visitors are greeted by a colourful sign with words of welcome and warning. Here, as in every other village on the Hopi reservation in Northeastern Arizona, visitors are forbidden from taking photographs, making audio recordings, producing sketches, hiking foot trails or removing objects. In other words, no inscriptions should be made of the village, you are not welcome to walk on land that isn’t paved, and nothing should be taken from the village. My dissertation project takes up this first set of warnings – those about different kinds of inscriptions – especially as they relate to the Hopi language.

Since at least the turn of the 20th century, there has been concerted ethnographic, linguistic, and popular interest in Hopi culture and language. Collecting trips from the late 1890s filled the Field Museum’s halls with sacred and everyday objects, and accompanying field notes. To get an idea of the scale of this collection consider that the fourth expedition alone resulted in the removal of 3,000 “invaluable specimens” from graves and house ruins[1]. In the 1940s, largely due to the work of Benjamin Lee Whorf, the Hopi language gained renown as potential evidence of linguistic relativity – I take this to mean that different languages induce speakers to categorize and carve up their environments differently, in ways that are consequential for our understanding of the world around us. However, Whorf’s work was largely interpreted (incorrectly, in my mind) as striving to show that there is no way of expressing time in the Hopi language. The possibility of a language and a people without time captivated scholarly and academic audiences. By latter half of the 20th century, the ceremonies that occur almost every week in the summer months on the reservation were inundated by visitors crowding out Hopi observers.

            This outside curiosity and interest, regardless of whether it is backed by scholarly institutions or not, is contentious for tribal members. In many ways it strikes at the roots of Hopi ceremonial life. At Hopi, access to cultural knowledge, and also the privilege and duty to pass it on, is differentially distributed amongst clans and their initiated members. Further, knowledge is subject to strict rules of access, distribution and circulation, not only between Hopis and non-Hopis, but more importantly, amongst tribal members of different clans and ages. This outside interest, by popular and scholarly audiences alike, is perceived as particularly dangerous by some tribal members, because it threatens to upset this finely balanced system.

            My dissertation examines the ways that the Hopi language participates in this system of access, distribution, and circulation of knowledge, and the ways that this system might be transformed through contemporary language revitalization. At Hopi, language revitalization is not only about developing fluency, but also about bringing past language documentation materials back under Hopi management. I am particularly interested in learning about how the different actors brought together through language revitalization – outside archivists, the staff of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, and on-reservation language teachers – might influence each other, rearranging norms surrounding language, knowledge, and property.

For instance, the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office has recently claimed the Hopi language to be the “intellectual property” of the Tribe, as an attempt to assert a right to ownership over the language in general, and any of its instantiations. But, this is the very same legal regime that divests the tribe from past documentation work. Copyright, like other forms of intellectual property protection, cannot in fact recognize property in the intangible: it is always the person who produces the tangible inscription that automatically gains the copyright. In other words, it would be the linguist making recordings or writing down vocabulary items, and not the Hopi speaker, that holds the copyright to the materials produced. Given this, what does the Cultural Preservation Office mean when they claim a right to the language as their intellectual property? What do other tribal members think about such a claim? 

            Although my research is largely about the unforeseen effects of past language documentation work, and about concerns over property in current revitalization work, I strive to be continuously aware of the potential of my own research to improperly divulge information. Much of my research thus far has involved working with the Cultural Preservation Office and other tribal members to discern where the line between acceptable research and inappropriate sharing lies. While this can make the pace of research slower than at other fieldsites, the fieldwork stage of the Anthropology degree (for which students routinely spend one to two years at their fieldsites) makes the forging of relationships possible, and indeed without the possibility of spending extended time on the reservation, in addition to several summers conducting preliminary fieldwork, I doubt this modality of research would be possible.

[1] Dorsey, George A. 1901. “The Stanley-McCormick Hopi Expeditions.” Science 13 (319): 219–22.