Popular Science Monthly/Volume 5/July 1874/The Moquis Indians of Arizona

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AMONG the aboriginal tribes of the Southwest is that of the Moquis, an isolated remnant of a former wide-spread nation. These Indians are of particular interest, especially as a study for the ethnologist, on account of their peculiar manner of living, strange customs, etc., as well as in being little known and seldom visited by the white man.

While the literature of American ethnology teems with interesting accounts of the aboriginal race of this country, and is replete with the history of the various other tribes, but little is said regarding the singular and romantic branch of the Pueblos who call themselves "Moquis." Year after year military expeditions have traversed the far West, yet few have been led to the hidden recesses of this tribe; moreover, theirs is a region seldom visited by civilians, and of these the few coming thither are principally New-Mexicans.

It was the sixth day after leaving Fort Defiance, that our party, under Lieutenant Russell (of the "Expedition for Explorations and Surveys west of the One Hundredth Meridian," in charge of Lieutenant George M. Wheeler, U. S. Engineers), began to near the Moquis villages, concerning the inhabitants of which we had listened to so many thrilling and marvelous stories. Immediately before us was spread a wide, sandy basin, whose loose, dusty surface offered no verdure to delight the eye, or relieve the wearisome monotony of the barren landscape. Ten miles away over this trackless desert loomed up, on the western horizon, wide and precipitous cliffs whose heights it would seem impossible to climb. "On those cliffs," said our Navajo guide, "live the Moquis." A few hours later, and we had crossed the sterile waste, and were at the base of the sandstone masses whose outline we had previously traced in the far distance, there to find perched on lofty summits the habitations of the singular people we had come so far to see.

As we approached, human beings began to throng the rim of the precipitous bluffs, their dusky features betraying curiosity over an event so novel and unexpected as the presence of white men at the very threshold of their citadel. We now began the ascent to the villages; a narrow path led, by a serpentine route, up the dizzy heights, and, in single file, we soon gained the summit; not, however, until we had passed several Moquis posted, sentinel-like, along the approach. Once up the steeps, we were soon surrounded by Indians, when, no-lens volens a hearty hand-shaking ensued, and friendly intercourse forthwith began.

The home of the Moquis is on a rocky island, separated from the rest of the world by an ocean of sand, and is one of the strongest natural fortifications; indeed, as a stronghold against invasion, it may justly be termed the Gibraltar of the West. Neither the Navajos nor the Apaches, whose tribes have ever numbered some of the most celebrated of Indian warriors, have as yet met with even temporary success in their attacks on the Moquis. Although for several years past these tribes have been on peaceable terms, there is, nevertheless, no special liking the one for the other, and ever and anon bitter recollections of by-gone strifes are openly manifested, and the younger bucks strip for the war-path.

The Moquis number about 2,500 souls, and occupy seven villages, or, speaking accurately, six, one being inhabited by a branch of the Tehuas. These villages are built on the tops of four sandstone mesas,[1] which are separate from each other about eight miles. On the first are three of the villages, fifty yards apart. They are named respectively, Tehua, Tsi-tsumo-vi, and Obiki, the last commonly but erroneously called Hualpy. The villages on the second mesa are Mushangene-vi and Shebaula-vi. On mesa number three is Shongoba-vi, and on number four Orai-vi. These villages occupy the entire width of the mesas, and, standing immediately before the houses, one may look vertically down a frightful depth of three hundred feet! In many places the sides of the mesas are terraced, the terraces being used as sheep-corrals. On the rims of these high and rocky walls children may be seen at play, unconscious of danger, while the mother performs the duties of the household apparently thoughtless of the gulf that yawns within stepping-distance of her innocent brood. Below, on the sheep-terraces, other children are delightfully engaged in sucking goat's milk from its natural fountain.

As stated, these villages occupy the entire width of the mesas. The houses are built in a row, side by side, and are principally of two (although not a few are of four) stories. They are constructed in a terrace style, the upper stories being removed a few feet back from the lower ones. The mode of entry is by means of ladders or steps cut in the side-walls. These habitations are not built of adobe, of which material the larger number of Indian and Mexican huts are formed, but of stones firmly held in place by a cement of clay and sand. The several stories are, respectively, about seven feet high, and are divided into a number of rooms, each of which is provided with an open fireplace. For windows the walls are pierced in many places, the holes being cut square, and about a foot either way. In severe winters the inhabitants of these houses shelter themselves in cellars or caves in the rocks near by.

In appearance the Moquis resembles the Caucasian rather than the Mongolian race. The facial features are a cross between pleasant and severe, and in many instances the expression is that of unusual intelligence. The complexion is a light red-brown, the teeth snow-white, and hair "jet-black," coarse and long. Everywhere throughout the tribe the pitted skin is evidence that at no remote period in the past small-pox has held its pernicious sway.

PSM V05 D367 Street in a moqui village.jpg
Street in a Moquis Village.

These Indians are well clad, especially the females, some of whom are neatly attired, particularly the daughters of the chief, who, by-the-by, are exceedingly interesting young ladies. Their dress takes much of that common in the Eastern cities, while the hair is worn in the style known as "Pompadour." One advantage these nymphs of the desert possess over those of the East is, that of being able to carry their head-gear with them when they retire to rest, the whole being the work of Nature in themselves and nothing of art. By reason of the extensive ravages of the small-pox, many of the houses are just now empty, their occupants having fallen victims to a disease whose merciless march they had not the scientific knowledge to stay.

Among the Moquis settlements are found dogs, donkeys, sheep, goats, and chickens, but not a single specimen of the feline tribe, nor a hog, a cow, nor a horse. The donkey is almost indispensable, in that it is their principal means of transporting wood, which has to be brought great distances. In the absence of wood, dried sheep-excrement is extensively used as fuel. Very little grass is to be met with in the vicinity of the mesas, the entire country round about being a vast sand-heap devoid of vegetation. For pasture the sheep are driven off several miles northward to a few patches of poor grass.

The chief article of subsistence of these natives is Indian-corn; they have no meat, excepting occasionally mutton. The sheep are raised for their wool, and not for table-purposes. From the wool they manufacture an extraordinarily good and serviceable blanket.

The atmosphere being very dry, and no rains occurring sometimes for several months, and with no streams near by for irrigating purposes, it may well be inquired how these untutored aborigines, on whom the light of our civilization has not yet dawned, manage to produce the article which furnishes them with the staff of life. The method employed is as follows: The seed is planted at from one to two feet beneath the sand and very wide apart. At this depth they have found by experience that there is sufficient moisture to develop and sustain the plant. On analyzing specimens of the soil, the chemist of the expedition has found that the experience of these untaught Indians is in full accord with the results of his investigations. The interesting fact was elucidated that subsoil at a distance of one foot contains two and two-tenths per cent, of moisture to one per cent, at the surface, from which it may be inferred with reason, that at no great depth there must be a stratum of water. This water, ascending by capillary attraction, is rapidly evaporated as soon as it reaches the surface, on account of the looseness of the soil and the arid atmosphere. Grass-seed scattered over the ground in this region of sand would fail to germinate, and only be wasted. The only water in this locality is that supplied by several small springs at the bases of the mesas.

The bread made by the Moquis has a similarity to our "wafer." In preparing it the corn is ground between two stones to a line powder, water being subsequently added until the mixture is brought to a thin paste. This paste is spread out with the hand in layers over a hot stone, and in a few moments is ready for eating. Another variety of their food is prepared from corn that has been germinated, whereby, as is well known, a saccharine matter is developed and a species of malt produced; this food they call panoche. Still a third kind is derived by mixing flour and dried meat in a powdered state: this they call tomales.

The Moquis have one school, which is provided them by the "great father," and which is attended by children from three to five years old. On being examined, these little ones counted correctly to 100. They are quite proficient in spelling, while their ready recital, without the book, of numerous English verses, showed them possessed of very retentive memories.

As previously mentioned, the Tehuas occupy one of the Moquis villages. The languages of the two tribes, however, are quite different, that of the latter being unintelligible to the former. On collecting a vocabulary of the language of the Tehuas, it was found to be identical with that of the Indians of Ildefonso, who inhabit some twenty-five miles west of Santa Fé, and from three to four hundred miles distant from the Moquis towns. Inquiry as to the date of settlement of the Tehuas with the Moquis proved fruitless of the desired result; the Indians either did not know, or were unwilling to tell. One intelligent Moquis, named Mesayamtiba, who answered many questions readily and very intelligibly, estimated the period of intermingling of the two tribes at upward of one hundred years.

As a refutation of the rather prevalent notion that Indian languages are subject to rapid change, it may be said that, although the Tehuas and Ildefonsos have been separated at least a century, and that, too, at a distance from each other of several hundred miles, the language of the branch tribe is still identical with that of the parent stem. Furthermore, although the Tehuas and Moquis live but fifty yards apart, their dialects are entirely different, that of the former not embracing a single word used by the latter. By this, however", it is not to be understood that some of the Moquis do not understand the Tehuas language, and vice versa. Besides their own language, a few of both tribes speak broken Spanish.

With regard to the religion of the Moquis, diligent investigation failed to develop any thing definite. To the inquiry whether they worship Montezuma, the reply was, in broken Spanish, "No sabe" ("I don't know"). By Mesayamtiba, we were informed that he believed the "sun to be the true God," but that the so-called "happy hunting-ground" was, in his opinion, but a creation of the imagination—the "baseless fabric of a dream." They have neither church nor other place of worship to be found, which is evidence that the Spanish Jesuits have been unable to gain a foothold among them, although these priests have succeeded in establishing themselves with almost all the other Pueblo tribes, as is plainly shown by the ruins of Jesuit churches in Acoma, Gemez, and other towns. The Moquis sometimes hold religious meetings in caves in the vicinity of their settlements. On being asked to decipher an hieroglyphical inscription some fifteen miles southeast from their villages, a copy of which was shown them, they appeared unable to do so, replying, "No sabe." The belief is well entertained, however, that they were acquainted with the inscription, and knew its hidden meaning, since there were found in the house of one of the chiefs figures carved in wood which corresponded exactly to some of those employed in the inscription. If these were designed as objects of worship, no profound veneration was manifested for them, since they were readily parted with for a trifling quantity of tobacco.

The exact date at which this singular people settled in Northeastern Arizona, and built their habitations on massive rocks, whose foundations are far beneath the level of the sandy plain which surrounds them, is a question still enveloped in mystery. Taking into consideration the fact that the space between the several villages on one of the mesas is solid rock, and that across this space a path has been worn by human feet to a depth of several inches, and remembering that the shoes of the people who have trod out this stony pathway have been of the softest leather, it is not unreasonable to assume that at least a thousand years have elapsed since this tribe first made its appearance in this bleak and uninviting section of the Western World.

While our visit to the Moquis resulted in much valuable information concerning this remnant of a race fast disappearing from the face of the earth, we were otherwise well repaid for the hardships we had encountered in reaching this isolated spot, and shall not soon forget the pleasant hours spent in the company of these half-civilized beings. As evening drew near, sitting on the tops of the lofty mesas, our fevered brows were gently fanned by cooling breezes, which soon caused us to forget the tropical heat of the day, while our eyes were feasted by a sunset seldom equaled in grandeur and sublimity. The sinking sun produced a golden hue around the summits of the far-distant Sierra de San Francisco, while its light, reflected along the horizon, transformed the sky into an ocean of blood. It was long after nightfall ere wearied nature sought repose; but, at last, we retired to rest, with naught but rock for our pillow, and with no roof above us save the blue canopy of Nature, which seemed more than ever fretted with twinkling stars.

  1. Mesa, table, a flat surface on the top of hills or mountains.