S'so's Tamales

Time on First Mesa sets a boy on his spiritual path.

Tess Rubinstein

My initiation into Hopi society began with a godfather, the mentor Dad chose for me. My yawn shook the predawn sleep as Dad took me to a house two doors down from my grandmother S’so’s home. We entered a living room warmed by a coal-burning stove and were greeted by my clan godfather. He was a soft-spoken, middle-aged man with dark hair and a small stature. He hugged me and rubbed the small of my back as he introduced me to the roomful of new female clan relatives. Everyone spoke Hopi and English to me. The women talked and laughed as they prepared food and gifts for the ceremony.

Hopi women determine a child’s clan. But since my mother was not a Hopi, my father decided mine. My father chose my godfather because he was a member of S’so and my father’s clan and not a blood relative. He was kind and unassuming. He instructed me through every step of the ceremony, beginning with a yucca root hair wash given by my clan aunts while they decided my Hopi name. Guided to the edge of the mesa’s eastern cliff, facing the rising sun, I knelt and prayed. I asked the Hopi caretaker of Earth, Maa.saw, for what I wanted in life’s walk. I returned to the excitement of a new clan family, gifts, and a traditional Hopi feast. The lucid wash and feast completed my initiation. At eight years old, I would be free to participate in the Ka.chi.na ceremonies. 

Ka.chi.nas are more than spiritual messengers but not deities. The name has two parts. Ka. means respect, and chi.na, spirit. They are respected spirits: spirits of the dead; spirits of mineral, plant, and animal; all of the invisible forces of life that our universe entails. They come to the Hopi in physical form. Hopi men impersonate them in masks in ceremonial visits, dance, song, and prayer. The men lose their personal identities and take on the identity of a spirit. The men must stay pure, so as not to nullify the ceremony or the spirit they represent. 

My roles and responsibilities following initiation would be led by my godfather. He would take me through every aspect of the sacred ceremonies and interpret them for me. I followed his instructions and became immersed in Hopi society. 

Before my initiation, I was welcomed by everyone, but felt unconnected. I wanted to become Hopi. My parents and grandparents saw this too. I welcomed my Hopi brothers and sisters teaching me Hopi. They showed me what places were sacred and safe to play in. I learned acceptable behavior and the consequences for acting out. Today I know the initiation ceremony gave me a sense of self and the connection of my body and spirit to the ground of my people.    

My father’s people are rooted in ancient values. They are stewards of the Earth, following the cycle of nature’s law. These immemorial life ways are practiced daily by multiple generations. S’so and Pa’pa, my grandfather, did not separate their spirituality from work, play, or man’s law. This traditional lifestyle passed to my extended and clan families, all following the annual growing cycle. Men prepare the soil, plant, tend, and harvest Hopi traditional foods. Women prepare and serve the food. From birth to death, ancient ceremonies and Hopi values unite ethics, behavior, and sustenance. Our spiritual and social ceremonies bring joy, balance, and rain to our desert homeland. 

S’so and Pa’pa lived at First Mesa on the Hopi Reservation. First Mesa has been occupied for thousands of years. It begins the series of Hopi Mesas that run east to west. The Hopi believe they climb to the constellations and our ancestors. On top of First Mesa is Sitsomovi, S’so’s village. It’s joined by sister villages, Walpi to the west and Haano to the east. Each separate village is linked by a snaking road. Square and rectangular connected homes surround a plaza and breezeway alleys. The houses are stacked one on another, America’s first apartments. The outhouses sit balanced over the edge of the cliff, reminding everyone there is no water or plumbing on the mesa.  

On the night we first arrived, months before my initiation, we followed the rutted road past the shadows of flat roofs and square joined homes with protruding log beams. The truck lights made snapshots of the gray and sandstone walls, dim-lit square windows, and doors. Our truck weaved through an alley, passing several vehicles and a horse-drawn wagon. We finally arrived at my grandmother’s house and knocked on the front door. I heard her voice for the first time.

Yu.nga.aw! Come in, sit down,” S’so called out.

My father entered first and S’so immediately rushed to hug her son. She yelped with joy, crying and wiping her eyes with her apron. Her four-foot, five-inch frame made her seem miniature next to Dad. Her black straight hair was parted in the middle with two loosely bound braids. She wore a handmade cotton dress made from Blue Bird cotton flour sacks and spoke Hopi to her son. She spoke English to my mother, brothers, and me. I later found out she taught herself to speak English, a borrowed language. She spoke to her grandchildren mixing Hopi and English, making it easy for me to learn to speak my native language. 

English was the dominant language spoken in my immediate family. Mom spoke Ichishkiin, her people’s language from the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon. We moved to Mom’s reservation when I was a toddler, and it was all I’d known until our move to the Hopi homeland of my father and my grandparents.

My days at First Mesa introduced me to a new lifestyle. I woke to the smell of coal and juniper burning. A coal-burning cast-iron potbelly stove extended a tall pipe to the ceiling and sat next to the wall. The ceiling was made of willow branches, which nestled above the aged, exposed logs. A white porcelain flat-iron-top kitchen range burned juniper. It had different sized removable O’s and rectangular rings, for wood access and cooking.  

When I stepped outside, my feet left scattered sand-drift footprints and the sound of scraped sandstone. My deep breaths of frigid air were interrupted by the slam of a screen door and muffled talk. The air at seven-thousand-feet elevation froze the moisture in my nose hair. The wind cut into my cheekbones like a crisp slap in the face. On the western horizon were the sacred San Francisco Peaks, home to the Ka.chi.nas, where mountains laden with pine and fir forests rose out of the desert. Outside the whitewashed walls and flat earth roof of my grandparents’ adobe home, the last season’s braided strands of dried sweet corn and red chili hung from log beam extensions.

The late fall morning smells and warmth of crackling juniper wood filled the air. S’so cooked blue corn meal to make hu.ru.su.ki, a blue corn cake. Tsiili, red chili pepper, and ooga, salt pork, fried on the stove. After the food was cooked, S’so called us to gather at the table set with a large frying pan of ooga and tsiili. 

As she cut the hu.ru.su.ki into slices she announced, “Eat, Hopis don’t have germs.” 

We ate with our fingers, dipping the slices of corn cake into ooga drippings hot from the stove. 

After breakfast S’so would start the daylong preparation of tsil.so.mi.viki, Hopi tamales. The cooking scent filled the house and spread throughout the village. S’so wrapped her tamales in cornhusk from my grandfather Pa’pa’s cornfield. The cornhusk wrapper was held together with thin hand-ties and had a cover of kwur.kwi, white-corn flour paste. It encased a filling of kwur.kwi mixed with dried tsiili, and one of an assortment of dried or fresh meats. Deer and mooro, burro, were the favorites. She made the extra-large size with meat tender enough to cut with a fork. We called them turk.ya, prairie dog size. 

For our meals we sat in a multipurpose room that combined the kitchen, dining room, and living room. Pa’pa chewed and enjoyed his food with lip smacks, while sweat dripped down his face from the spicy hot red tsiili. 

I remember the months, meals, and days at First Mesa passing quickly. It seemed village vendors came weekly with food for sale and news from the moccasin telegraph. They had donuts, tsil.so.mi.viki, and a dish S’so called cow stomach stew, or beef tripe. 

After a purchase, S’so would bang on a sealed door that separated her home from her daughter’s. “Come around the corner and have some of my cow-stomach stew,” she’d yell. 

There’d be a muffled, happy, and high-pitched Hopi reply, followed shortly by a knock on the door.  

“Yu.nga.aw! come in,” we’d all yell. 

“Come in, sit down, noon’.va.a, eat,” S’so said to her daughter. Food and meals are the sustenance connecting Hopis to blood, clan families, and Mother Earth.

Cow-stomach stew, po.la.vi.ki, and Hopi oven bread warm from the beehive adobe oven, the latest gossip, teasing, and belly laughter were the order of the day.

Pa’pa seemed larger than life. He usually wore a plaid shirt with a folded bandana tied in a knot at the side of his Dutch-boy gray shoulder-length hair. His black canvas Keds shoes with a brand circle emblem at the ankles reflected years of wear. His age and years as a Hopi farmer carved deep wrinkles in his wind-blown, deep-tanned face and broad nose. I always felt so safe with him. He was the kindest, softest-spoken man I’ve ever known. The only English word he spoke was cat.  

Pa’pa would say, “c, a, t—cat.” 

An abrupt silence would ensue, followed by loud belly laughter. He was forced to attend the Bureau of Indian Affairs Hopi Day School. He went just one day and never found reason to go back. For several months his parents and relatives hid him, until the federal school authorities stopped their relentless and futile search. He was rooted in his cultural values, spirituality, morality, and ethics.

My experience at the Hopi Day School was different from his. Before the last morning bell, my cousins and I would run down the trail to school. During the morning recess, we were given powdered milk to supplement what was presumed to be lacking in our diet. I enjoyed reading and my teacher was kind and attentive. The school’s outdoor concrete basketball court introduced me to team sports, which became a large part of my adult life.

I had to share Pa'pa with my cousins. At night my Hopi brothers and I would scramble to sleep next to Pa'pa. At an early age Hopis are taught to treat and care for one another as brothers and sisters. Bedtime with him was a time of stories filled with Hopi oral tradition, enchantment, and feats of amazement. He’d spread his sheepskin and blankets on the stone floor, and we’d snuggle next to him in anticipation. I always had to have a brother serve as an interpreter, since I had just started to learn Hopi. Pa'pa was an exceptional storyteller. He would add songs with animal and insect sounds to his tales. The stories incorporated animal and insect characters in places and images familiar to us.

At the time, his homesickness for Second Mesa, where he had other relatives, seemed strange since it was only ten miles away. It explained, though, why he would sometimes be gone several weeks and suddenly reappear. In earlier days he easily rode his mooro or walked between his two homes, reconnecting with family and fulfilling ceremonial obligations. With age he was no longer able to walk the four-hour trip or ride his favorite mooro. It was left below the mesa, front legs hobbled together, allowing for movement but not letting him wander away.

I recall a day when someone came by selling tamales. Pa'pa didn’t miss the opportunity. Days later we wondered what happened to Pa'pa's hobbled morro. Then we heard someone rustled his beloved pet. No one had the heart or will to spill the mori, the Hopi beans.

The short year and a half I had with S’so and Pa'pa was an inheritance. I want to pass this heritage to my grandchildren. These sensory images and feelings are as close as S’so’s kitchen. I can close my eyes, taste and smell tamales. The dried meat smoked scent and spicy flavors tingle in my mouth. The savory taste persists as it settles in my stomach.  

I will always share Pa'pa’s love for Hopi tamales. My favorite is the dried deer meat. No one makes the turk.ya size tamales S’so cooked any longer. I have scoured far and wide, tasted other culture’s versions, and at best they are conventional.  

My wife has told me, “You’ll never find tamales as good your Grandmother’s.”

Perhaps she’s right. A deep sense of belonging began with my connection to my fathers’ homeland and membership in the Rabbit and Tobacco clan; with Hopi traditional food, and the loving hands that prepared it; with that taste of S’so’s tsil.so.mi.viki, wrapped in a little boy’s memory of a sacred clan ceremony. 

At the time I didn’t fully appreciate how significant the initiation ceremony was to the rest of my life. My father knew how important my connection to my blood and clan family, and to Hopi-land, was for me. My growth and identity depended on it. Without it, my spirit would not be whole. I would be lost. 

The journey began with a beckoning home and achieved a great reward: a child’s spiritual bond of self to place, and a walk into adulthood.  

Kwa.kway’, thank you, S’so, and Pa'pa.


Family, Identity, Place, Spirituality, Home


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