The Hopi who live in the southwest region of the United States utilized quite a few puppets in religious ceremonies. The pageantry of the ceremonies complete with the costumes, dancing, singing and plays could rival any pageant performed today. One ceremony using puppets involves the Maiden Corn Grinders.
The most information that I could find about how puppets and puppetry were used by the ancient peoples of the southwest region of the United States is in Walter Hough’s book written in 1915 called Little Histories of Native American Indians Vol. 4 – The Hopi. I will focus on the use of puppets during the performance of the Maiden Corn Grinders as witnessed by Mr. Hough sometime around 1896.
The Maiden Corn Grinders
The following is an excerpt from his book.
“The fire is darkened by a blanket held over it, and the actors climb down the ladder and arrange their properties. The fire tenders drop the blankets, and on the floor is seen a miniature field of corn made by fastening sprouted corn in clay pedestals. Behind this corn field is a cloth screen decorated with figures of human beings, corn, clouds, lightning, etc., hung across the room, and along the screen six openings masked by flaps.
Back of the field corn and on the floor are seen two large pottery vases, and, as if by magic, the covers of the vases fly back, and from them two serpents emerge, swoop down and overthrow the corn hills, struggle with each other and perform many gyrations, then withdraw into the vases. In the dim light of the kiva fire the cords by which the serpents are manipulated cannot be seen, and the realism of the act is wonderful. In other years the acts are even more startling, as when masked men wrestle with serpents which seem to try to coil about their victims. The actor thrusts one arm in the body of the snake in order to give these movements, while a false arm is tied to his shoulder. Sometimes also the corn-maid grinders are represented by joined figures surrounded by a framework. They are made to bend backward and forward and grind corn on small metates. At times they raise one hand and rub meal on their faces, like the Hopi corn grinders in daily life, while above them on the framework two birds carved from wood and painted are made to walk back and forth.”
Hopi Corn Maiden
Even though I was unable to find any drawings or pictures of the setting, props, actors and puppets as described by Mr. Hough, I feel he did an excellent job of describing the ceremony. I can easily imagine the performance from the description.
I did discover a Hopi Corn Maiden Kachina carved by Hopi Kachina carver, Tyson Nequatewa. His Corn Maiden helped give me an idea of what the corn grinding puppets may have looked like. Tyson Nequatewa has been creating kachinas for over 40 years and his work has received numerous awards. This kachina is carved from cottonwood tree root and has amazing detail and precision. She has a corn body.