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Why Save Walpi Village? Exploring the Importance of a Hopi Complex

Public Historian and co-author of "Exploring American Girlhood in 50 Historic Treasures" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).

Walpi Village is a Native American site set at the top of First Mesa in Arizona. It is part of a complex of Hopi sites situated on three mesas (First, Second, and Third) on the Hopi’s historical and current lands.

The name “Walpi” comes from two Hopi words: “‘Walla,’ a gap or cleft in the cliffs, and ‘ova,’ a place; so it means ‘Place of the Gap.’ It is so named because of the great break in the mesa just north of the Tewa village of Hano.”

Walpi is significant for a variety of reasons, including its association with the Hopi, its traditional Pueblo architecture, cultural significance, religious significance, cosmology, and historical integrity; for these reasons, Walpi must be preserved.

Photography of Walpi Village by Ansel Adams in 1941.

Photography of Walpi Village by Ansel Adams in 1941.

The Mother Village

First, Walpi is the “Mother Village,” established in the thirteenth century as the foundation for eleven Hopi settlements throughout the Mesas.

The Hopi are the westernmost branch of the Pueblo Peoples of the American Southwest and are the descendants of the Anasazi (referred to by the Hopi as the “Hisat-Sinom”). The Hopi believe that following the Anasazi’s mysterious downfall circa 1100 C.E., their ancestors entered into an era of wandering that ended with the return to the center of the Hopi universe at Black Mesa, where the Hopi built Walpi and other villages.

Evidence of occupation of the Walpi area dates to 500-700 C.E., including evidence of a series of primitive pit houses which might have been occupied by the Anasazi. Today, Walpi and the surrounding villages are still occupied by the Hopi clans.

Cross-section of Pueblo architecture.

Cross-section of Pueblo architecture.

Pueblo Architecture

Second, Walpi represents traditional Hopi architecture, commonly called the Pueblo style.

At Walpi, this style consists of a group of angular stone houses of two to five stories crowded atop the steep walls of the mesa at an elevation of 6,225 feet. The houses were "built using hand-trimmed sandstone and earth, and grew over the centuries. The roofs consist of vigas (structural beams), latillas (branches used as sheathing), and a capping layer of willow twigs and earth. The walls are still hand-plastered by local women.” (World Monuments Fund)

These houses remained relatively unchanged over the centuries, as Walpi’s inhabitants migrated to the nearby village of Polacca (which had more modern housing) during the late nineteenth century but continued upkeep of Walpi as a sacred site. Visitors to the site describe it as “a maze of some two hundred rooms stacked up to five stories deep, some of which have not seen daylight in more than two centuries.” (Wesley Berardini)

Despite the lack of daily use at Walpi, the Hopi have retained ownership of the houses, which are still in use for public ceremonies and serves as the residence of the village leader, Kikmongwi.

Cultural Affiliations

Third, Walpi is significant for its cultural affiliations with the Hopi. As Wesley Bernardini notes, “Each Walpi family has a powerful connection to its ancestral home on the mesa top, returning frequently for ceremonies and other clan activities. The houses are tangible symbols of Walpi clans.”

Walpi has also been the site of many significant events in Hopi history. Governor and Captain General Don Diego de Vargas Zapata y Lujan Ponce de Leon visited the site in the mid-seventeenth century, attempting conquest of the Pueblo peoples; Vargas was received by the Hopi at Walpi, which led to the conversion of the Hopi to Catholicism and the establishment of a Franciscan mission at the base of the mesa.

However, many of the Hopi later claimed to not understand the conversion ceremony, claiming that they partook in the ceremony as a means of avoiding war with the Spanish. This likely led to Walpi’s historical association with the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. On August 10, 1680, a confederation of Pueblo tribes led a revolt against the Castillas (Spanish) throughout the Southwest; the Hopi were delayed in revolting, due to a communication error with other tribes, but nonetheless succeeded in tearing down the Franciscan missions within their villages.

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Following this revolt, the Hopi were fearful of retaliation by the Spanish, thus prompting the Walpi villagers (known in historical records as the Keuchaptevela) to move their village from its lower elevation to its current position atop the mesa, a move repeated by other villages. The Spanish never retaliated, and the Hopi maintained their traditional ways of life up until the establishment of reservations and forced assimilations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The Importance of Kivas

Snake Dance, 1913

Spirituality and Cosmology

Walpi is also significant for its spiritual significance to the Hopi. As the Mother Village, Walpi leads the surrounding First Mesa villages in sacred rituals.

These rituals include the Snake Dance, a traditional ritual believed to bring rain to the deserts to help the crops, as the Hopi were an agricultural tribe. This ritual was of great fascination to travelers in the early twentieth century, which led to its recording during a visit by Teddy Roosevelt in 1913. Walpi alternates leading the ceremony with the nearby village of Oraibi, a practice that continues to this day (although outsiders are no longer allowed to witness the ceremony).

It is also the location of the New-Fire Ceremony, held each fourth year in November, which includes initiation of novices into the Hopi priesthood.

Related to its religious significance is Walpi’s connection to Hopi cosmology. Cosmology is “a shared system of beliefs about the nature of the it is perceived by a group of people.” Principles of cosmology are often reflected in architecture and sacred buildings or even an entire landscape, as is the case at Walpi.

Walpi is significant as it is the site where the Hopi tracked their calendar year. Sitting atop the mesa, Walpi is a perfect vantage point by which to track the movements of celestial bodies:

The inhabitants of Walpi are known to have observed an elaborate ceremonial calendar. The entire year was punctuated with ceremonies whose purpose was to ‘assure vital equilibrium, both social and individual, and conciliate the supernatural powers in order to obtain rain, good harvests, good health, and peace.’ Some were carried out in public and some in private. Some were of considerable duration: a celebration lasting nine days occurred at the time of winter solstice. The calendar was regulated by carefully tracking the horizon rising position of the sun against various distant landmarks from different observing positions in and around the village. (Ruggles)

Thus, Walpi was the site of important religious ceremonies and served as the reference point for the Hopi calendar and related rituals.

Historic Integrity

Finally, Walpi is significant because of its historical integrity. Since the site has never been fully unoccupied, except for a brief period between the Anasazi downfall and the establishment of Hopi culture at the mesas, Walpi has remained relatively intact and is still maintained by tribal members.

A primary factor contributing to this has been Walpi’s location atop the mesa, overlooking the surrounding plains and only accessible by climbing precipitous cliffs. Contributing to this is the fact that the Walpi were relatively undisturbed by European settlement until 1870, with the exception of the brief period of Franciscan co-habitation before the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.

It has also avoided the introduction of modern conveniences, such as running water and electricity, since the site is primarily reserved as a sacred space in which to conduct tribal rituals.

The entrance to Walpi today.

The entrance to Walpi today.


Yet despite this great significance and the relative lack of intrusion upon the site, Walpi is still threatened and in desperate need of preservation.

The primary threat to the site has been weathering, as Walpi’s location atop the mesa invites a varied host of environmental factors. This has been mitigated by continual upkeep by the Hopi who retain ownership of the houses in the village.

However, the Hopi have been unable to sufficiently maintain the site, due to a lack of funding and the increasing tourism to the site. Trash disposal has become a primary issue at the site in the past fifty years, as the increasing presence of non-biodegradable materials has resulted in increased trash accumulations around the base of the mesa, creating interruptions in the landscape of the site that were not present during its primary period of occupation. Additionally, some of the roofs are near collapse due to fire and insufficient upkeep, notably at the Coyote and Bamboo Clan houses.

This insufficient upkeep has also led to another problem with the site: incompatible interventions. Lacking funding and training, the caretakers of the site have often relied on temporary measures and modern technologies to repair the site; recently, concrete block was utilized in alterations to some of the houses, resulting in a disparity with the traditional Pueblo architecture.

A final threat to the site is the increased tourism. In the late nineteenth century, the Hopi allowed outsiders to witness their sacred rituals and visit the mesas in order to increase awareness and revenue to the tribe. During the mid twentieth century, the Hopi ceased allowing outsiders to witness their ceremonies, but tourism still remains a threat as the Hopi tribe conducts tours of First Mesa and Walpi on a nearly daily basis. Walpi Village is the most visited Hopi settlement. Tourism has thus compounded already present issues, such as trash disposal and natural decay, but could serve as the starting point for advocating for the restoration and preservation of the site.

Save Walpi

Thus, the Walpi village is significant in its associations with the Hopi peoples and as the “Mother Village” of the Hopi. Its significance in the historical, architectural, cultural, and religious realms is unparalleled among Hopi sites, thus leading it to remain the center of the Hopi universe.

The World Monuments Fund is currently partnering with Redlands University and the Hopi tribe in an effort to being preservation of the site. Recent activities have included a heritage and cleanup day to bring attention to the simple maintenance needed at the site, such as trash pickup. Redlands University has also committed to conducting an assessment of the buildings and establishing a conservation-training program at Walpi.

Walpi must be saved, as it is the epicenter of traditional Hopi culture and a gateway to understanding the Hopi way of life as well as the ways of the Anasazi and other Pueblo peoples of the Southwest who no longer have a voice through which to tell their stories. Walpi is that voice and must be preserved so that future generation may hear their tales.


Bernardini, Wesley. “Walpi Looks to the Future.” World Monuments Fund Journal (February 28, 2012).

Fewkes, J. Walter. “The New-Fire Ceremony at Walpi.” American Anthropologist 2, no. 1 (January 1900): 80-138.

Grahame, John D. and Thomas D. Sisk. “Hopi.” Canyons, cultures and environmental change: An introduction to the land-use history of the Colorado Plateau. Accessed November 15, 2012.

James, Harry C. Pages from Hopi History. Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1974.

Ruggles, C. L. N. Ancient Astronomy: An Encyclopedia of Cosmologies and Myths. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2005 (eBook)

Sanchis, Frank. “Walpi-WMF Partnership Kicks Off with Cleanup.” World Monuments Fund Journal (November 14, 2011).

Saunders, Charles Francis. The Indians of the Terraced Houses. New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 1912. (Accessed via

“The Pueblo Revolt Against the Spanish: A First Mesa Account.” Southwest Crossroads. Accessed November 15, 2012.

World Monuments Fund. “Walpi Village.” (2012).

This content was accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge at the time of publication but may be out of date. The information contained in this article may not reflect current policies, laws, technology, or data.

© 2012 Tiffany Isselhardt

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