A new installment in the hummingbird folklore series! This story is from the Hopi people of Arizona. Here we learn about the desertion and subsequent repopulation of the Oraíbi (Orayvi) settlement at a time of great famine, and hummingbird’s role in saving two children — and ultimately, the village.
The time of great famine began with the frost which killed the corn, just as it began to ripen. Luckily, the people of Oraibi had food stored by from previous years, so that first year, they didn’t go hungry. But the drought began, too, and slowed down the growing of the corn plants, so the ears were just forming when the winter frost came back and killed them. And the third year, with no rain, the corn grew slower yet, and again the frost killed it. The fourth year was even worse, and some of the villagers began to move away, in search of kinder land. By the fifth year with no rain, the corn withered and died almost as soon as it was planted. By now, the food reserves were gone. With no choice, the remaining villagers left; Oraibi stood deserted.
Almost deserted, at least. In the haste to leave the village, two children were left behind, a boy and his younger sister. As the older one, the boy took responsibility for the two of them, and went off every day to scavenge something for them to eat. To keep his little sister occupied while he was gone, he made her a little toy bird from a sunflower stalk.
Left by herself, the little girl played with her toy, tossing her bird up in the air to make it “fly.” After several tosses, the bird went up — and didn’t come down! It turned into a living hummingbird, and flew away.
That evening when her brother returned, empty-handed, she told him how her bird had come to life. Probably her brother didn’t believe her; he probably thought she’d simply lost her toy and was making excuses, but there was nothing left to make her another plaything. The two went to sleep with growling stomachs.
The next morning, when the little girl awoke, she saw the bright flash of a hummingbird, which flew back into the house and into an opening in the wall.
“Brother, my bird has come back!” she said, and pointed to the opening where the bird had disappeared.
When the boy went to investigate, the bird was gone, but inside the opening was an ear of corn! Overjoyed, the children roasted the corn and ate it. Food at last! As they ate, the little bird emerged from the opening and flew away. The next morning, it returned with another ear of corn, larger than the first one. This went on for four days, but on the fifth day, the bird came back empty-handed. When the boy reached into the opening in the wall, all he found was the little bird, turned back into a toy.
“Oh please, come back to life,” the boy said as he held the toy bird in his hands. “You’ve brought us food, maybe you can find our parents, too.”
The boy asked his sister how the bird had come to life. “Like this,” she said, and took the bird and threw it up into the air.
As she let go, the bird came back to life and flew away into the sky. It came back down to perch on a rock, and looking to the south towards Tü’wanashabe [“The Center of the World”], the hummingbird saw a cactus with a single red blossom. It flew over to investigate.
On arriving at the spot, hummingbird saw an opening in the earth beneath the cactus, leading into a kiva, in which some grass and herbs were growing. At the north end of the kiva, another opening led down into a second kiva, where hummingbird found some corn, with pollen coming from the tassels, which hummingbird stopped to eat. At the north end of this kiva, another opening led down to a third kiva, where there were many plants — corn, grass, herbs — and many birds all around. This was the home of Mû’yingwa, the god of germination and growth.
The other hummingbirds who lived in this kiva were the first to spot the visitor; they flew off to Mû’yingwa to tell him. The god summoned our hummingbird to him and asked the bird what it was doing in the god’s domain.
“Why are you down here, and not up there?” hummingbird asked Mû’yingwa in return. “It hasn’t rained for years and nothing is growing. All of Oraibi is deserted, except for two hungry children. You should go back up to earth and take care of things.”
“I will think about it,” said Mû’yingwa.
Hummingbird then asked to bring back food for the children; Mû’yingwa agreed. So hummingbird broke off a ear of corn and brought it back up to earth, leaving it in the wall of the house as it had before. The children discovered the corn, and gratefully thanked hummingbird. They also asked the bird to look for their parents.
So hummingbird flew west, and then towards the north, and discovered the children’s parents at a place called Toho. The parents were living off cactus that grew in the region, but they were still very hungry, emaciated and almost starving. Hummingbird flew back and reported what it had found to the children, who begged the bird to bring food to their parents.
In the meantime, Mû’yingwa had decided to come back up into the world. He went up to the kiva above his domain, and stayed four days. During this time, it began to rain lightly in Oraibi. Then Mû’yingwa went up to the next kiva; it rained more. Mû’yingwa went up to the third kiva; the rain fell strongly in the lands around Oraibi. After four days, Mû’yingwa emerged onto the earth, where the grasses and herbs now grew lushly.
The parents of the children saw the clouds and rain in the distance, around Oraibi, and so they returned. Upon arriving at the village, they found their children alive and well. Other villagers also learned that the rain had come, and returned. Oraibi came back to life, and now that the soil and water supplies had been refreshed, the people could plant corn again. The brother and sister who had been left behind grew up to be the leaders of the village, as did their descendants afterwards.
All thanks to hummingbird.
This retelling is based on the version “Mû’yingwa, Two Children, and the Humming-bird,” collected by H.R. Voth in his book The Traditions of the Hopi (1905). It was told to him by an informant named Qöyáwaima, from Oraibi. I also took details from another (almost identical) version from G.M. Mullet.
If you read carefully, you’ll notice that there’s one extra kiva on the way back up: Hummingbird goes through two kivas into the third, which is Mû’yingwa’s home. But Mû’yingwa rests in three kivas on his way up, which makes four, counting his domain. Reading Voth’s notes to the story, one guess is that the last (fourth) kiva was a village kiva, in Oraibi. Or perhaps the storyteller forgot a kiva on hummingbird’s way down. This also sounds plausible, as four seems to be a more symbolic number than three in Hopi mythology.
Oraibi was founded sometime around 1100 CE, and is possibly the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the United States (Though according to this site, the present day Old Oraibi is not quite at the spot of the village’s original location. Acoma Pueblo is the other candidate for oldest continuously inhabited settlement). Major drought in the 13th century probably contributed to Oraibi’s growth, as inhabitants of smaller settlements were forced to abandon their villages and consolidate into a few population centers. At one point, Oraibi was the center of Hopi culture, and in the late nineteenth century nearly half the Hopi population lived there.
In the Hopi Emergence myth, Oraibi was the home of Maasaw (or Masau’u), the Skeleton God, ruler of the Fourth World (this world), and the god of fire, life, and death (and according to Jesse Walter Fewkes, also a god of germination and growth). According to the myth, humankind lived in the Third World, which lies below this world. Originally, the Third World was like paradise, but it was spoiled by the humans’ evil and immorality. The Chiefs gathered to discuss the situation, and decided to evacuate their people up into the Fourth World, leaving the evil ones behind. Because they heard footsteps above them, they knew that some being already lived in the Fourth World, so the chiefs decided to send a bird messenger to ask this being to permit the humans to move up. It took them four tries to reach the upper world: I don’t know what the first bird was, but the second bird was a hummingbird, the third bird was a hawk, and the final, successful bird was the northern shrike. When the shrike delivered the message to Maasaw, the god answered
“Now this is the way I am living here. I am living here in poverty. I have not anything; this is the way I am living here. Now, if you are willing to live here that way, too, with me and share this life, why come, you are welcome.”
— From Vecsey, 1983
The shrike returned with Maasaw’s answer, and the chiefs announced they would move their people in four days. They planted a reed which grew up beyond the sky to be their ladder. The place were the people emerged into this world is called the Sipaapuni, or Sipapu. The Sipaapuni is at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and the location is sacred to the Hopi and the Zuni, who have a similar emergence myth. The chiefs tried to prevent the bad people from following by pulling up the reed after themselves, but unfortunately some evil ones slipped through, which is why the world is the way it is.
Fewkes, Jesse Walter. Hopi Katchinas Drawn by Native Artists, 1903.
Geertz, Armin W. “A Reed Pierced the Sky: Hopi Indian Cosmography on Third Mesa, Arizona,” Numen, Vol 31:2 (December 1984).
Mullett, G.M. “The Children and the Hummingbird,” Legends of the Hopi Indians, 1968.
Vecsey, Christopher. “The Emergence of the Hopi People,” American Indian Quarterly, Vol 7, No. 3 (Summer 1983).
Voth, H.R. “Mû’yingwa, Two Children, and the Humming-bird,” The Traditions of the Hopi, 1905.
Wiess, Francine. “Old Oraibi ((National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination)”, National Park Service, 1975.
Stone house at the outskirts of Oraibi. Photo by user Promking. Source: Wikipedia
Kachina dancer as Alosaka, another name for the god of germination. Source: Fewkes, Hopi Katchinas Drawn by Native Artists (1903)
Kachina dancers as Totca, the hummingbird. Source: Fewkes.
Kachina dancer as Masau’u. Source: Fewkes.