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Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: Piiva

Hopi tribal member Delfred Leslie collects wild tobacco, an essential ceremonial plant
Scott Thybony
Hopi tribal member Delfred Leslie collects wild tobacco, an essential ceremonial plant

Last July Delfred Leslie called from inside the kiva, a ceremonial chamber on First Mesa. He had joined other traditional Hopi leaders for the summer katsina ceremony. Due to pandemic precautions they were conducting an abbreviated version of it without the public dance. Once they finished he wanted to gather piiva, the wild tobacco they smoke during ceremonies but not for pleasure.

On Saturday morning I picked up his son Gary, and we met on the road to Hopi. Turning onto a dirt road, we weaved through ponderosa pines spreading across the cinder flats and soon spotted a patch of tobacco plants. I parked the truck, and we walked over to the largest one. The three of us took a seat and Del, the Tobacco Keeper for First Mesa, began arranging the ritual items. A buckskin pouch decorated with a beaded American flag contained hooma, the prayer corn. From another pouch he took some piiva and filled a pipe. Next he handed me a Ziploc of finely ground sweet corn used to feed the plant. “It was ground by the girls last summer,” he said. “Taste it. Tobacco likes sweet things.”

The wind picked up carrying a spatter of rain. Gary shielded the match with his hands so his father could light the pipe. Del blew smoke to the six directions and said a short prayer in Hopi. Normally he would pass the pipe to us, but due to pandemic protocols he was the only one permitted to smoke.

All three of us then sprinkled prayer corn on the plant, followed by the sweet corn and some piki bread. Finally the tobacco keeper unwrapped the four prayer feathers he had made yesterday in the kiva. We tied them to the plant, and after a final prayer Gary and I cut the largest tobacco stalks. This plant, Del told us, will let the other plants know about our prayers. Gary and I then began to harvest enough tobacco to last through the winter. When I asked about the connection between ritual smoking and rain, Del spoke of its significance.

“First of all it sends a message,” he said. “It sends the prayers of the leaders of the ceremony. They attach to the smoke, our prayers. Smoke takes it out and takes it wherever we’re sending the prayers. That’s so very important to all of us. . . . When the smoke starts going up, that’s when the prayers get attached to the smoke, and it carries them out through the kiva hatch. . . . So when the smoke rises we want rain, we want snow, we want moisture. All of that is in it, and the smoke carries it out.” He paused before adding, “And oftentimes prayers are answered.”

The Hopi have lived in place for many generations, putting their cultural imprint on the land at the same time the land has shaped their awareness in ways difficult for outsiders to perceive. Having a long-standing respect for their traditions I pay attention to how they relate to the world, and a key part of respect is participation.

By next morning the rains had wet the prayer feathers left at the site. In an email Delfred wrote, “Our prayers for rain were answered. . . . At Hopi, we received rain following our return from the Piiva yesterday. We received almost 3 hours of continuous, gentle rain in the First Mesa area. The kind of rain most preferred by all Hopi. It soaks the ground more so than thunderous rains. Many young children enjoyed the rain and played in it without fear of lightning and thunder.” He ended his message with “Kwa Kwai,” a simple thanks.

Scott Thybony has traveled throughout North America on assignments for major magazines, including Smithsonian, Outside, and Men’s Journal. An article for National Geographic magazine was translated into a dozen languages, and his book, Canyon Country, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. He once herded sheep for a Navajo family, having a hogan to call home and all the frybread he could eat. His commentaries are heard regularly on Arizona Public Radio.