Archive | September, 2017

Priest Killer and the Owl

26 Sep


We have now made the journey by car from Pasadena to Denver via Utah a few times, and always look forward–after 100 miles of forbidding if fascinating landscapes with no service stops and no towns–to stopping in Green River, Utah. This tiny town of less than 1,000 has an excellent restaurant, The Tamarisk, sitting on the bank of the Green River, right at the spot where the famous explorer John Wesley Powell came rafting by during his expedition along the tributaries of and into the Colorado River in 1867 (he started this expedition in the OTHER Green River, in Wyoming). This momentous event is the reason that across the street from the Tamarisk is the John Wesley Powell River History Museum, with well-presented displays about the region and the river; it also serves today as the meeting-point for river rafters and other river enthusiasts. It is worth a visit.





The Museum also has a surprisingly good shop, with serious books about the region and the history of the rivers and its peoples, and authentic Native American jewelry and kachinas. I was happily astonished to find these kachinas here the last time we came through Green River, and at amazingly reasonable prices. I bought a Hummingbird kachina then for myself, which I love and keep on my goddess table at home.  This time I decided that these tiny kachinas would make nice gifts for Denver friends and family.

When I got to the shop, the woman at the counter was the manager and buyer. She told me that she gets all of her kachinas and jewelry from the nearby Utah Navajo reservation, where 5 families make the kachinas. As you can see from the photo above, they make larger ones, too, but I focused on the little ones.  Since every one had a price tag on the bottom–you can see the long stickers of the tag in the photo–I didn’t even think to look to see if the kachinas might have titles written on them. I just chose two that I thought looked interesting, and had some pretty feathers. The manager–who unfortunately did not know much about what the figures represented, so couldn’t guide me in my choices–was so happy I asked questions and bought not only two kachinas, but a wonderful kids’ book based on Native American stories, and some postcards of Utah’s wonders.  She wrapped the figures in white paper, so they wouldn’t be damaged in transit. I planned to give one to Max, and the other to our friends in whose house we were staying as a thank you gift.

It was only when Max unwrapped the one I had given him–having no idea which one was which–that we discovered that underneath the price tag sticker, the kachina maker had written the title of the particular image represented.  We were all a bit unsettled that the one I had given him was called “Priest Killer.” What on earth did that mean?  Having not enough knowledge of Native American lore, but having always assumed that kachinas were invocations for good luck or protectors of particular aspects of tribal life, we were rather taken aback by such an aggressive and seemingly violent appellation.


And so began the Google searching!  We discovered that this particular figure appears among the kachina made by the Hopi and the Navajo, but appeared in the pantheon of kachina forms first after the successful resistance to the Spanish among the Pueblo communities of northern New Mexico in the 1680s. Here is the description given by one of the makers of more elaborate Priest Killer kachinas, ones that actually include a severed head:  “During the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the Indians of New Mexico and Arizona revolted against the Catholic Church in an attempt to retain their religious freedom. Legend states that a Hopi named Yowe killed and beheaded a Franciscan priest. After this incident, the Hopi referred to Yowe or the Priest Killer as an Ogre Kachina who had the power to punish others.”  As far as I can tell in reading what I could find online, this figure was adopted by both Hopi and Navajo as an all-purpose symbol of resistence to the suppression and oppression of tribes by outside forces that forbade the practice of their traditional religion and foodways.

Wow. Not quite the idea of a protective spirit that I had envisioned–and in the case of a kachina for Max, who, although not Catholic, teaches at a Jesuit university, perhaps a little bit too confronting to be appropriate for his office or even for home! We traded that figure for our Denver friends’ kachina, which represents Owl, a symbol of protection of agricultural crops and of wisdom and intelligence.  Whew, that makes better sense for the family!

Priest Killer, as a metaphoric representation of indigenous rights and resistance to oppression, seems much more appropriate for our Denver friends, who are in every way supporters of such causes.  While not an inconsiderate choice as a house gift for them, I will be much more mindful in future of what kachinas represent before I buy them as gifts! This discovery has also led me to become more interested in finding out about the Pueblo Revolts, as well as more thorough understanding of the complexities of kachinas in the life of Native Americans.  A fascinating complexity.