The Hopi children seemed altogether different

by Robert Coles

The Hopi children seemed altogether different. They smiled; they initiated conversation; they pointed out to me places that mattered to them. They introduced me to friends and neighbors; and very important, in their casual and discursive moments - after months of acquaintance, and on home turf, and when I wasn't asking them anything in particular, just standing around idly, sipping Cokes, munching candy bars - they gave me some memorable thoughts that crossed their minds, so memorable that now I recall those children when I find myself saying that I began then to have some fairly solid notions about the spiritual life if children.

Here for example, is what I eventually heard from a ten-year old Hopi girl: "The sky watches us and listens to us. It talks to us and it hopes we are ready to talk back. The sky is where the God of the Anglos lives, a teacher told us. She asked where our God lives. I said, 'I don't know.' I was telling the truth! Our God is the sky, and lives wherever the sky is. Our God is the sun and the moon, too; and our God is our [ the Hopi ] people, if we remember to stay here [ on the consecrated land ]. This is where we're supposed to be, and if we leave, we lose God."

Did she explain the above to her teacher?



"Because - she thinks God is a person. If I'd told her, she'd give us that smile."

"What smile?"

"The smile that says, 'You kids are cute, but you're dumb; you're different - and you're all wrong!' "

"Perhaps you could have explained to her what you've just tried to explain to me."

"We tried that a long time ago; our people spoke to the Anglos and told them what we think, but they don't listen to hear us; they listen to hear themselves, my dad says, and he hears them all day [ He was a truck driver ]. My grandmother says they live to conquer the sky, and we live to pray to it, and you can't explain yourself to people who conquer - just pray for them, too. So we smile and say yes to them all the time, and we pray to them."

Her head turned skyward, and suddenly I realized she was beseeching the heavens, so to speak, on behalf of the Anglos of the United States, myself included.  Here was a child's intense spirituality on open, unselfconscious display. When her eyes were again ready to meet mine, I was speechless. She had nothing more to say, either. Then she looked upward again and saw an approaching thundercloud. She looked at it attentively and for what struck me as a long time. Few if any Anglo children I knew would stare so protractedly at such a cloud, for all its ominously dramatic qualities. I awaited the end of her fixed gaze, the return earthward of her eyes. When they came back, she took the initiative, lifted her right arm, pointed to the cloud and especially to its thunderhead part - the swollen part at the top, "the home of the noise," she told me. I'd not before thought of noise as having a home. I decided to respond in that way, comment on her way of putting things. She smiled and said, "Noise has a home in us, too." I was waiting for more because, really, I hadn't given her credit for being able to be cryptically sardonic. She had seemed a quiet, aloof girl who never had much to offer during our discussions at school, and now we were standing on the side of a gentle hill near her home, and she was taking "nature" quite seriously and letting me know that we are also part of that "nature," not as outside it as perhaps I thought.

from The Spiritual Life of Children


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