James F. Brooks is the author of the new book Mesa of Sorrows: A History of the Awat'ovi Massacre, which examines an event in 1700 that deeply affected the Hopi community in the American Southwest. His other books include Captives and Cousins. He is a professor of history and anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and he lives in Santa Barbara.
Q: You’ve lived in the American Southwest for many years and been fascinated with the history of the region. How did you come up with the idea for Mesa of Sorrows, and what has been the importance of the Awat’ovi Massacre in Hopi history?
A: I was a fellow at the School of American Research in 2000-2001, and was finishing Captives and Cousins, a history of intercultural slavery in the Southwest.
I was wrapping the book up, and was wondering if there were any cases in transactions of women and children between or within indigenous people.
Ruth Van Dyke, a colleague, said there was a terrible event where some of the survivors were women and children, and were distributed over other villages.
I don’t think I would have done the book unless the story was revealing itself in a way that you could get a sense of redemption and forgiveness…
I really believe these guys [in a Hopi delegation who attempted to negotiate with the Spanish] were trying to figure out a way to avoid all this, but it didn’t work out. Once I was to that point, I thought the book could do some good in the world.
It’s something that’s haunted them [the Hopi people] for a long time. It shaped their fundamental cultural views around communitarian commitments and pacifism.
Q: You write that your previous research on the Southwest involved violence between different groups of people, and this time you wanted to look at violence within a group of people. How did this book develop?
A: I imagined this early on as intra-cultural violence, except I realized it’s the social product of difference even within a group. You may imagine yourself as a community, but when tensions erupt, you may differ. It’s like [what happens] within religious communities: orthodoxy and heterodoxy…
It’s interesting. What I tried to do was to tell a particular story, but this is about all of us.
Q: Yes, I was going to ask you about how you see the universal nature of the story.
A: I was trying to talk the publisher into American Ilium [as the book’s title]. If Troy is the root stock for our cultural traditions, this is for the Hopi.
Q: I know you’ve written about the links you see with The Iliad and also with Neighbors, the book about the murder of Jews by their Polish neighbors in the town of Jedwabne in 1941.
A: The closing line of my acknowledgments is to my now-grown kids, “Let us try not to make strangers of our kinfolk and neighbors.”
Q: You’re writing about a time period hundreds of years ago. How did you bring the characters to life?
A: By trial and error. My writing process is the world’s worst! I just sit down and start, and the story begins to take over. At the end of one chapter, another story begins to bubble up.
I had the opportunity to work with one of the great editors, at Norton—John Glusman. I had to unlearn everything I learned about writing to do a trade book. I don’t know if I can do academic writing again! It’s so much fun to let the story lead.
Q: Was there anything that particularly startled you in the course of your research?
A: I was very surprised, even though people have known about the event for more than 100 years, and the Peabody did work [on it] in the ‘30s, that nobody had called out the odd features we see in the kivas, and the church burials [in the community] were not significantly discussed.
It appears to be very strong evidence for experimental piety going on. When you’re scared and times are turbulent, it makes sense that you would experiment with spiritual seeking.
Q: I was going to ask you about the role of religion in this episode.
A: It’s so hard—there’s a lot of criticism about Westerners imposing the notion of “religion”—there’s not a clean break between the spiritual and the secular [in this culture].
When the Franciscans arrived, there were people, because of their vulnerability, who were receptive to the new message. Some women and younger men who were not invested in kiva society.
Why at Awat’ovi and not other [locations]—I don’t know. Because of the location [as the easternmost town in the area], there was a transfer of ideas between Hopi and Puebloan peoples to the east, especially the Keres peoples of the Rio Grande. Add the trauma of Spanish colonization, missionization, you see people doing things…
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve got a project I’m sitting on, [involving] research in the Colorado coalfields, near the border of New Mexico and Colorado…industrial capitalism comes in. I’ve got oral histories that would lend themselves to a creative nonfiction project…
The academic humanities are under assault from political critics outside the academy. Our best defense, in this case, is to showcase stories that inspire a wider public to reflect on the meaning of the past in their own lives. I hope this book may offer that kind of story.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb