The Hopi Indian Reservation of northeastern Arizona is no place for strict adherents to the doctrine of the separation of church and state. The 8,000 or so present-day Hopi, unlike members of many Native American societies, have cautiously preserved much of their traditional culture and belief; most Hopis are inducted into secret religious societies by adolescence, and six months out of the year are given over to a succession of rites honoring the katsinam, the Hopi gods. In secular life, however, the Hopis have been inclined not to let religion stand as an issue, choosing instead to find common ground in endless disputes with the surrounding Navajo nation and the federal government. Indeed, many prominent Hopi politicians are Mormon, others Catholic or evangelical Christian.

If the Hopi traditionalists have their way, however, the Tribal Council—which administers millions of dollars annually from federal grants, investments, and extraction revenues from the vast Peabody Coal Company mines nearby—will be abolished, and the tribal constitution of 1936 declared invalid. In their place, should the traditionalists succeed, each of the ten Hopi villages will be governed by kikmongwim, the hereditary religious leaders who exercised absolute power in pre-reservation days.

The traditionalists have accused the Tribal Council and its chairman, Vernon Hopi Masayesva, of having “broken faith with the Hopi people,” a gravely serious charge. More pointedly, they have asked the hated Bureau of Indian Affairs to disband the council, audit tribal finances, and allow the revival of kikmongwim power.

The last traditionalist uprising, after years of factional dispute, took place in 1906, when the kikmongwim and their followers declared the village of Oraibi a sanctuary of the true native religion and invited sympathizers from other villages to move there. An armed clash with nontraditional villagers ensued, and the so-called Hostiles packed their bags and founded a new town, Hotevilla, now the largest settlement on the reservation. As with the Civil War in the American South, the memory of conflict is still fresh.

Whether the neotraditionalist Hopis have much chance to push their program through is anyone’s guess, but certainly the mood on the Hopi reservation is changing. The work of Anglo anthropologists and social workers who once swarmed there is increasingly subject to tribal refereeing and approval, and some scholars have been declared personae non grata. Ceremonies like the Hopi Snake Dance, once popular tourist attractions that brought substantial revenue to the tribe, have recently been closed to non-Hopis, as have sections of the reservation.

Those Hopis who long for a revival of theocracy may well carry the day, given this new isolationism. Only the forthcoming tribal council elections, now scheduled to be held in November of this year, will tell.