Book Review: Mesa of Sorrows: A History of the Awat’ovi Massacre. By Author, James F. Brooks

Recently I was asked to submit a review of this book for the publication, Kiva: The Journal of Southwestern Anthropology and History, which is published by the Arizona Archaeological and Historical Society. This is my unedited submission.



Awat’ovi has experienced its fair share of research, both by the archaeologists’ trowel and the historians’ pen. Upon learning that a non-Hopi researcher had published a book about the Awat’ovi history, I had doubts regarding the intentions of such a book. Would it present new insights? Who among the Hopi community were involved in the research? Would it be another sensationalized account of the tragic events that occurred? More importantly, who was the intended audience? It is no secret the events at Awat’ovi are uncomfortable, unsettling and stand in stark contrast against what “Hopi” represents: cooperation, humility, nonviolent action and respect for all forms of life. It is a traumatic event that for many Hopi is viewed as a private matter; social healing from this history is an on-going process among the Hopi community.

A review of this book requires an examination from a wider perspective of both the researcher and those being researched. Myself, being a person of Hopi descent with degrees in Cultural Anthropology and a subsequent career as a professional archaeologist, I have experienced both ends of the research spectrum. Admittedly due to these circumstances, I carry certain insights and biases with me. Ultimately, my review also takes into account the process in which the book was researched and produced.

Mesa of Sorrows relies largely on previous research, including early Spanish documents, ethnographic and archaeological reports and to a very limited degree, insights from still-living Hopi people. As such, much of the book is spent on historical review, including early Spanish encounters with the Pueblo people of New Mexico and Arizona, and how this history influenced the Hopi attitude towards the Spanish. The Awat’ovi excavations conducted by the Peabody Museum in the 1930s also receive attention. This discussion of the archaeological record gives insight into how the Spanish altered Hopi material culture, including architecture, in their attempts to convert the residents of Awat’ovi.

As an historical overview, this is the strong point of the book, especially for those who are new to the history of Hopi and Awat’ovi. It serves as a good jumping off point for those interested in pursing more about these subjects, with numerous references and footnotes to give direction. Brooks highlights a recurring theme in Hopi oral history, that being of external and internal strife that leads to division within the community, resulting in acts of contention, expulsion, violence, and in some cases, the taking of human life. Illustrating this theme, Brooks weaves together his research into a story that at times reads more like a popular mystery novel than a strict historical account. Brooks is no doubt a talented writer, avoiding use of academic jargon and theory allows the book to appeal to a wide readership.

That being said, I found the retreading of previous research does little to present new insights, unless one is new to this subject matter, which I assume is the audience this book is intended for. The author’s inclusion of Hopi oral histories, many recorded over a century ago, only serves to highlight a glaring omission; that being the voice of the modern Hopi people who represent a “Living Culture”. This lack of a contemporary Hopi voice is a reflection of the level of consultation Brooks conducted with the Hopi tribe prior to the books publication. Again, in reviewing this book it is necessary to do so from the context of what defines “Informed Consent and Research” among Hopi and other Indigenous communities.

The first notice the Hopi Tribe received of the books publication came through an announcement on social media. Subsequently, officials from the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office (HCPO) requested Brooks come present his book to the Hopi public, tribal officials and to the Cultural Resource Advisory Task Team (CRATT). CRATT is a long-standing advisory group comprised of knowledgeable Hopi elders from various villages, clans and religious societies. They provide consultation on a wide array of issues, including that of on-going scientific inquiry. In addition, the Hopi Tribe has in place its own established protocols of Informed Consent and Research.

During this meeting, Brooks stated that he had previously sent a draft of the book to the tribe but did not receive a response. Granted at the time, tribal officials were embroiled in a much larger issue, that being the auction of Hopi religious and ceremonial items in Paris, France. Thus the social media notice of the books publishing came as a surprise to tribal officials. Although Brooks offered copies of his now published book to those in attendance at the tribal meeting, the gesture did little to reconcile the fact that many tribal officials felt that an important step in the consultation process was overlooked.

Among tribal concerns is a precedent implied by this book, that tribal input should not be a priority for research conducted by outsiders (or “insiders” for that matter). The consultation process as carried out by the Hopi Tribe offers the opportunity for a collaborative effort between outside researchers and tribal members. It entails more than a simple “yes” or “no”, approval or denial of research projects. Meaningful consultation is a reflection of good-faith efforts to present research that has benefits beyond that of the researcher. For decades the Hopi Tribe has extended this hand of assistance, with varying degrees of success. If the author had approached the Hopi Tribe seeking consultation on this topic, would the tribe have objected? That is a possibility. Would the Tribe have offered ways in which to collaborate on the issue? Again that is a possibility.

The generalized nature of this book misses a key opportunity to include contemporary Hopi thinking about Awat’ovi, instead presenting only a reiteration of already documented “facts”. Perhaps the author’s intentions all along were an attempt to side-step controversy by relying on what had already been printed about Awat’ovi. From the Hopi perspective, it is difficult to understand why one would choose to write about such a tragic event. By excluding modern Hopi perspectives, whether intentional or not, only proved to Hopi people that outside researchers feel they do not have to seek Hopi involvement.

One undisputable truth remains, the Awat’ovi event is an extremely traumatic point in Hopi history, one that continues to affect Hopi people and is manifested psychologically among the Hopi community. These effects (i.e. Historical Trauma) are largely ignored within this book which does little in assisting the Hopi people towards healing from the Awat’ovi event. A point not overlooked or taken lightly by those who attended the meeting between the author and tribal officials. Note: the issue of “Historical Trauma” as related to Awat’ovi and other historical events is thoroughly examined in other publications, most notably, Moquis and Kastiilam: Hopis, Spaniards and the Trauma of History, Volume 1, 1540-1679 (Sheridan, et al, 2015). This body of research represents an on-going collaboration between the Hopi Tribe and scholars.

Brooks stated to tribal officials he hoped to work on a second edition of his book, offering to further consult with the Hopi tribe in this effort. His offer was half-heartedly acknowledged by tribal officials and advisors, perhaps a case of too little, too late. Overall, this book will appeal to those who have a general interest in Hopi history and culture. Yet for Hopi people, the book is viewed as another intrusive inquiry they did not ask for. In the end, the author concludes his story and walks away, leaving a still traumatized Hopi population to deal with the repercussions of this history, perhaps with a renewed distrust of academic research. One reviewer of the book states (as printed on the back jacket cover), “James Brooks writes beautifully, and he writes for all of us”, unfortunately, I don’t think that audience included the Hopi themselves

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Mesa of Sorrows: A History of the Awat’ovi Massacre. By Author, James F. Brooks

    1. Lyle Balenquah

      Thank You for following my blog Richard. This review took me awhile to write (and re-write….). In the end, I just had to let it be and go with it. Thanks Again!


      Liked by 1 person

  1. Richard Portman

    Another question from way out there.
    Is Awa’tovi a place where famous Nampeyo got inspiration for her work?
    Even as I ask this question it sounds kinda stupid.


  2. Orin Witt

    I believe you have missed the basic requirement on a historical author. How can the biased intent of today’s Hopi People (Write this story to present us in the best light.) best be portrayed or presented in his research? Any good author must accept that he/she will tromp on someone’s sensibilities. I believe the author is obliged to search for and present the clearest interpretation of events and if feelings get hurt in the process then the sensibilities of the supposedly injured party need to be examined and redressed accordingly. That old saw about, “History is written by the winners.” applies greatly, here. If the author did not present falsehoods as fact then there is little reason to fault the presentation.

    If the truth hurts, it should.


    1. Doug Em

      Orin Witt – You miss the whole point. I believe you might locate it, here: Because the events at Awa’tovi were experienced by the Hopi people exclusively, and because those events are still a source of great trauma for contemporary Hopi people, and also because of the Extreme Disrespect and Cultural Appropriation that has taken place regarding Hopi people and all indigenous North American peoples, over all the centuries since Europeans first began and still continue forcing themselves and their ways on Indigenous North American peoples – for all these reasons and possibly more – Hopi people and many other Indigenous North American peoples ask non-Indigenous people to Acknowledge the Wrongness of Those Past Trespasses and the Current Harmful Repercussions that now persist because of them, by Refusing to Perpetuate Any Additional Cultural Crimes Against Indigenous North Americans BY NOW, IN CURRENT ACTIONS, REMEMBERING TO SEEK OUT THE CONTEMPORARY NATIVE PEOPLES WHO ONE’S RESEARCH TOUCHES ON, BECAUSE OF THE PAST/PRESENT/FUTURE FLOW OF CULTURE WITHIN WHICH NATIVE PEOPLES LIVE & HAVE THEIR MOST INTRINSIC BEING. Past events have a different meaning for many indigenous peoples, perhaps especially when those events set into motion painful consequences that affect the descendants of those ancestral actors. Also, mailing 1 lame document to some office of a tribe or nation – without Follow Up – is lazy, unprofessional, and disrespectful. If it is true that this book author is based in the U.S., then there is absolutely NO EXCUSE for him not following up in the most Culturally Relevant Way, by getting on a freaking airplane, or driving a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, or both, and going out to Hopiland on a Monday, renting a hotel room in a nearby town (yes, there are such places within a day’s drive of Hopi), and SPENDING at least 3 DAYS visiting actual people in offices in at least 2 Hopi villages, and talking with Hopi office workers, and also talking with Hopi artisans who are likely to have their art and wares accessible to visitors, via their own storefronts at their homes, or a collective Art Display/Sale venue somewhere in town, etc. I am a person of color, and a descendant of indigenous African and North American peoples, and I humbly offer my opinion, from my own experiences of being a member of a culture (African American and Gullah) that’s been appropriated repeatedly. I urge you to not be so quick to dismiss points being made by someone (Lyle Balenquah, in this case) who most likely has a much more valid viewpoint and informed insight than you could possibly conjure out of the false historical perspective in which you’ve been raised and socialized. Open your mind and your heart, and let some fresh light enter. You have nothing to lose in doing so, and so much to gain. Check it out!


      1. Lyle Balenquah

        Thank You for your insightful reply to my blog post. I will try to respond in-kind! Indeed, “Open your mind and heart, and let some fresh light enter”… Cheers!


  3. Thanks for your review, Lyle. For myself, who am familiar with Hopi history but by no means deeply knowledgeable, I learned a lot I didn’t know before. To write history using the research and data from existing records, is pretty standard. I was pleased you did not find errors in Brooks’s book. Of course, his decision not to include present-day Hopi collective memories and interpretations is an issue. It will be very interesting to see, in a second edition, how he incorporates the results of fresh interviews, if that occurs.


  4. Kevin Nash

    Great review, the author must see his fault in not insuring informed consent and research was done by “offering” consultation. I see no winners in this history, not by the writers of history who were expelled from this land during this conflict, and only see one side of the story, nor by our people, who live with this traumatic point in Hopi history. Gives more reason for thorough research by informed consent. And reiterates the question as to the intent of writing another book of previously published facts. pipasa’ah


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