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A guardian of Hopi culture: How one woman adopted a new faith without abandoning her roots

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Helen Dowawisnima Sekaquaptewa, 1898–1991

In 1906, when Helen was seven years old, she and her family awoke one morning to find United States military troops surrounding their adobe home. The soldiers were there to take Helen.1 Helen’s parents had spent their lives on their Hopi ancestral lands in Oraibi, Arizona, and had resisted sending their daughter to the government owned boarding school, which was a two-day’s walk from their village. United States officials had built the school to teach Hopi children the ways of White settler life. At the school, children were forced not only to live away from their homes and families but also to give up their Hopi language, clothing, and even their names. Some Hopi parents chose to let their children attend the school, believing that their lives could be easier if they assimilated into the dominant, American culture. Others, however, like Helen’s parents, wanted their children to live at home and be educated in the Hopi tradition. Helen’s parents educated her through on-the-job training. She worked beside them, learning how to raise corn, prepare food, care for sheep, and maintain a household. When parents refused to send their children to the boarding school, the military was sent to take them by force.2

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Hopi women outside their traditional Hopi homes, circa 1906

Helen’s parents watched helplessly, and in great pain, as the soldiers loaded Helen and eighty-one other Hopi children into wagons and carted them off to Keams Canyon Boarding School. When Helen arrived at the school, everything felt foreign. She was given new clothes, food she’d never eaten, and a double bed to share with two other girls. Helen’s parents had named her Dowawisnima, meaning “a trail marked by sand,” but she was renamed “Helen” by White teachers. The school had electric lights, something entirely new to Helen; she grew up utilizing natural light and resources. After the sun went down and the lights stayed on, she was so confused that she thought it was still daytime. It disrupted the natural rhythm her traditional upbringing had accustomed her to.3

Helen remained at Keams Canyon Boarding School for the next thirteen years. During this time, she learned the English language and gained a desire to learn about the Western culture. She believed there were benefits to a Western approach to education but also experienced a great deal of injustice and prejudice at the boarding school. She was often hungry, which made it difficult to sleep. When she was homesick, she’d cry in a corner so she wouldn’t be heard and scolded or spanked. Once while in class, after she gave the wrong answer, the teacher slapped her ear, giving her a prolonged earache. Helen had a hard time hearing out of that ear even as an adult.4

Helen eventually chose to combine both ways of life. She had a great respect for her Hopi upbringing, the wise philosophies she learned from her parents, and the lack of worldliness on the reservation. Helen never forgot the abuse she and other students had suffered at the boarding schools, but she came to appreciate the Western approach to medicine and the knowledge she gained through reading English, and she even preferred the cotton dresses to the wool ones her family had worn. Helen determined to integrate the very best of the two worlds into her life.5

Living Two Cultures

While attending Keams Canyon School, Helen admired a Hopi upperclassman named Emory from afar. One evening he delivered a package to her from her mother. Her face lit up when she saw him, and he stayed awhile so they could talk. Helen later wrote, “Emory has been the light in my life ever since.”6

Helen and Emory married and had ten children and also raised two foster sons. They settled on the Hopi reservation, their lives a combination of both ways of life—the Hopi way mixed with what she and Emory had learned at school. Their children learned from nature but also attended the government’s day school. Helen made her own medicine out of native plants to clear up sores, colds, and coughs but also had her children immunized against life-threatening diseases like smallpox and diphtheria. Helen gave birth to each of her children at home just like her mother and grandmothers had done, but when one of her babies, Wayne, became extremely ill, they took him to the Western hospital. At the time, any Hopi were wary of hospitals because their community had been historically mistreated in such places, but Helen made her own choice. Wayne stayed in the hospital for six months, and Helen felt he would’ve died if it weren’t for the medical attention he received there.7

Living both ways of life wasn’t always easy for Helen and her family. When she and Emory didn’t do things according to Hopi tradition, they were met with distrust by some neighbors. Others in Helen’s village—especially her father—didn’t like that she enjoyed reading Western books or that she had a desire for her children to be successful in Western schools. Eventually, Helen and Emory decided it would be best for them to move off the reservation and away from mistrusting neighbors. They settled on a ranch in a two-room rock house, in which the hillside served as the main wall. Though she missed her community, they were happy there; they planted an orchard, raised corn for their growing family, started a cattle business, and made friends with those who passed by. Helen told travelers that if they came upon her family’s home while they were away, they should eat their food—and even sleep in their beds—until she and her family returned.8

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The main street of Oraibi, Helen's village, circa 1899

Eventually, the fracture between Helen and the people in her village began to mend. She admitted that she had been as reluctant about returning to some of the Hopi ways as they had been about adopting aspects of Western culture. Helen said that “a spirit of tolerance … gradually replaced a spirit of hostility.”9

In 1951, Helen was introduced to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by the first full-time missionaries, a senior couple, in Oraibi. Many of the Church’s teachings made sense to Helen and coincided with Hopi beliefs. While Helen was growing up, Helen’s father had instructed her to forgive, serve others, and share with those in need. Her mother had taught her the Hopi moral code, which was to keep herself morally clean before marriage and to be true to her husband after she was married. Like Latter-day Saints, Hopis believe in eternal marriage. When she and Emory read the Book of Mormon, they believed it to be true because it sounded like a familiar story and reminded them of Hopi tradition. After studying the gospel for two years, Helen and two of her children were baptized by her son, Wayne, who had been converted in Phoenix. About becoming a Latter-day Saint, Helen wrote, “I have no doubt I did right. I have never been sorry. It has made a better woman of me, and I have surely been happy in my church. I have had great satisfaction working in the church, even though it seemed like everything was against me at times.”10

Nurtured by her Hopi upbringing, Helen’s nature was to help people who were poor, sick, or hungry. She loved relieving them and credited the Church’s Relief Society organization for truly showing her how to minister like the Savior. For fifteen years she served as the Relief Society president of the Oraibi area. She walked for miles to minister to others, teach homemaking skills, and uplift the Hopi women. Her charm, wisdom, and cheerful laugh helped her win the hearts of those she served.11

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Helen shucking corn, 1980. Corn is central to Hopi culture, religion, and way of life.

Embracing the Future with Faith

Although small in stature, Helen had an indomitable spirit and was described as living a life “marked by milestones of progress, goals of achievement, and landmarks to inspire her people.”12 She loved and respected her people’s way of life but also implemented the ideas and practices from American culture that she believed could help her family. Many of her children and grandchildren contributed significantly to the growth and development of the Hopi people. Among her children were educators, police officers, and a social worker. One son, who owned a jewelry store employing Hopi men, and her daughter, Marlene, sat on the tribal council.13

With her charming personality and willingness to share her life story, Helen became a well-known spokesperson for her tribe. She was happy to explain the Hopi culture, give her insights and impressions of the Western culture, and share her faith. She wrote a book entitled Me and Mine, in which she preserved her fascinating history for future generations. Her book was considered unique because very few Hopi women wrote down their stories. As such, it was a valuable contribution to the recorded history of Indigenous peoples and was used as a textbook in high school and college classrooms throughout the United States.14 Helen also served as the chief matriarch of the Hopi tribe, and, in 2013, she was inducted into the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame.

After years of grief and feeling rejected over Helen’s choice to adopt so many Western ways, Helen’s father died at age ninety-five, but not before acknowledging that Helen’s choices had been right for her. He’d once viewed her as a radical, but he finally saw her as a guardian and preserver of the Hopi tradition.15

She Did

She Did is a compilation of essays about remarkable Latter-day Saint women whose lives stretch across time and the globe. Whether living in India, Norway, Guatemala, or Ghana, these women, in many ways, had ordinary lives. But they followed the Lord's command to "go and do"- each in their unique circumstances-and changed their lives and the lives of others. They dreamed and influenced. They served and led. They empowered and inspired. They persevered and, most importantly, embraced the future with faith.

Many of these women's stories are not widely known, but they offer examples of faithfulness that can inspire us to be active participants with the Lord in directing our future. Whether used for personal upliftment or to infuse our home and Church lessons with examples of extraordinary women of faith, these stories provide a collective testimony that God loves and is mindful of all His children.

1. Helen Sekaquaptewa and Louise Udall, Me and Mine (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1969), 92; Laura Redish and Orrin Lewis, “Hopi Indian Fact Sheet,” Orrin’s Website,

2. “Hopi,” Wikimedia Foundation, last modified April 12, 2022, 21:50, https://en.wikipedia .org/wiki/Hopi; Sekaquaptewa and Udall, Me and Mine, 64.

3. FamilySearch, “Helen Dowawisnima,” Memories, “The Trail Has Come Full Circle,” /memories/KN92-ZGX; Sekaquaptewa and Udall, Me and Mine, 12, 92, 93, 107–8.

4. FamilySearch, “Helen Dowawisnima,” Memories, “Honored Guest,” /KN92-ZGX; Sekaquaptewa and Udall, Me and Mine, 91–93, 104–5.

5. FamilySearch, “Honored Guest”; Sekaquaptewa and Udall, Me and Mine, 91–93, 144–45.

6. Sekaquaptewa and Udall, Me and Mine, 140–41.

7. Sekaquaptewa and Udall, Me and Mine, 185–86, 188, 190, 221.

8. Sekaquaptewa and Udall, Me and Mine, 144–45, 185–88, 190, 198–99, 221.

9. Sekaquaptewa and Udall, Me and Mine, 203.

10. Clarence Barker, “Marriage to Hopi Indians Is Not for This Life Only,” Church News, June 1973, /person/memories/KN92-ZGX; Sekaquaptewa and Udall, Me and Mine, 117–19, 236, 240–42.

11. FamilySearch, “Honored Guest”; Sekaquaptewa and Udall, Me and Mine, 243.

12. FamilySearch, “The Trail Has Come Full Circle.”

13. “Helen Sekaquaptewa,” Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame,; FamilySearch, “The Trail Has Come Full Circle”; Sekaquaptewa and Udall, Me and Mine, 217–18, 245.

14. FamilySearch, “Honored Guest.”

15. Sekaquaptewa and Udall, Me and Mine, 247; “Helen Sekaquaptewa”; FamilySearch, “The Trail Has Come Full Circle.”

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