Powamu Festival

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Powamû Festival (Bean-Planting Festival)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Hopi)
Date of Observation: Late January-early February for eight days
Where Celebrated: Arizona
Symbols and Customs: Bean Sprouts, Flogging, Masks, Soyokmana
Related Holidays: Niman Kachina Festival, Wuwuchim


The Powamû Festival is a midwinter religious celebration of the Hopi Indians. The historical development of religious belief systems among many Native American groups is not well known. Most of the information available was gathered by Europeans who arrived on the continent beginning in the sixteenth century C . E . The data they recorded was fragmentary and oftentimes of questionable accuracy because the Europeans did not understand the native cultures they were trying to describe and the Native Americans were reluctant to divulge details about themselves.

The history of Native American cultures dates back thousands of years into prehistoric times. According to many scholars, the people who became the Native Americans migrated from Asia across a land bridge that may have once connected the territories presently occupied by Alaska and Russia. The migrations, believed to have begun between 60,000 and 30,000 B . C . E ., continued until approximately 4,000 B . C . E . This speculation, however, conflicts with traditional stories asserting that the indigenous Americans have always lived in North America or that tribes moved up from the south.

The Hopi observe a ceremonial calendar in which the year is divided into two parts. According to tradition, during one half of the year the kachinas (nature, ancestral, and guardian spirits) live in the village and reveal themselves to the people through ceremonial dances. During the other half of the year, the kachinas separate themselves from the village and return to live in their homes in the mountains. The Kachina season begins around the time of WINTER SOLSTICE, as people begin to prepare the ground for planting, and it closes in late July with the bringing in of the first harvest.

The Hopi Indians believe that for six months of the year, ancestral spirits called the Kachinas leave their mountain homes and visit the tribe, bringing health to the people and rain for their crops. The midwinter ceremony known as the Powamû celebrates their return, just as the NIMAN KACHINA FESTIVAL in July celebrates their departure.

Preparations for the ceremony include repainting the MASKS that will be worn by the individuals impersonating the Kachinas. On the third day, young men bring in baskets of wet sand, which they leave near the entrance to the kiva, or ceremonial meeting room. A hot fire burns throughout the eight days of the Powamû in the kiva of every Hopi village, and blankets are stretched across the opening so that the atmosphere inside is like that of a hothouse. Each man who enters the kiva during this period carries a basket or bowl of sand into it and plants a handful of beans, which sprout quickly in all the heat and humidity.

The Powamû culminates in a dance that takes place in the nine kivas that dot the mesa in northeastern Arizona. The dancers' bodies are painted red and white, and they wear squash blossoms-actually yucca fiber twisted into the shape of a squash blossom-in their hair. They put on white kilts and sashes and leggings with a fringe of shells tied down the side. The dance takes place in two lines facing each other, inside the sweltering kiva. When it is over, the dancers leave for the next village's kiva, and another group arrives. During the course of the night, each group dances at all nine kivas.

Wearing masks and with painted bodies, the next morning the Kachinas arrive bringing dolls and rattles for the girls, bows and arrows for the boys, and for both the green BEAN SPROUTS that have been growing in the overheated kivas. Clowns run around making jokes, tripping each other, and performing pantomimes for everyone's enjoyment. The festival concludes with a huge feast in which bean sprouts are the main ingredient. From this time until their departure in July, the Kachinas appear regularly in masked ceremonies performed in the Hopi villages.


Bean Sprouts

Sprouted beans are a symbol of fertility. Since the Hopis depend on the kachinas to bring rain and other conditions essential to the growth of their crops, bean sprouts also symbolize the approaching spring. Powamû Festival


Until the age of nine or ten, Hopi children believe that the Kachinas who appear at the Powamû and other ceremonial dances are superhuman. When they have matured, they are told that the real Kachinas no longer visit the earth but are impersonated by men wearing MASKS . The price for acquiring this knowledge, however, is participation in a ritual flogging or whipping ceremony. The children are never struck hard enough to cause real pain, and the ritual is not intended to be cruel. Sometimes a child who is particularly frightened is not actually flogged at all, but instead has a yucca whip whirled over his or her head. Occasionally an adult will be flogged as well, which is believed to promote healing.

On four successive mornings, the child who has been flogged is taken to a place on the mesa where he or she makes an offering at a shrine and casts meal toward the sun. During this period the child is not allowed to eat salt or meat, but on the fourth day these restrictions are lifted. From this time onward, the child is allowed to look at the Kachinas without their masks and at other sacred objects in the kiva without incurring any punishment.

The flogging ceremony symbolizes the revelation of the secret of Hopi life: the knowledge that the Kachinas are not really spirits but men dressed to represent them.


The masks worn by the men who impersonate the Kachinas during the Powamû Festival may vary from year to year, but some of the masks remain constant. Before the dance takes place, the masks are repainted and refurbished. They are designed to fit closely over the head, hiding it completely, with a ruff of feathers, fur, or spruce at the neck. The face usually resembles a bird, beast, monster, or man-or some combination thereof. Those who wear the Kachina masks usually carry an object associated with the being they represent-for example, a bow and arrow, a yucca whip, or feathers.

The female Kachinas, who are impersonated by men, wear wigs of long hair styled in the flat swirls over the ears known as squash blossoms, a symbol of virginity.


The group of Kachinas that visit each Hopi village during the Powamû Festival usually includes Soyokmana, a witch-like creature carrying a crook and a bloody knife. The group goes from house to house demanding food, receiving gifts, and presenting BEAN SPROUTS . When the food they are offered does not meet their standards, the Kachinas make hooting and whistling noises and refuse to leave until they have been properly fed. Sometimes Soyokmana uses her crook to hook a child around the neck and hold him or her there, screaming in terror. Parents tell their children that this is a punishment for being naughty.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Cohen, Hennig, and Tristram Potter Coffin. The Folklore of American Holidays. 3rd ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999. Fergusson, Erna. Dancing Gods: Indian Ceremonials of New Mexico and Arizona. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1931. Fewkes, Jesse Walter. Tusayan Katcinas and Hopi Altars. Albuquerque: Avanyu Pub., 1990. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009