“Elizabeth Qoyawayma White was a spunky, intelligent, caring lady, a fine teacher, ceramicist, poet and writer. Her courage and her spirit were an inspiration to all who knew her. She rose above all of her adversities and lived life fully.”— Edward B. Danson, former director of the Museum of Northern Arizona
Polingaysi Qoyawayma, or Elizabeth Q. White as she was also known, was a rebel from childhood. In her youth, she broke from the Hopi pattern of life to learn more about the world beyond the mesas. Motivated by the desire to help her people, she developed an innovative method of teaching Native Americans. Her life was filled with struggles to find a place in two cultures, and she succeeded not only as a teacher, but also as a writer, poet, potter, and friend to many.
She was born in 1892 (by the federal government’s reckoning) in the ancient village of Oraibi, Arizona, on the Third Mesa. She belonged to her mother’s Coyote Clan and her father’s Kachina Clan; her own name meant “butterfly sitting among the flowers in the breeze.” Though Polingaysi lived a typical Hopi childhood during her first few years, change was inevitable when the first Mennonite missionary, H.R. Voth, arrived on the mesa in October 1893. The government soon followed, opening a school at the bottom of the mesa about 1900.
Many of the traditional Hopis distrusted the school and the teachers. Officials tried to catch Hopi children and take them to school, but Polingaysi’s family hid her. She grew lonely for her friends and noticed that many who went to school were given clothes and plenty of food. One day she could no longer endure being left out of the excitement, and without her mother’s knowledge, walked down the trail to the school. Although she realized her parents would be angry, she wanted the new experience. Her mother warned her that she was moving away from her own people by going to school and that there could be no turning back. Polingaysi faced the first of many condemnations for committing herself to a new way of life.
The establishment of the school created tensions between the Hopi people of Oraibi. The village split into two groups: those who supported the village leader, who was of the Bear Clan, and the conservatives, who followed the leader of the Spider Clan and wholeheartedly rejected the whites’ ways in an effort to preserve their own traditions. In 1906, the conflict escalated, and the village split apart. The Bear Clan forced the Spider Clan and its supporters to leave the mesa. The exiles founded the new village of Hotevilla. Polingaysi and her family continued to live on the mesa even though their hearts were with the conservative Hopis in their settlement. Polingaysi’s father worked for Mr. Voth, and eventually Voth convinced the Qoyawayma family to live at the foot of the mesa. They built a stone house and selected acreage for the family. Over the next few years, more and more of the families followed the Qoyawaymas, creating a new village called Kiakotsmovi.
In the fall of 1906, Polingaysi learned that a group of Hopi children were going to attend the Sherman Institute in Riverside, California. Though only fourteen, she felt ready for a taste of life beyond the mesas, desiring both an education and the chance to improve her living conditions.
The next four years were fruitful but lonely. Polinglysi realized that she had willingly chosen to depart from the Hopi way. Remembering her mother’s words about not turning back, she determined that she would take the consequences of her actions without complaining. She learned English, lived with a teacher and her husband, and converted to Christianity during her four years at the Sherman Institute.
When she returned to her village, she found that she had changed in many ways. She could not tolerate the poverty and did not want to settle down with a husband into traditional Hopi life. She tried to teach Hopis about Christianity but found that it alienated them. Polingaysi became unhappy, caught between two worlds. She went to live with the new missionaries, Reverend Jacobs Frey and his family. She set about learning to type, so she could help the Reverend to translate a Hopi version of the Bible. Polingaysi eventually came to realize that it would be best to keep the good things of her Hopi heritage while she accepted the benefits of the white man’s world.
In 1911, Polingaysi traveled to attend the Mennonite Bethel Academy in Newton, Kansas where she studied music and trained as a Mennonite missionary. During the next several years, she worked as a missionary and tried to convert other Hopis to the religion, but found little success. In the fall of 1918, she accepted an invitation to be assistant teacher at the Kayenta Indian Boarding school near the Utah border. However, the outbreak of influenza in Tuba City delayed the opening of the school, and Polingaysi also became ill. By early 1919, Polingaysi was able to launch her teaching career. With encouragement from missionary friends, she accepted a position as a substitute teacher in Tuba City. There she started to develop an innovative curriculum with a class of thirty Navajo pupils ranging in age from six to eighteen. They could learn best, she realized, if their schoolwork related directly to everyday experiences.
In the fall of 1919, Polingaysi attended the Los Angeles Bible Institute to gain more training for missionary work. However, at this time, she was becoming more interested in teaching, and she wanted to settle somewhere in her own home. Her father had given her a section of his land, and in the summer of 1921, she began to purchase materials to build on this land. Polingaysi’s brothers helped her to build her new home.
Polingaysi resumed teaching on the Hopi Reservation in Hotevilla where she honed her unique teaching method. Forbidden to speak Hopi in the classroom and remembering her own unpleasant school experiences, she taught English words through Hopi children’s songs. To her surprise, parents objected to her methods, arguing that they had sent their children to school to learn the white way, not the Hopi. Despite such obstacles, Polingaysi continued her teaching career for twenty-six years. With the support of the Hotevilla school staff and missionary friends, she passed her Indian Service test in 1925 to become a full-fledged government employee. She went on to teach on the Navajo Reservation before returning to teach Hopi students.
Gradually her methods gained acceptance, and Polingaysi continued teaching until 1954. At her retirement ceremony, she received the Department of Interior’s Distinguished Service Award.
Polingaysi embarked on the second phase of her life, creating beautiful pottery. She fashioned creamy pink pottery with unique shapes, such as corn-maiden wind bells, pots with a raised ear of corn, and miniature ollas. In the late 1970s, the Heard Museum in Phoenix held a special exhibit of her pottery. Polingaysi also wrote stories and poetry and published her autobiography, No Turning Back in 1964. She worked with Dr. and Mrs. Carlton Enton to establish the Hopi Scholarship Fund, administered by Northern Arizona University.
During the 1970s, Polingaysi received a variety of awards and honors. In 1976, the Museum of Northern Arizona unveiled a bronze sculpture of her done by Una Hanbury. Her alma mater, Bethel College, recognized her as an Outstanding Alumna in 1979. She also received the Arizona Indian Living Treasure tribute, the Heard Museum’s Gold Medal in 1978, and Bullock’s “Be Beautiful” Award in 1984.
Polingaysi died in a Phoenix nursing home on December 6, 1990 at the age of ninety-eight.