The Hopi Nakwách – The Symbol of Brotherhood

Nakwach symbol

Nakwach symbol

Hugh Nibley had a fascination with the Hopi Indian tribes of northeastern Arizona. He believed that the Hopi captured something about life that the rest of the world had missed. Their culture, traditions, and ceremonies were stable and permanent. They did not look to the conveniences of the day, and yet had still survived unhampered for thousands of years. Their rituals were particularly of interest to Dr. Nibley, as he saw in them something very familiar in parallels to ancient patterns throughout the world:

By the latest count, the Hopi are the only people in the world who still preserve a full annual cycle of full-dress protological, eschatological and cosmological ceremonies.1

What most impressed Nibley were the similarities between the Hopi rituals and those of the Church. Nibley’s son-in-law, Boyd Petersen, recounts:

Parallels appear between the language of the Mormon temple ceremony and the Hopi myths of origin in Frank Water’s Book of the Hopi. Responding to someone who asked about similarities between the Mormon temple endowment and the Masonic ceremony, Nibley wrote that the parallels between the Mormon endowment and the rites of the Hopi “come closest of all as far as I have been able to discover—and where did they get theirs?”2

The Book of the Hopi has an account of the first interaction between the Hopi people and the Spanish Conquistadors. This occasion is marked by the Hopi belief that they were witnessing the return of a god that had visited them long ago:

The coming of the Hopis’ lost white brother, Pahána, like the return of the Mayas’ bearded white god, Kukulcan, the Toltecan and Aztecan Quetzalcoatl, was a myth so common throughout all pre-Columbian America that we can regard it as arising from a concept rooted in the unconscious. Whatever its symbolic meaning, the even was long hailed by prophecy. . . . The Hopis in these villages had long anticipated the coming of their lost white brother, Pahána.3

When the Spanish arrived, they saw these white people as fulfillment of the prophecy of Pahána’s return. The first meeting between Spaniard Pedro de Tovar and the clan chiefs of the Hopi is told thus:

Hopi tradition supplements this account by relating that Tovar and his men were conducted to Oraibi. They were met by all the clan chiefs at Tawtoma, as prescribed by prophecy, where four lines of sacred meal were drawn. The Bear Clan leader stepped up to the barrier and extended his hand, palm up, to the leader of the white men. If he was indeed the true Pahána, the Hopis knew he would extend his own hand, palm down, and clasp the Bear Clan leader’s hand to form the nakwách, the ancient symbol of brotherhood. Tovar instead curtly commanded one of his men to drop a gift into the Bear chief’s hand, believing that the Indian wanted a present of some kind. Instantly all the Hopi chiefs knew that Pahána had forgotten the ancient agreement made between their peoples at the time of their separation. Nevertheless, the Spaniards were escorted up to Oraibi, fed and quartered, and the agreement explained to them. It was understood that when the two were finally reconciled, each would correct the other’s laws and faults; they would live side by side and share in common all the riches of the land and join their faiths in one religion that would establish the truth of life in a spirit of universal brotherhood. The Spaniards did not understand, and having found no gold, they soon departed.4

Hugh Nibley interpreted this story in his own way:

In 1540 when Pedro de Tovar came up to Bear Chief, who was standing to greet him on the rise at Old Oraibi, the chief reached out his hand to establish the visitor’s identity by offering him the sacred handclasp, the nachwach-was he really the promised White Brother? Naturally, the Spaniard, who had come looking for gold and nothing else, thought he was asking for money and placed a gold coin in his hand. Have you any signs or tokens? asked the chief. Yes, I have money, replied the visitor. From that moment the Hopis knew it was not the one they were looking for, and to this day they have never been converted to Christianity.5

Another commenter notes the universality of such a handclasp:

In fact, variants of it are found in a number of other cultures too – I’ve seen it in tribes in both North and South America, as well as in Europe and the far east. The Hopi call it the Nakwach, which means brotherhood. It’s meant to symbolize the joined hands of two tribal elders, who made a pact of lifelong friendship with each other, thereby bringing peace to their people.6

Clearly, to the Hopis, the nakwách handclasp was a type of symbol of identification or token of recognition by which the Hopi people could recognize their true God, and as a symbol of their brotherhood.7 Not only was this handclasp used as a method of identification, but today, the Hopis still practice the nakwách also as part of their ceremonial dances,

when the priests clasp hands in the same manner during the public dance of Wúwuchim today. [. . .] All hold hands to form the nakwách, [the] symbol of brotherhood.8

  1. Boyd Jay Petersen. Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life. 280 []
  2. ibid., 282 []
  3. Frank Waters. Book of the Hopi. 1963, 307 []
  4. ibid., 308-309 []
  5. Hugh Nibley. Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints. 98-99 []
  6. []
  7. Todd Compton, “The Handclasp and Embrace as Tokens of Recognition”, By Study and Also By Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley []
  8. Frank Waters. Book of the Hopi. 1963, 52, 151. See my blog post series The Genesis of the Round Dance for more cultures and traditions which join hands in a sacred round dance. []


    Posted July 26, 2008 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

    Googling the term “nakwách” I found the following at the website:
    “The two figures shown here are forms of the Hopi nakwách symbol of brotherhood made when two priests clasp hands during the Wuwuchim dance – the dance of the linked finger. “

  2. D. Thorpe
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 12:39 am | Permalink

    The Chigaraga Indians, also have certain symbols which were sacred to them too. But also, among the Hopi Indians, there are stories about how the Great Spirit would send messengers to them to restore parts of their records which had been lost. They would know, says their traditions, these messengers by the way in which these messengers would hold their hands when they would greet each other. There are many hand symbols & hand clasping depictions in ancient Americas’ art that shows that the ancient Americas also understood Christ’s visit, & him having taught that which was not lawful for them to write about (3rd Nephi chapter 11-26), thus in time, such things became part of later Native Americas’ sacred, but also secret ceremonies, that few were permitted to see.

    Typescript entitled: The White Indian Chief Eachata Eachana, unknown writer. Do You Know This? (If Not You Should…), etc. W.A. Hudson, S.L.C., Ut. (date ?), NBPCO, pp.1-7; The Salt Lake Tribune, Vol. 140, No. 169, Salt Lake City, Utah, Sunday, Morning, March 31, 1940, Magazine section, p.6, Calling All Tribes, by Frank Waters. Waters, The Book of the Hopi, p.252; By Study & Also By Faith, 1: pp.611-642, chapter 24, Compton, p.637, note .54; L. Taylor Hansen, He Walked the Americas, (Amherst, Wisconsin: Amherst Press, 1963), pp. 31, 70-1, 126-129, & 168, see also pp. 14-146, 165-66, & 206-7; Albert Churchward M.D., M.R. C.P., M.R.C.S., F.G.S., P.M., P.Z., 30 degree. The Signs & Symbols of Primordial Man, Being an Explanation of Evolution of Religious Doctrines From the Eschatology of the Ancient Egyptians, (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Company, E. P. Dutton & Co., 1910), p.101, fig.39, 104-5, 114, 330-1, fig.134, a-b, p.355, fig.156.

  3. Lisa Ranney
    Posted April 1, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Is it my imagination, or does the Hopi Nakwách look a lot like the Chinese yin-yang symbol? Wikipedia says that “Yin yang are complementary opposites that interact within a greater whole, as part of a dynamic system. “

  4. Posted October 7, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    I would have to break out a few books including Frank Waters”Book of the Hopi” and “Visual Testament” by Tom Cryers, but I know that upon entering the Kiva during at least one of their ceremonies there are certain phrases that must be stated before entering the Kiva. I just remember reading this and doing a doubletake and having my wife read it just to see what she thought and we both had to laugh at the similarities it had to certain points of the temple ceremony. I’ve been to Hopi Nation a few times and I am absolutely fascinated by them. But I think that D. Thorpe nailed it on the head with his above posted comment, “There are many hand symbols & hand clasping depictions in ancient Americas’ art that shows that the ancient Americas also understood Christ’s visit, & him having taught that which was not lawful for them to write about (3rd Nephi chapter 11-26), thus in time, such things became part of later Native Americas’ sacred, but also secret ceremonies, that few were permitted to see.”

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