Polingaysi Qoyawayma was born in the town of Old Oraibi on the Hopi Reservation. She was born in the spring of 1892 but, as the Hopis did not concern themselves with things such as birthdays, no one knows the exact date. The name Polingaysi roughly translates to "butterfly sitting among flowers in the breeze" in the language of the Hopi. When Polingaysi was a young child, the government of the United States set up a school for the Native Americans and began rounding up children to attend it. As the Hopis educated their children as part of daily life, and were unfamiliar with the concept of a school, they hid their children, unsure of what would happen to them. Polingaysi was successfully hidden at the house of her grandmother, but became curious about the school her siblings and friends attended, and went there of her own will. Her family was disappointed, seeing this as a step away from the traditional culture of the Hopi. At the school, the children were given Caucasian names, and she was called "Bessie."
When Polingaysi was about fourteen, there was an opportunity for Hopi children to attend school in Flagstaff. Again, Polingaysi's parents were against her attending, but her father finally gave in and agreed to let her go. In addition to lessons, the students had to work at chores around the school. Polingaysi learned how to sew and made clothing for herself as well as for the other girls. It was at this school that her talent for singing was discovered. One of her teachers let her live with her family, and she earned money by doing chores for them. She was already beginning to save her money with the objective of ultimately building a big house for herself and her family.
After returning from the school, Polingaysi found that her people were not very accepting of her "white" ways of doing things, and she could not understand why they refused to accept progress. She traveled to Kansas with a missionary family, the Freys, who changed her name to Elizabeth Ruth. She wanted to study to become a missionary, and they helped her accomplish this. When she later discovered that her attempts to convert her people were met with hostility, she decided to become a teacher. Believing the way she has been taught in her early years was wrong (the children were not permitted to speak their native language, but could not understand the teacher's English), she decided to teach the children from what was familiar to them. She used Hopi legends to illustrate principles of counting, and science, and translated the stories into English to give them a clear understanding of vocabulary. Her methods were at first criticized, but later won her much acclaim. She was even asked to demonstrate her methods at a conference and won awards for them. The greatest compliment would come when she was about to retire, and a mother of some of her former students asked her to stay another year to get her youngest child started with school properly.
Meanwhile, she had succeeded in building her house, which she opened to boarders interested in Hopi culture. Among her guests were diplomats, well-known authors, and politicians. The house was ruined in a fire in 1974, but was rebuilt. Polingaysi also kept up with her musical abilities. The band she formed from her students was once invited to perform one hundred miles away from the reservation, a huge undertaking at the time.
Polingaysi married Lloyd White, who was part Cherokee in 1931, but they were soon divorced, possibly due to the fact that he wanted her to give up the job she loved. Polingaysi also enjoyed writing. Her novel, The Sun Girl, was chosen as one of the fifty best books of 1945. When Polingaysi finally retired from teaching, she considered a career as a musician or writer (collaborating on a couple of books), but ultimately chose pottery. Her methods were different from what other people did, she used a certain type of clay and incorporated raised designs such as ears of corn (corn was very important to the Hopi people) and the Kokopelli.
After getting over her idea that white culture was somehow better than that of the natives, Polingaysi came to appreciate the differences between the two. She honored the old ideas of her people, but saw that their "pagan" ideas were just as spiritual as what she was taught in a Christian church. Throughout her life, Polingaysi was never content to do what everyone else did; she wanted to move on to greater challenges. Having separated from her culture by choosing education and the advantages of the white world, she returned home and helped her people improve their chances of a better life through education. She even set up a scholarship so native children could go to college. Polingaysi Qoyawayma, also called Elizabeth Q. White, died on 6 December 1990.
Nineteen years ago on December 6, 1990, Polingaysi Qoyawayma (Elizabeth Q. White), passed away with family at her side in Phoenix, Arizona. Born in 1892, Polingaysi was from the village of Orayvi on Third Mesa, and she is perhaps best known for her book (as told to Vada Carlson) No Turning Back: A Hopi Woman’s Struggle to Live in Two Worlds. I never had the honor of meeting Polingaysi, but her story is often told among our people. In November 1906, shortly after an internal dispute in her village, Polingaysi left by wagon with a group of Hopi children to the small town of Winslow, Arizona. From there she boarded a Santa Fe train to San Bernardino, California, then traveled south to Sherman Institute in Riverside. She experienced a different life in the “land of oranges,” and she wrote at length about her time at Sherman in No Turning Back. After spending almost three years at the school, Polingaysi returned to Orayvi and found it difficult to acclimate to reservation life. She eventually became the first Hopi to teach at a Hopi day school, and she encouraged her students to take the best of Hopi and American culture to succeed as a people. Although Polingaysi is often associated with No Turning Back, she also wrote a second book in 1941 titled The Sun Girl, which was illustrated by Hopi artist Komoki. In this children’s book, Polingaysi retells a story of a young girl named Dawamana (“Sun Maiden” or “Sun Girl”) from Orayvi who learns the Butterfly Dance at the village of Moencopi. In the forward to the book’s 1978 edition, Robert Breunig of the Museum of Northern Arizona notes that “Mrs. Qoyawayma told this story many times to her school children. They became so enthralled with it that they asked that it be repeated again and again, and they learned it almost word for word, correcting deviations from one telling to the next. Finally, Mrs. Qoyawayma wrote the story down in the hope that all children would enjoy it.” Nineteen years after her passing, Polingaysi’s life and work are still remembered. She is one of the most revered teachers and writers in Hopi history, and her example and words continue to have great meaning and relevance for those in the present.