Emory Sekaquaptewa: Native American anthropologist

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The Independent Online

Emory Sekaquaptewa, anthropologist, lexicographer and silversmith: born Hotevilla, Arizona 28 December 1928; Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Arizona 1972-77, Lecturer in Anthropology 1977-2007, Research Anthropologist, Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology 1990-2007; twice married (one daughter); died Tucson, Arizona 14 December 2007.

In an age witnessing the demise of languages and cultural diversity, it is given to few individuals to buck that trend. Emory Sekaquaptewa was one of those individuals. He reinvigorated and added to the culture of the Native American Hopi people on a number of levels linguistically, in education through the medium of Hopi, through the judiciary and through metalworking.

However, Hopi history will remember him best and with most pride for his contributions to the perpetuation of the language. This was no small feat given the banning of indigenous languages in schooling in the not-so-distant American past. Gordon Krutz, a colleague of his at the University of Arizona hailed Sekaquaptewa as "the Noah Webster of the Hopi nation". (The Noah in question lent his name to Webster's Dictionary.) Over 30 years Sekaquaptewa, beginning like all pre-computer lexicographers with scraps of paper and card indexes, assembled the first Hopi-English dictionary. Hopi, like most languages, has no standard or received variant and, like most traditionally oral languages, it is highly complex philologically and idiomatically.

In 1998 the University of Arizona published his Hopi Dictionary/Hopiikwa Lavaytutuveni: a Hopi-English dictionary of the Third Mesa dialect with an English-Hopi finder list and a sketch of grammar. It polarised opinion and engaged debate. As the writer and educator Cynthia Dagnal Myron explains, the dictionary "was highly controversial on Hopi, where there are at least three dialects and where most people, no matter how fluent they may seem, do not believe they really speak Hopi well. However, he ploughed onward, and the book was completed to the consternation of some elders. He will be remembered by our family more for his humility than his grand achievements elsewhere. He was just 'Uncle Emory' to us, the guy who let us sit on his doorsteps during katsina dances, and always seemed to be smiling".

Just as English speakers built on the pioneering works of Dr Johnson and Noah Webster, subsequent generations of lexicographers Hopis and custodians of other Native American linguistic traditions alike will find a firm foundation in Sekaquaptewa's work.

The Hopi nation is concentrated in three "mesas" in north eastern Arizona (mesas are the high, flat-topped mountains where Native American peoples build their homes). Emory Sekaquaptewa was born in Hotevilla in the Third Mesa in 1928. His birth was never formally noted so he took 28 December as his birthday for official purposes.

Metalworking, working silver in particular, is deep in the Hopi psyche. Sekaquaptewa and his older brother Wayne are credited with developing an innovative silversmithing technique called "matting", which enhances the permanence of overlaid patterns through a process of oxidisation.

After graduating from the University of Arizona in 1970, he joined the university's Anthropology Department in 1972, and rose through its professorial hierarchy. In 1990 he became a research anthropologist for its Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology. From 1978 he was also a member of the judiciary, and eventually became an appellate judge for the Hopi nation, a role which included sitting on the bench when Hopi-Navajo boundary cases were determined.

Ken Hunt