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Modern marketers use the image of Kokopelli to sell everything from beer to skis. It's almost impossible to walk into an art gallery in the Southwest without seeing a rendition of the flute-playing hunchbacked character many view as a fertility god.
The problem with this conception is that it is both inaccurate and offensive to Hopis.
According to Edge of the Cedars State Park manager Teri Paul, who worked closely with Hopi elders to develop a traveling exhibit on Kokopelli now on view at Anasazi State Park in Boulder, Kokopelli is a generic term that refers to two kachina figures -- male and female -- and to the flute-playing clan that still exists in Hopi.
"Kokopelli is actually two different kachinas which are representations of deities in Hopi culture usually seen in social or ceremonial dances," said Paul. "Kokopoli is male and kokopelmana is female."
These two figures represent deities whose purpose is teaching how not to behave. They may be seen at Pueblo dances and celebrations pantomiming lewd acts to the derisive laughter of onlookers. These kachinas never are seen playing a flute and are not depicted in rock art.
Then there is the Fluteplayer, a common rock art figure sometimes depicted as an insect with a humped back, a flute and a prominent phallus. Rock art figures of this character can be seen as far south as Peru and as far north as Canada. The role of the Fluteplayer is to call back the spring, thus it's connection to fertility and abundance in the modern story.
"The clan is still in existence among the Hopi people of Arizona," said Paul. "To the members of the Fluteplayer clan, rock art depictions of this symbol indicate that their ancestors left their marks to show the routes of their migrations."
Paul speculates that anthropologists in the 1920s mixed up the kachinas with the Fluteplayer, thus creating the modern myth of Kokopelli.
According to that myth, Kokopelli was a benevolent trader who came from the south, bringing food and playing the flute. Mix in the fertility angle and the fact that many of the Fluteplayer rock art figures mistaken for Kokopelli have large phalluses and you have a myth that some modern non-Native Americans don't want to lose.
"We got an interesting reaction from some people who saw the exhibit but did not want to believe that this is what Kokopelli and the Fluteplayer were," said Paul. "We challenged a belief that they held dear and they didn't like it. This is a childhood story that we came to love and wanted to be true, but wasn't."
While Paul understands how early anthropologists and others might have confused the kachinas and the Fluteplayer, that doesn't make the more modern interpretation correct. And that's why the Hopi elders of First Mesa in Arizona worked closely with Paul on the traveling exhibition, which tries to set the record straight.
Tom Wharton is an outdoors and travel columnist. Reach him at email@example.com" Target="_BLANK">firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-8909.