Soul of the Sacred Earth

Written by Vella Munn
Review by Trudi E. Jacobson

Except for a brief prelude set in 1599, the events in this book take place during the summer and fall of 1628 in what is now Arizona. The Spanish have come to Oraibi, a Hopi village atop a mesa. Their contingent is small: a captain seeking the fabled riches of the area, a small number of soldiers, and a Franciscan priest intent on saving the savages’ souls. Their arrival sets into motion not only a clash of Spanish and Hopi cultures, but also an encounter between Hopi and Navajo traditions.

Morning Butterfly is a young Hopi woman who knows some Spanish, and is drafted to serve as translator for the newcomers. Cougar is a Navajo from a nearby settlement who arrives to steal the soldiers’ horses. Cougar understands the Hopi language, making communication possible between these two communities. While both the Hopi and the Navajo lament the intrusion of the soldiers and the priest, they react in very different ways. The Hopi are known as the Peaceful Ones. They attempt to live with the invaders, and even, reluctantly, help him to build his church. Fray Angelico believes he may be making headway in converting the Hopi, since some submit to baptism, but it is clear to readers that the baptisms and sermons are not turning them from the own beliefs. The Navajo live as raiders, and are proud of their ability as warriors; their reaction to the Spanish is very different.

A sense of tradition and place permeates this book. Words from legends, songs, and chants are woven throughout the story. Readers also learn of the two groups’ beliefs through the explanations Morning Butterfly and Cougar give each other about their people. Fray Angelico and the captain represent two very different, but equally disruptive, Western attitudes: one missionary, the other exploitative of the people and land. The land is sacred to both the Hopi and Navajo, and their strong relationships with it become clea.

Tony Hillerman’s novels have introduced me to the place and some of the beliefs in this book, but the time period is new to me. The book seems very well researched, though not intrusively so. Soul of the Sacred Earth is a compelling read. I was desperate to see the Spanish leave, so that the Hopi and Navajo societies wouldn’t be further disrupted, but feared being too hopeful, knowing how history has turned out. I will look for more books by Vella Munn.