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February 14, 2024

Conflict Transformation and Hopi Marriage

Pat Sekaquaptewa

A 2019 Arizona Republic piece titled, “Hopi couple married in 10-day traditional ceremony in Arizona,” includes a beautiful photo spread of the Honanie and Honanveama wedding. In those pre-Covid days, the extended families of the Honanies and Honanveamas, from the Villages of Hotevilla and Moencopi, gathered on the Hopi Reservation in northern Arizona to undertake a traditional Hopi wedding.

A Hopi traditional wedding is the result of years of planning, which is coordinated by the extended family members (clan relatives) of the prospective bride and groom. Large amounts of corn, food, and other gifts are exchanged as part of the wedding, which begins with the planting, harvesting, and preparation of the different types of corn. The Arizona Republic article chronicles the 10-day ceremonial part of a Hopi wedding where the bride travels to the home of her in-laws for nine days, returning home on the ninth.

Some of the highlights of a traditional wedding include the weaving of the wedding robes by the uncles of the groom’s family in the kiva. The bride remains in her in-laws’ home until the robes are completed, and she will wear them on her journey home. During this time, the bride grinds corn and prepares meals for the groom’s family. Then, people gather at the groom’s home and a grand mud fight takes place. The groom’s female relatives tease and taunt the bride and the literal mudslinging begins. They eventually go after other relatives who are permitting the groom to be married off. After everyone has cleaned up, the bride’s family travels to the groom’s home with food and gifts – with trucks full of cornmeal, flour, bread, pies, and piki bread. In the Honanie and Honanveama wedding there were nearly 30 trucks filled with food and gifts, including 68 cardboard boxes full of piki. These gifts are then distributed to the many people who helped prepare for the wedding. This is followed by a meal with family and all those who have helped. Before the sun rises on the fifth day, the mothers of the bride and groom, and their female relatives, wash the couple’s hair together. Female family members line up one by one to add water to the basin and wash the couple’s hair and bless the marriage. After the bride and groom’s hair is washed and intertwined together, the bride’s mother takes them outside to meet the rising sun. They sprinkle white cornmeal to bless the marriage, ending the wedding ceremony itself. On the final day, the bride returns to her home wearing her robes and everyone gathers for another feast. A Hopi traditional wedding is a huge inter-clan and inter-village collaborative effort.

While every Hopi wedding differs somewhat, given family traditions and who is being married to whom, certain aspects of the traditions serve as scaffolding for the health and sustainability of both the marriage and the family, especially the rearing of children. Hopi families and societies are structured around matrilineal clans. One is born into one’s mother’s clan. Historically, and in many meaningful ways today, a man join’s his wife’s household, but he also brings to the marriage his mother’s family. These two extended families will work together to support the nuclear family, providing other “mothers,” “aunties,” “fathers,” godparents, and mentors to the children. A Hopi wedding locks in “the village” that will help raise the children of the marriage. A Hopi wedding is also a recognition of, and the acceptance of, the bride or groom, by each respective extended family. The wedding initiates a life-long set of reciprocal obligations both in family life and in the annual ceremonial life the village. A traditional Hopi marriage is binding across the bride, groom, and their extended families for life. There is no divorce.

All of this said, many Hopis who might be considered “married” under the western common law, or who may have had a “western” wedding, have not had the benefit of a traditional Hopi wedding. Also, many Hopis have married non-Hopis and have only one set of extended family members who might support them in Hopi family and ceremonial life. A particularly unlucky circumstance is where someone is only Hopi on their father’s side, leaving them without a clan. If this person marries a non-Hopi or someone in a similar circumstance, there will be no maternal extended family support for them and their family in the village. Many unmarried couples living on the reservation also have multiple children together. When these couples separate or seek a divorce, there are a host of issues that are in addition to, and different from, the issues that might arise in a typical off-reservation divorce. When we see these cases in the Hopi Tribal Court, they appear as actions to determine paternity, child custody, child support, visitation, and/or for divorce, particularly in cases where there was a western marriage. The parties may also make custom law arguments such as that, under Hopi custom and tradition, it is the husband’s responsibility to build a house for his wife (e.g., in determining his financial obligations with respect to her ongoing mobile home payments) or that when he leaves the relationship, he takes only his personal belongings (which conflicts with any type of community property regime).

Prior to 2007, people living on the Hopi Reservation had little recourse but to litigate their issues before the Hopi Tribal Court. However, in 2006, the nonprofit Nakwatsvewat Institute (TNI), received an ANA-SEDS grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Native Americans to establish a Hopi community mediation program – Hopi Dispute Resolution Services (HDRS). HDRS was originally spearheaded by the Hopi Appellate Court, with guidance and support from attorney Forrest Mosten of Mosten Mediation in California, to assist the village’s governments in developing their capacity to handle village disputes locally through mediation, particularly property disputes.

The Hopi Appellate Court had witnessed the churning of probate and other property cases in the Hopi Tribal Court system, given the need for multiple, lengthy, custom law finding hearings, where the burden for paying attorney’s fees often fell on elderly and more traditional parties. The Hopi Tribal Council had not then, nor as of today, adopted a probate code. Nor has it adopted any laws governing marriage or divorce. It seemed that mediation was in order. Between 2006 and 2008, TNI and HDRS launched a series of trainings to recruit and train people from the Hopi and Tewa Villages to become mediators. Once trained, these mediators then went on to conduct live mediations in property cases. In 2009, HDRS received a second grant to train local mediators to handle family disputes. As part of this change in focus, TNI leadership explored multiple mediation models and decided to shift from a facilitative to a transformative mediation model, with the guidance and support of Louise Phipps-Senft with Baltimore Mediation in Baltimore, MD. Initially, this shift was prompted by the observation that even the property disputes at Hopi are essentially extended family disputes. Also, even with the assistance of some very talented outside mediators, Hopi community members reported that they experienced aggressive, directive, fast-paced processes driving parties to reach narrow agreements. The focus of the transformative mediation model is to build or repair relationships, or as they say in transformative mediation circles, “to get the parties back into going relationships.” This seemed both a necessary pre-requisite to, and a higher priority outcome than, merely reaching agreement on a narrow set of issue that could be enforced in court (or by a Village Board) – which, in any case, would be a byproduct of the transformative mediation process. Transformative mediation was also billed as “marital mediation,” meaning that couples could come to mediate how they might stay together, not only how they would separate.

Table 1 – A Typical List of Issues before the Hopi Tribal Courts in Family Cases


Child Support

Child Custody


Division of Property

Division of Debts

Discovery around determining/calculating all of the above

Disputes over these issues in court take money and months to years to be resolved.

When the parties are represented by attorneys, their conflicts are dramatically heighted (often artificially) as part of the advocacy involved in the adversarial process.

The court process is not designed to explore reconciliation, but rather drives to an end point that may include court ordered divorce, divisions, supervision, costs, and/or attorney fees.

Issues of custom and tradition are costly to litigate as they require more hearings and traditional expert witnesses.


After 2009, using the transformative mediation approach, the HDRS mediators made another important observation. Transformative mediation appeared to be a better detector and conductor of the parties’ values, including traditional values. Because transformative mediators are trained to follow the parties in their dialogue, they are less directive and less sticklers for timely process (from the mediators’ perspective). This allows parties to identify their own take on their priority values and to hash this out with their co-parties. When assisted by a transformative mediator, the parties may come to their own, often mutual, understanding of how traditional values matter and how they should be effected. Thus, the parties may internalize their common understanding of these values. From a tribal policy perspective, this is a better outcome than where a tribal judge orders parties to follow a custom or tradition.

For example, rather than organizing parties around the typical list of issues often litigated in a divorce (child custody, child support, visitation, division of property and debts, etc.), and using a directive process to get the parties to settle on these issues, transformative mediators facilitate quality dialogue with agreements as a natural byproduct. Transformative mediators do not have agreements as their overall goal. Rather, they value quality face-to-face dialog. A directive, settlement-oriented mediator is likely to miss important aspects of the conflict or dismiss certain topics as irrelevant or as getting in the way of reaching an agreement. A mediator using a transformative process provides the parties with the lead and the space to create their party driven list of issues. At Hopi, this opened the door for Hopi culture to come in. And, even though Hopi culture is ubiquitous, non-Hopis and those of us who are law trained will still tend to overlook it. In reality, Hopi culture applies to almost every legal issue you can think of, if you have the lens to recognize it and understand its relevance. The transformative mediation approach provided a means for the HDRS mediators to see the centrality and relevance of traditional Hopi marriage (or the absence of it) to family and marital conflicts, from the parties’ point of view. At the most basic level, Hopis and their partners who lacked a traditional Hopi marriage expressed issues with basic support in child rearing and in ceremonial participation, where binding intra and inter-clan reciprocal obligations were not put in place with a traditional Hopi wedding.


Table 2 – A Sample List of Party-Identified Issues in an HDRS Family Mediation using a Transformative Mediation Approach



Spending quality time together

Making time to be a couple in small pueblo villages with large extended families (who may be seen to meddle in the marriage)

Developing trust

A recurrent theme across mediations was women’s suspicions of whether men were really “in the kiva” in the evenings, and the relentless gossip in the villages about the couple’s perceived conduct and relationship status

Learning to communicate

Especially cross-culturally and across religions; also just in relationships in general

Stress Relief Activities

Life on the reservation is stressful given few jobs, low wages, substance use, everyone knowing everyone’s business, and conflicting cultures/religions

Cost sharing for childcare

Reality that “single mothers” bear all the burdens and costs of raising a child (and under Hopi culture the children belong to their mother’s clan); especially when extended family are not assisting

Spending time with child

Father spending time with child, in terms of co-parenting

Never built or need to repair relationship between person (parent) and Hopi extended family

Extended family not friendly to partner (especially between man’s clans women and female partner)

Need to build relationship between child and his or her Hopi extended family

Hopi extended family members are supposed to mentor and steward children, particularly in ceremonies and in traditional skills building

Child’s participation in Hopi ceremonial cycle

Same as Above

Person’s feeling of shame or not belonging for not having a traditional Hopi Wedding

The initial binding and commitments of bride, groom, and their extended families were never made

Child’s participation in Christian Church

Hopi and Christian ways may conflict and create conflict in child rearing

Whether a parent will move off reservation and/or take a job

The need to make a living may cause an inherent conflict where a person has to move away from Hopi and the Hopi ceremonial cycle


Reflection on the Mediation Services Provided by HDRS

Over the course of the grant, HDRS handled roughly twenty intakes per year progressing through the various stages of mediation. Most matters self-resolved or were discontinued. Only a handful of these involved a final written agreement recognized by a Village or the Hopi Tribal Court. Because the goal of transformative mediation is to get people back into going relationships, transformative mediators measure success by counting “closures” as opposed to counting agreements reached. This was also the experience of HDRS. When parties engaged in mediation, over time, they seemed to work things out between themselves, and then they often declined to go to court.

In practice, it is likely that the HDRS mediators used a hybrid facilitative-transformative method. This was due to the fact that HDRS leadership is law trained, the HDRS team was newly trained in the transformative mediation method, and that the recurrent on-site trainings were not lengthy enough to reinforce the valuable but difficult to master transformative mediation techniques. However, even the base-line techniques were sufficient to get the parties talking to each other and hearing each other to the point where they could see how they could work things out. The most directive element, but useful to the parties, arose from charting and prioritizing issues. Here the mediator was careful to keep written issues lists from joint session to joint session in the language of the parties but encouraged them to prioritize what to start discussing and what to attempt to discuss at the beginning of each session.

As can be seen from the issues listed in Table 2, above, the relevance of Hopi culture in general, and Hopi traditional marriage specifically, became apparent, while using the less directive, transformative mediation approach. An intriguing question is whether non-Hopi mediators (or those unfamiliar with Hopi life and culture), using this approach would be able to see the same issues or understand their relevance. We suspect the answer would be yes if the mediator is patient and open to what the parties need to work through. The transformative approach should at least open the door for outside mediators to ask the right questions and become knowledgeable about what is culturally important to the parties.

    Pat Sekaquaptewa

    Tribal Law and Policy Institute Tribal Youth Resource Center

    Pat Sekaquaptewa is the Juvenile Healing to Wellness Courts Training and Technical Assistance Manager at the Tribal Law and Policy Institute Tribal Youth Resource Center. She can be reached at [email protected]. She is also currently appointed as Chief Justice of the Hopi Appellate Court.

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