#BookReview – MESA OF SORROWS: A History of the Awat’ovi Massacre by James F. Brooks


The Hopi community of Awat’ovi existed peacefully on Arizona’s Antelope Mesa for generations until one bleak morning in the fall of 1700—raiders from nearby Hopi villages descended on Awat’ovi, slaughtering their neighboring men, women, and children. While little of the pueblo itself remains, five centuries of history lie beneath the low rises of sandstone masonry, and theories about the events of that night are as persistent as the desert winds. The easternmost town on Antelope Mesa, Awat’ovi was renowned for its martial strength, and had been the gateway to the entire Hopi landscape for centuries. Why did kinsmen target it for destruction?

Drawing on oral traditions, archival accounts, and extensive archaeological research, James Brooks unravels the story and its significance. Mesa of Sorrows follows the pattern of an archaeological expedition, uncovering layer after layer of evidence and theories. Brooks questions their reliability and shows how interpretations were shaped by academic, religious and tribal politics. Piecing together three centuries of investigation, he offers insight into why some were spared—women, mostly, and taken captive—and others sacrificed. He weighs theories that the attack was in retribution for Awat’ovi having welcomed Franciscan missionaries or for the residents’ practice of sorcery, and argues that a perfect storm of internal and external crises revitalized an ancient cycle of ritual bloodshed and purification.

A haunting account of a shocking massacre, Mesa of Sorrows is a probing exploration of how societies confront painful histories, and why communal violence still plagues us today.

Published: February 2016

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My Review

I was looking forward to reading this book. I wish I could say that I loved it, but I really didn’t, not at all. In fact, I had trouble slogging through the pages.

To start with, the subtitle – A History of the Awat’ovi Massacre – implies a narrow focus. That subtitle turns out to be misleading. I was surprised by how little attention the Awat’ovi Massacre received within these pages. This book turns into something more akin to a broad history of the Hopis. The events here span from well before 1300 all the way up through the early 1900s. Much of the content focuses on the 1800s, into the 1900s, when the Awat’ovi Massacre took place all the way back in 1700. The scope of information feels too ambitious, particularly for a book that sits at just 222 pages, discounting the notes and bibliography.

Evidence for violence and community conflict in the ancient Puebloan world erupted in popular accounts in just the last decade. Long idealized as “classless” societies where so little opportunity (or desire) to acquire wealth existed that the rise of social elites was impossible, ancient Puebloan people were revered as symbols of a better, simpler way of organizing human affairs.

Then there is the timeline, which is anything but linear. We zigzag back and forth, and around and about, spanning centuries, with no cohesion to the storyline.

Finally, the content, for me, felt jumbled and disjointed. We jump from internecine warfare to superstitions to archaeological digs to Christianity and the Franciscans, then back to warfare, and soon we’re on to village life, and then back to religion. The whole thing made me dizzy.

When Frank Cushing first insinuated himself at Zuni Pueblo in 1879, he took quick note of accusations of witchcraft that swirled around the village – some of which were aimed at him, since the Zunis had good reason to believe he wished to gain access to secret knowledge.

The author does offer some interesting detail about Awat’ovi specifically, and the Native American culture in general. For me, though, the structure of the book made this a difficult read.


Thanks for reading. 🙂