Tribute For Marlene Sekaquaptewa, Hopi Tribal Leader and Quiltmaker, Dies at 79

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Marlene Sekaquaptewa was the matriarch of a large, distinguished family, a master quiltmaker and a political leader who played a major role in the Hopi Tribal government for decades.

“She was a cultural ambassador, very involved in public life,” said her niece Patricia Sekaquaptewa, 53, a justice on the Hopi Appellate Court and a professor specializing in tribal criminal justice at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “I was always amazed at how she could do so many things at once.”

As the coronavirus began taking its toll in the soaring high-desert mesas where the Hopi live in northeastern Arizona, it claimed Ms. Sekaquaptewa, who was the governor of the Hopi village of Bacavi. She died on June 24 in Mesa, Ariz., of Covid-19. She was 79.

Ms. Sekaquaptewa (pronounced roughly see-KIA-cwop-tee-wah) was born on July 10, 1940, into a prominent Hopi family. Her mother, Helen, was a homemaker who described her own life story on and off the reservation in the 1969 book “Me and Mine.” Her father, Emory, was a farmer and tribal judge.

One of Ms. Sekaquaptewa’s brothers, Emory Jr., was an anthropologist at the University of Arizona who compiled the first comprehensive Hopi dictionary; another, Abbott, was a longtime Hopi tribal chairman.

Ms. Sekaquaptewa’s family was from Oraibi, a village that is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the United States. Some of her great-uncles were among the 19 Hopi men imprisoned on Alcatraz Island in California in the 1890s when they resisted sending their children to assimilationist boarding schools.

Growing up in Arizona, and later as an adult, Ms. Sekaquaptewa moved between different worlds. She graduated from Central High School in Phoenix while her parents lived away from the reservation.

Ms. Sekaquaptewa lived briefly in Los Angeles during the relocation era in the 1950s and ’60s, when United States authorities contentiously tried to disband tribes and assimilate Native Americans in cities.

Back in Arizona, Ms. Sekaquaptewa started a family, graduated from the tribal development program at Scottsdale Community College and got into politics. Her husband, Leroy Kewanimptewa Sr., and two of her five children, Kenneth and Paul, died before her. She is survived by a daughter, Dianna Shebala; two sons, Leroy Kewanimptewa Jr. and Emory Kewanimptewa; 14 grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.

She served multiple times as governor of the village of Bacavi and was a key figure in drafting the Hopi Tribal Constitution in 2012. She recently helped create an assisted living facility for Hopi elders.

Ms. Sekaquaptewa was also a renowned quiltmaker whose creations have been displayed in museums around the country. Scholars often consulted her about Hopi culture and traditions.

In 2018, Ms. Sekaquaptewa narrated in Hopi a brief description of the tribe’s creation epic for PBS. “We lived beneath the earth and it came time for us to emerge,” she said, recounting how the Hopi people received guidance from the earth’s ancient caretaker, Maasaw.

“So we made a covenant to walk to the earth’s farthest corners,” she said, “to learn the earth with our feet and to become one with this new world.”

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