Koyaanisqatsi

Some time back I watched the film Koyaanisqatsi [yeah, chew on that one, spellchecker], the first in the Qatsi trilogy, but the last one for me to see. As with the other films in the trilogy, I remember very little now that it’s over–just a few images. I’ve never been stoned, but I’m guessing that watching the Qatsi films must be something like that experience.

As it happens, in the myth class I’m teaching, we recently read about the body of Hopi prophecies from which Koyaanisqatsi takes its inspiration, which predict a gourd of ashes falling from the sky to presage the Day of Purification. In the film (as I recall), those words get associated with slow-motion footage of a rocket, which I presume is meant to evoke the idea of nuclear missiles. “Koyaanisqatsi” is the term used in the prophecies to describe a disruptive endtimes period–some Hopi texts borrow the Christian dispensationalist term “Tribulation” as a translation.

I’m curious to know what Hopis thought about the filmmakers’ use of their prophecies. Wikipedia, fountain of all easily accessible knowledge, is silent on that subject. I know from the readings I used in my class that traditionalist Hopis themselves publicized the prophesies to non-Natives after World War II, when some became convinced that the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the fulfillment of the “gourd of ashes” prophecy. (Later texts interpreted the prophecy as the future threat of nuclear contamination or simply as a reference to air pollution.) In a sense, the film Koyaanisqatsi is a measure of Hopis’ success at disseminating their prophecies to non-Native audiences–as they had wanted, at least in the first couple of decades following World War II. Alternatively, I could imagine the film being critiqued by Native activists as another instance of Euroamericans’ unwanted appropriation of Native religious goods.

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