Kokopelli: a mascot for Moab?

The earth has revolved around the sun quite a few times since I patronized a restaurant called Kokopelli’s, a little boutique burrito joint on an obscure intersection near Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans, which did not re-open after Hurricane Katrina.  (Yep, that long.)  Time has relegated this hapless sole proprietorship to such obscurity that there’s no longer a relic available on Google Maps.  It barely shows up when one types “Kokopelli’s New Orleans” on a search engine, only evidenced that it “ain’t there no more” (a classic NOLA response).  The number one hit for “Kokopelli’s New Orleans” in a few weeks might very well be this blog article, which is says more about how obscure this Kokopelli reference is than anything about my blog’s popularity.  The digital evidence of its existence is so scant that it only survives in the memories of people who lived in the Crescent City in the mid to late 2010s.  And really—how many people remember?  I just liked the weird burritos.

And the burritos superseded the branding, in terms of what lured me there.  But I always remembered those idiosyncratic human outlines, usually with wild hair and playing a musical instrument, probably something in the recorder family.  Most Americans have probably seen them, even if they didn’t necessarily register as having any denotative significance.  Or connotative significance, if you (as I did) perceived them as some general tribute to a niche, whimsical school of bohemian thought.  However, a subset of Americans most certainly do understand the Kokopelli reference, and the fact that the Kokopelli epicenter appears to be Moab, Utah is exactly what most would not expect.  But there’s the guy, propelled in the air by two supportive beams attached to a downtown building:

Kokopelli references in Moab, UT

It’s a popular figure throughout the American Southwest, and while it may conjure a vague familiarity to Americans outside the region, but do they know what it represents?  Kokopelli is a fertility god revered in Hopi, Zuni, and Quechan lore, usually portrayed with a humpback, feathered hair (easily mistaken for dreadlocks), and playing the signature flute-like instrument; some legends endow him with musical, dance, and storytelling significance.  The humpback signifies his role in trade and mercantilism, ostensibly alluding to peddler’s pack of goods.  Also a trickster deity, Kokopelli ranks with the coyote as a figure venerated for his ability to outsmart adversaries more powerful than him—a bit akin to Br’er Rabbit among African-American communities in the American Southeast.  Not surprisingly, given his embodiment of fertility (both human and agriculture), many earliest representations of feature him with an abnormally large phallus.

Kokopelli’s most significant incarnations appear on numerous petroglyphs associated with pueblan cultures throughout the American Southwest, as well as pottery belonging to the Hohokam, an ancestor to modern-day Pima.  Since evidence of Kokopelli covers a geographic region that remains sparsely populated to this day, anthropologists have asserted that he emerged out of a fusion and exchange of various myths, stories, loosely affiliated deities and traits that consolidated over the centuries.  Additionally, his spiritual omnivorousness is typical among polytheistic religions, where specializations morph across time and place, adopting to cultural prerogatives.  

So why has the isolated, outdoorsy city of Moab so thoroughly embraced the Kokopelli mystique?  He really is everywhere.

Kokopelli references in Moab, UT
Kokopelli references in Moab, UT

He’s hidden in the lower-right corner on the visitor information map.

Kokopelli references in Moab, UT

He also features in the names of small businesses.  Notice the title plate above the storefront on the right.

One might also find him sitting at random street corners, in one instance paired with what appears to be his female counterpart, Kokopelli Mana or Kokopelmimi to the Hopi, who joins him particularly to preside over wedding rituals.

Kokopelli references in Moab, UT

And he prances on the sides of municipal trash cans.

Kokopelli references in Moab, UT

This trash can is particularly interesting because it steers the viewer toward competing iconography in Moab: on the one hand, the City openly deploys Kokopelli, the unofficial deity of the American Southwest, but it also understandably feels a pull toward Delicate Arch, the single most famous geological formation in neighboring Arches National Park, one of the two massive tourist attractions (the other is Canyonlands National Park) immediately adjacent to the municipality.

So one side of the trash can has Kokopellis dancing; the other offers the most sought-after arch.

If the goal through this logo were to feature a simulacrum that best captures the essence of Moab, Delicate Arch should win without much competition: no community is geographically closer to this signature lure.  But, in some respects, Delicate Arch is so big and important that it has more effectively served as a proxy for the state of Utah as a whole: it currently features as the backdrop for the state’s primary license plate.  In a state with numerous natural features that attract hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, Delicate Arch may triumph over the others; it’s the most distinctive and prominent.  And Moab certainly isn’t lacking in Delicate Arch references.

But Kokopelli still wins; he’s visible far more frequently in the small city.  His humanoid qualities endear him to people; he is a personification of the American Southwest, which in turn, offers natural sites like Arches and Canyonlands that have no counterpart elsewhere in the world.

The earliest authentic Kokopelli imagery—those representations that revere him as a god—date from approximately 1,200 years ago.  But I’m going to assert that he didn’t emerge as a pop culture proxy for the Southwest until about the same time most other Southwestern imagery achieved salience as a family of decorative motifs: it all went national (probably international) in the early 1990s.  The diagonal and diamond-shaped thick bar patterns of Navajo textiles, the donning of turquoise or faux-turquoise jewelry, the desert and sandstone color combination, the recreation of petroglyph impressions of desert animals–most commonly a lizard, probably evoking the Gila monster, like the one under lighting in the center of the photo below.

These elements fused into a potpourri that embodied Southwestern art and culture—a broad, superficial slice across lands the served as ancestral homes to dozens of culturally distinct tribes and civilizations—which, at its peak, adorned t-shirts, bedspreads, ear-rings, and wallpaper framing the ceiling border of domestic American kitchens.  (I’m going out on a limb here to assert that this time period of popularization helped affirm Kokopelli as a flutist instead of a well-endowed fertility god, for much the same reason Starbucks decided to reposition the mermaid logo’s hair when it grew from a tiny Seattle carryout to a national/global brand.  Feel free to reach out to me separately if you need a further explanation.)

It was about this same time—1989 to be exact—that the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management inaugurated the 142-mile-long Kokopelli’s Trail, in response to considerable advocacy from mountain bikers.  The rugged trail stretches across over 4,000 feet of grade change, linking Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab.  Arduous enough to challenge experienced bikers yet safe enough to remain doable to the novice, Kokopelli’s Trail (or the Kokopelli Trail) has achieved enough popularity over the years to propel Moab to prominence as a mountain biking town.  Kokopelli has morphed into an oblique reference to mountain biking, thanks in no small part to the trail.  In the photo above at Moab Brewery, another Kokopelli is barely visible  to the right of the word “BREWERY” under the lighting.  And what better way to end a 12-hour bike ride across two huge states then washing down the fatigue with a local beer?

Moab is an unabashed outdoors town, but the last thirty years of Kokopelli’s Trail has elevated its stature considerably: formerly an obscure place known primarily as the only opportunity near Arches or Canyonlands to procure a hotel, Moab became fashionable as backroads culture grew mainstream.  It swelled over 20% in population in the final decade of the 20th century and now boasts over 5,000 people.  Today it features numerous galleries and boutiques; a bit of a tourist trap, but an understandable one given the lure of the parks nearby.

It’s understandable that home and businesses owners throughout Moab would commemorate the dancing guy that helped elevate the town’s standing and economic fortunes.  And the petroglyphs that first featured Kokopelli are present in the general vicinity. While the name “Moab” is indisputably Biblical, an apocryphal etymology suggests it might reference the Paiute word for “mosquito water”. As dry as the region appears, the nearby Colorado River attracts plenty of skeeters, and southern Utah aligns strongly with the Paiute tribe’s ancestral lands. Regardless of whether Kokopelli is a person’s cultural heritage, a promotional tool, or a fashion accessory, its popularization is still enough of a tease that it lingers elegantly, long after most of the other Southwestern motifs became dated and passé (especially the teal and Navajo patterns).  Kokopelli never achieved such recognition that he got overplayed, so he’s still kind of a hip enigma.  People recognize him, but they don’t know why they recognize him and most outside the region certainly don’t know what he means.  Sure, the fact that a deity has been reduced to an adornment on $12 t-shits reflects American commercialization and widespread cultural appropriation, but, as is often the case, the deployment of the petroglyph as a logo is predicated on admiration and fondness, not malice or denigration.  Besides, Kokopelli was a figure for so many different tribes and civilizations in the area that he became a tool of appropriation (and even conquest) long before the Yanks stepped in.

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2 thoughts on “Kokopelli: a mascot for Moab?

  1. Jeffrey Jakucyk

    “…his spiritual omnivorousness is typical among polytheistic religions, where specializations morph across time and place, adopting to cultural prerogatives.”

    Never change, Eric.

    Reply

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