Hopi historian, artist and photographer
By Sandy L. Moss
As the train steamed into an almost deserted station at Arizona’s Canyon Diablo, Kate Thomson Cory saw at once this was a far cry from New York’s high society and the Pen and Brush Club. Sagebrush dotted an arid landscape as hot as city pavement on a blistering summer day. The long vista from the train window stretched unbroken for miles in every direction, finding closure only in distant buttes the colors of muted rose and blue that Kate mixed on her artist’s palette. And it was art that brought Kate Cory, in an unlikely turn of events, to this strange new land full of barely known peoples in an exotic setting.
Kate was born in Waukegan, Illinois, February 8, 1861, to an affluent family. Her father, James Young Cory, was born in Canada in 1826, moved to Waukegan in 1842, and eventually bought the Waukegan Gazette and served as its editor until moving to New York in 1880 with his family to become a stockbroker. Kate’s mother, Eliza Pope Kellogg, born in 1829, in Thomaston, Maine, was a descendent of the Mayflower pilgrims.
Raised with her only surviving sibling, James Stewart Cory, (four others died in infancy), Kate attended the best schools, including Cooper Union and the Art Students League, probably the finest art school in America at the time. She became a successful commercial artist whose work would find homes in places as far flung as Canada and England, as well as in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution and at the Arizona Capitol building.
Although a young woman of breeding and sophistication, relatively little is known about Kate’s childhood or life up until her arrival in Arizona at age 44. Apparently, she never married and had no children, though mysteriously, a ring is shown on her wedding finger in a photo taken at Oraibi with women potters and in possession of the Smoki Museum. But one thing is known for sure, though a radical departure from all Kate had previously known, she came to Arizona to be part of an artists‘ colony.
“It was back in New York on an afternoon at a social gathering of the Pen and Brush Club of which I was a member,” Kate wrote. “I was chatting with my good friend, the writer Maude Banks, the daughter of General Banks of War fame. Suddenly, Maude looked to one side and exclaimed, ‘Why Louis Aiken, where have you been all this time?’ She introduced me and we sat down on a nearby couch as Aiken answering the query said, ‘I’ve had a wonderful winter out in Arizona on the Hopi reservation.’ He then told us of the mild winter in Arizona, of the little rock and adobe houses and ancient villages of those gentle people with their strange ceremonies and customs. Then he added, ‘I want to go back there and have a colony of writers, artists and musicians. Why can’t you two be of that colony?’”
Louis Aikin was seven years younger than Cory. In 1903, he had resolved to “find himself” by living among the Hopi who were then thought to be the last of the “noble savages.” He’d received a commission from the Santa Fe Railroad to paint the Hopi for the railroad’s advertising magazine and had moved to Arizona. Aiken was reportedly the first white person to live among the Hopi since the Pueblo Revolt in 1680.
“It sounded attractive and since my parents had both passed away, there was no reason why I could not go,” Kate continued. “It blossomed to reality for me when a cousin from Seattle, who was then in New York, invited me to return with her and meet those relatives out in Washington whom I had never seen or known.”
Of her adventurous spirit, Charles Franklin Parker wrote, “The Corys and Kelloggs were people of daring, conviction and adventure. They had not been circumscribed by geographical limits, easy security, political paucity nor family immobility. They traveled as they willed and dared to meet obstacles in a desire to build.”
Many of her uncles had gone to sea and one became the territorial governor of American Samoa. Kate’s father had been an active abolitionist. Thus with no constraints or prejudice, Kate decided almost on a whim, to leave the comforts of a wealthy city life and immerse herself in the discomforts of living with a primitive society. It’s also possible that, having been an illustrator for Recreation, a publication of the Camp Fire Club, a magazine dedicated to wildlife preservation and appreciation and protection of plant life, Kate most likely concurred with the philosophy.
As later described by Parker, Kate was a wiry, indefatigable bundle of determination, “whose passion for doing good deeds almost exceeds her strength. She is mild of manner, but capable of strong expression and action when motivated by what she considers injustice or indifference. She has a great sense of humor both towards herself and towards the dullness of life in general.”
So, it was that on a spring day in 1905, Kate purchased a round-trip train ticket to Seattle and the West Coast to return via Canyon Diablo, the nearest point of entry to Oraibi on the Hopi Reservation and then back to New York. “My visit completed on the Coast, I entrained for Arizona and the Hopi Reservation.” Kate would never use rest of her return ticket.
After riding inland for two days with a trader, William Volz and his wife, in a covered wagon, Kate met her first Indian. “That morning, a young Hopi, stripped of all but a G-string, and with a bundle on his back started out to the north over the ground in his bare feet. ‘Who’s that?’ I exclaimed to the trader’s wife. ‘O, that’s a Hopi going home, he came down to trade.’ ‘Why, how can he, it’s 65 miles up there?’ ‘O, that’s nothing for a Hopi,’ she replied, ‘he’ll be there by noon.’ I gasped. It was to take us two days and a night by wagon and team. I later learned that their corn fields are often located 10 miles from their homes and they run back and forth as it is necessary to care for their crops.”
Kate arrived in the government settlement of White Village, just below Oraibi, where she spent her first night. “Well, I was to learn on my first night at Oraibi that ‘Early to bed and early to rise’ was more than a proverb of Franklin,” Kate wrote. “It was a necessity on the reservation and so the discussion between our party and the government people terminated early and at 9 o’clock I was given blankets, loaned by one of the teachers, and ushered to a school room, rather smelly from saliva- washed slates and other odors of school room attributes, where I made my bed on the floor. But I was tired and sleepy and was still sleeping soundly when the morning bell brought me out running and dragging the blankets ready for the first day’s experience at Oraibi. One of the teachers invited me to share her bedroom and soon my face was washed, my hair combed, I was ready for ‘ham and eggs.’”
Miss Keith, the school matron, helped Kate locate a house there that she could rent. “This was my first real contact with these Indians,” Kate continued. “Mu-se-nim-ka, the old woman who owned the house, was in her daughter’s home, kneeling at the grinding box and grinding corn on the stone metate. Her eyes were almost closed with that frightful and infectious disease trachoma. The daughter, also afflicted, stood at one side. Miss Keith told of our errand. Mu-se-nim-ka straightened up from her grinding, whipped her eyes clear with a deft stroke of the hand, and began grinding again while she deliberated. I, too, deliberated. I protested about the entire affair, but hers was the only house available and Miss Keith sealed the bargain, promising thorough fumigation of the house. This was accomplished and all things were removed except the stove, bedstead and springs, and chair. Soon I was living comfortably in this little house in the government village.”
It wasn’t long before Kate became restless so far from the main village of Oraibi. She had come to study the Hopi, their customs and ceremonies and wanted to become a friend with them, which would not likely happen while she was residing in White Village, so she soon secured another home on First Mesa, as well, on the top floor of the highest house in the village. “You reached it by ladders and little stone steps, and made your peace with the growling dogs on the ascent; but oh! The view when you got there,” she said.
Kate soon began to experience the Hopi life. “. . . as you are awakened in the deep of the night and listen to a soft tread on the steps on up to the roof above you. Then a loud clarion call coming from directly overhead penetrating the stillness. Then again the soft pad, pad of the moccasined feet on the steps outside as the crier returned either to his house or the clan kiva. Perhaps the call was a summons for the men to gather in the kiva for a ceremony, or possibly to some work in a distant field…these calls always start the dogs (and they vie with the flies in numbers) to barking. The burros never miss a challenge to display their vocal specialties as voice answers voice in the enchanted darkness.”
Kate cites her, “insatiable curiosity,” as the intrigue for learning about the Hopi, as she listened to “the low solemn chant in the kiva, its strange resonance coming from underground . . . the men lined up in the plaza, nude figures moving with rhythmic tread to the tempo of the rattles.”
For seven years, Kate Cory lived among the Hopi. The artists’ colony that Louis Aikins envisioned brought no one but Kate to the reservation, “thus I became the ‘colony,’” she wrote. But an excellent colony of one she was. Kate wrote of the Hopi ceremonies, painted them at work and play, and photographed them in their many activities.
She became a well-respected guest of the Hopi people, an unusual thing for a woman, especially a white woman. They eventually allowed Kate to witness many of their secret rituals and ceremonies and invited her to become a member of the Hopi tribe, which she declined, not wanting to “cramp“ their style, she said. In “Goodbye to Steam-cars,” published in The Border magazine in May 1909, Kate wrote that, “their customs and daily life are so different from our own that in their midst one feels transported to another age, and the busy world outside becomes vague and remote.”
Quite early in her stay at Oraibi, Kate was introduced to the sacred Soyaluna, or ceremony of turning back the sun at the winter solstice. “Sacred rites take place in the kivas that would be impossible for us to understand; but also during those eight days in the kiva, much string is spun of native desert-grown cotton, and about four-inch pieces of it attached to hundreds of fluffy feathers for later use,” she wrote. “A feather floats upward and is the symbol of a prayer to the gods of the sky. The forlorn-looking chickens and turkeys in the streets at the time, leave no uncertainty as to where the feathers come from . . .at about dusk, the men in their black ceremonial blankets walked slowly along the paths . . . as they met each other they stopped, exchanged a feather with bent head and a prayer, ‘Um Katchet na wekana um wyo tanic.’ (May you live long, may you have good life.)
“I walked slowly along (white women are a law unto themselves and they didn’t drive me away). Presently a man stopped beside me. ‘Quache, um nawa ken?’ (Friend, do you want one?) ‘O we!’ I gladly answered. He gave me one with the same prayer of good will. ‘Esqually’ (thank you) I said as I received my token and moved on. Another— another—another--and on … the air was vibrant with a brotherly atmosphere.
“Later, some two hours past midnight, comes the crucial part of this ceremony—the symbolic turning back of the sun, when the Starpriest, a great four-pointed star upright at and above his forehead, and holding a big sun symbol before him, swings it rapidly east to west, and west to east, and short swings each way suggesting the long days and the short days, all accompanied by a lively dancing step, amid much singing and shouting by the others in the kiva. Thus, the sun turns back.”
As well as writing about and painting the Hopis, Kate was an, “adept and dexterous photographer at a time when most Americans considered the medium a novelty . . . and (she) captured the ‘Hopi Way’—the profoundly spiritual and orderly sense of community,” wrote editor Barton Wright.
After working for seven years in isolation from her contemporaries, Kate left the reservation and moved to Prescott, Arizona, but would always recall her time with the Hopi as, “the highlight of my life.”
Hundreds of photographic negatives chronicling her time on the reservation were in the possession of the Smoki Museum for many years and are now at and preserved at the Northern Arizona Museum in Flagstaff. Many of her paintings are still housed at the Smoki Museum, some at the Prescott Public Library, and a number at the Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott. One of her best known paintings hangs in the First Congregational Church on Gurley Street in Prescott, where she attended.
Church members would later recall Miss Cory as an eccentric, so thin and ragged they thought she couldn’t afford clothes, but indeed she could, Kate simply had no interest in fancy clothes, finding them “frivolous.” Any extra money she may have had, she passed on to others she perceived as needing it more.
She was frugal in other ways as well; cooking on an old wood stove long after electricity was common. A vegetarian, Kate grew most of her own food in her garden. But she did have one avowed extravagance—books. Friends reported that Kate lived with stacks of books like stalks of flowers, rising from miscellaneous locations in her house, which was generally untidy, owing to her preoccupation with creativity and her wide-ranging interests.
During World War I, Kate returned to New York and worked in a war garden project, raising food for the war effort. She also plied her artistic skills designing aircraft wings in New Jersey and painting bombers with camouflage. As soon as the Armistice was signed, Kate returned to Prescott to continue her painting and architectural designing.
In 1930, at the request of the Bureau of Reclamation, Kate traveled to the unspoiled Boulder Canyon and painted its pristine beauty. She also created designs for fine china, as well as wallpaper. Always her designs leaned toward the geometrics of Hopi patterns. In fact, the Hopi were never far from her mind. She remained friends with them and a number of Hopi came to Prescott and helped Kate build her house in the Idylwild tract, which is still standing.
In 1921, Kate gave much of her time and knowledge to the formation of the Smoki People, a group of white men and women who wished to preserve the ancient rites and ceremonies of the southwest Indians. In 1935, she helped design a building for the Smoki Museum to resemble a Hopi pueblo, and assisted in setting up the displays while sharing both her technical and interpretive knowledge of the Hopi.
Kate eventually moved to a studio house near the Arizona Pioneers’ Home. Then in 1956, she moved from her “cabin” to the Home, where she lived until her death at age 97, on June 12, 1958. Eulogized in the Prescott Courier as “one of the West’s most famed artists and one of the most beloved pioneer citizens . . . ,” Kate was laid to rest next to her long-time friend, Sharlot Mabridth Hall, at the Pioneer Cemetery on Iron Springs Road.
Johnson, Ginger, “Kate T. Cory: Artist of Arizona 1861-1958,” (October 1996).
Kelsch, Gene, Albuquerque, NM, “Kate Cory Art Scholarship” press release (May 23, 2001).
Parker, Charles Franklin, “Sojourn in Hopiland,” Arizona Highways (May 1943).
Schwartz, John, “Hopis really did build Hopi House for artist,” The Daily Courier (August 6, 1998, pg. 4).
The Border, The Border Publishing Company, Phoenix, May 1909, edition, “Goodbye to Steam-cars,” by Kate T. Cory.
Woodhouse, Mary, “Kate Cory’s camera preserved a bit of Hopi culture,” The Daily Courier (June 2, 1996, pg. 7a).
Wright, Barton, ed., “The Hopi Photographs - - Kate Cory: 1905-1912.