Former Hopi Chair Secakuku rejects chemotherapy, passes on

by S.J. Wilson
Shipaulovi, Arizona (News From Indian Country)

Ferrell Secakuku took on many environmental issues. Here, he turns away from his first real look at the White Vulcan pumice mine later closed.

Photo by Sandra Wilson

Only nine days after the Hopi people celebrated his life, Ferrell Secakuku passed from this world on July 25, following a diagnosis of terminal stomach cancer. He did not battle the disease - true to the philosophy he had demonstrated throughout his life of living in harmony with the earth, Secakuku rejected the chemotherapy that might have lengthened his life.

“In not fighting the cancer, and facing death without fear, Ferrell taught us as much about dying as he did about living,” one friend, Phyllis Hogan, said.

Secakuku lived his life in service to the Hopi people, whether as a member of the Snake Clan, as a farmer, teacher, or chairman of the Hopi Tribe.

The life of Ferrell Secakuku had been celebrated the previous week at the Hopi Veterans Center on the 16th.

There, long-time friend Vernon Masayesva, who proceeded Secakuku in office as chairman, listed Secakuku’s most important contributions as Hopi Chairman (1994-1997) as helping bring closure to the so-called Navajo Hopi Land Dispute, and the establishment of the Hopi Health Care Center.


“Chairman Secakuku has done much for the Hopi Tribe and has some major accomplishments,” Masayesva said. “I received a call from Milton Bluehouse, who was the president of the Navajo Nation when Ferrell was in office. He told me that they were once classmates, and both played football and basketball, and that Ferrell was the best player they had. Mr. Bluehouse wishes everyone well, and said that he has good memories about our friend.”

Liz Grobsmith, the Provost for Northern Arizona University (NAU), spoke of Secakuku’s goal of earning a Masters degree in Anthropology, which he received last year.

“It was such a thrill to hand Ferrell his Master’s, and I believe he is the oldest person to earn a Master’s from our university,” Grobsmith continued. “He believed that by studying anthropology, he would come to a better understanding about his clan, and his people. He has distinguished himself in the academic world, and serves as a mentor for other Hopi people who might want to step in and earn a degree.”

Grobsmith said that Secakuku believed in giving back, and that his contributions to his people would be remembered for generations to come.

Miguel Vasquez, a professor of anthropology at NAU, said that although Secakuku considered him a teacher and mentor, he considered Secakuku his own teacher.

“I’ve been told that to be a Hopi man, one must be humble, hardworking, and have a sense of humor. Ferrell is those things,” Vasquez said.

When Secakuku announced his decision to seek his Master’s degree in anthropology, he explained his reasoning to Vasquez with his characteristic humor.

“Anthropologists have been writing about us for centuries. Some of it is good, most of it is not. I think it’s time we Hopi put our two cents in,” Vasquez remembered Secakuku saying.

“He was the wisest, kindest, gentlest, most humble person I’ve ever known,” Vasquez said.

Anita Poleahla, Secakuku’s wife, spoke briefly of the couple’s work to preserve the Hopi language through song—she had friends who stood beside them in their endeavors tell the story.

Poleahla and Secakuku worked tirelessly to bring the Hopi language back into the homes of the people. The pair produced the CDs “Songs for the People” and “Teaching through Hopi Song.” They conducted workshops in schools and communities about teaching through Hopi song, produced puppet shows that illustrated songs, and also created videos featuring Hopi culture and song.

Bucky Preston and Andy Bessler of the Sierra Club each talked about Secakuku’s work to protect the environment.

“I look to Ferrell as a role model to be a better Hopi,” Bessler said. “I learned from Ferrell to see the natural elements as a part of my life. This world is losing a bridge-builder between cultures.”

Bessler presented the Secakuku family with a certificate of appreciation from the Sierra Club.

Preston shared his memories of Secakuku as a runner.

“I looked up to Ferrell as a companion on my runs,” Preston said. “I had Ferrell do the spiritual things that had to be done outside the eyes of the media.”

As a runner, Secakuku shared the understanding that when running, one must never think about the miles involved, that one had to think about the reason why they are running.

“You cannot run with anger in your heart because that will make you tired. Ferrell made it clear why I was doing these runs.

“I’ve never seen Ferrell angry, even though I’ve seen a lot of things thrown at him,” Preston added. “He’s done a lot, he’s been here, done that, he was always singing and talking about the Hopi ways so they would not die away. Ferrell know as a Hopi man the reason why we were running. We were doing it for the people and the things that cannot.

“A lot of people don’t understand the concept of running for issues,” Preston said. “We sacrifice ourselves.”

Emcee Leonard Taliswaima had earlier mentioned that he had seen Preston running to the event early that morning, and Preston addressed his decision to arrive on foot.

“I ran from Walpi,” Preston said. “I knew that this is what Ferrell would have wanted. He was with me all the way, and it was easy. I had his face before me, and I could picture his face and the way he looked when he was smiling.”

Hopi Chairman Ben Nuvamsa was on hand to read letters from others who could not be in Kykotsmovi, including a message from U.S. Presidential Candidate John McCain. Nuvamsa said that he believed it was important that people were able to say the things they had to say while Secakuku was alive.

“Ferrell never thought about what was good for himself, he always thought about what was good for the people,” Nuvamsa said. “I look at Ferrell as a son and a brother, and as a mentor. I look at Ferrell, Vernon Masayesva and Wayne Taylor and consider them as my advisory council.”

Nuvamsa issued a proclamation from the Hopi Tribe that detailed Secakuku’s many accomplishments and his important work for the Hopi people, proclaiming July 16 on the Hopi Nation as Ferrell Secakuku Day.

Nuvamsa also read a statement by Secakuku, where the former chairman said that it had been a pleasure to be in service to the Hopi people, and his love of the Hopi ways—a way he wanted to see the Hopi people to continue.

Secakuku described his work in life as hard, but rewarding and thanked the many people who have called and visited, and who attended the celebration.

“Thank you for the love and time you have shared with me,” Secakuku wrote.

He concluded by telling the many people who love and respect him that he would use the Hopi teachings to get him through his illness.

Secakuku passed from this world at the age of 69, and was laid to rest in his beloved Shipaulovi. He is survived by six daughters, his wife, Anita Poleahla, and numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren.