Communication Currents

Kokopelli: Southwest Icon and Male Fantasy

August 1, 2007
Critical and Cultural Studies, Visual Communication

Kokopelli the hump-backed fluteplayer has largely replaced the saguaro cactus and howling coyote as the iconic image the Southwest. Inspired by petroglyphspictographs, and painted pottery from 600-1600 AD, Kokopelli has become a symbol of the region and its Native American cultures. Kokopelli is a composite image, a modern creation that tells us more about tourism, marketing, and Euro-American culture than the indigenous cultures of the Southwest. The flute is central to Kokopelli imagery, but the name Kokopelli is derived from a Hopi kachina, Kookopölöwho is not associated with the flute. The fusion of fluteplayer imagery with Hopi and other Puebloan stories about Kookopölö allows the imagery and its meanings to serve the interests of Euro-American culture and the tourism industry as well as to circulate fantasies about a hyper-virile, sexually promiscuous masculinity.

Over the last twenty years, Kokopelli imagery has come to dominate tourist spaces in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and surrounding states. Shirts, hats, socks, paintings, sculptures, pottery, jewelry, stuffed toys, mugs, and an unimaginable variety of other merchandise are composed of or adorned with Kokopelli imagery. In addition, hotels, restaurants, housing developments, real-estate companies, wineries, and other commercial establishments utilize the name or image of Kokopelli to brand their products and services. Kokopelli symbolism is no longer confined to the Southwest, as books, music, and bathroom sets with this image are offered through national retailers such as Walmart, Target, and Amazon.

Substantial differences exist between contemporary Kokopellis and traditional fluteplayers. Traditional fluteplayer images frequently feature a prominent (often erect and seemingly exaggerated) penis. A fluteplayer—the term used by researchers instead of Kokopelli—can also have a humped back or bug-like antennae. Some of the images may represent a traveling trader with a backpack while others appear to be modeled on cicadas.

While commercial Kokopelli images rarely include a penis, they use other codes to communicate male virility. Commercial Kokopelli images are variable but highly stylized, tending toward a hunched personage playing a flute with what are described as antennae, feathers, or dreadlocks on the top of its head. A lifted foot, curved back, and wavy hair imply movement. This pose evokes the image of the male rock star, shown jamming intently and, in the mythology of American culture, always ready to engage in sexual escapades. Commercial artists also portray Kokopelli engaged in activities such as playing a guitar, riding a mountain bike, driving an off-road vehicle, snow-skiingscuba-diving, and skateboarding. These activities serve as indirect expressions of Kokopelli's virility and masculinity while appearing to simply promote recreational activities and identities.

Puebloan stories are also used to revive Kokopelli's virility despite his visual castration. In Puebloan cultures Kookopölö is not only a fertility symbol but a mythical figure whose sexual appetites are a concern for young women.Authors of books, magazine articles, and websites about Kokopelli recount a story in which, using his lengthy penis, he cleverly and without her awareness impregnates the most sought after girl in the village. The emphasis on Kokopelli's penis (despite its erasure in commercial imagery) is especially evident on the Zodiac Master website. This site's readers are instructed to roll their pointer over a Kokopelli image to reveal a photograph of an ancient petroglyph. Upon doing so, Kokopelli is replaced with a traditional fluteplayer with an erect penis. The website's author states, “Maybe that will help illuminate his reputation as the Casanova of the Cliff Dwellers.”Moving from sexual potency to sexual predation, Max Bertola's Utah tourist information website jokingly warns visitors that “if, during the night, you hear the gentle tones of the flute, you'd better lock up your wives and daughters.”

Kokopelli imagery highlights the link between images of Native Americans and Euro-American masculinity. Kokopelli messages offer a form of masculinity highlighting sexual potency.For over a century, tensions between a form of masculinity defined by physical prowess and unrestrained sexuality and another form of masculinity defined by mental capacity and self-restraint have characterized Euro-American masculinity. The shift from masculinity being defined by physical strength and skill to mental and moral capacity raised anxieties over men's virility, resulting in a desire to return to highly sexualized forms of masculinity. Significantly, Kokopelli does not rape, abduct, or seduce white women. Confined to a mythical past, in the stories told about him he only interacts with Native peoples, reducing the figure's role as a sexual threat and enabling its communication of a fantasy of potent and promiscuous masculinity.

Kokopelli is used to recover the image of the ignoble savage possessing a virile and unrestrained sexuality, but with an attempt to remove negative judgments concerning sexual behavior by characterizing him as fun-loving and care free.That a populace primed for the marketing of prescription drugs for male erectile dysfunction would embrace a figure that traditionally displays a large, erect penis is unsurprising. Advertisements for such drugs parallel Kokopelli imagery, associating commodified images of virile masculinity with their products through sports metaphors and sexual innuendo while avoiding direct representations of erect or flaccid penises.

The name and image of Kokopelli are tools for selling products, and the selling of products is the primary means by which Kokopelli's meanings are circulated. Because Kokopelli imagery is not anchored in any specific Native American culture or tradition, it refers to little besides itself and the Western fantasies that shaped its development. It is, therefore, assigned multiple and even contradictory meanings.Kokopelli imagery and mythology is appropriated by the New Age commodity machine to stand in for Native Spirituality, by the tourism industry to stand in for the Mystical Southwest and Adventurous Individualism, and by Euro-American patriarchal culture to stand in for Masculine Heterosexual Virility.

Kokopelli does not represent a group of (especially living) people, but a set of imagined fantasies. These fantasies are about Kokopelli specifically (morally unencumbered and virile) as well as Southwest Native Americans and the Southwest generally (spiritual and mysterious). These fantasies allow for the celebration and consumption of Native American culture while diverting attention from the historic and contemporary plight of the indigenous peoples of the Southwest.

Contemporary Kokopelli imagery encourages embracing (consuming, collecting) Native cultures and spiritualities without acknowledging or taking action to address ongoing cultural exploitation and degradation. Kokopelli communicates the belief system implicit in films of the 1990s such as Dances with Wolves as well as long-standing practices of playing Indian: Euro-Americans legitimately inherit Native American culture because that culture contains qualities deemed by Euro-Americans to be in need of preservation.If the logic of many narratives about Native American cultures is that whites can, should, and must keep (what they define as) Native culture alive without concern for living Native peoples, then Kokopelli imagery is the enactment of that logic. Kokopelli appears to celebrate Native American culture but what it represents is the power of Euro-American culture to define these other cultures in its own terms.

About the author (s)

Richard A. Rogers

Northern Arizona University

Associate Professor