How The God Kokopelli Became A 90s Bro Accessory
For anyone growing up in the 90s and early 2000s, the image of Kokopelli probably brings back a wave of entirely unearned nostalgia. This image of a god just absolutely going to town on a flute was a ubiquitous appearance anywhere you might hear the band 311 or hear the soft thumps of a hackysack. Kokopelli, of course, is an important deity of the Hopi people, one that represented everything from music to fertility, to the power of the wind. For a decade though, he spent the majority of his time hanging out next to Red Hot Chili Peppers graphic tees in the mall. So what exactly doomed a powerful god to be stuck on the necklaces of a young generation, suffused in the stench of body spray and terrible weed?
First, let’s take a look back at 90s fashion. People often say that fashion is a reflection of the world people are living in, and there’s no reason that wouldn’t be true here. What’s interesting about that is the the 90s, at least for the subset of people that were likely rocking Kokopelli gear, was… generally fine. The economy was booming, but people had gotten out their wildest impulses during the 80s. Everybody was just kind of… not sure what to do. We just sat around surrounded by Beanie Babies, watching Tamagotchis poop while the stock market soared.
The 90s were also the heyday of the rise of what’s often called the Golden Era of hip-hop, which brought along an entire style of fashion with it. However, it was also the heyday of “you can’t spell crap without rap” and “I listen to everything but rap and country.” The country was filled with extremely bored white kids that weren’t really sure what their “thing” was supposed to be.
I think this maybe resulted in people just sort of desperately gathering anything that looked cool. I also think the 90s were when cultural appropriation truly took off. Aided by the internet and the growth of the information age, people became more and more aware of global cultures outside their own. Fascination with other cultures had never been higher, and actual understanding of them had not nearly caught up. We knew that a bunch of this stuff looked cool, and didn’t yet have an inkling that maybe the people that actually created it might not have done so for the benefit of Pacsun shareholders.
The result of this was the explosion of a specific subset of turn-of-the-century fashion that people likely thought was “worldly” and “spiritual” but in honesty, made it look like someone bought all their clothes from an Epcot center gift shop. People basically dressed like airport keychains. It was the time of kanji tattoos, puka shell necklaces, and yes, Kokopelli everything. And as the past owner of a regularly worn kokopelli necklace, I accept my role in this.
Now, let’s do what our past selves never cared to do, and actually look into the origins of Kokopelli. The spirit is most commonly known as a figure among the Hopi tribes of the Southwest, but his origins even predate them. Glyphs portraying Kokopelli were left thousands of years ago by the ancestors known as the Hisatsinom, who are tracked back to the 12th century B.C. You may be more familiar with the Hisatsinom under the name Anasazi. The name Anasazi was recorded by a historian, Richard Wetherill, who was working with the Navajo people, and is Navajo for “ancient enemy”. For this reason, modern Puebloans discourage use of the word.
Here we run into issues nailing down his exact role. There are tales of everything from his hunched back representing a sack of seeds, to the music of his flute bringing rain. He’s also known as a trickster, and a god of fertility, whose sack might include gifts to attract women. The myth has become splintered and weakened over the years, unsurprising when it comes from a population that has itself been splintered through the treatment of the United States population and government. You just need a couple generations of historians that aren’t afraid to paraphrase or editorialize, and don’t particularly mind if some things get lost in translation, before you end up with a story that represents less of a verified myth and more like a choose-your-own-adventure book.
There’s even compelling evidence to suggest that a singular “Kokopelli” never even existed. The Salt Lake Tribune reported on a park manager, Teri Paul, who developed an exhibit on the Kokopelli figure with direct input from Hopi elders. The elders told paul that Kokopelli is not a singular male deity, but a term for two separate kachina, or spirits: Kokopoli, a male, and Kokopelmana, a female. Neither of which even play a flute. These Kokopelli are representations of misbehavior, and are known for, basically, being massive pricks at dances and celebrations, which onlookers make fun of. Which makes even more sense when you realize that Kokopoli is pictured with an actual massive prick.
So where’d the flute come from? The elders say that this element was taken from the art of the Fluteplayer, which is a still-existing clan within the Hopi. The marks of this figure then, is not of a fertility deity, but marks left by a migrating clan over the ages. The thought is that confused anthropologists combined the symbology of the Fluteplayer with the kachina known as Kokopelli in the 1920s. Which certainly wouldn’t be the first time 1920s anthropologists winged some history a little more than they should have, whether by ignorance or communication difficulties.
None of this nuance, of course, was generally known or even a subject of curiosity in the 90s. It was certainly not a time of nuance towards pretty much any history beyond “we threw some tea in the harbor and now we’re the best at the Olympics.” So the characterization of Kokopelli as a music-loving fertility god was at the forefront. All it took was one screenprinter to see a cool-looking symbol, get told it was a fun-loving guy who loved music and f&#king, and smell money in the air. It’s unsurprising that people took to it so quickly, as “music and f&#king” are basically the top two hobbies among self-professed chill dudes.
The image fell out of favor, but more as a function of changing fashion than any self-awareness. However, you wouldn’t have to tour many hot tubs these days before you’d spot a tattoo of a mostly fake flute god that somebody got in a van at a Sublime show. It’s almost its own slapdash myth at this point, but one that represents not fertility, but the power of a drum circle from the 90s, and it’s preserved not in ancient rock art, but in deleted facebook albums.