KOKOPELLI IS THE ancient Indian version of Elvis, so famous he needs only one name to get a roomful of people nodding in recognition. Trouble is, this thousand-year-old flute player with a humped back, commonly found on Southwestern rock art, has come to represent something different to everyone. And nobody knows for sure which interpretation is correct.
Archaeologists, anthropologists and others who spend time trying to find the truth are driven crazy by the explosion of what they call Kokopelli kitsch.
While they're pecking through centuries of dust at long-abandoned villages, the flute player is gallivanting around, enjoying his newfound status as a celebrity. He's turning up on T-shirts, greeting cards, tacky gifts, even freeway underpasses, and his name is used by commercial interests ranging from restaurants and clothing firms to a Montana Internet company that sells gun sites.
"It's become an icon of the West and is reaching out to the rest of the global village," says Ekkehart Malotki, a professor of languages at Northern Arizona University. "Everything with the figure on it sells like hotcakes. There is a golfer pelli doll now, and who knows, maybe they're even making toilet seat pellis."
Arizona writer Dave Walker has collected every morsel of information he can find about the phenomenon and put it into a book. The title aptly describes the craze: Cuckoo For Kokopelli.
"The howling coyote is tired, the lizard is over-used, and there are boatloads of tourists to sell to," says Walker. "It's Kokopelli's turn. Tourists want a piece of the Southwest, and he's pretty cool to them."
Experts say the flute player first appeared about a thousand years ago in the rock art of the Anasazi culture, which occupied the Four Corners area of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.
But Kokopelli, or someone similar, is found in different areas and in different mutations. The earliest flute players didn't have a humped back and were usually stick figures.
As he moved east to New Mexico's Rio Grande River, the flute player acquired a hump and an erect phallus, probably representing the fertility prized by ancient peoples. Needless to say, modern entrepreneurs, assuming they even know about it, would just as soon not deal with that embarrassing accouterment.
As for the name, Malotki believes it's a derivation of Kookopolo, one in a pantheon of Hopi gods known as kachinas. The Kookopolo has a hump in its back and serves a fertility function, which led anthropologists of the 1930s to equate the rock-art figure with the kachina.
The only flaw in the equation, says Malotki, is that the Hopi kachina has no flute. But it became so entrenched that everyone began calling the rock-art figure Kokopelli.
"Rock art is often puzzling and bizarre," says Malotki. "But people recognize the template of the flutist and it's a nice experience. Another big part of this is that people like to have an Indian word to say. The fact that there are more than 200 Indian languages doesn't matter, it's still an Indian word."
Hohokam people of southern Arizona, far from the Anasazi, also made use of a flute player, but on its pottery, not rock art. It's probably not Kokopelli, but no one can be sure.
So what does it all mean? Pretty much anything you want.
"Some people know of his fertility background, so they see him as the time-to-party guy," says Walker. "He's playing that flute, kicking his hair back."
Salesmen peddling Kokopellis from roadside kiosks say that to modern Indians, the figure represents good luck, or help in growing plants and crops. The latter might actually have a basis in fact.
Malotki says that the flute player, who in some manifestations has antennae, could be based on an insect, the cicada. Hopis say that when a cicada produces its noise that it is fluting, and it does so in warm weather to help make crops grow, another link to fertility.
Others say the figure was a traveling salesman who'd announce his arrival in a village by blowing his flute. In this interpretation, the hump on his back is actually a trader's sack, perhaps containing sea shells or parrot feathers, items the Anasazi traded with tribes in what is now Mexico.
Or maybe the sack contains clouds and rainbows for watering crops, another link to fertility.
Whatever Kokopelli is carrying, modern America is buying, even though, as author Walker says, most of those scooping up the products have never seen a rock painting, known as a petroglyph. But the flute player's fans still claim personal connections to the character based on visits to the Southwest.
Walker captures the fantasy element of the craze in his book. In the final chapter, he catches up with Kokopelli as the latter is playing cards with dead rock star Jim Morrison. The famous flutist grants an interview.
"He's okay with all this," says Walker, the television writer for the Arizona Republic in Phoenix. "In one of his manifestations, he used to be a merchant, so if people are making a buck, he thinks that's fine."