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Traditional Foods and Medicine: Hopi Corn Cultivation

Hopi Corn Cultivation

Assisstant planting corn with digging stick. Shungopovi. April 1944. Photograph by Milton Snow.Belvera Nuvamsa and Mary Anna Nuvakaku, Puberty Ceremony, grinding corn, Shungopovi.

The Hopi tribe has been cultivating corn for hundreds of years. Terraced fields near the village of Paaqavi have been in use for at least 800 years. Corn has been the primary sustenance through years of abundance and famine alike. This is one reason why corn is central to Hopi culture and ceremonial life…but only one.

Peace and cooperation are core values of the Hopi ethos. Members of this ancient tribe have cared for each other with compassion and hosted strangers with generosity. Cooperation and respect extend to their relationship with the earth and all beings found on or within it. Seen through this lens, the acts of planting, growing, and harvesting a crop take on a sacred nature. The Hopi agricultural cycle begins when the Katsinas, supernatural beings who serve as divine messengers, descend from their homes in the San Francisco Peaks to help the people ask for rain and good weather in seasonal ceremonies.

These traditional farmers knew how to bring forth a harvest without accruing a water debt or practicing any significant irrigation methods. Their dry farming techniques rely on winter snows and monsoon rains to cultivate crops of beans, squash, melons and chilies. The cultivation cycle of corn (grown in much the same fashion), forms the basis of many of their customs. In fact, the Hopi see corn as a living connection to the Great Mystery and a conduit between generations. Almost all Hopi ceremonies use corn, either depicted in a drawing, as cornmeal, or as ripened ears.

Corn and melons. Sam Shingoitewas farm. 15 miles S.W. Toreva Day School. Sam Shing [Shingoitewa] working. October 1, 1944.

Sweet corn is planted in mid April; blue and white corn crops are planted in May. Multiple seeds are planted in holes dug approximately one foot deep with a greasewood stick, a method that allows access to moist soil and helps create a windbreak when the corn starts to grow. Some fields are located within riparian floodplains, which provide both fertile soil and some access to water. On a good year, the rainfall of the monsoon season ripens the corn throughout the summer.

Planting requires constant work, which is accomplished by the whole family. Today, most of the planting is aided by a tractor, but the cycle of growth and harvest is still a family affair. The crop is protected from weeds in summer and from birds in fall. The corn is often harvested by hand, with many people working long hours. Keeping this tradition alive is truly a labor of love. The fast-maturing sweet corn should be ready by late July; the other varieties are harvested in September or October.

However, the number of Hopi farmers is dwindling. It is estimated that about 80 families still plant large cornfields, about half of the number that grew corn 25 years ago.