The two wild plant items that sparked interest for us were the Zea mays (commonly called corn or maize) and the Poliomintha incana, or Rosemary Mint, which were collected from Navajo County in Arizona in 1935.
Items examined by the Wild Plants Team
Looking at the maize, we thought that it was probably not yet completely ripe because there is a gradual increase in size of the kernels at the bottom of the cob. It may have been harvested before it was fully grown. The color of the maize is an even, pale yellow, and dimples have formed in the kernels. It’s cut off at the shank (where the stem meets the husk) and what remains of the stalk is light green.
As we reached for the box of Rosemary Mint, we could smell its bright tangy aroma before we even got close enough to see its tiny buds and leaves. It was amazing to see that after 80 years, the smell was still so potent — we could imagine using this herb today! The rosemary stalks are tied together in a bundle by a strip of fabric, presumably untouched since the time of collection.
Items examined by the 2015 Food Team
Our group has chosen to focus on two objects for our first blog post: the Purple Corn and the piki, also called Hopi paper bread. For the Purple corn, we observed its purple color and its scientific name, Zea mays. We wonder what the purple corn was used for. Was it used for decoration or for food (and if so, what kinds)? Does the purple color have any symbolic importance? The sample of piki is extremely well-preserved for being over 80 years old! We, however, were wondering more about the food itself. When and how is it rolled, how does it taste? Is it ever filled with something, similar to a French crepe? Is there a specific occasion in which this food is made and eaten? These are the things we would like to know and what struck us most about these two wonderfully preserved specimens.
written by Melanie and Michelle
When we were first introduced to our group’s topic, “fiber and dye,” we expected trays of cotton and berries. But to our wonder, colorful corn and sunflower seeds overwhelmed the trays that Dr. Young set before us. Some cotton seeds were represented, too, but cotton is a familiar fiber to us. In contrast, we traditionally think of sunflower seeds and corn as food. What are these items doing in the fiber and dye collection?
A sample of items examined by the Fiber and Dye Team
We first focused on the red and white corn in our collection, drawn to its vibrant color and striking pattern. Yellow corn dominates Michigan’s landscape, so we often overlook the idea of corn being other colors. We assume this red and white corn must be used as a dye, much like berries. If this is correct, we’d like to find out how its color is extracted and whether other corns are used for dye, too.
Once we finished looking at the corn, we moved on to the largest specimens on our tray. Initially, we struggled to identify them because the boxes only had their scientific name. Once we identified them as a sunflowers just without pedals, only more questions surfaced. The seeds are dark in color, so perhaps they are used for dye like the corn. But if so, how? Do Hopi weavers crush or boil the seeds to produce an oil-like substance? Can dye be extracted from the pedals?
Our team is responsible for the “crops” collection. With each new drawer we look at, we become more amazed (or a-maized) at how many different kinds of corn that have been collected from Hopi people. So far we have already archived 16 different types of corn! We all wondered why they grew so many types of corn. Do they all have different uses? Also, did the Hopi purposefully genetically select for all these types of corn, or did they just happen to be growing in that area of Arizona?
Some of the items examined by the Crops Team
One specimen of corn that stood out to us was the purple corn. We had seen red, yellow, and blue corn in some form or another in supermarkets (as popcorn, fall decor, corn chips, or frozen), but never purple corn. It definitely stood out among the others and sparked our interests. We wondered what this purple corn tasted like. We also wanted to know the conditions or genetic differences that made it such a beautiful and unique purple color. Did they grow this beautiful corn strictly for food or was it just for decorations?
Another specimen that interested us particularly was a very small gourd. Mostly we just thought it was neat, since it is so tiny and preserved so well. It looked very similar to the pumpkins we use this time of year to carve for Halloween in the U.S. We are sure it must have had a different use for the Hopi and we are interested in what it was.
Over the course of the past two weeks, we’ve had the opportunity to examine the Third Mesa corn samples. Two of the things that stood out to us were the condition of the samples and the diversity shown. While the corn is nearly 80 years old, majority of the kernels and even most of the cobs remain mainly intact. In addition, the peppers and gourd are dried out and well maintained as well. While there are some signs of wear, it’s very impressive that these samples are in such good condition.
A sample of plants collected from Third Mesa
The variety of corn was also very impressive. When looking at the corn samples, you can see at least four distinct colors of kernels (yellow, orange, red, blue). There are also variations in the size of the kernels and the texture (smooth vs. wrinkled) as well. It was interesting to read the original notes, which talk about the different uses for each variety of corn and to hear about how these plants, grown in the same location, can have different properties that affect how they’re best used.
We began the process of First Mesa documentation by looking at the physical seeds themselves. Immediately, we were all struck by how well preserved these seeds were despite being seventy-nine years old. Each respective seed looked like it had just been collected within the last few weeks rather than several decades ago. We were also impressed by how large the seeds were despite not being genetically modified. Relying on traditional growing practices rather than modern science can produce crops that are equally as large.
A gourd and corn from First Mesa
The variety of crops also impressed us greatly. We were not aware of how many varieties of corn and beans can be grown and consumed before beginning our documentation. What also was interesting was the fact that these crops were grown in a place that isn’t “suited” for growing showing that indigenous knowledge of the land surpasses eurocentric ideas of agriculture! Our teacher was sure to mention that even during the Dust Bowl, many thousands of people got hit hard but these Hopi lands were virtually untouched. It is fascinating to witness the rare beauty of agriculture from so long ago!
Written collaboratively by Daniel, Laura, and Mary
Written by Eli Sterngass
Beans and preserved pods from Second Mesa
Last week, our class had access to the collections of Hopi plants in the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology, which is not open to the public. I was wowed when my team was first introduced to the collection of beans, melons, and squash seeds. I have always wanted the opportunity to have a hands-on experience with museum collections, and I am so glad Dr. Young gave us the opportunity to work with the seeds. I was amazed at the high degree to which the harvest was preserved. Eighty years is a long time to be in storage, yet the seeds appear to be in perfect condition. This is testament to both the storage techniques used by the University of Michigan and the hardiness of the Hopi crops produced at Second Mesa. I was really surprised at the size of the seeds. For some reason, I thought that crops that grew in such an arid and harsh climate would be smaller or shaped differently. Maybe they are shaped differently and that is why I am excited to begin conversations with members of the Hopi in order to learn more about their produce and tradition.
In actually getting work with the objects, the diversity astounded us. Not only was there a huge variety in the colors of the corn, but the varied uses and properties of the corn highlighted how important it was and still is important to Hopi people.
Something else that intrigued us was the organization of the collection in the Museum of Anthropology versus the organization of our groups in class. Being separated by mesa as asked by the Hopi community, compared to the typological organization of the collection reminded our group of the practices of early anthropologists and curators. When this difference was recognized, it highlighted how our perceptions of the objects in this case, corn changed depending on the context they were presented in. In the museum’s organization, the corn grouped together emphasized the object rather than its cultural context.
A sample of corn collected from Second Mesa
On the other hand, being grouped by mesa allowed us to see the importance of corn and other crops to the families of Second Mesa. By reorienting the focus to where the objects came from and who used them forced us to recognize that it is not just dried corn in a drawer; what Alfred Whiting, Volney Jones, and Edmund Nequatewa collected were important pieces of Hopi life.
Written by Jayk Wood on behalf of the Third Mesa Beans team
The differences between talking about a collection and actually getting to see and touch it are remarkable. When we first sat down to examine the collections from Third Mesa, there was a clear, unspoken sense of respect for the items in front of us. Not only did they represent the toils and livelihood of people; they were collected nearly 80 years ago. The sheer breadth of the collection was also astounding. There were seeds of a multiplicity of beans, gourds, and melons-all matched in quantity at the Museum of Northern Arizona. Our wonder was deepened further when we decided to smell some of the collections. It’s an incredibly visceral experience, smelling an 80 year old melon that still smells sweet and fresh.
Dried Muskmelon from Third Mesa
All of this made us start thinking about the process of collecting all of these seeds and rinds. It must have been both labor intensive for the collectors, and conflicting for the families selling their seeds– their livelihood. We are excited to take the next step in our project and analyze the field notes and interviews to gain a better understanding of the circumstances in which these seeds were collected.