Our impressions of the UMMAA Hopi plant collections have changed immensely this semester. We were initially struck by how intact the corn from the 1930s was. We compared it to the corn we were used to eating, but as the semester has progressed, we learned that corn is so much more than something to eat. Now, corn is not just an object within the collection but an essential part of the Hopi way of life. To Hopi people, corn is their childern. We also learned just how proud Hopi farmers are of the things they grow, and what a collaborative effort farming is. Many in the Hopi community are making a push to revitalize traditional farming: to get more youth interested, to help people eating healthier foods, and to continue what their elders worked so hard to preserve. We were also surprised by how the piiki tasted! It’s one thing to the piiki from 1932 in a museum collection box but it was wonderful to be able to taste it. We loved being introduced to the Hopi community and to learn how important corn and farming continues to be to them. Askwali!
Our team’s reflections on what we learned in the Museum Anthropology course project:
- We were initially struck by how intact the corn/Zea mays in the museum collection was. We compared it to the corn we were used to eating, but as the semester has progressed, we have learned that corn is so much more than something to eat. Corn as not just an object, but a part of the Hopi way of life. Hopi people treat corn as if it is their child, by taking care of and making sure it grows fully and is well cared for.
- We were also struck by–what the collection told us was–rosemary mint. The field notes and letters from Don Talayesva told us this “rosemary mint” was used for flavoring, and Hopi elementary school children confirmed that it’s still in use today. We also learned how herbs were grown in the wild and in naturally irrigated community gardens.
- We learned just how proud the Hopi are in the things they grow, and what a collaborative effort farming is.
- We learned that that many Hopi people are worried about the future of Hopi farming, but both the 4th graders and the Hopi women we talked showed us how knowledgeable many Hopi youth are about farming and plants in general.
Our impressions since the beginning of the semester have changed greatly. Thanks to our video conference meeting with a Hopi weaver, we learned about the significance that plant specimens in the collection still hold in contemporary Hopi culture. Specifically, we learned about the diverse uses and meanings of corn for Hopi people. When thinking about corn at the beginning of the semester, we thought about typical corn chips, yellow corn on the cob, and corn syrup. Now, we know about the numerous different colors and types of corn that are grown by Hopi farmers for specific, sometimes ceremonial, uses.
But it wasn’t just the corn in our collection that we didn’t fully understand. We would never have predicted it at first, but the dark sunflower seeds were used for dyeing cotton yarn. The only way we could have learned this was from our conversation with the Hopi weaver, who very helpfully broke down his process for creating fibers and dyes. He still uses all natural dyes for his weavings, such as those created from sunflower seeds, cochineal bugs, and teas. Going into the videoconferencing meeting, we thought he would explain how the processes of dyeing and weaving have changed over time. However, that assumption was completely false because he still uses the same methods of dying as weavers did in the 1930s. He sticks to all natural plant dyes, grows his own cotton, and uses the same loom as his Hopi ancestors. He has a great passion for keeping the Hopi traditions and values alive. We were all thinking about the collections in the past, now we think about these objects in the context of everyday Hopi life.
Reflecting on what we have learned this semester, we realized all the ways that our ideas about museums, Native Americans, Hopi people, and corn had developed and changed. We all gained a new appreciation and understanding of many topics. We all agree that the interaction with the collections and the community member has helped us to move beyond stereotypes of Native Americans to a deeper understanding. Particularly, our impressions of the items in the Hopi plant collections at UMMAA changed from when we first looked at them. In our first blog post, we stated that “we all wondered why they grew so many types of corn. Do they all have different uses?” For blog two, we read Whiting’s Ethnobotany of the Hopi and at least partially answered this question. Finally, after having a conversation with Hopi community members, we all began to understand how integral corn is to the Hopi way of life, both in the past and present. We also learned that the Hopi use corn for food as well as ritual practices. We learned that Hopi farming practices are alive and well and that many Hopi farmers are committed to continuing to grow their crops using their dry farming traditions that have been passed down to them over the centuries.
This semester has been a whirlwind of learning experiences. As a group, we came to love the seeds and preserved crops of the Hopi plant collection. The University of Michigan is lucky to have such an amazing collection with the information along with it. We gained much higher levels of respect not only towards the Hopi people that we were so honored to work with, but even for the items in the collection, as well as their counterparts still being used at Hopi today. The Hopi farmers we spoke with were so proud to teach us of the things they do that it made us (well, me at least!) really come back to the collection and understand the importance of the items. Corn is life for the Hopi people and the collection we have is not static. It’s still alive. For example, our Purple Sunflower seeds are still being used at Hopi today for dyes!
Moving forward, I foresee museums becoming even more aware of the things community members can teach them about their collections; and I believe we will see more collaboration between the two. As we learned, people do care about the “stuff” in museums.
Written by Emily Wolfe
In October, we wrote a blog post in response to the notes collected by Whiting, Jones, and Nequatewa, noting a particular curiosity in the Pink and White Cow Bean and its description, “just another bean.” Now that we have finished our project and had the privilege get to know the community from which this bean came, we are reflecting on our comments. Living in a capitalist society where objects find their value as commodities, we approached the collection with a dually shaped perception: beans are simply food and this is “just another bean.” The 1935 interview notes for Third Mesa were also extremely sparse and did not give us enough information to appreciate the true salience of this collection of Hopi seeds. We found ourselves adopting a dehumanized view of what later became obvious as deeply human objects.
After our conversations with Hopi community members, we now cringe at the ‘just another bean” comment. Our initial response highlights the dangers of anthropological interpretation when it comes to museum collections. We have experienced firsthand how a historically ethnocentric orientation towards meaning has divorced culturally salient objects from the people they once belonged to, and we understand the importance of community voices in accurately and responsibly presenting these items to outsiders. Today, museums and anthropologists are beginning to understand the importance of differing perspectives on objects in museum collections. To us, informed by the voices of the Hopi community, each plant in the collection has transformed from ‘just another bean’ into something much more — a child of the Hopi community.
Like any course at U of M, this class challenged us to develop new ways of thinking and critique our previous conceptions about museums and cultural objects. Unlike other courses, this class provided us with an opportunity to communicate and collaborate with Hopi farmers from the source community. By interacting directly with Hopi community members, we were able to apply the theoretical knowledge from readings and class discussion. We learned that knowledge from academic texts is not the only authority on an object. By the end of this course our team was all very eager to learn more. However, we had to balance this with the notion of that some information must stay confidential. We gained an understanding of how museums and native communities negotiate matters of knowledge and power.
We think that many people in today’s society focus on ways to make things happen faster and easier, so it was refreshing to see perspectives on life from Hopi community members. The Hopi men from Second Mesa that we spoke to emphasized that the way they live now is the way that Hopi will live forever. While it is certainly nice to have things come along in an effortless way, the Hopi community members help us see how valuable it is to keep traditional views, work hard, and appreciate what you have.
The semester of working on this project has taught us quite a bit. We have learned there is now a big push for museums and anthropologists to work with source communities in order to interpret and present collections in a respectful and accurate way. Along with these new partnerships came a change in the source of expertise. Nowadays, the museum/anthropologist is not always the only authority on the objects as source communities are contributing as well.
This is a step in the correct direction based on our experience talking with Hopi farmers. If we had not communicated with the Hopi community, our observations about the seeds would probably have been based on their functions instead of on their importance to the Hopi way of life.
These changes also help ensure that the only knowledge made public is knowledge that the community is comfortable sharing. For example, the community members did not wish to share the ceremonial meanings and rituals of certain plants with people outside of Hopi. Respecting this boundary is a major change from the old way of thinking that knowledge should be shared freely.
Lastly and most importantly, we would like to express our gratitude for the opportunity to work on such an educational and intriguing project.
We learned that communication between two parties evolves much like everything else throughout a period of time. In the past, most museums and anthropologists provided information about the people they wanted to depict. Thus, there was not much of a dialogue between these two parties. Now anthropologists engage in dialogues with source communities, a practice that we also followed in our own work with the Hopi plant collections here at the university. If it weren’t for our communications with the Hopi people through video conferencing and the field notes, we would have just seen the collection from an objective point of view rather than having community knowledge to support our own observations about the seeds. When we introduced our corn samples to the Hopi farmer and a classroom of Hopi 3rd graders, their reactions and interpretations helped us to understand what this corn meant to them and the many ways it is used in their culture. Each corn type had its own meaning and use. They were not simply beautiful ears of corn; these crops were their children. We would never have acquired this understanding of cultural significance tied to these collections if we had not had this dialogue with the source community.
-Written collaboratively by the First Mesa Team