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.
From the anthropologists’ notes we learned that Hopi women and men in the 1930s had very different roles in farming: men worked in the fields, while women stayed close to home, planting in small gardens and harvesting wild plants near the village. Through conversation with two women from Hopi, we learned that this division of labor is actually more complicated.
Men continue to farm and take great pride in the cleanliness (weeding) and productivity (crop size, variety and yield). Today, some Hopi women also farm as a way of providing fresh produce for their families and to inspire their children to participate in farming. One of the women told us how her pre-teen son had his own field and took great pride in carrying on his family’s farming tradition. Women continue to plant in the community gardens near the villages that are irrigated by natural springs. These gardens are places where women meet, share gardening tips, and help each other.
We also talked to First Mesa fourth grade students. We were impressed by how excited they were to talk about plants and how proud they were to share their knowledge. One child told us about the plant he collected to make tea; what it tasted like, and how good it felt on a sore throat. When we asked about the mint plant that was in the collection, the fourth graders were all enthusiastic about collecting and using the mint for flavoring!
It was very rewarding to see that our collections here at University of Michigan can help preserve wild plants that are still being used today by the Hopi community in meals and ceremonies.
On November 18, we had the lovely pleasure of talking to two Hopi women, a mother and daughter. We began by asking about piiki – a Hopi traditional food, often called paper bread. We looked at a piece of blue/gray piiki that was collected in 1932 – it is amazingly well preserved. We learned that women are the sole makers of piiki. Learning to make piiki was a special experience for both the women we talked to. A girl is taught how to make piiki during her puberty ceremony, after she has ground the corn into a fine meal. Piiki is made in a “piiki house” on a special stone. Piiki stones are cared for and respected in a very special way because these stones are seen as living entities and treated with utmost respect.
One other thing we asked the community members was about Hopi comfort foods. In the American culture, we have many foods we consider “comfort foods.” These foods are eaten when we are sick or when we just long for home. We wondered if the Hopi community had anything similar. One of the women said that blue corn gruel was her “comfort food.” She mentioned that people often eat this when they have an upset stomach, or when they are fasting and not allowed to eat fats, oils, salt, or meat. She described this food as “filling.”
Overall, this experience was enlightening and informative; we were able to learn a lot about an object whose only information came from museum records. Talking with these community members helped to add a whole new context and gave them a whole new meaning.
Our team, like the typical medley of visitors to any museum, approached the objects presented before us with many different backgrounds and experiences. Some of us study archaeology, and one is an artist, who knows a fair amount about weaving. Yet, we were primarily focused on descriptions of the objects that we looked at as the “fiber and dye” team. Our conversation with a Hopi farmer from Mùnqapi, who is skilled weaver and makes his own dyes, we gained a much richer understanding of the museum objects.
For instance, one of our initial inquiries asked about how sunflowers were used as dye. We learned about the wonderfully complex Hopi technique for extracting these seeds’ black color. He also told us about growing, cleaning, and spinning cotton. But the knowledge this farmer shared didn’t stop at the processes and the objects. He shared with us the perspective of Hopi people and stories about the plant specimens. He told us about how he himself learned the Hopi tradition of dying and weaving, about some of the ceremonial uses of the weavings, and about the great patience and time commitment Hopi weaving requires. He taught us about the plants’ importance to the Hopi community, both in the 1930s when the plants were collected and today. Most significantly, he brought light to the inalienable beauty behind each step — planting, collecting, cleaning, learning, and gifting — for these plants.
By speaking with a Hopi farmer from First Mesa and his godson, we learned how farming the crops in the UMMAA collection continue to play an important role in the modern Hopi community. It was fascinating to hear first-hand what it is like to grow crops at the Hopi Mesas, how proud this farmer is of their fields, and how those crops are important in the lives of the farmer as well as his friends and family. Due to our diverse interests, each member of our group came away with idea of what we learned from our conversation.
Julia: Being an avid cook and an anthropologist, I have a particular interest in culinary traditions. I found it very interesting to learn that although the farmer grows a variety of traditional Hopi crops, he gives the majority away to relatives and friends. This gifting made me wonder how many families eat the produce from their fields and use it to cook traditional Hopi foods in their home.
Elizabeth: As a civil engineering student I was interested in how Hopi farmers have responded to changing technologies. We learned that tractors are often used to clear new fields, but many traditional farming techniques continue to be used. Many crops are grown using dry farming techniques, which is better for this desert environment than using irrigation. I admire how Hopi farmers have been able to keep their traditions while also integrating different technology to produce the large and vibrantly colored corn we saw in the museum collections.
Anti’Shay: Because the museum collection we looked at is primarily corn and beans, I was excited to learn about how melons and other fruits were grown. I also found the extent to which crops are shared to be inspiring and humbling. I was also interested to learn about the patience that this farmer has growing crops. He hopes for a good yield every year, but he knows there will be lean years.
Nicholas: Before the interview, I assumed that, because of the ritual significance of certain types of corn, that Hopi farmers would be concerned with cross-polinatiion of corn. This farmer told us that crossing happens and that it can improve his seed.
In 1935 Don Talayesva sent plant specimens and an accompanying letter to Volney Jones. Talayesva wrote that one of the plants, called sa-ya-bie in Hopi, could be used to treat a bad cold and dye woolen goods. From this letter, we learned about the variety of different plants that were used by Hopi community members. It was also interesting to witness how Talayesva and Jones interacted with each other. Talayesva wrote to Jones that it was hard to put a reimbursement value on the plants he collected and his time, as he was collecting them for Jones, whom he considered a close friend.
We also learned about various Hopi plants from Whiting’s “Ethnobotany of the Hopi.” Whiting wrote that purple corn (which we wrote about in our last blog) “was not popular as food because it stained the mouth” (p. 69). This type of corn was used to dye basketry and textiles. We look forward to discussing this plant with Hopi community members to gain additional perspectives on how purple corn is used today.
Jones and Whiting’s 1935 household crop survey documented many different types of Hopi plants, such as watermelons, squash, and beans. These field notes also provided insights into interactions among Hopi community members at that time. For example, one of the household interviewed received a type of beans as payment for damage done to this household’s bean crop by another community member’s cattle.
We learned much from Jones, Talayesva, and Whiting’s writings, and we look forward to furthering this knowledge by talking with members of the Hopi community.
In reading the anthropologists’ field notes, we learned about Hopi peoples’ perspectives on the items in the Museum collection as well as the anthropologists’ views.
Talayesva’s 1935 letter sheds light on the Hopi willingness to share their plant specimens and welcome anthropologists into their space, or at least Talayesva felt this way, as he became friends with several University of Michigan anthropologists.
Whiting’s writing provides information on the plants he collected. For example, he noted that the young stems and the roots of wild rhubarb (scientific name being Rumex hymenosepalous) were both eaten; and the roots were also important for dye and tanning as well as for medicinal uses. He also stated that he believed that Hopi developed as a society through their use of agriculture — specifically corn. Whiting said that their cultivation of corn was revolutionary and was important spiritually, as well as for sustenance. This spiritual importance of corn was significant to Whiting, and he described Hopi farmers as “mystic” and “religious” when it came to their appreciation of corn.
Whiting also noted that women were the ones selecting the crop seeds and notes that the corn types are passed down within families, usually following maternal family ties. The connection between crops and family history is another thing we learned by reading the field notes and not by simply studying the specimens themselves. It’s these details that make the anthropologists’ notes particularly interesting.