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 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.
Field notes from B.1823
When examining the collections of Third Mesa, we were mesmerized by the physicality of the items. However, the background of each of the items collected by Whiting, Jones, and Nequatewa were unclear. As we decipher and analyze the field notes by the anthropologists, it was as if we were uncovering the stories behind the items and the challenges experienced by them during the field work process. From the mimeographed plant inventory forms and the spelling errors, we were able to picture the team traveling through the Mesa under the hot Arizona sun carrying their field notes and their gear. When these notes are read in order of the date recorded, we could sense their tiredness. And at times, their voices come through. For example, the B.1823A Pink and White Cow Bean has the comment, “Just another bean.”
In the process of reviewing the field notes, we also questioned the authenticity of the information gathered in the field notes. Did Nequatewa act just as a translator or did he input his own voice into the information collected?
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.