Field Notes: Food Team (2015)

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.


Field Notes: Wild Plant Team (2015)

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.

Field Notes: Crops Team (2015)

While much of the information collected by Volney Jones and Alfred Whiting was presented in a clinical manner, the field notes illustrated how they relied on Hopi people to help them collect and interpret their data.  Reading their notes made their research feel more personable.  For example, there is a huge contrast between their field notes, which collected data very systematically on a standardized form, and the letter sent to Jones by Don Talayesva, who Jones hired to collect plants. This letter shows the personal relationship and friendship that developed between Talayesva and Jones.

We also learned from the household interviews that Jones and Whiting were interested in the source of the Hopi farmers seeds, as well as their use. They discuss how some farmers were experimenting with crops from outside Hopi, but for the varieties of corn, seeds were often from one side of the family.

We learned a lot about the importance of corn in Whiting’s Ethnobotany of the Hopi. Corn was utilized in a variety of ways, including food or inside gourds for rattles. The deep meaning corn had for the Hopi was remarkable. The information we read in the Hopi Plants @ UMMAA on-line catalog emphasized this, as well.  For example, Jones and Whiting recorded that red corn indicates south and blue corn indicates north. This provides at least a partial answer to what we were wondering in the last blog post we wrote: Why grow so many types of corn?

Collections: Food Team (2015)

2015 food tray

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

Collections: Fiber and Dye Team (2015)

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?

2015 fiber and dye team

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?

Collections: Crops Team (2015)

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.

Conversations: Third Mesa Corn (2014)

Written by Rachel Bissonnette

Pahana corn, the Hopi term for “white man’s corn”, is easily purchased year-round at the grocery store. Most Americans treat the classic yellow crop as a plain food. At Hopi, crops are not just food; they are the children of the farmers. A meaningful message from our group’s videoconference with two Hopi farmers was the love they devote to farming. Hopi farmers cherish the life provided by their crops. Farmers at Hopi utilize traditions handed down to them from their relatives to preserve not only their breed of crops, but also the Hopi way of life.

One of the farmers explained that sharing crops, like sharing knowledge, has helped to support the Hopi farming community. He said multiple times throughout our conversation, without their crops, Hopi would have nothing. The resounding lesson is that Hopi crops are priceless.

The pricelessness of crops has all sorts of effects on sharing in Hopi society.  A fact I found interesting is that sometimes Hopi pay for favors with crops or seeds.

A new way Hopi are sharing their crops is through a farmer’s market established by the Hopi Food Coop. Both farmers chuckled that of many the farmers participating in the farmer’s market have difficulties pricing their crops because they have never sold them before.

Hopefully the sharing of information about the University of Michigan Hopi plant collection will help in the efforts to sustain Hopi farming for generations to come.

Field Notes: Second Mesa Corn (2014)

Deep Purple Corn

Deep Purple Corn

The field notes were interesting to read, since it gave us background on the different types of corn we are working with. Some corn had a lot of information that was surprising to us, like Deep Purple Corn signifies the direction up. It was especially intriguing since we haven’t thought of corn as something other than food, and perhaps a fall decoration.

However, we were disappointed that some of the field notes did not mention the uses and many did not describe any ceremonial significance. We figured it was possible that some of the corn does not have ceremonial significance, but we were curious if some of the information was just not shared with Whiting, Jones, and Nequatewa. We think it is possible that some of the information is too culturally important for the Hopi to share it with these men.  Coming from a museum background with Western ideas about the dissemination of knowledge, that some knowledge was not available to all Hopi, let alone outsiders, must have presented difficulties for Whiting, Jones, and Nequatewa. While they wanted to understand Hopi lifeways, did these men realize to work with the Hopi meant having access to only certain information?

Collections: Second Mesa Corn (2014)

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

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.