Reflections: Fiber and Dye Team (2015)

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.

Conversations: Fiber and Dye Team (2015)

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.

Field Notes: Fiber and Dye Team (2015)

By reading the anthropologists’ field notes, the 1935 Hopi household interviews, Whiting’s Ethnobotany of the Hopi, and the notes in the Hopi Plants @ UMMAA on-line catalog we learned that the creation of the ethnobotanical collections was a cooperative one. For instance, the researchers seemed to take great effort to record the Hopi name in their field notes and interviews. They were also particularly concerned with the organization of the crops. As an example, one of the households interviewed sorted their squash by color and taste.  Jones and Whiting were very interested in the source of the seeds- especially whether they came from the husband’s or the wife’s family. Thus, it seems apparent these researchers had larger questions in mind about the structure of Hopi life. The field notes also provide information not only about the anthropologist’s’ perspective, but the Hopi individuals as well. In the letter that Don Talayesva wrote to Volney Jones and descriptions in Whiting’s book, we see that roots of wild plants, beans, seeds, and sunflowers are used to make bright dyes. These dyes are then used to dye cotton or materials for baskets.  Whiting noted that the sales of baskets, along with pottery, were an important element of the Hopi economy in the 1930s. These dyes are not only used in basketry, but are used for personal decoration, other arts and crafts, food and medicine, illustrating the Hopi use their plants for many purposes.

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?