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.
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?
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?
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