Reflections: Third Mesa Corn (2014)

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


Reflections: Third Mesa Beans (2014)

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.

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.

Conversation: Third Mesa Beans (2014)

written by Taeler Varner

Video conferencing with Hopi farmers truly brought a new perspective to Whiting and Jones’ seed collection. I was initially worried that video conferencing would feel impersonal, but instead we felt a personal connection with the farmers we spoke to, and learning about the current use of the seeds truly brought the collection to life. One of the farmers even showed us a squash he had grown, making it easy to view the collection as more than just a museum archive. The great respect for plants and the earth shared by the Hopi community is influential and caused each of us to reflect on the value we place on farming.

Hearing the farmers say the names of the crops in their language, hearing the importance of oral tradition, and listening to how Hopi beliefs shape farming practices brought a greater meaning to the value of farming. It is sad that some of the seeds in our collection are no longer available to the Hopi community. I am hopeful that the online catalog we are working to create will help preserve the tradition of such seeds and be of use to Hopi farmers.

Since we spent so much time with the Whiting and Jones’ interviews I naturally juxtaposed their interviews with our experience. I wonder if they had a similar experience interviewing the Hopi farmers. Was the Hopi community’s influential perspective on farming part of their inspiration for creating the seed collection?

Field Notes: Third Mesa Corn (2014)

Entering data might seem like it could be routine and monotonous, however when working with filed notes from the 1930’s you can become engrossed in another time. Utilizing the original notes from the 1935 expedition by Whitney, Jones and Nequatewa provides an experience that is almost surreal. It is a glimpse into how Anthropological collections are accumulated and the key questions that were on the minds of the team. Although the data is sparse in some areas, key questions were asked in an attempt to gather information on the variation in the seeds, both culturally and physically. These include everything ranging from the provenance of the seeds to the ceremonial significance.

Field Notes: Third Mesa Beans (2014)

Field notes from B.1823

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?

Collections: Third Mesa Corn (2014)

Over the course of the past two weeks, we’ve had the opportunity to examine the Third Mesa corn samples. Two of the things that stood out to us were the condition of the samples and the diversity shown. While the corn is nearly 80 years old, majority of the kernels and even most of the cobs remain mainly intact. In addition, the peppers and gourd are dried out and well maintained as well.  While there are some signs of wear, it’s very impressive that these samples are in such good condition.

A sample of plants collected from Third Mesa

A sample of plants collected from Third Mesa

The variety of corn was also very impressive. When looking at the corn samples, you can see at least four distinct colors of kernels (yellow, orange, red, blue). There are also variations in the size of the kernels and the texture (smooth vs. wrinkled) as well. It was interesting to read the original notes, which talk about the different uses for each variety of corn and to hear about how these plants, grown in the same location, can have different properties that affect how they’re best used.

Collections: Third Mesa Beans (2014)

Written by Jayk Wood on behalf of the Third Mesa Beans team

The differences between talking about a collection and actually getting to see and touch it are remarkable.  When we first sat down to examine the collections from Third Mesa, there was a clear, unspoken sense of respect for the items in front of us.  Not only did they represent the toils and livelihood of people; they were collected nearly 80 years ago.  The sheer breadth of the collection was also astounding.  There were seeds of a multiplicity of beans, gourds, and melons-all matched in quantity at the Museum of Northern Arizona.  Our wonder was deepened further when we decided to smell some of the collections.  It’s an incredibly visceral experience, smelling an 80 year old melon that still smells sweet and fresh.

Dried Muskmelon from Third Mesa

Dried Muskmelon from Third Mesa

All of this made us start thinking about the process of collecting all of these seeds and rinds.  It must have been both labor intensive for the collectors, and conflicting for the families selling their seeds– their livelihood.  We are excited to take the next step in our project and analyze the field notes and interviews to gain a better understanding of the circumstances in which these seeds were collected.