Our impressions of the UMMAA Hopi plant collections have changed immensely this semester. We were initially struck by how intact the corn from the 1930s was. We compared it to the corn we were used to eating, but as the semester has progressed, we learned that corn is so much more than something to eat. Now, corn is not just an object within the collection but an essential part of the Hopi way of life. To Hopi people, corn is their childern. We also learned just how proud Hopi farmers are of the things they grow, and what a collaborative effort farming is. Many in the Hopi community are making a push to revitalize traditional farming: to get more youth interested, to help people eating healthier foods, and to continue what their elders worked so hard to preserve. We were also surprised by how the piiki tasted! It’s one thing to the piiki from 1932 in a museum collection box but it was wonderful to be able to taste it. We loved being introduced to the Hopi community and to learn how important corn and farming continues to be to them. Askwali!
From the anthropologists’ notes we learned that Hopi women and men in the 1930s had very different roles in farming: men worked in the fields, while women stayed close to home, planting in small gardens and harvesting wild plants near the village. Through conversation with two women from Hopi, we learned that this division of labor is actually more complicated.
Men continue to farm and take great pride in the cleanliness (weeding) and productivity (crop size, variety and yield). Today, some Hopi women also farm as a way of providing fresh produce for their families and to inspire their children to participate in farming. One of the women told us how her pre-teen son had his own field and took great pride in carrying on his family’s farming tradition. Women continue to plant in the community gardens near the villages that are irrigated by natural springs. These gardens are places where women meet, share gardening tips, and help each other.
We also talked to First Mesa fourth grade students. We were impressed by how excited they were to talk about plants and how proud they were to share their knowledge. One child told us about the plant he collected to make tea; what it tasted like, and how good it felt on a sore throat. When we asked about the mint plant that was in the collection, the fourth graders were all enthusiastic about collecting and using the mint for flavoring!
It was very rewarding to see that our collections here at University of Michigan can help preserve wild plants that are still being used today by the Hopi community in meals and ceremonies.
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.
The two wild plant items that sparked interest for us were the Zea mays (commonly called corn or maize) and the Poliomintha incana, or Rosemary Mint, which were collected from Navajo County in Arizona in 1935.
Looking at the maize, we thought that it was probably not yet completely ripe because there is a gradual increase in size of the kernels at the bottom of the cob. It may have been harvested before it was fully grown. The color of the maize is an even, pale yellow, and dimples have formed in the kernels. It’s cut off at the shank (where the stem meets the husk) and what remains of the stalk is light green.
As we reached for the box of Rosemary Mint, we could smell its bright tangy aroma before we even got close enough to see its tiny buds and leaves. It was amazing to see that after 80 years, the smell was still so potent — we could imagine using this herb today! The rosemary stalks are tied together in a bundle by a strip of fabric, presumably untouched since the time of collection.