Hopi Agriculture

Kachina dolls

Kachina dolls

The Hopi have many spiritual and ceremonial places and events. We experienced one of these events, a Kachina dance in a village on Third Mesa. In the months of April, May and June, the ‘day dances’ take place. From February until July these dances involve Kachinas. The Kachinas are the spiritual essence for the Hopi, their appearance connects the Hopi to their ancestral spirits, the elements and the universe. The Kachinas are believed to live at the San Francisco Peaks, they appear from February to July in different types of dances. All dances are connected in some way to rain and harvest. As rain is the limiting factor, their religious and ceremonial life cannot be separated from agriculture and food and being Hopi.

The Hopi strongly hold to their ceremonies and traditions and tribal rules. After some experiences with unethical use of material gathered by visitors, one is reminded everywhere that taking pictures or notes of the ceremonies, the people, the villages and the landscape are forbidden. Doing research in this area is also subject to tribal rules. The data collected cannot be possessed by the researcher/ university. It remains with the Hopi and each usage of material has to be negotiated and agreed upon.

Hopi agriculture and gathering were once the sole source of sustenance. Mainly dependent on rain in the high arid dessert of Arizona, the Hopi planted corn, beans, squash, cotton and gourds that were particularly resistant to the drought and pests of the area. We saw cornfields where the corn is now approx 30 centimeter high. It has been a good spring so far, with quite a bit of rain. Corn is planted very deep, with a planting stick around 6 seeds are sown together up to 18 inches deep into the soil. The depth of the hole depends on judgment in terms of soil moisture. Many corn plants growing together could push through the sandy soil. And each bundle of seeds stands 4 footsteps from each other. In between beans are sown as well as squash around the edges.

Hopi ceremony requires a number of different kinds of Hopi corn, blue, white, yellow, red, purple and mixed. There are at least twelve types of Hopi corn, each with separate ceremonial functions. Grinding corn is a particularly important ritual act for women. At menarche, young girls have a grinding ceremony where they make piki, a wafer-thin flat bread made from blue corn and water. Piki bread is part of the food that the women cook for the various dances and rituals. We saw a piki bread cooker, a thick flat back stone over a fire. Courage and skill is needed to cook the bread because the women cover their hand in the batter and quickly whip their hand over the extremely hot stone. The result is a super thin rolled bread.

Canyon de Chelly, where de Navajo farm

Canyon de Chelly, where de Navajo farm

Four corners Indian country

Since Saturday I am staying in Keams Canyon, in the Hopi Reservation in Arizona. For the last ten years, Cornelia Flora has been doing research and extension work with a colleague from Arizona State University, Matt Livingston and organizations at the Reservation. This visit therefore includes some meetings on current projects.

Hopi Indians are a pueblo tribe living in 13 villages located on the 2472320 acres (just over a million hectares) of the Hopi Reservation in north-central Arizona. With their ancestors coming from the south, they are sometimes categorized under as Anasazi; southern based tribes sharing a coming language root.  However, we learned in the Archeology Museum in Blending, Utah, that this is a name taken over into English from Navajo. In Navajo (themselves coming from north) it means something like ‘ancient enemy’. A more correct way to talk about the different tribes that came from the south, therefore, is Ancestral Puebloans. The Hopi Reservation is surrounded by the Navajo Reservation and there is an Apache Reservation nearby.

STA71894The Hopi villages are mostly located on three peninsular “mesas” that are the southwestern “fingers” of Black Mesa, high ridges elevated around a 1000 meters above the Canyon land plateaus. The Hopis are the oldest continuous inhabitants of northern Arizona; some of their ancestors may have lived in the region as early as A.D. 700 (Linford 2005).


“I never saw so much empty land”, I remarked to Matt in the car yesterday. Indeed, books talk about this desert land as some of the most desolate country in the United States. “It might seem empty to you” Matt replied, “but it is not for the Hopi”. It might not seem ‘productive’ in any Western economic sense, but this land represents many things for them. “There can be trails or holy places where their shrines live”. And, “their cattle graze here and they cultivate their indigenous ground races maize” Matt explained. In such an extensive way that it is hardly visible for the eye! With approx 300 millimeters rainfall a year and no rivers in the neighborhood they are adapted to their circumstances, quite different from the Dutch wetlands….

Hopi CookbookOne of the projects is centered around Hopi food. The aim of the project is to help communities to understand Hopi traditional food, to collect best practices about growing and gathering food as well as to appreciate the spiritual aspect of food. It is an awareness raising project, helping people realize what they already know. One of the result so far has been a Hopi traditional cook book and follow up activities are now planned, such as intergenerational cooking workshops.

Rural development in Iowa

The coming two months, I will join the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development in Ames, Iowa. This center, part of the Iowa State University, is working with rural communities, native American communities and small producer groups to increase the capacity and resilience of these communities in tackling their problems. In the United States, the development of modern agriculture had a large impact and often devastating effects on rural communities. And, nowadays changing lifestyles, declining knowledge of food and less connection with farming and land have resulted in an obesity epidemic and diet-related diseases. Native American communities also suffer from diet-related diseases. One of the communities the center works with is a Hopi community in Arizona. A recently finished project worked with Hopi women to search for how they define, access and use traditional Hopi food. Using a community capitals approach, the participants assessed together their natural, cultural, social, political, financial and built capital. Through this, they identified their strong and weak or lacking capitals in search for improving health and living circumstances. See this website for an example of a Hopi farm.