For thousands of years, Hopi Native Americans have grown corn in the unforgiving Arizona climate, using low tech techniques. Lee Williams finds there is much to learn from Hopi’s ancient edicts.
According to their creation story, when the Hopi Native Americans emerged on to earth, their God Maasaw provided them with three gifts: corn, a planting stick and a gourd filled with water. It is a measure of the endurance of Hopi culture that these three gifts are still integral to their way of life in 21st century America. Living on a reservation of approximately 1.5 million acres in north-east Arizona, more than 7,000 Hopi Native Americans still lead lives centred around corn, low-tech agriculture, and rainwater.
“The corn culture is embedded in the Hopi,” says Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office.
“Our agriculture is natural. We still plant by hand. We don’t plant mechanically. We don’t do any fertilisation. It’s just natural.”
The word Hopi means ‘peaceful ones’ and the Hopi have lived in peace with the harsh Arizona environment for thousands of years. Their agriculture is a form of dryland farming which uses no irrigation except natural rainfall. They have learned to thrive on the arid Arizona landscape through the skill of their farmers, who know exactly where to plant their crops to get the most moisture. Combine this with centuries of clever cultivation to breed drought and heat-resistant seeds, and you have a unique form of dryland farming.
This is agriculture with sustainability at its heart, according to professor Benedict Colombi, associate professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona.
“They’ve been very careful to know how to farm such dry, high-altitude land without over- salinating their fields,” says Colombi, “without depleting aquifers, without getting into practices of large-scale irrigation which we all know are problematic over decades of use.”
This respect for the land and its resources comes from the tribe’s long and intimate connection to the same geographical area. The three ‘mesas’– rocky outcrops that house the Hopi villages – have been part of the tribe’s history for centuries, even appearing in their creation story. The Hopi themselves are descendants of the Pueblo Native Americans who have inhabited the US south west for thousands of years. And Hopi villages are the longest continually-inhabited settlements in North America, according to Colombi.
“It goes back to the idea of being in one place for a very long time,” he says, “and not considering the option of being anywhere else. The Hopi, more than any other group I can think of, have very strong attachments to the land.”
The Hopi’s non-extractive relationship with the land is not one that all Native American tribes have maintained, says Colombi. Some tribes in the north east, such as the Cherokee, have become heavily involved in extractive industries such as gas and oil drilling. Closer to home, the Navajo, whose reservation completely surrounds the Hopi’s, have allowed coal mines on their land, including the controversial Black Mesa mine situated on ancient burial grounds. The Navajo are also involved in producing energy from coal-fired power plants and have even opened a large casino.
“The Hopi just don’t do that,” says Colombi. “It’s not as if they can’t. They certainly can. There are hydrocarbon deposits under the land and they have sovereignty. They could but they don’t. There’s something different going on up there.”
For Colombi, the Hopi’s respect for the Earth’s resources, especially water, is an example to the rest of the region where extractive industries and industrial farming practices have severely depleted aquifers.
“We have all kinds of issues here in the south west about how we use our water,” he says.
“I think the Hopi demonstrate how to live in a much more sustainable way in an arid landscape. Big might not always be better. Small might be best. I think they exemplify that.”
According to the Hopi creation story, when Maasaw provided the Hopi with the three gifts of corn, planting stick and water, he formed a sacred covenant with the tribe. Maasaw warned the Hopi to stay true to the covenant and not follow the mistakes that had led to the destruction of the previous world – an over-reliance on technology leading to greed and materialism. Today, it seems, the Hopi remain true to that covenant. Perhaps it is the Hopi’s refusal to extract more from the Earth than it is willing to give, to be humble in the face of nature, which is their greatest lesson for the rest of us.
“The basic foundation for a Hopi is humility,” emphasises Leigh Kuwanwisiwma. “Through humility we say that the environmental forces will help sustain the culture and provide the way of life we’ve grown up into.”
THE ROLE OF HOPI WOMAN
Hopi society is matrilineal, tracing its ancestry through the female line. Hopi women are also integral to the tribe’s agriculture. It is the women who decide what seeds to plant based on the needs of the various ceremonies, social events and prayers that will happen the following year.
It is Hopi women who, by selecting the best seeds, have bred over centuries the extremely resilient seed types which protect the crops from drought and heat. And it is the Hopi women who pass on this agricultural knowledge, preserving it from generation to generation.
WHEN THE EARTH IS RAVAGED AND THE ANIMALS ARE DYING, A NEW TRIBE OF PEOPLE SHALL COME UNTO THE EARTH FROM MANY COLORS, CREEDS, AND CLASSES, AND WHO BY THEIR ACTIONS AND DEEDS SHALL MAKE THE EARTH GREEN AGAIN. THEY SHALL BE KNOWN AS THE WARRIORS OF THE RAINBOW
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Photo credit: Ashley Van Haeften from Flickr