Pictured: Hopi blue corn dried by Ann Tenakhongva at the home she shares with her husband, Hopi dry farmer and community leader Clark. Gratitude to Brian Brandl for this photo, taken during last month's service trip to the Hopi & Navajo Nations!
For the Hopi People, corn is not just a staple food - it is the very bedrock of their culture, their spirituality, their lives.
Tradition dating back millennia maintains that the Guardian Spirit Màasaw gave each of the different Hopi clans a water gourd, a bag of corn kernels, a planting stick, and an ear of Blue Corn. It is through these gifts that Hopi culture - and the farming of the corn which sustains it - flourishes to the present day.
Corn in its various forms plays an integral role in Hopi ceremonies. It is present at the birth of a Hopi child and is prepared ahead of every Hopi wedding - and its varied colors each represent one of the sacred directions. It is also the key feature of many Hopi traditional foods, including mutton stew and the blue cornmeal-based bread called Piki.
Pictured: Corn grows in the high desert of Hopi lands in Arizona. Image credits to AZ Communications Group and the Colorado Springs Gazette.
The techniques used to grow Hopi corn are sophisticated, formed in symbiotic relationship with the land over the course of thousands of years. Dry-farming is the preferred method: corn of red, blue, white, gray and yellow varieties thrives even in desert soil as rain and snowmelt naturally dampen the earth in the valleys beneath the Mesas, the traditional dwelling place of many Hopi. Dry farmers employ traditional knowledge encompassing disciplines such as engineering, hydrology, and agronomy to work in concert with the land and ensure a harvest capable of sustaining their communities physically and spiritually.
One such farmer is Clark Tenakhongva, a Hopi community leader with whom the Tipi Raisers have worked during recent service trips to the Hopi Reservation. Clark, a member of the Rabbit-Tobacco clan, grows several varieties of heirloom beans and corn on his farmland beneath the First and Second Mesas. See this Inside Climate News article in which Clark was featured in November 2022!
While last year’s harvest proved fruitful amidst an unusually wet monsoon season, Clark and other Hopi farmers have expressed heartache at the increased frequency of empty harvests since the onset of drought in the early 2000s. The drought continues to affect crop yield and, in turn, the Hopi way of life - Clark has likened an unsuccessful harvest to the loss of a child.
Though environmental challenges and ongoing climate change have transformed the reality of farming in the Mesa Valleys, Clark and others continue to nurture their fields and provide their families and communities with the corn that is so critical to their traditional lifeways.
In the Hopi Way - which is marked by a distinctly matrilineal societal structure - corn is owned by the woman of the house. Clark’s wife Ann thus owns and manages the family’s supply of corn, seeing to its drying and preservation at the end of each harvest. At the end of last month, Colorado volunteers Gary and Jim, tribal members from Pine Ridge, and a crew of other volunteers dubbed “the Jersey Boys” constructed a roof for the shed that houses Ann’s corn.
Working into the evening even amidst cold temperatures, the Jersey Boys and their crew made sure they didn’t leave Arizona without completing the roof! We are so grateful for their efforts, which will help ensure that the heirloom corn grown by Clark and preserved by Ann can stay dry and be used in traditional foods and ceremonies.
Gratitude to Clark and Ann Tenakhongva for sharing their knowledge and wisdom about corn and so much more with us during our visits to their community!
Additional resources on this topic listed below.
Pictured clockwise from top left: Volunteers begin installing a roof on the corn shed at Clark and Ann Tenakhongva's home below the First Mesa, Clark joins Volunteer Brian for a photo, making progress as joist is laid for the shed's roof, placing a tarp over the finished product, volunteer George cuts lumber for the roof, George and his nephew Miles work as a team to install the roof.
On the Spiritual and Cultural Significance of Corn to the Hopi:
“People of the Corn: Teachings in Hopi Traditional Agriculture, Spirituality, and Sustainability” by Dennis Wall and Virgil Masayesva:
“The Heart of the Hopi” from American Indian Magazine:
On Hopi Dry-Farming Practices and the Ongoing Southwest Drought:
“The Resiliency of Hopi Agriculture: 2000 Years of Planting” from the Arizona State Museum:
“Corn Nourishes the Hopi Identity, but Climate-Driven Drought Is Stressing the Tribe’s Foods and Traditions,” an article from Inside Climate News featuring Clark Tenakhongva and his dry-farming methods:
“'Everything depends on the corn': As crops wither, the Hopi fear for their way of life” from AZ Central:
Hopi Recipes Featuring Corn:
From Hopi Studio, a Hopi Food Blog: https://hopistudio.com/hopi-recipes
Resource for Teachers:
A Multidisciplinary lesson plan on Hopi farming and traditional lifeways, suitable for grades 5-12:
Sources for this blog post include: An interview with Clark Tenakhongva as well as resources from American Indian Magazine, Inside Climate News, the Arizona State Museum, and AZ Central.
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