Friday, June 6, 2008




By Melinda Green
Cortez Journal
June 3, 2008

"I still keep the old seeds to grow, so I keep the traditional varieties alive."
Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, Director of Cultural Preservation Office for the Hopi Tribe

Corn may seem like an impossible dryland crop for the Four Corners region. With an annual rainfall of 13 inches and soils full of clay, it's certainly not Iowa. Yet the early Ancestral Puebloans successfully grew enough corn, beans and squash without irrigation in a short growing season to support populations that equaled today's population in Montezuma County (where we live - Aileen).

How did they do it? That's the answer being sought by a Pueblo Farming Project at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center northwest of Cortez.

Last week, descendants of the early Pueblo nations returned to plant a summer crop of corn, beans and squash, donating some of their traditional seed. Drawing on planting techniques and advice of modern Pueblo people, the project is experimenting with traditional dryland farming in three different gardens to better understand the Ancestral Puebloans who raised corn in the area from 600 to 1300 A.D.

Nine leaders from the Hopi, Ohkay Owingeh (formerly San Juan Pueblo) and Jemez nations met May 27 and 28 for a two day working conference with Crow Canyon staff, to learn from each other about agriculture both in the past and today.

"There is the scientific aspect -- how the ancient people farmed, what crop yiels they had in the past, what techniques they used. There is also the educational aspect. The gardens are part of our curriculum as we teach about the way they planted. They had sustainable agriculture for 700 years," explained Mark Varien, vice-president of programs for Crow Canyon.

"Understanding how the people made a living on the landscape is fundamental to understanding the archeology," Varien said. "How did the population grow its crops, how many could it support, and how did that affect their lives.?"

Summing up the key factors for traditional dryland farming, Varien said there were three important factors: planting seeds deep, planting in clumps, and spacing the plants far apart.

"The Hopi plant (corn) deep -- at least 12 inches," explained Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, Director of Cultural Preservation Office for the Hopi Tribe in Kykotsmovi, AZ, east of Tuba City. "A commercial planter might go three inches deep, but here in the Southwest, it has to be deep." Corn is planted about nine feet apart in clumps of 10 to 12 plants, and weeds removed to prevent competition for moisture.

In the old days, planting would be a communal affair, Kuwanwisiwma said. One person would make a hole with a wooden digging stick and others would come along to loosen the soil at the bottom, put the seed in and tamp it down, he said.

For the Crow Canyon garden, three varieties of corn seed donated by the Hopi were planted. When the plants emerge, the weakest in each clump will be thinned. In each clump, the outer corn plants will be weak, but are left to protect the inner plants from wind, Varien said.

"The best corn would have been saved for next year's crop, so the stock kept getting stronger. Over the millennia, the Pueblo people were gradually developing varieties especially adapted to growing in that environment. They were practicing genetic selection," Varien said.

Kuwanwisiwma brought 13 different varieties of Hopi corn to show, including the most popular white and blue corn, as well as varieties called yellow, greasy, gray, orange, sweet, purple, speckled, red and mixed red and yellow.

"I still keep the old seeds to grow, so I keep the traditional varieties alive," Kuwanwisiswma said. He is concerned about genetic tainting on his reservation, as there has been an influx of different types of corn from outside sources.

Corn figures prominently in Hopi culture and religion. Kuwanwisiwma said, "Once you plant the corn, it is intended to grow. They're our children."

The Hopi don't irrigate their mesa-top farms and instead rely on rainfall and planting techniques that conserve soil moisture. "When the clouds come, we get water in sacred ways," he explained. "If you water the corn, you've ruined it. With this kind of farming, it's a matter of faith." The Hopi have ceremonies for planting, for blessing with moisture, and for the sun, moon and seasons.

Kuwanwisiwma explained that it was important to plant and tend the crops with the best intentions. "When children laugh and play, the corn laughs and plays. When the men go out and sing, the corn plants are our children and it makes them happy," Kuwanwisiwma explained.

After the harvest, corn stalks are left laying down, which stops soil erosion, and also collects snow in the winter to retain moisture, Kuwanwisiwma explained. The next year's crop would be planted in a new row beside the previous year's, letting the ground lay fallow in between crops.

In the fall, after the corn harvest, women elders from the Pueblo nations will be invited to Crow Canyon to talk about what happens to the corn after it is harvested, including how it is stored, processed and prepared, Varien said.

The agriculture ecology will be taught to the 3,000 students a year who visit Crow Canyon, Varien said. In addition, educational materials will be created to teach the principles of sustainability and farming in this area, he said. A group of teachers from the Jemez, Tesuque, Acoma, Laguna and Hopi nations also are invited to a workshop to develop a curriculum for students, incorporating the farming project.

It is estimated that each early Pueblo family would have planted six to eight acres of corn, in addition to beans and squash, Varien said. That would have been enough to feed the family and its turkey flock for one year, plus allow for storage of enough corn to last for two additional years, in case of drought.

Between AD 600 and 1300 Montezuma and Dolores counties become the population center of the Mesa Verde region, as they began growing corn, beans and squash to supplement hunting and gathering, which allowed population growth to an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 people in the peak years of 1225 and 1250, he explained.

I hope you found this article informative. I like to bring you anything that teaches something new (in this case something old!) that enriches our minds. - Aileen

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