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The American Indian Quarterly 28.3&4 (2004) 435-453

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People of the Corn

Teachings in Hopi Traditional Agriculture, Spirituality, and Sustainability

This article describes aspects of a unique relationship between an ancient agricultural practice and the culture that it sustains. Hopi agriculture, known as "dry farming" because it relies strictly on precipitation and runoff water (along with hard work and prayer), has kept the Hopi culture intact for nearly a thousand years. But aside from the sustenance it provides the people of the high desert of northern Arizona, corn enters into nearly every aspect of traditional Hopi life, contributing to values development, the sharing and passing on of tradition, and the celebration and connection with the Great Mystery.

The authors of this article are members of the staff of the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP), a tribal training and support organization based at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. ITEP's work involves helping tribes to build capacity in their environmental management programs. The institute's work centers on air quality management training but also addresses other media, including drinking water, wastewater, and solid waste, as well as challenges that tribes face with environmental toxins such as nuclear waste and heavy-metal deposition. Virgil Masayesva, director of ITEP is a member of the Hopi Tribe and was raised in the village of Hotevilla on Third Mesa on his family's farm (mentioned below), located in a valley that his family calls Hopaq. Dennis Wall, an Arizona native, is an author, longtime freelance writer-photographer, and ITEP's editor.

After their Emergence into the Fourth World, the clans that would one day comprise the Hopi people approached the Guardian Spirit, Masaw, in the region that is now northwest Arizona and asked his permission to settle [End Page 435] there. Masaw recognized that the clan people's former life, which they knew was not bringing them happiness, had been given over to ambition, greed, and social competition. He looked into their hearts and saw that these qualities remained, and so he had his doubts that the people could follow his way. "Whether you can stay here is up to you," he told them.

Masaw warned the clan people that the life he had to offer them was very different from what they had before. To show them that life, Masaw gave the people a planting stick, a bag of seeds, and a gourd of water. He handed them a small ear of blue corn and told them, "Here is my life and my spirit. This is what I have to give you."

There is a distinction between the one true Hopi, Masaw, and the people who follow his way. Masaw is the true embodiment of a Hopi; the people who follow his way are merely Hopi Senom, or People of the Hopi. Following common tradition, however, members of the Hopi Tribe discussed in this article will be referred to as "Hopi."

To be Hopi is to embrace peace and cooperation, to care for the Earth and all of its inhabitants, to live within the sacred balance. It is a life of reverence shared by all the good people of Earth, all those in tune with their world. This manner of living lies beneath the complexities of wimi, or specialized knowledge, which can provide stability and wisdom but when misused can also foster division and strife.

Deeper still in the lives of traditional Hopi people lies the way of Masaw, a way of humility and simplicity, of forging a sacred bond between themselves and the land that sustains them. Masaw's way is embodied in corn. At the time of the Emergence, Masaw offered the clan people a manner of living that would not be easy. Dry-farming in the high desert of northern Arizona, relying only on precipitation and runoff water, requires an almost miraculous level of faith and is sustained by hard work, prayer, and an attitude of deep humility. Following the way of Masaw, the Hopi people...