Corn goes back to their very creation story. As the Hopi people emerged into this world, the Creator gave them three things: a gourd of water, a planting stick and a short ear of blue corn.
“And he told us one specific thing,” says Clark Tenakhongva, a 65-year-old Hopi farmer and former vice chairman of the tribe, recounting the story that’s been passed down through generations to him. “This is my land, but I’m allowing you to benefit off the land. Life is going to be difficult, but if you should be the good people, if you are going to be the stewards of the land, it will take care of you.”
Clark grows heirloom Hopi blue, gray, red and white corn in the valley between First Mesa and Second Mesa in the middle of the 2,532 square mile Hopi Reservation in northern Arizona. The seeds that he plants have been cultivated over countless generations to grow in this dry climate of the high desert. He, like most Hopi farmers, uses traditional dryland farming methods in which, rather than irrigating crops, he relies solely on snowmelt and the rain that falls directly on his fields.
“We’re farmers and we’re stewards of the land,” he says. “If you have the heart and soul and the belief and trust in yourself and the Creator and the forces beyond, we can make the desert bloom.”
But now, more than two decades into the worst drought in the southwestern United States in a millennia, making the desert bloom is harder than ever.
Clark arrives at his corn field just before sunrise in late September for his third day of harvesting. He clutches a small cloth pouch in his left hand as he turns to face the sun that’s just peeking over the horizon. He whispers a morning prayer to himself in Hopi and removes “Ho’ma,” ground white corn from a previous years’ harvest, out of the pouch. Clark sprinkles the powder on the ground, returning it to the Earth from which it came, and then gets to work.
“Corn is very special to the Hopi people,” says Clark, who in Hopi is named “Nan-Ha” after a fungus that grows on corn and is a culinary delicacy to the tribe. “You are blessed with the corn when you are born. You are blessed with the corn when you depart.”
Clark was named by his father, who is of Hopi’s Corn Clan, but according to tribal tradition, children follow the clan of their mother, so he is in the Rabbit-Tobacco Clan. His earliest memory of farming goes back to when he was 4 years old, when he helped plant the corn seeds. He watched his father, his uncles and grandfather tend to the crops.
“The way they did things was all the lessons of how I do farming today,” he says.
Outside of the years between 1976-1986, when Clark served in the U.S. Army, he farmed on Hopi land his entire life. In that time, things have changed drastically.
Prior to 2000, Clark recalls only one season, in 1972, when they received no corn harvest because of lack of precipitation. But since the turn of the century, Clark says there’s virtually no harvest every other year.
“It’s heartbreaking, because then you have to ration your corn, because you don’t know what that next season’s gonna bring,” says Clark’s wife, Ann Tenakhongva, 62, of the Kachina Clan. “You yourself watch the season as it goes. ‘Is moisture coming? How much moisture is coming?’”
Hotter weather, increased winds, lack of moisture and animals eating the crops that can be the only green vegetation around, all can lead to a year with no harvest. The crows and rodents have always been there, but according to Clark, elk and deer have started eating the corn recently, as bigger wildfires scorched the ponderosa pine forests in the high country south of Hopi during the last 25 years, pushing the big game north onto the reservation.
Some Traditions May Change to Preserve Others
Sixty miles to the west, on the boundary between the reservation and the Navajo Nation, Hopi farmers Brian Monongye, 36, of the Fire Clan and Brandon Nasafotie, 32, of the Corn Clan, walk along the banks of Pasture Canyon Reservoir. The spring-fed reservoir initially built by Mormon settlers in the late 19th century has been preserved by the Hopi Tribe to provide irrigation to the farmers in Moenkoepi, on the western boundary of the reservation. It is the only place on the Hopi Reservation where relatively large-scale irrigation occurs. Just a few miles away, Brian receives that water into his modest field through a series of irrigation ditches and pipes to grow corn and beans.
Even though the drought has made farming more challenging for Brian, the reservoir has shielded him from many of the challenges the dry farmers on the rest of the reservation face. During most years, Brian flood irrigates his fields twice between the months of April and July. There have been a few seasons where the amount of water Brian could take from the reservoir was severely limited because of dry winters that lowered the reservoir level.
Although the irrigation is a step away from the Hopi’s agricultural tradition, Brian also sees the potential that he and other farmers in Moenkoepi could help provide heirloom Hopi corn and beans for the rest of the reservation to help keep its ceremonies going.
“If this drought continues and they’re not able to produce and get anything from their planting, we’re probably going to end up being the producer for Hopi corn for the rest of the reservation, because there’s no water coming in for the dry farmers on that side,” he says.
Brian recalls weddings that had to be postponed or ceremonies that had to be scaled back because of a bad harvest.
“We’ve been dry farming, using this method for so long that change is hard now for a lot of our people,” he said of ceremonies and social obligations dependent on corn that traditional farming practices can no longer consistently produce. “Now even some of our own people are trying to figure out different ways, different methods of still being able to grow our traditional foods using other techniques that work in the drier climate.”
Back in Clark’s field, a blast that sounds like it’s coming from a shotgun explodes every 15 minutes as he pulls corn from its stalks, shucks the leaves and places the blue, white, yellow and red ears in laundry baskets on the back of his pick-up. The concussive blasts come from a propane-powered “crow cannon” set on a timer to scare away animals tempted to browse the stalks. Between the blasts, classical music plays from a battery powered transistor radio that sits on the hood of the truck as he slowly works his way down the rows of corn surrounded by wild sunflowers.
It’s been a good year, thanks only to an extremely active monsoon season that brought heavy rains in early July. Had it not been for that rain flooding Clark’s field it would have been yet another year with no harvest.
He initially planted in early May when the soil is supposed to be moist, saturated from recent snowmelt, but the winter of 2022 was another dry one in northern Arizona. Between the lack of moisture and high winds coating the young plants with sand, the crops never took hold. But after the fields flooded a couple of months later, Clark took the unusual step of replanting. Continued rain from the monsoons throughout the summer months led to an abundant but late harvest, and left Clark very pleased.
He gently places an especially beautiful ear of blue corn on the passenger seat of the truck.
“It’s heartbreaking. It’s like you lost a part of your life, a child,” he says of previous years with less success or none at all. “These children that you plant the seeds, in April or May, that child is going to come to this land, young, little, innocent children and you see them slowly develop. But with this drought, most of them get two feet high at the max. And you can slowly see like a human they may be affected with cancer or some form of disease, but it’s not cancer, it’s no human form of disease. They need moisture. They need water.”
Clark drives home by mid-morning with four laundry baskets filled to the brim with corn. Half a dozen choice ears sit in the passenger seat next to him. Ann is already sorting the corn from the previous days’ harvest according to size and color. She gently handles the ears and methodically places them down on drying racks as if laying a baby in a crib.
A day earlier she gave a gift of blue corn meal from a previous years’ harvest to a young mother at a baby naming ceremony. “To share with her it made me feel like I’m helping her, that with this blessing, this corn, her and her child will have a good life.”
Clark and Ann share as much of their harvest as they can. A group of women from around the Hopi community will be coming by in a few days to help de-husk their corn. They will all leave with bags of corn. Clark and Ann never sell the corn.
“Being a Hopi is always being that person that you’re going to offer yourself, rather than take,” says Clark. Years of limited harvest have put a strain on that core Hopi value of sharing.
Nourishment for ‘Our Way of Life’
Brian Monongye is driving from his farm field back to his home in Moenkeopi with a second load of Hopi beans that he just harvested. There are already three women, along with Brian’s mother, sorting through the beans from the first load he dropped off. Within an hour their numbers will grow to 10, sitting in a circle around a tarp covered in mounds of beans. Laughter is constant as the group strip the beans off the plants and place them into buckets.
The scene represents the Hopi values of “Kyavtsi”, “Sumi’nanwa”, “Nami’nangwa”, “Hita’nangwa” and “Pasi’nangwa” which roughly translate to respect, coming together for the benefit of all, giving aid in the time of need, helping without having to be asked and having humility, respectively.
After several hours all the beans are sorted in buckets. The remaining vegetation will be dried and burned, with the ash added to the traditional Hopi Piki bread whose primary ingredient is the tribe’s blue corn. Piki bread is often eaten during special occasions.
As the women all leave with bags filled with beans from Brian’s harvest, he smiles wide.
“I am a participant in our way of life, and if I’m going to continue to be a participant in that I need to bring home a harvest to my mom and to my family, year after year,” he says. “We have to think about our ancestors who went through all these trials and tribulations to get us to where we are at. I want to see it continue 100 years, 200 years into the future and to continue to perpetuate our way of life and our seeds that our ancestors have carried since time immemorial.”