Hopi / by Karie Luidens


Books will never come close to the sort of learning I anticipate getting from hands-on experience, both working in my own patch of land as well as talking with more experienced gardeners, visiting their farms, attending more workshops like last month’s vermiculture presentation, participating in seed swaps, and so forth.

But… I’m still a book nerd at heart, so I’ve already gathered a stack of titles on the subject of agriculture in the region. Most recently I finished Kevin Dahl’s Native Harvest: Authentic Southwestern Gardening, which focuses a little less on my particular locale in New Mexico than on the peoples of Arizona like the Hopi, but offers this sweeping overview of the whole Southwest in its opening chapter:

In this arid country, Native farmers developed a number of water-wise ways to ensure a successful harvest. Along the major rivers in central Arizona, canals and irrigation ditches brought water to the fields after spring snowmelt raised the river level, ushering in the first warm-weather crop. Later, during the summer rains, the canals and ditches brought a second growing season to the people living in places such as Central Arizona. Elsewhere in the Sonoran Desert, farmers planted fields at the mouths of foothill washes so that seasonal water flows could irrigate their plots. Zuni farmers grew plants close to their village in gardens that were sculpted with waffle-like indentations, making it easier to water the plants with pitchers of creek water. Most Hopi corn fields look like sand dunes. Beneath the sandy topsoil, layers of clay soil retain snowmelt that nourishes plants during the summer growing season.

Songs, ceremonies, and hard work accompanied all aspects of Native farming. Trading seeds and stories, farmers adapted plants over time to help them feed their families under a variety of conditions. They also cultivated crops for use as containers, rattles, and utensils (gourds), basket-making material (devil’s claws), and fiber (cotton), as well as cooking and medicinal herbs.

Fortunately, traditional southwestern gardening is a living heritage. Though not nearly as widespread as they once were, gardens planted by American Indian farmers are tended and harvested annually. O’odham farmers grow huuñ (a short corn that fully matures in 60 days) and bav (protein-rich tepary beans) using the summer thunderstorm runoff that reaches their fields in southwestern Arizona. Hopi farmers tend their spring-fed garden terraces below the high mesas where they live in northern Arizona. Like their ancesotrs centuries ago, Santa Clara Pueblo farmers in present-day New Mexico clear out irrigation ditches so that Río Grande water can support fields of corn. The sprawling Navajo nation—the largest Indian land in our country—has both commercial tribal farms and small plots tended by individual families. (pp 5-6)