Friday, November 25, 2011

Hopi Corn, Kachina Rain and Lessons from the Past

“Over your field of growing corn
All day shall hang the thunder-cloud;
Over your field of growing corn
All day shall come the rushing rain.”

Last stanza of Korosta Katzina Song from the Hopi corn-planting dance

This thousand year old petroglyph at Hopi Clan Rocks in Northern Arizona depicts lightning and clouds with rain falling on a stalk of corn. The rock-carving was created by chipping through a thin veneer of desert varnish into the lighter colored, virginal surface of a displaced block of Wingate Sandstone.

The Hopi people or “peaceful ones” are thought to have migrated north out of Mexico around 500 B.C. Primarily living on a 1.5 million acre reservation in northeastern Arizona in the Four Corners area, the Hopi have the longest authenticated history of occupation of a single area by any Native American tribe in the United States.

The Hopi have no religion in the traditional sense. Hopi life IS Hopi religion. There is no separation of a religious life from all other activities of the Hopi. Planting corn is a religious activity, amongst others, that ensures the continuation of life.

For the Hopi, corn is viewed as a metaphor of life. The Hopi say, “Um hapi qaa’oniwti.” “People are corn.” Beginning as seeds, as in a womb, life emerges, blessed by light and nourished by family. A Hopi child is brought from the house on the twentieth day and receives corn as the sun emerges on the eastern horizon. Throughout life, Hopi live with corn as the mainstay of their diet. For Hopi, death is part of the cycle of life. Death does not end a person’s presence in the physical world, but marks a transition from one state of being to another.

The Hopi believe that it is through respect of nature and spirit essences of the world of the Katsinas that will bring the rains needed to support life. It is both a reciprocity of life and rain that makes the corn grow. It is also the cycle of the corn seed becoming both the food for Hopi and the seeds of the future, and of Hopi life itself. The Hopi emerge and live only to die, and yet continue as ancestral Hopi to support their offspring as the spirit essences that bring rain. At death and their emergence into the Fourth World, Maasawu, the god of death, instructs the people on how to farm the land, to use it only with humility and with good harmonious hearts. Arrogance, disrespect, greed and failure to maintain their obligations to the Creator would bring sparse rains and their labor would be in vain. 

The spirits of important Hopi leaders go to the San Francisco Peaks, north of Flagstaff. Each year, the spirits return to Hopi Land during the Kachina season as bearers of rain, riding within billowy, white clouds. They come in response to Hopi prayers and powers generated by their ceremonies. The rain brought by the Kachinas is essential to crops of the Hopi, as it augments their only other water supply, ground water, a shrinking resource today. The Hopi know that a drought can come at any time. They know that their conduct has a direct bearing on the amount of rain that comes. If the Hopi behave badly, the Kachinas will be displeased and refuse to bring rain. Without rain, nothing will grow, and there will be nothing to harvest in the fall.

Ancestral Puebloans, such as the Hopi, have been cultivating crops adapted to the arid climate of the Colorado Plateau for thousands of years. The Hopi, who have had a long and deep cultural relationship with the Southwest's aridity, use a practice called dry-land or un-irrgated farming by taking advantage of run-off and flood-water from mesas. They farm at the mercy of the spirits to answer their prayers.  

Historically, in the late 1200’s, a massive and prolonged drought forced most of the Hopi villages on the mesas to be abandoned. Perhaps after years of intensive use the land and its resources were depleted. In the face of environmental stress, social and political conflicts are thought to have arisen. For well over a decade, widespread and persistent drought conditions have again plagued the region. Climatologists predict an indeterminate length to these conditions both regionally and globally. Many predict worse. In response, the Hopi Tribe and Navajo Nation’s resource managers are developing a regional climate monitoring network and are discussing long-term climate change adaptation to better prepare for the climate of the future.

The lessons of geologic history teach us that western North America has experienced some of the most long-lived arid conditions in Earth’s history. Widespread eolian sandstones in the geologic record bear testimony to this fact. In the Glen Canyon region alone, seven different eolian units are exposed. Drawing the majority of their waters from snow melt in the Rockies, Lake Powell and Lake Mead have achieved record low levels. And in the Southwest, population growth and demands continue to increase. The notion that severe arid conditions are only temporary regionally or can’t be experienced globally should be entertained only with reckless arrogance and abandon. This is true independent of one’s philosophical position on the causes of climate change.

Hopi corn, as with most agricultural crops, can tolerate only a narrow latitude of temperature extremes, drought and flooding, and pathogen and pest resistance. Advances in agricultural knowledge, technology and science are critical to improving crop traits such as tolerance. Many believe agricultural science has gone too far in the use of recombinant DNA techniques to produce transgenic products that could adversely effect the environment and human health. Others believe that advances in genomics will play a critical role in traditional plant breeding as well as in genetically modified crops. Regardless, if the climatologists are correct, time is of the essence. It takes on average a decade and $100,000,000 to breed a new transgenic crop cultivar and for it to become available to farmers.

Many feel that climate change could result in destabilization and the escalation of conflicts as crop yields fall on both a regional and global scale. Southwestern archaeologists have interpreted signs of precisely that having happened with the Ancestral Puebloans in the face of widespread drought.

The world’s population has reached 7 billion. Statisticians tell us there’s a 1 in 7 chance that a person will be born hungry and that nearly 1 billion people go to bed hungry each night. Given predicted climate change scenarios, global food production is unlikely to satisfy future demand without making advances in crop improvement, better use of nutrients, stress tolerance, land management, control of greenhouse gas emissions and crop breeding.

"The corn grows up. The waters of the dark clouds drop, drop.
The rain descends. The waters from the corn leaves drop, drop.
The rain descends. The waters from the plants drop, drop.
The corn grows up. The waters of the dark mists drop, drop."

Fertility song of the Navajo Indians

1 comment:

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