Challenges of farming for Hopi people through 2 decades of drought
Through two decades of drought, Mike Koiyaquaptewa and other Hopi farmers face challenges using their traditional method of dry farming.
David Wallace, Arizona Republic
KYKOTSMOVI — In the spring, as Mike Koiyaquaptewa prepared to plant corn, gusty winds whipped across the land, sending dust and sand billowing.
He waited for a morning when the winds had died down, then returned to his family’s field carrying a pail filled with white corn kernels and a metal rod for planting.
Following the Hopi traditions he learned from elders as a boy, he kneeled and dug the planting rod into the earth. He loosened the sandy soil with his hands, letting it slip through his fingers.
Examining the dirt, he shook his head.
“The ground’s a little hard,” he said. “It’s dry, hard, clumpy.”
The Hopi Tribe’s lands in northeastern Arizona, like much of the Southwest, have been desiccated during one of the most severe droughts on record. The winter brought a little rain and snow, but not nearly enough to wet the ground several inches down, Koiyaquaptewa said, where the corn seeds need moisture to thrive.
“What was moist is all dried up,” he said. “The wind is another factor because it dries it out.”
Taking a few paces, he dug another hole, pounding the metal rod into the ground. He dropped corn kernels into the hole and, with his hands, gently swept the soil over them.
“I’m having to dig harder, so it’s taking a little bit more of my strength,” Koiyaquaptewa said. “I’m up against hard ground and dry soil.”
Corn is central to Hopi culture and religion. Ground corn is used in prayers and ceremonies. And families store dry corn of various types, including blue corn, white corn and sweet corn, planting their ancestral kernels year after year.
The Hopi rely on rains to grow corn, carrying on ancient traditions of dry farming the desert. Carrying on these traditions has grown more difficult during years of scorching drought in the Southwest, which scientific research has shown is being intensified by the heating of the planet with the burning of fossil fuels.
The changing climate has been starkly visible, Koiyaquaptewa said, in the extreme heat, drought and wild swings in weather.
“It should be nice, not windy,” he said. “You see it, this global warming.”
“And we see the dry seasons for so long,” he added. “So I guess we have to change our strategy on how we plant.”
Last year, Koiyaquaptewa and his mother had little corn to harvest. Most of the plants were knee-high or smaller. Some shriveled, failing to produce any corn.
Koiyaquaptewa said he hoped and prayed that this year would bring back flourishing corn.
But as he finished planting his first row, he said he was concerned about the dry soil, and disappointed.
“I’m just putting my faith up,” he said. “Hopefully there’s some moisture.”
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Struggling with drought, heat
Growing up on the reservation, Koiyaquaptewa learned from relatives how to plant the corn and tend the crops.
They often gathered for planting parties, waking early and going to the field with planting sticks, buckets and seeds to sow. Each person would take a row, and they would quickly finish a field together.
Koiyaquaptewa’s grandmother, mother and uncles taught him the basics of planting and hoeing weeds to keep the field clean. They also planted beans and melons.
“Every day after school, we’d grab a hoe. Everybody’d hop in the truck and we’d all go over there,” he said.
As the corn plants grew, the work involved “guard duty,” he said, watching for crows and other animals and scaring them off.
Koiyaquaptewa and his relatives often spent the whole day at the fields and returned home at nightfall.
The corn was abundant and the stalks stood taller than head-high.
In summertime, they would pick corn and roast it on a fire, setting off the sounds of popping kernels. They enjoyed the roasted ears of corn while standing in the field.
Koiyaquaptewa, who is 53, said he misses those good times.
After high school, he moved away to Albuquerque, and later to Maryland. He studied to become a drafting specialist and worked on drawings for new subdivisions that were being built.
“We were just tearing up the lands. And I kind of felt bad about it. But I enjoyed drawing,” he said. So he continued with the work for a time, even though it conflicted with the values he had been taught, of taking care of the land and Mother Earth.
In the early 1990s, Koiyaquaptewa moved to Phoenix. He worked as a computer technician and at a manufacturing plant, where he helped build power inverters for solar farms.
After living elsewhere for three decades, Koiyaquaptewa returned to his mother’s home four years ago when his stepfather fell sick and died. His stepfather had done much of the farming work, and Koiyaquaptewa wanted to step into that role to help his mother and the rest of the family.
He and his mother belong to the Young Corn Clan, which is responsible for food. Because corn is their gift to the community, he said, people would sometimes come ask his mother for seeds or cornmeal for ceremonies.
In Hopi society, which is matrilineal, the corn traditionally belongs to the women, as do the fields. The men have the role of taking care of the fields.
Returning to these traditions after years away has been challenging sometimes, Koiyaquaptewa said.
“You’re always going to come back home,” Koiyaquaptewa said. “But I didn’t know I was going to inherit this big thing, as far as farming, that’s a big responsibility.”
Part of that responsibility lies in wanting to ensure there is plenty of corn on hand, both for food and for ceremonial uses.
His mother tries to follow the tradition of keeping four years’ worth of corn stored at home, but lately her supply has been shrinking.
“Are we going to run out of corn?” Koiyaquaptewa said. “I guess that’s what scares me is the weather patterns. Are we going to ever get moisture again?”
When Koiyaquaptewa was growing up, he said, he never experienced the sort of extreme weather he’s seen the past few years, including the unrelenting drought and bouts of strong winds. Summers have also been getting hotter.
Last year, he said, the winds dried out the corn, blowing sand on the field. The plants shriveled in the summer heat, and the monsoon rains failed to materialize.
At times, Koiyaquaptewa said, he has felt deeply disappointed and doubted whether he’ll be able to succeed with the corn.
But in those moments, he said he’s told himself: “No, you should be able to do this. This is your gift. This is part of your clanship.”
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Keeping traditions alive
In addition to his farming work, Koiyaquaptewa is an artist who makes kachina dolls.
In his workroom, he held an eagle-shaped doll and used a wood-burner to mark dark lines on a wing.
“You see it grow. You see it come to life,” he said.
There are similarities, he said, between shaping and sanding the wood and caring for corn plants, watching them grow.
Hopi people say they treat their corn plants like their children, encouraging their growth by talking to them and singing to them. Koiyaquaptewa doesn’t have any children but said he sees the plants as his own kids.
“Sometimes I’ll sing to them if I know a song. That’s always good because you’re nurturing them,” Koiyaquaptewa said. “You want good healthy crops and good healthy kids.”
His mother, Beatrice Norton, said it’s disheartening seeing how the corn harvests have diminished as the changing climate intensifies drought.
The Hopi corn is specially adapted to the arid climate after centuries of cultivation, and it can thrive with minimal rains. But not when the rains fail to come.
“With the lack of water and moisture, I’m not sure what our future of the planting of the corn is going to be,” she said.
“With the small amounts of corn that he was able to get from last year’s crop, our storage of corn is slowly dwindling down. And how does that change how we do different things culturally?” Norton said.
A baby-naming ceremony was coming up and she planned to use some ground blue corn to make paper-thin piki, which is cooked on a stone over a fire.
Norton works as manager of the tribe’s Office of Aging and Adult Services and is chairperson of the local board in their village, Oraibi.
She said her son and many other Hopi wouldn’t want to bring water to irrigate their corn because it would go against their traditions and beliefs, which include praying in ceremonies for rains to come and nourish the fields.
While the prospect of worsening drought is frightening, Norton said, a part of their beliefs is to have faith.
“It’s always hopeful prayers that something magic will happen,” she said.
After his initial planting by hand in April, Koiyaquaptewa planted more corn using a tractor. But the dry spell continued.
In early summer, when the plants should have been maturing and sprouting corn, they remained stunted and paltry in the parched soil, many less than knee high, Koiyaquaptewa said.
In July, monsoon rainstorms rolled in. Runoff from the torrential rains rushed over the land, flooding some homes and damaging roads.
“It was too dry beforehand, and the rains came too late,” Koiyaquaptewa said.
He said there will be no corn to harvest on the field this year.
And other people have similarly given up on their fields for the season, he said, because there’s nothing more to do for now.
“The season is pretty much a bust this year, again,” Koiyaquaptewa said.
The sorts of weather extremes that are making dryland farming more challenging in Hopi communities are projected to continue to intensify with global warming.
In the newly released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, scientists said the water cycle will intensify as global temperatures rise, bringing more extreme droughts as well as more extremely wet weather and flashier rainfall. And like other effects of climate change, the scientists said, the severity of these changes will depend on how humanity responds in cutting the levels of planet-heating pollution.
At home in his village on Third Mesa, Koiyaquaptewa has been seeing hazy air and smelling smoke drifting in from the wildfires in California.
He said there is nothing left to do in the cornfield until the time comes to hoe weeds and prepare for planting next year.
“We just pray that it rains,” Koiyaquaptewa said. “Hopefully it’s a wet winter.”
During the past few years, he’s noticed that sometimes clouds appear, bringing tantalizing signs of coming rain. But then, he said, “it seems to just go south of us or north of us instead of right through.”
He’s spotted some people hauling water toward fields in tanks on their pickups, and he’s heard there are people who’ve watered their corn to keep it alive. But Koiyaquaptewa said he doesn’t think he would ever do that.
“I want to keep it traditional as far as planting,” he said.
“I guess I don’t want to cheat,” he added. “I just want to keep it going.”
After living in cities for so many years, he said, he’s enjoying reconnecting with the Hopi ways, living in the land of his ancestors, where he can see the sky filled with stars at night and wake up to see the sunrise from the top of the mesa.
“Hopi life, it’s not simple. It’s a hard life,” he said. “But planting and our ceremonies, I guess, is the most important thing that’s going to get us through. So that’s why I guess I’m trying to get back into the traditional ways. I lost that for a while there, but being out here, I’m kind of seeing it again.”
There is a Hopi word, natwani, which he said holds deep significance. It has two overlapping meanings: the crops a family cultivates, and practices related to the renewal of life, such as planting.
“That’s our life right there is our farming. You know, natwani, our growth, we have to continue feeding. That’s our source of food,” he said. “As far as planting, that’s always going to be part of Hopi life. That I’ll never give up.”
Follow Ian James on Twitter at @ByIanJames.
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