September 21, 2010

Hopi Maize, the Mother in Rainbow Dress

Blue and white Hopi corn ready to dry
We bounced along sprawled in the rear of a pick-up traveling over parched, rutted roads, far out into Arizona’s high desert region surrounding Hopi’s Third Mesa.

After an hour of jostling, we jumped out of the truck bed onto the ground owned by our friend’s mother’s family, farmed by brothers, uncles, and father. This 20-acre field below sweeps of feathery clouds and distant sandstone cliffs had been worked in the Hopi tradition of dry-land farming without irrigation for hundreds of years. This year snow and rain were abundant.

Warned to watch for rattlesnakes, we plodded cautiously along cornrows. As I stood next to a stalk in a row of hundreds, tassels swayed in the breeze far above my head proving this year to be a bumper crop. Stalks were filled with ears of robust ripening corn. Heartwarming was this sight, as in years past I have visited cornfields to find stalks, maybe, three feet tall with a sparse crop. Corn is one of the most important foods to tribes across the Southwest, especially the Hopi. Considered to be the essence of life, corn is sacred.
James Poley, telling his corn story
Our Hopi friend and tour guide, James, leaned into a strong wind, corn stalks whipping to and fro, to tell us that he spends much of his time tending his “corn children” walking the rows singing to each plant. “Songs help them grow strong,” he explains. The next day I stood on a windswept roof of a Bacavi village plaza home, swaying to the drums as elaborately costumed dancers celebrated the harvest accompanied by songs of corn.

Corn (Zea mays) comes in many varieties and colors including blue, white, red, yellow and speckled. Blue corn, most important to the Hopi, can vary from pale blue to almost black. It is used primarily to make baked goods, stews, stuffing, dumplings, and beverages. Recent studies have shown that blue corn may have higher nutritional value than other varieties of corn. White corn, also valuable to Southwest Pueblo tribes, is used in prayer offerings and for making hominy and flour. Red corn, used in traditional foods, is an important source of dye. Sweet corn, known as “corn-on-the-cob” is grown throughout the southwest to eat fresh straight off the cob.

A corn crop is dried and stored for use over the long winters common in high desert regions. Village to village, the practice of stringing corn from outside ceiling rafters to dry is widespread. During a good harvest year, enough corn can be stored to last two cropless winters. No one must go hungry.
boiling someviki

half eaten someviki, yum
One particularly savory traditional blue corn dish is someviki or “tied bread”. Dried blue corn is ground by young women on traditional grinding stones. The corn meal is mixed with water and formed into tiny loaves, wrapped in cornhusks, tied, and then boiled. 
Blue marbles served with salt & water
Another blue corn delicacy, known as “blue marbles” is prepared in a similar fashion as someviki without husk wrappings. Balls are rolled then boiled. The dumplings are served with salted water, a kind of blue soup. Hopi cooks add chamisa, a culinary ash collected from the burning of chamisa bushes to enhance the blue color. Also, the chemical reaction of the ash with the cornmeal helps to release Vitamin B to assure the nutritional value of the corn.

Come spring, I hope to try dry-land farming in my own garden. Over the winter, the blue and white corn I brought home from Hopi Country will dry on the cob. I will plant seeds in the same manner as James does with his family. Ten seeds to a 7” deep hole, pushed into place with a straight planting stick. When the “corn children” appear, I will sing to them.

Corn is the Mother, the provider of life. The corn or maize plant, domesticated from grass, has sustained human beings for thousands of years contributing to the evolution and definition of individual cultures. Corn embodies the cycle of life, birth to death. Corn is the essence of life.

Good reading on cooking and growing Hopi corn
Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations, by Lois Ellen Frank
Hopi Cookery, by Juanita Tiger Kavena
Brother Crow, Sister Corn, by Carol Buchanan

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