The many colors of corn, Zea mays, are as endless as the colors in a summer Southwestern sunset. White corn is used to make the traditional “kneel down bread” and “thez shi bezh,” the Navajo cooked corn that is slow-roasted on coals underground or in mud ovens. Red corn is used in ceremonies for young girls. Yellow corn is for weddings.
But it is perhaps the sacred blue corn, naa-daa dootlizh in Navajo or sakwa qao in Hopi, that has brought native peoples of this continent the most blessings and is the corn most often grown by indigenous Americans. Blue corn is central to the culture of many Southwestern tribes, including the Hopi, the Navajo and the Pueblos along the Rio Grande River.
Historically, it is believed it was the Hopi who bred blue corn out of the ancestral maize that tribes first brought out of Central America around 5,000 years ago. Central to the tribe’s staple, piki bread, the corn is also used to make blue corn mush, tortillas, atole, posole (hominy) and many other dishes. In fact, blue corn has a nutritional profile far superior to white corn; it has 20 percent more protein than white corn. It contains healthful anthocyanins, and its levels of niacin are higher when ground.
Much as the Eskimos have a hundred words for the different kinds of snow, in the Hopi language there are many words for blue corn, based on color and use. There are words for dusky grey blue corn, deep purple-blue corn and corn that is so blue it borders on black.
The corn itself is used, but also the pollen, which is considered sacred by both the Hopi (who call it “talasi”) and the Navajo (who call it “ta-ta deen”).
“All these seeds came down from my grandfather,” says Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, a cultural preservation specialist with the Hopi tribe who grows acres of blue corn in the washes at the foot of mesas at 6,000 feet elevation near Kykotsmovi on the Hopi reservation. Leaving his office on a late summer afternoon, Leigh stops at a nearby gas station to fill up his propane bottle. A few miles away , out in the fields, he hooks the propane bottle up to a propane “gun” that fires off noises randomly to scare the crows and elk off his corn crop, which are maturing in the hot August sun.
“We used to have scarecrows and traps,” he said. “And we used to sleep at the corn fields when the corn was almost ready. Now the propane cannons are going off everywhere, so we can’t sleep.”
Leigh, who grew up at Bacavi village, says his family has grown corn “all my life.” In his shed where he stores his daughters’ piki stove, he also stores his seed corn–16 colors of corn, from hot orange to speckled red to iridescent purple. “We are a corn culture, not a warrior culture. But primarily, we grow the blue and the white.”
Other colors are grown as needed, he said, for ceremonies, for special health needs, for births and burials, and for reasons he doesn’t necessarily want to talk about.
For anyone who didn’t grow up in the arid Southwest, it’s almost unimaginable, driving through the Hopi reservation on the few paved roads, that anyone is growing anything besides scorpions out here. The pinyon and juniper trees that dot the landscape here are often squat and gnarly, and the bushes that grow along the washes are desert shrubs–greasewood, chamisa, sumac, wolfberry. Yet for centuries, the Hopi have been taming the forces of their severe landscape to the purposes of growing corn, beans, squash, cotton, and, after the Spanish came, watermelons and other foods.
Pull off the paved roads, head along the washboard gravel roads behind Leigh’s pickup, and they appear out of the browns and greys of the landscape; wide fields with corn growing like little tufts of green hair out of the parched ground.
Since they have been growing corn, the Hopi have relied on nothing but rain for their crop. Their corn fields do not much resemble the solid walls of green of a Midwestern cornfield. Instead, little tufts of multiple stalks of corn grow in groups with wide space between. The Hopi plant 12 to 15 kernels per hole, as much as six feet apart. Leigh says this is done to allow the corn stalks, which tribal members view as children no less important than their human ones, to have support, to grow in families. This grouped planting allows the corn to fight pests and bad weather.
“We like to say there’s one seed for the worm, one for the wind, one for the crow, and one for the Navajo,” Leigh said, touching on long-standing tension between the neighboring tribes. Hopi accuse Navajo raiders of stealing their corn; Navajos proudly declare they don’t need to steal Hopi corn because they grow better corn themselves.
After planting, they wait for rain. Over centuries of living in this sparse land, the Hopi people have come to understand perfectly the way water moves. The corn fields are always in places where water collects when summer monsoons drop rain on nearby high places; the water runs off into arroyos and into wide, often sandy, washes between mesa tops. Dryland farming is no guarantee out here; with no perennial streams or rivers to irrigate, the Hopi and Navajo are both reliant entirely on summer rainstorms. In the wide fields, they can channel water in one direction or another, but sometimes the fields flood, or sometimes they go dry.
The Hopi Cultural Center has the only hotel and restaurant at Second Mesa on the Hopi Reservation; it is probably the only hotel in the country with a cornfield in the courtyard, with a few stray sunflowers and blue corn mush as the main menu item for breakfast, lunch and dinner at the hotel’s restaurant.
In Hopiland, even the diseases of corn are considered sacred. While walking the fields, Leigh points to the corn smut, a kind of fungal disease of corn, which also happens to be edible. His grandfathers would peel the smut off the corn at certain stages and bring it with them into the scrubland around the Hopi mesas when herding sheep, as sustenance and liquid.
Other corn deformities, such as times when the corn’s tassel turns into an inside-out ear of corn, are also considered special. Such reversions to ancient corn types are considered “infants” to the Hopi and are protected.
Blue corn is central to the culture and recent history of the Pueblos along the Rio Grande, as well. Archaeologists believe these tribes are closely related to the Hopi, based on genetics and language.
At the Pueblo of Pojoaque in New Mexico, blue corn has become central to the survival and revival of the Pueblo itself. In the early twentieth century, the Pueblo had disappeared from the map with all its inhabitants dispersed in other places where they could make a better living to adapt to the modern life. The land that had been granted to them had been slowly taken over by local Hispanic colonists, and what remained was given instead to two neighboring Pueblos.
A few original Pojoaque families realized they were about to lose their ancestral land and made the decision to go back and claim their rights on the land. This is how the Pueblo of Pojoaque went back on the map.
Pojoaque is the Spanish corruption of the Tewa word “Po-suwae-geh” which means “water gathering place.” Reclaiming the land meant, above all, to use this water flowing abundantly from the peaks of the Sangre de Cristo mountains and to grow the Blue Corn from which they had saved precious seeds for the future. Today, the Pueblo of Pojoaque farms on more than 35 acres to supply the staple crops of blue corn and beans to its tribal members and to offer fresh produce at their weekly farmers’ market. In addition, they supply seeds of the Posuwaegeh Blue Corn and of the Red Anasazi Bean to Baker Creek Heirloom Seed.
For Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, the 16 colors of his corn are his connection to his past–and his daily work.
“I’m not the man I used to be,” Leigh, who is 65 years old, said. “But I still work in the field every day. Every day. For me, it is the happiest place I can be.”
Kristen Davenport is a farmer, herbalist and writer living in the Rocky Mountains outside of Taos, New Mexico. Raised in Roswell, she worked for newspapers across the Southwest—including several years on the Navajo reservation—before settling on a 20-acre family farm. Now, Kristen and her husband, Avrum, are raising two kids and growing garlic for Baker Creek Heirloom Seed, and growing vegetables and herbs for markets around Northern New Mexico.