A Hopi Drylands farmer on faith and climate
by Michael Kotutwa Johnson, as told to Kimi Eisele
Photos courtesy of Michael Johnson
I met the cornfields early, riding with my cousins in the back of my grandfather’s old pickup truck, bouncing up and down, hitting our heads up against the camper as we drove the dirt road to the field. Sometimes after we finished planting, hoeing weeds, or thinning out the plants, we’d run up and down the fields racing my grandfather, because he said that would make the corn grow faster.
Originally from the Hopi village of Old Oraivi, my grandparents lived below Third Mesa in the village of Kykotsmovi. When I was 16, I started spending all summer there. I was the only one out of three kids who came to stay. My dad would make the drive from Winslow and drop me off.
One time I complained about being there because there was no TV and I didn’t like that. My grandfather woke me up the next morning at 5:30 to go hoe weeds and fix fences. After that, I never said I was bored again.
As I got older, I wanted to stay on the farm more, and learn how to plant.
From my grandfather, I learned to pray before planting and how to tend and nurture the crops. When my grandfather died in 1989, the corn became my mentor. It teaches me something every single year. Mostly it teaches me humility and to not doubt myself. Every time I plant, I always worry. How’s it going to come up? Is it going to come up? I worry, worry, worry, worry. And then it comes up. There’s nothing to worry about.
When you ask a Hopi farmer “What is climate change?” he really doesn’t know. He just thinks this is another new cycle coming through. As Hopis, we adjust to these environmental fluctuations. It’s part of our faith.
The area I farm is relatively small. I have four, closely connected fields of about one to two acres each, separated by natural vegetation. I grow different varieties of corn, beans, melons, gourds and squash—all heritage varieties passed down since time immemorial.
We always plant more than one seed per hole. We plant corn the deepest, from six to 18 inches, depending on the vegetation we see in the spring. Each corn clump is planted three paces apart, whereas beans are planted one pace apart. For gourds, melons, and squash, I was taught to take five paces. It’s just the way things are supposed to be. I rarely question what I was taught, as Hopi farmers before me have been doing this for over two millennia.
Dryland farming is farming without irrigation. Farmers in the Midwest say they’re dryland farming, but they have precipitation. They can raise potatoes. At Hopi, we don’t have the precipitation. We rely upon just six to ten inches of annual precipitation a year. We do not irrigate. That is an amazing accomplishment when you’re comparing it with conventional agriculture in the Corn Belt, which requires 33 inches of annual rainfall a year. We’re able to raise corn in only six to ten.
We chose to live here. We knew we’d go through hard environmental circumstances. The land out here is yielding but it has to be yielded in a way that’s respected. That involves stewardship, reverence. It’s about faith and a belief system that allows us to fully involve everything that’s around us. Before we do anything, we observe.
Our ceremonial cycle starts in February. We’re preparing ourselves and our minds and our bodies and our spirits, so that we plant in the right appropriate time. The work doesn’t end. The only month that we have off is December, our storytelling month, when we stay inside and tell stories that reinforce our traditions.
Our resilience comes from the covenant the first Hopis who came up here made with the Guardian of the Earth. Our covenant was this: We could be up here, but we needed to have faith. Faith in planting corn. Faith in bringing the rain. That’s where resiliency comes from, and our faith allows us to stay.
When we got here, we were given three things for our survival—water, seeds, and corn. We were given a choice of corn and we chose the smallest, a small blue ear of corn. We were told it would be hard to raise this corn in such a harsh environment. For choosing this corn, we were also told that our culture would continue longer than tribes that chose the other varieties. Our culture, our society, our ceremonies—we’re still here.
When I hold an ear of corn, something overcomes me. It took countless generations to get here, and each one of its seeds can bear other corn. So, it’s like holding a child. I’m taking care of that child, I’m going to plant to them and nurture them and watch them grow up. This respect and reverence becomes clear—I can see all the people out there planting that corn and I can feel the strength in that. It’s very powerful to hold an ear of corn. It’s not just food, it’s our spiritual survival. Without it, we would not be here.
In this way, it’s a real relationship, an intimate relationship. When we harvest corn, we touch that corn seven or eight times, from the time we pick it to the time we shell it, wash it, cook it. In conventional agriculture, they basically plant it, harvest it, and sell it. That’s it. Hopi corn is not a commodity; it’s a relative.
When we talk about climate change, it doesn’t really scare me. As far as the recorded data goes, the changes, yes, are off the chart. But our oral history goes back before that data was even there. All the climate fluctuations that are occurring now, we’ve seen these before. We’ve had a system in place to handle a lot of it. We plant enough to last three to five years. When you have everybody doing that, then you have to have a good supply to get through climatic changes.
What scares me is that fewer and fewer Hopis are prepared to take on these changes. I’m able to raise a crop and can get a bumper crop every five years, on average, which gives me enough to last another five years. But for my people, it’s not always like that. Our ceremonies involve a lot of Hopi traditional crops. The demand is high, but there are not enough of us raising that supply.
I worry about the adaptability of our own people to these fluctuations. Our knowledge is eroding. We’re still the primary holders of true crop biodiversity in North America. We’re still raising many varieties of crops—over 21 different varieties of corn, 15 different varieties of beans. But with these climatic fluctuations, we start losing some of our biodiversity. That is the tragedy. Once you lose that biodiversity, you have no sustainability. People talk about climate crisis. I see it as a biodiversity crisis. I see it as a greed crisis.
Fossil fuels are being harvested to death, we might say. They don’t have a chance to regenerate themselves. Not only are they ripped from the inside of the earth, but then they contaminate. There is no happy ending. The fossil fuel industry never leaves anything behind. They just take take take take take.
At Hopi, we steward the land. Instead of taking, we’re giving back. When we go out to clear the fields or gather sand for a certain ceremony, we always leave something behind—paho, the prayer feather, or a pot, or flour from our corn. We were farmers before we had ceremonies. So our ceremonies, as elaborate as they are, were done to protect what we were originally here for—to farm.
When people ask us, “Why don’t you irrigate?” my answer is always the same: What would we pray for?
Farming and raising crops is the result of our faith. It’s not the other way around. We don’t raise a crop then have faith. We have faith to raise the crop. That’s a big difference.
In 2018, we knew we were going to have a drought. We’re in tune with our environment. We knew it was going to be a bad year and we weren’t going raise anything. Biological indicators that usually appear in April weren’t there; plants weren’t greening up, so we knew the soil moisture wasn’t going to be there.
Like me, many Hopi farmers decided not to plant their whole field, but to plant just a fourth of it. We knew that we probably wouldn’t get a crop, but we planted anyway because that’s our faith. That’s our covenant. If all the Hopis before us—in Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, everywhere else—had said, “We’re not going to plant,” we would not be here today.
Eighty percent of the world’s biodiversity is on twenty five percent of the land, managed by only five percent of the population, which happens to be Indigenous. It’s important to listen to people who know how to farm foods using traditional methods that honor biodiversity.
I went to get a PhD because I wanted to be at the table when certain decisions are made. I wanted to be a voice where others before me didn’t get to have one. But I’m not just an academic, I’m also a practitioner. Sometimes my own people look at me and say, “Oh, he has his PhD, he must consider himself an expert in Hopi dry farming.” I don’t. Some of the elders tease me about that. They’re watching me very carefully.
Our traditional upbringing tells us to go out and get the best of what the Western culture has to offer and then leave the rest behind. That’s what I’m doing. That’s what our traditional teachers tell us.
What do we leave behind? Privatization, for one thing. Here, we help each other—providing each other with seeds or helping one another with tractors to plow a field. That’s just the Hopi way, just trying to help each other out no matter what the cost.
The men take care of the field, but they don’t own the field. The women own the fields. Women distribute the crops and go through the piles to pull up the seeds that she wants to plant for the next year. They know what to look for. Women in our society are very essential. Men, we take care of crops like a good father should, but it’s the woman who binds everything together.
Archaeologists and scientists need to listen to our stories. They call what we know “informal knowledge.” What makes Western knowledge better than what we have? We’re able to survive things. We’ve been doing regenerative agriculture for thousands of years. When do we get recognized for our ability to see the changes that are happening and for our adaptive techniques that allow us to get through that change?
My experts are not in a peer reviewed journal, they’re my elders. I listen to them. We have ears, we need to hear. That’s what my grandfather taught me.
In mid-May, after my fields have been planted, I wake early, around 4:45 am. Using my grandfather’s hoe, I go out and walk the fields, checking the land, cutting a few weeds here and there. I’m nurturing my crops. I’m also praying.
When the sun starts to come up, but not yet over the horizon, the sky is a light blue. The plants are just about a foot high. When that sun hits them, they turn fluorescent green. Each day, they grow taller and taller. When the winds come, you can hear them talking to each other. They just move. They sway. One big giant dance.
It all happens without irrigation.
And then comes July.
Last year we didn’t have a monsoon, but this year it’s coming. I know because it feels different. We have had rain at the end of June, which is rare on our lands.
The first storm is the most beautiful. It starts with a little trickle. Little pops, sprinkling here and there. Then all of a sudden, thunder, lightning, the wind picks up and then—Boom!—it just opens up and comes, comes, comes. The fields start ponding up and you can see into the future: the crops getting mature, taking up the moisture, putting it back into the seeds to the grains to the pods. It’s such a beautiful feeling. Sometimes you get a rainbow.
When it blows hard, I sometimes have to go into the fields. The crops are in clumps, and when they get knocked over, I go out and put my arms around them, pick them up, stand them straight back up. I give them a big hug and say, “It’s gonna be okay.”
Michael Kotutwa Johnson is a member of the Hopi Tribe in Northern Arizona and a traditional drylands farmer. He holds a BS in agriculture from Cornell University, a master’s degree in public policy from Pepperdine University, and a PhD in natural resources from the University of Arizona. He serves as a research associate for the Native American Agricultural Fund.
ClimateLore is a series of investigations and stories about the impacts of climate crisis on culture and heritage and climate resilience in folk and indigenous communities of the Greater Southwest and Northwest Mexico. It is funded, in part, by Arizona Humanities.