The land ethic of the Hopi Tribe

By: Allison Perkins, ASU Food Systems graduate student.

Throughout my childhood, it never occurred to me to question where my food came from. It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized how disconnected I am from my food and the people that grow it. Most people in America share this experience with me, having no knowledge of who grows their food, let alone where it comes from. However, this is not the case for Native American tribes such as the Hopi Tribe located in northeastern Arizona. The Hopi Tribe has been farming for at least 3,000 years, and consequently has deeply rooted connections to their land, food, and culture. During our travels for the Arizona Immersive, my cohort had the privilege of listening to a podcast episode conducted by the Swette Center in which they interviewed Dr. Michael Kotutwa Johnson of the Hopi Tribe. He graciously explained to us how sustainable agriculture has been a part of his tribe’s way of life for hundreds of generations.

The land where Michael and his Hopi neighbors farm only receives about 6-10 inches of rainfall per year and they grow about 21 different types of corn, as well as many varieties of beans, squash, and sometimes cotton. Because of their unique growing conditions, most of their farming techniques cannot be found anywhere else in the world. It is very rare to be able to grow anything with such a small amount of annual rainfall, but they make it work. Their philosophy is to raise their crops to fit their environment, instead of manipulating the environment to fit their crops, Michael explains, like what is seen throughout conventional American agriculture.

All of the Hopi Tribe’s agricultural techniques are designed to conserve soil moisture and regenerate the land. For example, they plant multiple corn kernels in the ground and then thin them out to create a bush-looking clump of corn. This allows the corn to protect itself from the sun, and the corn on the inside of the clump has more security from predators such as crows. Also, they leave the stem in the field after harvest and knock it down to bring organic matter back into the soil and to create snowdrifts and windbreaks. Their approach to agriculture is very place-based; they figure out what grows best in their area and accommodate their practices to their environment.

The term “regenerative agriculture” is the same method of agriculture that tribes have been using for thousands of years, but Michael shared that people think it’s a brand new concept. Indigenous people are only 5% of the global population, yet they protect 80% of global biodiversity on only 25% of the land. Why is this? Protecting biodiversity is built into their agricultural system and land ethic. They always give back to the land for blessing them with a good crop. Before Dr. Johnson plants in his field, he leaves something behind such as a little pottery or a prayer feather. He explained that agriculture is not about profit or economics for Indigenous communities; it's about sustenance, life, and spirituality.

After listening to Dr. Johnson speak about the Hopi Tribe’s deep cultural connection to their agricultural system, I’ve realized how disconnected I am from my own culture. I know very little about my grandparents and even less about my great-grandparents. Cultural education was not a priority in my home growing up. Our family priorities were to simply stay on a routine with work, school, and sports. This is where a lot of the disconnect happened. Fast-food restaurants and convenience stores were a significant part of my food intake in my early years of development. There was definitely no appreciation for our food and where it came from. Conventional farming and its convenience were all I knew.

Dr. Johnson, however, is a 128th generation Hopi dry-land farmer who is deeply connected to his culture, food, and land. Agriculture is embedded in the cultural identity of the Hopi Tribe as it is intricately tied into their ceremonial and spiritual beliefs. Without it, they would be losing a huge part of themselves. Everyone in their community has a part to play to ensure their traditional agricultural practices are passed on from generation to generation. Dr. Johnson emphasized that women and men equally share the responsibilities of agriculture in the Hopi Tribe. He believes that in order for our society to be truly sustainable, we must have equity. Having white male-dominant agriculture, like the conventional American agricultural system, is inherently unsustainable.

We have a long way to go to achieve a sustainable and resilient food system, but the Hopi Tribe is an example that it can be done. Our food system needs to be viewed in a new perspective involving place-based agriculture, appreciation for the land, and equity within genders and race. We must learn from the Hopi Tribe and other Indigenous communities around the world to create food systems that persist for generations and reconnect people back to their food and land.

This blog is part of a series from the December 2021 Arizona immersive component of the MS in Sustainable Food Systems Program. Students toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff, and non-profit leaders.