Closer Readings Commentary

Celebrating the Language of Place in Hopi Culture

In my culture, we sing songs to show our happiness…We believe that when we sing songs, we are sharing our feelings of happiness with nature. Since the corn plants are also our children, we sing to the corn, too. Our elders tell us that when we sing to our corn children, we make them happy. When they are happy, they grow better.

I was also taught that wherever there is singing, there is life. So when songs are sung, they too are born, just like people.—Ramson Lomatewama, Hopi poet

A profound knowledge of the northeastern Arizona environment pervades Hopi culture and language. The Hopi Tribe is a sovereign nation inhabiting over 1.5 million acres in that region. Their rich reverence and respect for corn cultivation is apparent in Hopi art, poetry, songs and celebrations. The metaphors “corn is life” and “corn is our children” are often used to explain the dynamic relationship the Hopi people have with this crop. 

Today, some Hopi people continue the traditional subsistence practice of dry-land farming, especially to grow specific corn varieties that are highly valued for their practical use and evocative for their spiritual significance. Each variety of corn is used to make different traditional foods. This challenging task requires an intimate knowledge of the land, environment, crops, weather, and the ecology of the high desert.

EDSITEment’s new curriculum unit of three lessons explores “The Language of Place” through three Hopi language forms: place names; poetry; and song and traditional dance. These forms of expression offer an avenue for English Language Arts students to discover the centuries-old relationship the Hopi people have with their landscape and the corn paradigm that permeates their culture.

Hopi Place Names

Lesson 1 begins by leading students though a guided exploration of “Hopitutskwa,” the Hopi homeland, through maps and place names. Using English translations, students make inferences about the Hopi cultural relationship to landscape and place. Then, students apply this understanding by examining regional place names in their own home communities and creating personal maps by identifying and naming places of importance in their lives. (Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.4.7: Interpret information presented visually, orally, or quantitatively (e.g., in charts, graphs, diagrams, time lines, animations, or interactive elements on Web pages) and explain how the information contributes to an understanding of the text in which it appears.)

Hopi Poetry

Hopi poetry reflects the reverence felt for corn and the harsh, but beautiful, environment in which it is grown. In the Lesson 2, students carefully examine literal and figurative language used in Hopi poetry to underscore the importance of place and corn to the Hopi culture. Examples are drawn from contemporary Hopi poet, Ramson Lomatewama, whose poetry celebrates his presence on the landscape, highlighting the things he sees, hears, feels, and experiences while working, walking, or simply standing still outside. These Hopi poems describe an intimate and personal interaction between the poet and the environment.

Students analyze Lomatewama’s masterful use of figurative language that creates a sense of place and describes his intimate relationship with the land and his experience of corn. The formative assessment offers students an opportunity to write their own poems that make connections between the way they feel about important places with the way Lomatewama feels about his corn and cornfields. (Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.4.5: Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings, CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.4.5.a:Explain the meaning of simple similes and metaphors in context.)

Hopi Traditional Dance and Song

Lesson 3 takes up an exploration of the symbolism and imagery of corn and environment as manifested in Hopi song and traditional dances. Students are introduced to the Hopi Butterfly Dance and by examining images of Hopi dance costumes and listening to Hopi songs—whether informal or made to accompany dances—uncover evidence of Hopi values and observe how these people stay connected to their homeland, Hopitutskwa. Students also perform a lyric analysis of several Hopi songs and consider the way song writers compose lyrics for their songs by including the symbols and imagery of places they love . (Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.4.9: Compare and contrast the treatment of similar themes and topics and patterns of events in stories, myths, and traditional literature from different cultures.)

The unit offer two summative assessment options, which provide creative applications by challenging students to either research a poem or song that explores relationships between people and place or write their own poetry or songs about a landscape or place that is important to them. They are asked to incorporate vivid imagery, figurative language, and artwork into their poems to enrich the sense of place.

This unit as a whole illustrates how these three unique language forms--place names, poetry, song, and dance expressions--open a window into Hopi culture and act as a springboard for students’ further explorations into their own relationships with place within their local communities.

Note: Crow Canyon Archeological Center curriculum writer, Anna Cole, who authored this "Language of Place" unit, teams up with EDSITEment and Minnesota Humanities educators at the NCTE Annual Conference this week to celebrate stories, yet untold, that we all have inside us. Join us for  “The Power of Story: Finding One's Voice through Narrative" on Saturday, November 21, from 2:45 to 4:00 pm in the Minneapolis Convention Center, 201AB.