Hopi corn farmer by Kurt Lomawaima.
Credit: Reproduced with permission, Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, all rights reserved.
In my culture, we sing songs to show our happiness. We sing while we do our chores because songs seem to make the work go quickly and easily. 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, poet
In the summer of 2015, President Barack Obama made headlines when he officially returned the traditional Athabaskan name, Denali, to the largest mountain in North America. This act may have come as a surprise to some in this day and age when the importance of place names can be lost amid our modern technocracy. Many place names across our nation are imbued with history, culture, power, and significance that is often overlooked—but, through them the very essence and spirit of a place can be understood. Returning the name Denali to the mountain was a way of recognizing and honoring the relationship Native Alaskans have had with the mountain for centuries.
This English Language Arts unit has students delve into the “language of place.” Through a careful study of various literary forms—place names, poetry, song and traditional dance—students can explore the landscape and culture of the Hopi Tribe from the southwestern United States. Through these forms of expression, student will have the opportunity to “read” the products of Hopi culture and engage in their rich cultural heritage through one of the Hopi’s most fundamental natural resources—corn!
In Lesson 1, students will explore “Hopitutskwa,” the Hopi homeland, through maps and place names (using English translations) to make inferences about Hopi cultural relationships to landscape and place and uncover the importance of naming places in their own lives. Lesson 2 involves a study of contemporary Hopi poet, Ramson Lomatewama. Corn is a favorite subject of Lomatewama’s poetry, which is rich in figurative language describing the poet’s intimate relationship with the land. Lesson 3 has students experience traditional dance and song of the Hopi to further their understanding of this culture’s relationship to place.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.3: Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.
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.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.4.5Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.
Explain the meaning of simple similes and metaphors in context.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.4.9 Compare and contrast the treatment of similar themes and topics (e.g., opposition of good and evil) and patterns of events (e.g., the quest) in stories, myths, and traditional literature from different cultures.
The Hopi Tribe is a sovereign nation inhabiting over 1.5 million acres in northeastern Arizona. The tribe has a rich connection with the landscape, place, and environment, where most Hopi people call home. The Hopi name for their homeland is “Hopitutskwa.” Part of the Colorado Plateau, this region is known for its high deserts, scattered forests, stark mesas, deep canyons, as well as for the Grand Canyon. The Hopi have lived here for centuries.
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 spiritual and practical significance. Each variety of corn is used to make different traditional foods. This challenging task—growing corn in a dry, unirrigated, short-growing season environment—requires an intimate knowledge of the land, environment, crops, weather, and the ecology of the high desert. A profound knowledge of the northeastern Arizona environment pervades Hopi culture and language. A rich reverence and respect for corn cultivation is apparent in the art, poetry, songs, celebrations and culture of the Hopi people. The metaphor “corn is life” or “corn is our children” is often used to explain the dynamic Hopi relationship with corn and dry land farming.
Taken together, three Hopi language forms: place names; poetry; and song and traditional dance; can be an avenue to explore the centuries-old cultural relationship the Hopi people have with their land and the process of growing corn. Such rich descriptions allow readers and listeners to imagine and envision the landscape and environment of Arizona’s high desert. The language of place found in the place names, poems, song, and dance expressions open a window into Hopi culture and act as a springboard for further explorations into diverse relationships to landscape, environment and place.
Extended background: See the following pdf’s for valuable contextual background information on these topics:
National Museum of the American Indian (images of Hopi corn-based artifacts and art):
The following websites sponsored by the Hopi Tribe, its affiliated educational partners, as well as the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, offer additional information to supplement your classroom study of the Hopi and include images of villages, corn fields, and high desert environment:
The following picture books may be useful references:
Gerald Dawavendewawas, The Butterfly Dance (Tales of the People). (New York: Abbeville Kids, 2001).
Ramson Lomatewama, Songs to the Corn: A Hopi Poet Writes about Corn, illustrated by Jeffery Chapman. (Crystal Lake, IL: Rigby, 1997).
Challenge students to research a poem or song that explores relationships between people and place.
Note: The Poetry Foundation offers a poem sampler, Native American Poetry and Culture, which contains a selection of poets, poems, and articles—many deal with place and landscape. Here are some options from the Poetry Foundation sampler that may work with your students:
Students should analyze the poem they have selected to write a short (3–5 paragraphs) explanation of the poem’s sense of place.
In preparation for their writing, have them complete the following:
Creative Writing Option
Ask students to write their own poetry or songs about a landscape or place that is important to them. Poems should include:
Hopi corn is available from heritage seed companies. Large and small grocery stores often sell products made from blue, white, yellow, and red corn. Challenge students to learn more about Hopi corn, its varieties, and the traditional (and nontraditional) foods that are made with heritage, native corn varieties. Cook at home or in class with recipes using blue corn. Taste-test many of the commercially available foods made from native corn varieties.
Assignments could include:
Hopi culture has many elements that have continued or remained constant over time and many elements that have changed. Educational resources available on Crow Canyon Archaeological Center’s website support students as they research how Pueblo culture, which led in part to Hopi culture, has changed over the course of time.