The First People and First Seeds

The Navajo, and other Native Americans, had to engineer seeds and a method in which they would grow on often dry and low rainfall plains.

| Winter 2015-16

  • Emigdio Ballon, who runs Tesuque Pueblo’s agriculture programs, plants corn with an assistant. Ballon, an Inca, arrived in Tesuque from South America 10 years ago to run the Pueblo’s farm. Today, it boasts 75 acres of crops, greenhouses, a seed bank, beehives, and other food crops, most of which is distributed for free to tribal members.
    Photo by Kelley Fowler
  • Ashley John ,on her horse, follows a small flash flood out of the canyon above her home. The Hopi and Navajo both rely on such phenomenon to water their crops in the sandy washes below the mesa tops of Northeastern Arizona.
    Photo by Kelley Fowler
  • Leigh Kuwanwisiwma has 16 colors of corn, which he has collected and saved over the years from his grandfathers and grandmothers. In the Hopi tradition, each color of corn has its own uses and meanings.
    Photo by Kelley Fowler
  • Dances at the Pojoaque Pueblo.
    Photo by Kelley Fowler
  • Nahaniya Fowler tosses seeds for the three sisters crops into the air. Native peoples of this continent grew corn, beans and squash together for millennia — using the corn stalks to support the climbing bean plants, and the squash to help keep down weeds.
    Photo by Kelley Fowler
  • Dorthea Prsalabaa stands in her cornfield, which has been planted and tended by her family in Fish Point, Arizona, for generations.
    Photo by Kelley Fowler

When you live in a land of little water, a trickle is a big deal.

On the sprawling Hopi and Navajo reservations of Northeastern Arizona, farmers for centuries have been relying on nearby hills to irrigate their crops—using the water that falls on nearby mesas, rushes into rocky arroyos, and then fans out into strategically placed corn and squash fields to water the crops.

So when Ashley John rides her horse into the arroyos above her house on the Navajo reservation, the sound of water that some might think of as a flash flood is really a blessing. On a late summer afternoon, she follows the water down into her family’s fields below, where a flock of sheep runs out to see what the activity is all about. A late August rainstorm lightly wets the soil at their house, but a full-blown gully washer somewhere a few miles into the hills is what the corn needs this time of year as it sets kernels and hardens into starchy dry or flint corn.

Ashley is a young farmer, planting gardens on the Rez with a youth program in Dilkon, Arizona, where she is teaching young Navajos to reclaim their agricultural heritage growing corn, beans, squash and other food crops.



Archaeologists say tribes have been growing corn, beans and squash together, the legendary “Three Sisters” of native agriculture, for perhaps 5,000 years. In some regions, other crops native to the Americas were grown as well: cotton, in particular, which the Pueblos learned to spin into yarn and dye with local wild plants.

Later, after the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, the Southwestern tribes added crops from the old world--melons, primarily, but also others–and in some cases began adopting European farming techniques.






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