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

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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