By Hayes Lewis
The Zuni People of New Mexico use the term A:shiwi (“the people”) to refer to themselves or their tribe. Here Hayes Lewis, a member of the A:shiwi Nation, shares his knowledge about the spiritual connection among the land, his people, and the crops that sustain their lives.
Agriculture has been an important and constant practice among the A:shiwi people for centuries. We either farm out in the fields or create gardens. Many started [to farm] as children, helping our parents create small gardens. The primary method we use is a waffle garden. If one looks at the garden from an elevated view, its layout resembles a waffle.
The purpose of the waffle garden is to provide the kind of produce that normally will not grow on a large scale. These plants require more water and constant tending. Waffle gardens are fairly small, and they are usually enclosed. Fences or other forms of protection are usually built around the gar dens to protect the plants from rabbits, prairie dogs, or rodents. The fence also provides protection from the wind.
The elevation at Zuni is approximately 6,800 feet above sea level. Since it is semi-arid, there is not much rainfall. Whenever there is rain, it needs to be captured, which is why berms — raised mounds of earth — are built up around each plant.
Waffle gardens are specific to families. Different kinds of spices, such as coriander, green onions, garlic, chilies, and sometimes tomatoes, are grown. Several crops of such plants are grown and harvested each season. For example, if coriander and other spices are planted early, in a month or so, when the first crop is harvested, the growing season will allow another crop of spices to be grown and harvested. Some people plant corn in waffle gardens, but corn, melons, and squash are better suited to be grown in the fields.
When we were growing up, we saw many waffle gardens along the banks of the Zuni River. People quit using this method because the water available from the river was reduced by the Black Rock Dam. Currently, there is a revival in gardening — primarily due to the improved water system and renewed interest.
Seeds are significant in all our cultural practices throughout the year. Two of the most important religious/cultural ceremonies occur during the summer and winter solstices. During the winter, the clans honor the seeds. Representative samplings of seeds are taken to family gatherings and honored along with our ancestors with an offering of sacred cornmeal, songs, and prayer.
There is a direct, reciprocal connection between the corn and the spiritual practice of the A:shiwi people. Corn is used in the preparation of the sacred cornmeal used by the A:shiwi people for daily prayer and as spiritual offerings to sustain the deities and ancestors. The corn is ground and prepared with special prayers for daily use and for each ceremonial/religious event held throughout the year. Each household maintains a supply of sacred cornmeal for such purposes. During the winter Sha’lako Ceremony, solstice fasting period, and other ceremonies held during the winter period, the seeds are blessed and honored as part of these ceremonies.
During our ancestors’ search for the Middle Place [a physical and symbolic center], they brought with them seeds to sustain life and spiritual practice. Seeds such as corn and those used for sustenance are special because they have the spiritual and collective personal energy and power of our people. Seeds are symbolic of the life cycle; they are symbolic of the ways we must live; and they must be protected and cared for.
Plants (especially corn) used to sustain life are seen as people and are representative of us. They are honored in prayer songs used during the summer rain dances and described in ways that strengthen the connections between spiritual practice, beliefs, and life.”
From the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian’s education poster, “Native People and the Land – The A:shiwi (Zuni) People: A Study in Environment, Adaption, and Agricultural Practices.” Reprinted with permission.
Images: Zuni waffle gardens; Zunis tending waffle gardens in 1920s.