Corn Raising: The Decay of the Seed

From "Zuñi Breadstuff," Millstone 9, no. 5 (1884) 75-78.

THE reader of this chapter will at the end, like a man lost in the woods, find himself only where he started; but unlike such a man he will be, for all that, much nearer home. That is to say, a description of the last ceremonial of Harvest must begin an account of Zuñi Corn-Planting and Rearing.

In each corn-room or granary of Zuñi, are preserved carefully, four objects: an ear of yellow corn full to the very tip of perfect kernels, called a yä'-po-to; an ear of white corn which has resulted from the inter-growth of two or more ears within a single husk-fold, called, from its disproportionate breadth and flatness, a mi'-k?iap-pan-ne; a moderately large normal ear of corn which has been dipped by a Seed-Priest in the waters of the great sacred Salt Lake far south of Zuñi ("Las Salinas" of New Mexico), and a bunch of unbroken corn-soot. The latter two objects are laid side by side on the floor in the middle of the corn-room, and upon them also side by side, usually connected by a bandage of cotton filaments, the yä'-po-to and the mi'-k?iap-pan-ne. (See fig. 4.1.)

Fig 4. Zuñi Implements

The significance of all this is both interesting and poetic. The corn soot is held to symbolize the "generation of life," the salted and sanctified ear of corn, the material given by the gods and prepared by man, as the means whereby generated life is sustained, and finally, both these are regarded as the "resting place" or "couch" of the "Father and Mother of corn-crops" or Seed; the yä'-po-to being the "male," the mi'-k?iap-pan-ne, the "female."

In a field of growing maize, the owner selects such hills as give promise of speediest maturity. These receive his special care. No sooner have a few ears ripened on them than he picks the most perfect, as well as a bunch of soot from some neighboring stalk, and tenderly carries them home in his arms. Arrived at the entrance-way of his house he calls to the women within:

"We come!"

"Ah? How come ye?" say they.

"Together, happily," he replies.

"Then enter ye! " calls out the chorus of women's voices, whereupon the man goes slowly in. One of the women beckons his attention to the "sitting place," which, in this instance, is a decorated basket-tray in the center of the room. Thither he proceeds and places, one by one, the ears of corn in the tray--using care that they shall all point eastward--and lays the bunch of soot over them. The women of the house flock to the mantel whereon stands the family bowl of prayer-meal, each taking a pinch of the sacred substance, while one of their number, the "corn-matron," hastens away to the granary, and carefully lifting the yä'-po-to and mi'-k?iap-pan-ne, brings them forth. As she nears the tray, she says, across the objects in her hands (addressing the new corn), "My children, how be ye these many days?" Then the new corn is supposed to reply through the voices of the other women, now gathered near, "Happily, our old ones, happily!" With this the com-matron deposits her burden on the new bunch of soot, and all present say little prayers significant of the occasion and setting forth their wishes for "age of life, happy fortune and the health of strength born of the food of maize." This ceremonial is called the "Meeting of the Children" and is performed in commemoration of the return of the lost corn maidens under the guidance of Pai-a-tu-ma, and their welcome by the Seed-Priests of ancient Zuñi.[1]

With the closing of the prayers, the right hand of each worshiper is passed gently over the tray--while scattering prayer-meal--and breathed from. The corn-matron then returns to the granary, bearing both the old corn and the new. She replaces the old bunch of soot with the new, laying the former away with the fresh ears of corn and returning the yä'-po-to and mi'-k?iap-pan-ne to their resting place.

When all the harvest has been gathered, dried, sorted and corded up, around and over the "Father and Mother" in the corn-room, the ceremonial interrupted at the beginning is resumed. While the corn is being classified as to color and grade, the finest ears of each kind are selected and laid aside. These, and the ears of "new corn" are together laid along the outer edge of the corn-pile. Next morning the "corn-matron" takes a basket-tray--perhaps the same one used before, or at least one like it--and goes to the door of the corn-room. Here she slips off her left moccasin, then enters. As she passes the threshold she looks around as though she were about to address a group of waiting friends, and exclaims:

"My mothers and children, how be ye, and how have you come unto the morning?" and after a moment herself replies:


Reverently, for she is in the presence of the conscious and the benign--so it seems to her--she approaches the cord of corn and with her left hand takes of the selected ears along the top, an ear for each finger (that is, four,) then with the right hand an equal number, placing them in the tray. She brings these forth and assisted by the male head of the household, shells them with such care that not a kernel is lost. Dust from the old bunch of soot is scattered over the shelled corn, and a curious sacred pigment is prepared, in an earthen ladle, of yellow paint and a kernel of salt, from the mountain near the lake of the dead, and the salt lake in the South. To these ingredients are added two or three kinds of little yellow flowers, the principal variety being precious in the eyes of the Zuñi, as that which was "left over of the seed stores of the gods." All this is mixed with pollen and water, and the whole tray of kernels is thoroughly sprinkled and annointed by stirring. The corn grains thus treated are bright yellow in color and pleasantly odoriferous. All this is done that the "seed" may have the power of reproduction, rapid growth and strength, and that it may bear fruit possessed of the properties of food, which fruit shall mature with the season when thrive most and bloom the little yellow flowers--early autumn. We are at first surprised when we learn that to a remarkable degree the corn thus treated has vigor and the quality of ripening early; but our wonder may be lessened when we reflect that these seeds are the most perfect of the whole harvest, selected mostly from among those ears which soonest reached maturity. Still, with the Zuñi all these things are living testaments of faith, proving the infallibility of his theory of "Medicine," or Fetichism and of his practice of religion.

The corn, now fully prepared, is poured into a pouch made from the whole skin of a fawn. (See fig. 4.2.) Most fantastic in appearance is this spotted, life-like corn-bag, as it hangs, at night-time, against the wall, gilded by the fire-light, head downward, the incessantly flickering shadows of its broad ears and dangling fore-legs giving it the appearance of struggling to get free from the strong antlers which seem as actively trying to cast it off. And there, notwithstanding these illusionary struggles, it hangs until late springtime.

I have told how, during the months of the sand storms the banks in the old cornfields are newly built up. Little more need be done, and some fine morning in May, the voice, low, mournful, yet strangely penetrating and tuneful, of the Sun Priest is heard from the house-tops. As you listen in the shadow of some tall terrace, you think that voice must come from a spirit of the Heroic age of Zuñi, returned on the night-wind and hastening to call his wayward game-becrazed children to the fields, so old fashioned, so hidden in meaning seem the words it is uttering. However little the sleepy-eyed devotee of "cane-weeds" and "stick-shuffling" may understand of that archaeic monologue, he knows its one principal meaning, and if he be the head of the household who assisted in the shelling of the seed-corn last autumn, he bethinks himself of the planting stick and bestirs himself to sharpen (against a slab of sandstone) that useful, simple, yet ingenious instrument of husbandry. This planting stick (see fig. 4.3) is a kind of prod made from a straight-grained juniper sapling, the base flattened and sharpened to a round-nosed blade-like point, and possessed of one ear formed by a fortuitous branch cut off and scraped until just enough is left to be useful as a brace for the right foot. The utensil our friend has just finished sharpening, glistens from long use. The blade is worn short, ground shorter, and the whole thing has an air of antiquity; was, likely as not made long ago by the man's grandfather on the mother's side or by some other equally pristine potterer early in this century or late in the last. He will not use this venerable relic, let us hope, for planting the whole field; but at any rate he prefers it, short though it be, for the work presently in hand. He has leaned it against the wall near the doorway now, and has gone in to get his feather-box and paint-pots. With these and a piece of willow (cut this time at the "Lake of the Dead") he makes a plumed prayer-stick. He then chooses from the fawn-skin pouch six kernels of corn, each, of course, of a different color, and in a broad husk wraps them with the plumed wand. Slinging the pouch over his shoulder, he takes up the old planting-stick and says ceremoniously to the women:

"We go!"

As he steps out of the doorway, the corn-matron hustles after him with a bowl of fresh, cold water, with which she lavishly sprinkles him and his pouch, laughingly telling "them" to go. Thoroughly be-drenched, he shuffles down the hill, across the river, and out to his field.

I need not stop to explain that a Zuñi would by no means miss this sprinkling process, as--jokingly performed though it may be--it is symbolic of rain, believed to be provocative of that blessing, without which the seed-corn would be powerless to grow. Arrived at the field, he goes to a well-known spot near the center. Here he digs in the soft sandy soil by pushing his prod down with his foot, and turning it around and around-four deep holes equally distant from a central space; the first to the North, the second to the West, the third to the South and the fourth to the East. By the left side of the northern hole he digs another to represent the Sky-regions, and by the right side of the southern hole still another relating it to the Lower regions. In the central space he kneels facing the East, and drawing forth the plumed prayer-wand first marks by sprinkling prayer-meal, a cross on the ground-to symbolize not only the four cardinal points, but also, the stars which shall watch over his field by night-time. Then with prayer, he plants the plumed stick at the intersection of the cross, sprinkles it with more prayer-meal-as the corn-matron had sprinkled him with water-and withdraws. From his pouch he selects three grains of each of the six colors--yellow, blue, red, white, speckled and black--and places them respectively with the six grains of like colors which had been wrapped in the shuck. He now goes back and kneeling down, holds the four grains of yellow color in his left hand, and facing toward the northern hole crones the following first verse of a planting chant:

Li wa ma ha'ni,
Pish le a ha'n kwi,
Ho-lon e-te, hom thlup-tsi-kwa
Mi-a na-kia, an hai'te na kia.
U-ai-a-i-o-a-o ho.

U-ai, etc.
"Off over yonder,
Toward the North-land.
Will it but prove that my yellow corn grains
Shall grow and bear fruit asking which I now sing."
U-ai, etc.

And just as he sings the refrain he drops the yellow kernels into the hole toward the North. Continuing the refrain so that it runs into the prelude of the next stanza, he shifts about so as to face westward and taking up the four blue grains, repeats as before, except that he sings to the "West-land" and of the "blue corn grains," and when he comes to the refrain, drops the blue grains into the hole toward the West. Thus he proceeds, not once interrupting his droning chant, until all the sets of grains have been dropped into the holes which their colors respectively relate them to; the red into the Southern, the white into the Eastern, the speckled into the Upper and the black into the Lower. Ceremonial is now abandoned. He covers the grains he has dropped, and in lines corresponding to the directions of the four hills, plants rows far out into the field until the corn in the fawn-skin pouch is exhausted. Then he returns home, not again to plant until four days shall have passed by, during which time (let me add) he dutiously fasts, prays regularly at sunrise by the riverside, and abstains from all unbecoming pleasures.

It will not be held against me that I forgot to tell how the rest of the seed corn was provided. Those ears from among which the first eight were selected by the corn-matron, have been brought out, last autumn, from the place of storage, and shelled in the most matter-of-fact way. Part of the grains are laid by as seed for the Kâ'-kâ, or sacred dance, while the remainder are stored in large buckskin bags to serve as the "common-seed" for the planting of the fields.

At the end of the fourth day after the first planting the householder quite likely makes a new planting-stick (fig. 4.4), laying the old one aside. He also gets out his seed bags. These (see fig. 4.5) are curious; usually of rawhide, they have been so puckered and sewed that they form egg-shaped receptacles, cut off at the smaller end. They are ingeniously made to remain open and otherwise retain their shape by being moistened, filled first with damp, then with moderately hot, dry sand, and hung up to harden by desiccation, which of course takes place in a short time. A little hoop of wood is, moreover, fitted around the upper edge, much as is the large wire rim of a tin bucket, and like the latter, the seed-pouch is also furnished with a bail--of twisted buckskin.

Taking a luncheon of paper-bread--substantial in quantity at least--and a bag of common seed-corn, together with the various appliances above described, and followed by a discontented urchin, staggering under a big, earthen canteen of water, the planter now proceeds to his field. Along the eastern side of the rows of last year's broken stalks (or corn butts), four or five inches from each bunch, he digs holes with his wooden prod, to the depth of from four to seven inches. The boy comes along after him dropping into each hole from twelve to twenty kernels, and pushing sand in with his foot until it is filled. Wherever the stalk-butts happen to be thin, they reinforce them with bunches of grease-wood or sage-bush sprigs. The consequence is that not only is the crop not planted twice successively in the same spots, but a long drift of fresh soil is blown by the still prevailing west winds directly over each new hill of corn, forming without labor, neat little mounds of earth. The country of the Zuñis is so dry that the seeds have to be planted to great depths--even at the expense of great delay in their growth--and the little drifts of sandy soil protect the underlying loam in which the kernels are embedded from the fierce south-western sun. Not only on account of this dryness but because some of the plants die in their efforts to reach daylight, the large number of kernels for each hill is required.

Now comes the time when young Zuñi and his elder brother may indulge in fanciful creations which would astound the most talented scare-crow makers of New England. The glossy large south-western crow or raven is abroad. He sits on every rock, soars through every cloud-shadow, laughs and cackles in every corn-arroyo at safe, nevertheless impertinent distances from the busy planter. He as much as says to his companions--in the language of Zuñi crow lore--"Ah! you just wait until those little green spikes come up! They grow solely for our benefit that we may have signs whereby to find the good things those long-legged fearful fellows are hiding so deep in the sand; why, that's what our heavy noses are provided for! "Alas, poor birds! Have they forgotten last season? What a shock is in store for them! What disappointment shall soon be attested by the most discordant kaw croaks of anguish!

Fig 5. Zuñi Cornfield with Crow-Traps

The old man is busy setting up cedar poles at intervals of a few rods, all over the field. Not knowing what these poles were for, you would think an eastern bean-patch or hop-field had been transferred to Zuñi-land. But if you carefully look, you will see that each pole is furnished at the top with a bunch of its own or some other prickly leaves, so that the crows may not light on it. Moreover, the busy planter is now stringing from one pole to another, cords of split yucca leaves, which but for their knottiness, would remind you of the telegraph wires of New York City, so thick they are. A sort of network is thus formed all over the field. To make this more imposing, tattered rags, pieces of dog and coyote skins, old shoulder blades strung two or three together, streamers of moss, in fact streamers of every conceivable thing which has the property of swaying in the wind, are thickly attached to these numerous cords making them appear much as I fancy a clothes-line would left by a hurricane.

Meanwhile the youngsters are busy. They have pilfered from the old storeroom everything in the shape of off-duty clothing they could lay hands on. You must know, my reader, that this is quite what their fathers and uncles want; but not so their mothers, aunts and grandmothers. These representatives of Zuñi consanguinity are the stingiest creatures human breath was ever vouchsafed to. If a dress be too dirty and ragged to be kept comfortably on, it will do, backed by straw, to stop up sky-holes with; if too far gone for this, still, it is serviceable baby bedding, and yet more; if even not good enough for this, it is most gracious in their eyes for the manufacture of "holders of hot things." Therefore, it is stored away in common with numerous predecessors for the "wanting time." Yet, young Zuñi is quite as sharp as any other boy. He gets what he covets, be assured, and that too without the knowledge of even his younger sister! Off to the deep arroyo near his father's field he goes with his plunder. His older brother is "in with him." Both of them have been deprived all their lives long of slates and pencils. They have found no vent for their caricaturistic capacities, which are great, and they take it out on occasions like the present. They are prolific of invention, bold, and of ready execution. Twenty-four hours hence behold the result! As you ride along some outward-bound trail your feelings would be mirthful but for the effect on your shaky Indian nag. He will not be convinced that those things standing or sitting around so frequently are inanimate! Yonder on the hillside is an old woman limping (not along). She carries a basket on her back and a rib-scapula-tin-can-and-stick-rattle in her hand. Does it rattle? Yes; it is safe to say that you can hear it--if the wind be blowing--even before you see the stuffed old woman. This way further expressively tearing right along, is a being with outstretched hands, streaming shocks of gray hair (pulled from a dead horse's tail), a black black rawhide face, eyes made of husk-balls popping out of his head and painted yellow, teeth of corn-stalks from jaw-rim to jaw-rim, and a great red tongue which lolls in and out from side to side, with every breeze-gust. He seems to be frightened by the frog-legged character behind him. Now all these shé-tu-na-kwe ("watchers of corn sprouts") have the desired effect! The old crows let the field most faithfully alone!

Not so with the new generation of "kernel diggers"--which gets feathers and finds wings about this time. Before growth has made the corn invulnerable, these guileless young creatures come along. They are no more fearful of the extravagant effigies than of the embracing boughs of their paternal rookery. Many of them, therefore, get caught in little hair nooses plentifully attached to convenient cobbles. Others commit suicide in pairs by swallowing the tempting kernels at either end of a hair thread and then winding one another up and choking. They seem to prefer this to being "Siamese twins" all their lives!

The captives are, in due course of time, taken up. They are carried home and treated with the utmost tenderness, but they are not fed! If one of them happens to find something to eat or drink (rarely the case) his beak is promptly cut off in order that he shall not be tempted a second time. Of course, the wretched birds "die young," and are then crucified on two flexible twigs and hung, head downward, to one or another of the numerous yucca lines. This course of action is, it seems, prompted by the belief that the souls of these dead crows will warn their mortal companions that man is "very painful," and in order that these souls may not lack for witnesses they are furnished with their own bodies, hung up in conspicuous places.[2]

The scarecrow and the bird it scares are subjects of such grave interest to the Zuñi, such an element of agitation during its brief season in his industrial life, so undoubtedly the chief root of evil to his bread material-on which subject he is as touchy as a miser-that a little anecdote relative to the bird in particular, would not be, it seems to me, out of the way.

The corn had just sprouted in the spring of 1881, and my "Older Brother's" scarecrows (fault of his own) had not been so successful as those of his neighbors. That those of his neighbors were better than his own was not in itself an aggravation, but certainly a nuisance, for it caused the crows to leave their fields and fairly flock to his. He came to my "little house" one morning wearing a weary look.

"What's inside of you?" I asked.


"Why do you not make scarecrows?" said I.

"Scarecrows? ho! Nothing will remedy the folly of our ancients, nothing, I say, Younger Brother!"

"Why? What did they do?" said I, feeling for a pencil.

"Now look here!" exclaimed the old man. "You little fool, put away that writing stick. I'm in earnest very, this morning, and I want to ask you two questions."

"Go on then," said I.

"Well, you know when our ancients came out of the four caves? There was a priest with them--he belonged to my clan too!" (added the old man with a look of injury and exceeding disgust.) "Well, from under the world this priest had brought a wonderful and beautiful wand, but no one had seen it in the dark. Now, they all asked 'What is it? what is it?'

"'It is a baton, 'said the priest,' given by the Makers of Life.'

"'what is it for?' said some, and 'How pretty it is!' said others, for it was covered with many colored feathers in bright patterns and bands.

"'It is a baton,' said the priest, 'given to test children's understandings,' saying which he spoke a charm, struck the wand against a rock, and behold! Four eggs issued from one end and rolled out in front of the lookers. One pair was dull; the other beautiful like pale turquoise-with little marks all over.

"'My children,' said the priest, 'listen! These are the seed of living things. Two of them are to become more beautiful than my wand, and precious-the blessing of those whom they accompany; for wheresoever they dwell, there will be everlasting summer and beautiful growing things. But the others will become beasts who, every year's end will fight the summer birds away and bring back winter; and every summer-dawn will tear up growing things, leaving hunger and perplexing thoughts to those they live with. Be wise, now, my children, and, above all, choose not with greed,' said the priest.

"Now what do you suppose those fools did?"

"I don't know."

"Well! They took the pretty blue eggs of course, 'because,' said they, 'these are of the color of precious stones; therefore they must surely be the seed of precious things!' So they carried them with great gentleness to a place on the sunny side of a cliff and laid them in soft down, and watched them day by day. By and by the eggs cracked and two little worms came out, which presently became birds with pin-feathers under their skins and open eyes. They never seemed satisfied with their food-always wanted more, you see! But the pin-feathers looked blue, green and yellow (under their skins), and the people chuckled, saying 'Ha-ha, wa-ha! We have understandings, for look! If their dresses be pretty under their skins think what they will be when they come out and cover them!' So they fed the greedy little wretches all they could stuff. When the birds feathered out they were black, and they flew away laughing Ka-ha, Ka-ha, as they've laughed ever since--the pesky corn-pullers!

"But the priest sent the dull eggs to summer-land in a rain-cloud, and they became the fathers of macaws, and wherever they dwell, like the color of their plumage are the flowers, fruits and leaves, and summer abides there forever.[3]

"Younger Brother, there are just two things I want!"

"What are they?"

"Some tail-feathers of the macaw for my medicine-wand, and some of that 'white wizard-powder' that Americans make and that they say 'will kill even a Zuñi dog' if you can only get him to eat it."

My Older Brother looked considerably happier when I told him I would get some of the white powder; but when I added that it would not be so easy to find the macaw feathers, he fell to cursing his grandfathers as heartily as ever.


1. See "Creation and the Origin of Corn," below.

2. Peculiarly gentle in his relations to fellow-men, never or rarely punishing his children for even the worst behavior, the Zuñi is, as a measure of self-defense, the embodiment of cruelty to crows, sneak-curs, coyotes, and other pestiverous-animals . . . . [F. H. C.]

3. "Thus first was our nation divided into the People of Winter and the People of Summer," we are told in another version of this story, "in such wise as are their children today, into anotiwe (clans or kinties) of brothers and sisters who may not marry one another" ("Outlines of Zuñi Creation Myths," pp. 386-387).