Corn in Navajo Traditional Life


The Supernaturals also warn him of taboos connected with the use of corn. It should not be cooked until it is ripe nor eaten before it is fully cooked, or frost and floods will damage the crop. In the "vigil of the corn" ceremony the corn is fed with dried meat; if it were to be fed with corn it would thus consume itself, just as feeding meat to the masks would cause men to eat each other. When giving this warning Talking God refers to the time that ugly woman fed corn to the corn with result that " the people starved and men ate the flesh of other men." Pg. 170, Plume Way.


Talking God to White Shell Woman and Turquoise Woman: Talking God expresses approval when he learns that the wives still have the corn he had given them, "It is your symbol of fertility and new life." Pg. 194, Eagle Way.

Sickness will occur if one lies down in a corn field.

From the vegetables brought back at this time the Navajo first acquired seeds of corn and pumpkin. Pg. 171, Plume Way.

 

Navajo Chantway Myths, 1957; Katherine Spencer.

Four Sacred Plants are assigned to the cardinal points, and amongst the Navajos Maize is the plant of the North, Beans of the east. This means that both are male and as both are grown for edible seeds, recognition of the physiological function of the male was probably involved in the selection. This is entirely possible since the convention could have been established only very late, after settlement in America. Squash, for the Navajos, is the plant of the South, which is fitting since its fruit is called "eight-sided" and the eight-sided earth (an alternative to the square earth, taking account of the diagonal directions) is female. Also the stalk is angled in sections, a feature deliberately exaggerated when the plant is depicted in sand paintings, and crooked things are female. Tobacco, which the Navajos put on the west, is female because it is used to make smoke which is blown out with the breath, and that is female. Below the Plants are white roots, the significance being that these plants still have their roots in the lower world.

From Hail Chant and Water Chant By Mary C. Wheelwright and Emergence Myth Emergence Myth, according to Hanelthnayhe or Upward-Reaching Rite; Recorded by Father Berard Haile, O.F.M Rewritten by Mary C. Wheelwright.

First Man called the people together. He brought forth the white corn which had been formed with him. First Woman brought the yellow corn. They laid the perfect ears side by side; then they asked one person from among the many to come and help them. The Turkey stepped forward. They asked him where he had come from, and he said that he had come from the Gray Mountain. He danced back and forth four times, then he shook his feather coat and there dropped from his clothing four kernels of corn, one gray, one blue, one black, and one red. Another person was asked to help in the plan of the planting. The big snake came forward. He likewise brought forth four seeds, the pumpkin, the watermelon, the cantaloupe, and the muskmelon. His plants all crawl on the ground. Pg. 6

7- Informant's note: Rarely is much white or yellow corn planted at one time because it is the most sacred. Pg. 103

The Dine': Origin Myths of the Navajo Indians, 1956; Aileen O'Bryan.

Corn Boy, Corn Girl, Cornmeal Carrier: Corn is the most sacred of all Native American plants. Originally, it came from native grasses of Mexico and Guatemala and was brought to Turtle Island by Mexican Indians and Carib people. Standing straight and tall, corn resembles human beings standing in rows. White corn is thought, by the Navajo, to be male, yellow corn is female. Round-headed corn symbols are men, square-headed are female. Food made from corn especially cornmeal is symbolic of the goodness of Mother Earth and Father Sky. Corn Pollen is used in many blessing ceremonies, as is cornmeal. Strings of hardened corn kernels are made into necklaces. Corn, as Jay de Groat has put it, is "Mother Earth's workmanship." Pg. 191

The Gift of the Gila Monster, Navajo Ceremonial Tales; 1993, Gerald Hausman.

Harry Walters explained that corn is a metaphor for human life because both of through the same stages of life. Both corn and humans reach a stage of fruition when they blossom: the corn bursts forth with pollen while humans also achieve a peak of development associated with sa'a naghai bik'e hozho. Harry Walters (personal communication, 1990) described this state of being: "Every time he talks, thinks, or acts, he does so in radiance, in a state of wisdom and perfect harmony." Just as the corn disseminates its pollen for the continuation of corn plants, so too humans have been entrusted with sacred responsibility to disseminate their knowledge for the benefit and continuation of future generations. Because both corn and humans need nurturance from the four directions (four cardinal light phenomena) in order to reach old age, both possess knowledge from the four directions; it is this knowledge that they take into their beings and then have a responsibility to return to those that come after them.

Earth is my Mother, Sky is my Father: Space, Time, and Astronomy in Navajo Sandpainting; 1992, Trudy Griffen-Pierce.

Corn, the symbol of food, fertility, and life itself, is of major importance. "Corn is more than human; it is divine; it (is) connected with the highest ethical ideals." Pgs. 375-76

Kinaalda', A Study of the Navaho Girl's Puberty Ceremony; 1993, Charlotte Johnson Frisbie.

The old sunwise and other ceremonial ways of planting have almost disappeared, but most Navahos still use the Indian method of planting corn in hills rather than in rows. Planting dates are determined by various means  at Navaho Mountain, for instance, by the position of the Pleiades and simple folk rites continue to be a basic part of agriculture. Pg. 30

Many ritual practices are an everyday adjunct of agriculture. Seeds are mixed with ground "mirage stone" and treated in a variety of other ways. To prevent early frosts, stones from the sweathouses are planted in the fields or at the base of fruit trees. If the crop is being damaged by wind, the wind is called by its secret name and asked to leave the corn alone. Cutworms are placed on fragments of pottery, sprinkled with pollen, and given other "magical" treatment. When the harvest is stored, a stalk of corn having two ears is placed in the bottom of the storage pit to ensure a healthy crop for the next year. At intervals while the corn is growing the farmer should go to his field, walk around and through it in a special way, singing the appropriate song. Not every Navaho farmer follows every one of these of the hundreds of other negative or positive agricultural folk rites which could be mentioned, but the writers have not known any Navaho families who do not observe some simple rituals. Pg. 143-144

The Navaho; 1946, Clyde Kluckhohn and Dorothea Leighton.

From the Puebloans they gained their first knowledge of corn and soon learned to grind it and use the meal for food and for ceremonial purposes. In order to save the best corn for themselves the owners created a taboo that the Navajos must not touch any ears except the two small ones that grew at the very top of the cornstalk, and these were likely to be small nubbins. The other, larger ears were said to belong to the gods. Pg. XXII

Hosteen Klah, Navajo Medicine Man and Sand Painter; 1964, Franc Johnson Newcomb.

A Navajo from Coalmine stated that "cased" squirrelskins were also sometimes used as containers for ceremonial materials. Bags of this type were made by both men and women and were used for storing sacred materials such as the seed corn to be planted ritually first in the center of the field.

Navajo Medicine Bundles or Jish: Acquisition, Transmission, and Disposition in the Past and Present; 1987, Charlotte J. Frisbie

Parched corn has been mentioned as an effective absorptive device. Cake [sweetened cornbread baked in a pit oven] is a treat of the Girl's Ceremony and the Flint Chant; in both it is an offering to Sun.

Farm songs belong to the entire tribe and are sung for the planting and maturation events rather than for a particular ceremony. The initial song refers to seed planting; it describes the place for planting, the seed, and offerings made to the seed [or perhaps to the earth]. The verbs are first in the form "I wish it to be...." and change later to 'It is becoming....' The second song repeats the sentiments of the first, but in the form 'It has become so.'

The songs of the second interval refer to the sprouting of the corn in terms corresponding with those of the first interval. Time is allowed for growth, then song indicates the appearance of tiny blades above the ground, another the fresh yellow-green appearance of the field; another celebrates the normal growth of the corn; a song states that the 'corn loves me' and is therefore doing well under my hand; another, that the leaves are large enough to touch one another when the wind blows; still another, that some plants are large and cast uniform shadows over the field, that red silk has appeared, that pollen has formed. Subsequent songs refer to the harvested ears, emphasizing the crackling sound made when the fully developed stalks are pulled. There are songs to describe the plucking of the ears and the piling of bundles gathered and dumped in the center of the field. The next song describes the extension of the piles of corn -'It increases by spreading'; another summarizes by describing the harvest as a whole. The pattern does not change for the husking, which is again described by sound--'now from my hands it gives forth a sound' - or for the drying, which completes the harvest.

Navajo Religion, Vol I; Gladys A. Reichard, 1950

Several versions ascribe human beings to a supernatural transformation of corn which existed primordially with First Man. Sun was said to be corn's father, Lightning its mother. According to one version, the results of the transformation were persons called First Man and First Woman, who are also referred to as `our ancestors.' From this account we may conclude that First man and first woman not only had corn in the early worlds but also were corn and came to symbolize transformation into human form. One origin is attributed to the transformation of turquoise and whiteshell images by deific ceremonial. Since, however, the jewels were laid beside corn ears, the significance is in the association between corn and precious stones rather than in the gems themselves. According to Navajo interpretation, the two would be the `the same'.

However, in contrast to the numerous etiologies of corn, accounts of the origin of particular plants are few. In some myths corn is considered primeval, for First Man had some in the first world. Other myths account for it as the gift of a god or a neighboring people. Whatever its origin, its value is constantly emphasized. According to one myth, Talking God gave corn to Whiteshell Woman and her sister, Turquoise Woman, saying, "There is no better thing than this in the world, for it is the gift of life." Later, when he visited them again and they told him they still had it, he said, "That is good, for corn is your symbol of fertility and life."

The hunting animals carried packs of corn on their backs, for they had charge of the corn-growing rite of the Fire Dance.

The complementation of corn by game is brought out by Talking God, who, in the myth of the Night Chant, instructs the her: "Never give corn to eat of its own substance. If you give it, corn will thereafter ever eat corn until all the land is destroyed. Then men will starve and have to eat one another, and thus destroy their own race. Give corn flesh to eat. For like reasons corn must be fed to the masks in the ceremonies. Should meat be fed to them, men would, thereafter, eat men." The masks of sacred buckskin represent game animals. According to tradition punishment was inevitable if the injunction was disobeyed.

Once, many years ago, when the ceremony of the corn was taking place and a young virgin was grinding meat to feed the corn, a wicked woman went out from the lodge and fed corn to the corn hanging on the poles of the drying frame. That year the people starved and men ate the flesh of other men.


Corn (na'da'), in myth and ritual at least, is reaffirmed as belonging to the Navaho from time immemorial and there is probably no rite or ceremony in which corn does not function in some form or other. The feeling about corn is expressed:
"Corn is more than human, it is divine; it was connected with the highest ethical ideals."
When Talking God gave corn to the lonely sisters of the Eagle Chant legend, he directed that they should never give it away. "Because," he explained, "there is no better thing in the world, for it is the gift of life." Later, when through ritualistic instruction their lot had improved, he said again, "Corn is your symbol of fertility and life."

Of the many representative references that might be given, a few follow: Hill 1938, pp. 20-95; Newcomb 1940b, pp.51, 71, 73, 76; Matthews 1897, pp. 137, 140, 183; 1902, pp.27, 29,106, 187-93; Haile 1938b, pp. 87, 191, 231; 1943a, pp. 162, 313, 174n; Reichard 1939, pp. 27, 30, 34, PI. IV-VII; 1944d, pp. 19, 81, 91, 113, 135; Shooting Chant ms.; Sapir-Hoijer, p. 31; Goddard, p. 174; Wheelwright 1942, p. 122, Set I, 1-4; II, 2; III, 1-4.

Corn meal (na'da'ka'n) is one of the commonest forms of corn in ceremony. It is coarsely ground, white for a man, yellow for a woman, mixed if there is a patient of each sex. Sometimes it must be ground by a virgin or at some particular place or time in the ritual cycle. It is invariably used for the hogan blessing, for sandpainting sprinkling, and as a drier after the bath in all the rites I have seen, Evil as well as Holy. Often it serves as a substitute for pollen, since corn meal is plentiful and pollen is scarce. It usually denotes the same thing, life and success along the road, exemplified by footprints laid in corn meal.
With Big Fly's help, people overcome by Spider Man heaped corn pollen and white corn meal on Spider Man until he could no longer move. Big Fly took some of these substances for future rituals.
The corn-meal drier of the Night Chant bath was said to stand for the patient's body and blood (Haile 1938b, pp. 180-3; Sapir-Hoijer, p. 251).

Corn smut (da 'a' tca'n, 'corn excrement') was the paint for the black hail spots of the Shooting Chant figure painting.
Hill describes cooked corn smut as a food. The eater applied some to his feet with the formula, "We are going to have much rain and large crops, but hail will not ruin the crops."
Corn smut was a part of the Feather Chant blackening.
Cornsmut Man was one of the Eagle Chant characters; he blackened himself with corn smut before starting to catch eagles (Hill 1938, p. 46; Newcomb 1940b, pp. 63, 65).

Navajo Religion, Vol II; Gladys A. Reichard, 1950