Understanding Traditional Food Security of Hopi Single-Parent, Female-Headed Households: Outreach to the Hopi Community and its Organizations

Year: 2007

Research Center: American Indian Studies Program, The University of Arizona

Investigator: Livingston, Matthew R., and Cornelia Butler Flora

Institution: University of Arizona Cooperative Extension

Project Contact:
Matthew R. Livingston
The University of Arizona Cooperative Extension
P.O. Box 1203
Keams Canyon, AZ 86034
Phone: 928-734-3708


The Hopi Reservation has a large number of female-headed households. This study of Hopi agriculture reinforced the key role that local production has on the availability of traditional food and also revealed that production is primarily a male activity on female-owned land. Because traditional food in many tribal settings has been related to increased health and well-being, men’s control of production and the small number of nuclear families led to concern about food security in terms of female-headed households’ access to and use of traditional food. After interviewing single mothers, the study found a complex exchange system that allowed female-headed households to gain access to traditional food. Focus groups were then conducted to further understand the social and cultural dynamics around this unexpected access to traditional food.

The approach to the study is participatory action research, collaborating closely with members of the Hopi tribe representing the various mesas. The goal of this participatory action research was to leave tribal members with the tools not only to gather data, but to design the research and analyze the data as well. Appreciative Inquiry framed the study not only to set a positive tone to gather information but also to improve the health status of members of female-headed households. After analyzing the survey data, the study used participatory methods to involve a broad segment of the community to design a structure conversation to be conducted with focus groups of women across the reservation to learn the manner in which access and use of traditional foods were related to more healthful eating.

The study found that family ties were critical in imparting embedded knowledge regarding methods to grow, process, prepare, and serve traditional foods. Further, each stage was necessary for the previous and following stages, with ceremonies tying them together to give each action meaning. Agriculture is not an economic activity but a cultural one that provides for the continuity of each village and clan. Thus, the production, processing, preparation, and consumption of traditional food cannot be evaluated in economic terms but in terms of cultural survival and inclusion.

Boarding schools tended to separate the women from those embedded practices. Many women were required to cook in school kitchens but needed to grab hamburgers from fast food stands to avoid eating the food prepared. Despite this cultural and physical separation, a number of women who went through the boarding school process were seeking out the wisdom of their elders and recreating that knowledge. Traditional food is consumed within the household and at ceremonial occasions and participation in these occasions is a critical way to re-embed knowledge of traditional foods sought by young women.

Older women were concerned about passing the knowledge on to their female relatives, yet many learned from their male relatives as well. The current drought, a plague infecting rabbits, and incorrect harvesting of widely used native plants has further complicated providing the ingredients for traditional foods.

Study respondents were very aware of the superior characteristics of traditional foods in building six of the seven community capitals—natural, cultural, human, social, financial, and built. However, the seeming separation of traditional food from political capital caused respondents difficulty in turning their ideas on increasing access to and use of traditional foods into concrete programs. A number of the groups suggested strategies for increasing use of traditional foods, such as inclusion in the school cafeterias; village cooking classes; schemes to give women better access to labor and machinery to grow corn, squash, and beans; and an illustrated cookbook to help young people learn to properly gather wild plants and to prepare traditional dishes, including hybrid dishes using purchased and self-provisioned ingredients.

Conventions theory helps in understanding the roles of food and agriculture in Hopi society. The domestic convention, with nonmonetary value chains, explains access to and use of traditional Hopi food. Thus, even unemployed female heads of household responsible for numerous children, often not only their own but also those of relatives, can, by participating in the preparation of ceremonial foods, have access to the many types of corn and other cultivated and wild plants that provide healthy food that satisfies both their bodies and their spirits.

Direct inquiries about this study to the Project Contact listed above.