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Hopi Black Dye Sunflower


Helianthus annuus macrocarpus


Tceqa' Qu' Si


Shungopavi, Hopi Reservation, Arizona




Sunflowers are native to the Americas and are thought to have been domesticated as early as 3,600 BC in the Eastern United States, although it is unclear if this occurred in Northern Mexico, the Southwestern U.S., or the Mississippi River Valley. Sunflower seeds were spread throughout the U.S. over subsequent generations, and evolved into separate varieties.

In 1510, sunflowers were first imported to Europe, and in 1832, Prince Alexander Phillip Maximillian brought back Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa sunflowers to his native Germany for oil pressing. When these sunflowers were taken back to the U.S. under the name ‘Mammoth Russians’ during the late 1930s, they almost wiped out the native heirloom sunflowers still being grown. Since World War II, sunflower monocultures have developed in the US for commercial oil production, with far less attention being paid to heritage varieties.


Sunflower seeds can be eaten raw or roasted, and ground to make a meal for adding to soups and stews. Oil can be extracted by boiling the kernels.


Sunflower seeds are rich in protein, vitamin B-complex, vitamin E, folic acid, calcium, iron, manganese, zinc, magnesium and selenium.


Sunflower products have traditionally been used by the Hopi as a medicine for spider bites and the oil can be used against warts and snakebites. Sunflower seeds can help to lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels, anxiety and neurosis.


Hopi people have traditionally used Hopi Black Dye sunflowers to make a dye for cotton, wool and basketry. Colors derived include maroon-red, deep maroon, dark purple, deep lavender, medium blue and black dye. To begin the dyeing process, a dye stock liquid is made. To make this, add 2 liters of water to 300ml of seeds. Bring to the boil and gently simmer for ½ hour, or until the seeds split open. Strain through a cloth to obtain a deep maroon liquid. The dye stock liquid is the base to which mordants – different compounds that ‘fix’ the dye onto the material – are added. For example, to obtain a deep purple dye, add to the dye stock 100ml ground alum, from efflorescence of drying soil. To yield a black dye for basketry, iron, from piñon gum and yellow ochre, is added to the dye stock. The black seeds and yellow petals can also be dried, and ground into a powder, to which water is added, to form ceremonial body paint for use in ceremonies including women’s basket dances.


Basketry is very important within Hopi society. As Helga Tiewes notes, “Essentially, basketry serves as a medium for preserving Hopi culture. Hopi women, in making certain basketry items, establish and perpetuate critical links among family members, clan members, and members of the community at large. In particular, reciprocal gift giving in the form of the presentation of food and basketry reinforces strong social and ritual bonds.” (1996: 141). Basket dances are usually associated with the initiation of fourteen-year-old girls into either the Lalkont or O’waqolt women’s societies. These dances are held at harvest time and celebrate the fertility of the land, using crops that have recently been harvested and baskets made from local plant fibers. Baskets also function for a number of household uses such as storage vessels and to process and sift cornmeal.


The Hopi have traditionally used irrigated terraces to grow sunflowers. These terraces are normally located on the side of the Mesas surrounding the area the Hopi people inhabit, and are fed by natural springs which emerge from the rock. Ditches and channels carry water from the springs to garden terraces further afield. Wild sunflowers also grow in washes where water concentrates.


Buchanon, Rita (1989). Hopi Dye Seed Crops. The Seedhead News: 26.

Dutton, Bertha P. (1975). The Pueblos: Indians of the American Southwest. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Colton, Mary-Russell Ferrell (1965). Hopi Dyes. Flagstaff, AZ: Museum of Northern Arizona Press.

Soleri, Daniela (1989). Hopi Gardens. Aridlands Newsletter: 29. Retrieved from

Tiewes, Helga (1996). Hopi Basket Weaving: Artistry in Natural Fibers. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press.

Whiting, Alfred F. (1939). Ethnobotany of the Hopi. Flagstaff, AZ: Northern Arizona Society of Science and Art.