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Hopi Short Staple Cotton

hopi short staple cotton


Gossypium hirsutum punctatum


Originally collected in the 1930s from the Hopi Reservation, Arizona by the USDA.


This seed stock came to Native Seeds/SEARCH in 1981 from the USDA.


Short Staple Cotton was domesticated in Mexico. Evidence suggests that it was cultivated in the Sonoran desert by 500-700 AD and the Colorado Plateau by 900 AD.


There is ethnographic evidence from the Southwest that the seeds were roasted and eaten.


Cotton has been used as a fiber for thousands of years throughout the world. The Hopi and other Puebloan people grew cotton for spinning into fabric for garments from around 800 AD. Today, commercial sources of cotton are more common but it is still cultivated. Cotton can be dyed a range of colors by using local desert plants, and is prepared for dying by boiling gently in water, and expelling any air bubbles.


Cotton has traditionally played an important ceremonial role in Hopi society. It is used to make garments worn during important ritual occasions, notably those to summon the rains. For example, a cotton string is knotted over a corn husk foundation to make men’s rain or ‘wedding’ sashes. The wedding sash is made by the bridegroom’s family, for the bride, although men wear these items when dancing at rain ceremonies. Cotton is also used to make men’s ceremonial kilts, which are embroidered with pyramid designs to represent rain clouds and parallel strips to symbolize fields. Women’s wrap dresses, known as mantas, are made of cotton and typically worn during weddings and other ceremonies. At the corners are tassels, which signify rain and fertility. Cotton is also smoked ceremonially by the Hopi, in a mixture referred to as ‘Cloud tobacco’ that is thought to be bringing in the rain.

Between the late 1800's and early 1900's, cotton cultivation by the Hopi declined. Wool, introduced by the Spanish, had become an increasingly popular choice for clothing and textiles over time, and commercially grown cotton was becoming readily available. Hopi Short Staple cotton was thought to be lost from the Hopi community for many years. In 2003, cotton, along with other culturally important crops, was returned to the Hopi, in the largest seed repatriation in US history. The Hopi Cultural Preservation Office and the University of Northern Arizona’s Center for Sustainable Environments worked together with organizations such as the USDA and Native Seeds/SEARCH to ensure that the community would have continued access to the crops, which are now housed in the Hopi seed bank.


Cotton was historically farmed by the Hopi. When the Spanish encountered the Hopi, the fields of cotton were said to stretch for ‘several leagues’. The removal of the seeds from the fiber, as well as spinning and weaving, has traditionally been considered men’s work, to be carried out in the ceremonial meeting houses known as kivas. Cotton grows best in areas that have good moisture and full sun.


Dahl, Kevin (2006). Native Harvest: Authentic Southwestern Gardening. Tucson, AZ: Western National Parks Association.

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

Nabhan, Gary Paul (2003). Grow them Sustainably, Irrigate them Slowly: Honoring Farmers and Ranchers in the Painted Desert. The Seedhead News: 81.

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