When Michael Kotutwa Johnson walks through his fields on the Hopi Reservation, he sings to the corn, beans, and melons to help them grow healthy and strong. “It’s an intimate relationship Hopi farmers have with their crops,” Johnson said. “We think of them like family.”
At the age of 8, Johnson began learning from his grandfather how to grow crops without irrigation on the semiarid high plateaus of northeastern Arizona. Then, as a teenager with a strong bass-baritone voice, he went to Arizona State University to study vocal performance. Johnson struggled with the curriculum, however, and eventually returned home to his first love: farming.
“If you look back for millennia, Indigenous People have been stewarding the land very well with their practices.”
Johnson then went to Cornell University in New York, where he majored in conventional agriculture. It was there he realized the value of Native American agricultural practices, such as planting seeds up to 45 centimeters (18 inches) deep to make full use of the moisture below, and following an agricultural calendar based on regional weather patterns. Johnson recognized that such time-tested techniques have provided food and resources to communities in a way that has sustained the environment. “If you look back for millennia, Indigenous People have been stewarding the land very well with their practices,” Johnson said.
Johnson also realized that as a result of a variety of factors, many Native American tribes could no longer farm, hunt, or gather as they had done for centuries—to the detriment of their food sovereignty, their health, and the environment. He knew that to address this challenge, he’d need a place at the policymaking table, and he went on to study for a Ph.D. in natural resources and conservation at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
His focus is on pushing the restoration of the American Indian food system based on the ideas of Indigenous conservation and stewardship.
Throughout his Ph.D. studies, Johnson continued to raise crops as a Hopi dryland farmer. He still does, but now his mission is broader than keeping cultural traditions alive and protecting the land that has fed his tribe for millennia. His focus is on pushing restoration of the American Indian food system based on the ideas of Indigenous conservation and stewardship.
In May 2022, Johnson joined the faculty at the University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment. He will also be part of the university’s Indigenous Resilience Center, where he hopes to use his experience as a farmer, his training in policy, and, most of all, his strong voice for change.
—Jane Palmer (@JanePalmerComms), Science Writer
This profile is part of a special series in our August 2022 issue on science careers.