WASHILE Tradition and Its Connection to Hemish Lifeways

Washile, in the Towa language, means irrigation ditch. The Towa-speaking people are natives of Walatowa, “People of the Canyon”. Because the Spaniards had difficulty pronouncing the Towa language, they referred to the Hemish people of this area as the Jemez people. The Walatowa area therefore became referred to, in Spanish, as the Jemez Pueblo—it is one of nineteen New Mexico pueblos located 40 miles northwest of Albuquerque.

Washile'The Hemish are a farming people having planted seeds in the area since the 1300s. Each year before planting season, the village men are congregated by the tribal leaders for washile clean up. This unique kind of communal work has been an effective traditional system for hundreds of years. The work activity is initiated to keep the irrigation ditches debris-free to help increase a strong, even water flow into the crop fields.

Kwala ha uookwa is a command articulated by the ditch leader for the workers to move on to the next section in the ditch. Work sections are assigned for tribal leaders, for societal groups, and for workers by surnames in alphabetical order. Four separate irrigation ditches exist with waters flowing north to south diverted from the Jemez River basin three miles north of Jemez proper. Two ditches are located to the west side across the river and two on the east side of the river by the pueblo. The ditches extend a total of twenty miles from the north to south on Jemez land. Shovels, pruning tools and pitchforks are common work instruments used by the men during this annual communal activity.

The health of the irrigation ditches is key to the health of the agricultural practices of the Jemez people. Traditionally Jemez farmers have planted corn, beans and squash. Later, other seeds were introduced by the Spaniards including melon, grapes, wheat, and alfalfa. Native chile seeds were brought to the Southwest from Mexico; they have been part of the Hemish diet since the 1600s. Chile seeds and corn (maize) are the most popular seeds planted in the fields each spring season. Chile-based recipes are prepared for family, social gatherings and ceremonies. Jemez women have been recognized as being excellent cooks having many different green chile recipes including honquna (bone stew) prepared with red chile. This meal is cooked with meat on bone with hominy (posole) that is simmered overnight. Jemez women feel the best cooking instrument is a kitchen wood stove burning juniper wood for fuel.

Jemez farmers farmed the land prior to Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s arrival in the early 1500s. At the time the Spanish arrived, the pueblo farmers cultivated their soil using crude tools such as wooden plows, wooden holes, and planting sticks. In ancient times, large animal jaw bone plows were used by pueblo farmers. Later, American-made horse-drawn plows, cultivators, mowers and hay rakes were used. Hand sickles for cutting wheat were also introduced to the farmers. Prior to the introduction of such modern tools, it was taboo to utilize farming instruments on spiritual lands where the sacred seeds were planted and harvested. Over time, pueblo farmers slowly adopted some of the strategies of modern farming. For example, today, several Jemez farmers use tractors to work the crop fields. What has not changed is the Jemez way of stewardship: farmers continue to care for the land by planting the sacred seed and harvesting the produce.

Juanita's-PotteryJemez has been an area for excellent biological and cultural diversity. Unfortunately, foreign, processed foods have damaged the people’s diet. Nevertheless, the pueblo farmers continue to grow organic foods to maintain tremendous food security and culture for the community. It is important for the younger generation—middle school boys and teenagers—to help with preparing the crop fields by hoeing weeds and irrigating. In this way, they deepen their knowledge in the areas of traditional planting, care of the crops, and harvesting in the fall season. All of these practices—including the washile cleanup—are invaluable for the Jemez people to insure the future of our traditional foods, which we depend on for consumption and special traditional ceremonial use. 

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