Encounters with America’s First Gardeners

By Wendy Mills, Certified Master Gardener

First Nations Development Institute Southwest TourEarlier this summer I participated in  a study tour to explore the culture and traditions of Pueblo peoples of New Mexico. The First Nations Development Institute, a Denver-based non-profit, conducted the tour, which focused on native agriculture, community gardening projects and food sovereignty–the right of people to healthy, culturally appropriate, sustainably produced food. Across Indian Country, and with the support of groups like First Nations, a revival of agriculture and community gardening is taking place.

Pojoaque's bison herd added a new member this spring. Bison meat is used for community feasts and meals. Photo by Mark Habeeb

Pojoaque’s bison herd added a new member this spring. Bison meat is used for community feasts and meals.
Photo © 2017 Mark Habeeb

We visited farms and gardens in the northern New Mexico pueblos of Nambé, Pojoaque and Cochiti, as well as the city of Española. We attended a feast day at the Sandia Pueblo, where more than 200 people participated in traditional ceremonial dances, and community members opened their homes and fed everyone–family, friends and strangers alike. We also visited New Mexico State Senator Benny Shendo, Jr., one of a handful of Native Americans in the state legislature, and met high school students attending a summer leadership program who reflected on identity politics and the hard realities of contemporary Native American life.

All of the gardening projects we visited shared a common mission: to empower the community to produce its own food and inspire renewed passion for Pueblo culture and heritage. Through the centuries, Pueblo people depended on agriculture to sustain themselves. Pueblo life was organized around a seasonal calendar of planting and harvesting, with ceremonies and dances that honored animals and Earth’s natural resources and sought blessings from nature and ancestral spirits for ample rainfall and harvests. Teachings regarding crops and methods were passed down through generations, as were seeds. Peoples’ bodies and the land were adapted to traditional foods. Corn, beans, and squash, “the three sisters,” were essential staples, since corn and beans together create a complete protein. Corn is considered sacred by Pueblo people.

Farming withered under Spanish and Mexican colonial rule and later under US government policies designed to displace, remove and assimilate Native peoples into American society. When the reservation system was put in place, many Native American communities transitioned from hunting, agriculture and foraging to reliance on government food rations, which created dependence on federal programs and transformed food traditions. Today, Native peoples have some of the highest rates of poverty, food insecurity and diet-related illnesses in the United States. Almost all reservations are considered food deserts by the US Department of Agriculture. Fresh fruits, vegetables and other whole foods are scarce due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets and other providers of healthy food.

The people we met talked about the challenge of reconciling traditional ways and belief systems with broader societal norms, American popular culture and life off the reservation. George Toya, manager of the Nambé Community Gardens said, “People who don’t have the pleasure of saying ‘This is who I am, this is where I am from’ are kind of lost. And when that happens, they tend to be vulnerable.” Eileen Shendo, co-manager of StrictlyRoots Greenhouse, a young cooperative of Jemez Pueblo farmers that grows fresh produce year-round, explained the loss of Native American agricultural traditions this way: “It’s much deeper than losing a way of eating. When an Indian child is given their name, we use the corn and the meal in the naming ceremony. It is said that how well you grow your corn is how well your children will turn out. It used to be that men modeled when and how to work the land and how to be a father. What does it say that we have to buy the corn we use in the naming ceremony from Walmart? The loss of farming and of male figures in the home says a lot in terms of how much we’ve lost.”

Today, Walmart superstores are the grocery store of choice and people often travel long distances to get there. While consumption of fresh, home-grown produce is generally supported, the communities we visited have adapted to the convenience and taste of processed and packaged foods. People driving the resurgence in gardening acknowledge that the transition back to food independence and healthier eating habits will be long. “It’ll never be the way it used to be, but if people can’t get to Walmart, at least they’ll be able to say, ‘I know how to grow things.’ That’s a step,” said Ken Romero, executive director of the Cochiti Youth Experience.

Despite the challenges, the Pueblo community farm movement is delivering tangible benefits for individuals and communities, as well as dividends that cannot be measured solely in pounds of food produced and number of school lunches served. The movement is breathing new life and meaning into ancient traditions and customs, strengthening Pueblo identity, providing children with role models and strategies for dealing with the pressures of contemporary life, and creating economic opportunity and career options for tribal members.

Nambé Community Gardens

George Toya

George Toya of the Nambé Community Garden shows off the lettuces, kales, carrots and onions growing in the hoophouse. Photo © 2017 Mark Habeeb

Nambé Pueblo is nestled in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, 20 miles north of Santa Fe. It is home to 1,200 tribal members and encompasses 20,000 acres of towering cottonwoods, juniper, and scrub oak. The Nambé Community Gardens encourages young people to grow their own food, eat their home-grown fruits and vegetables, and learn about their culture and heritage. Before the project was started in 2012, “There was no one left to do the farming and little for young people to come home to” according to George Toya, Farm Manager at Nambé.

With the blessing and input of tribal elders, the project has grown from one to six acres in the last four years. A hoop house extends the growing season and dry soil gets a fertility boost from community-made compost. The fields are laid out in traditional Pueblo style, with wide rows and borders, and are flooded with water from the Nambé River once a week for 4-6 hours. In 2016, the farm produced 9,000 pounds of food—chilies, corn, tomatoes, a variety of squash, beans, sweet peas and melons.  Uphill, several varieties of wine grapes are being cultivated as a new business venture for the tribe. All garden produce is shared, free-of-charge, with the tribal community, including seniors and school children, who are encouraged to freely pick whatever looks good.

In addition to agricultural practices, Nambé youth are developing “tool boxes” of life skills, including knowledge of the tribal language, practices and customs of their people. “There is a sacredness to food and water,” Toya said. “It affects everything. The elders knew that and now we’re just relearning it.” “There are a lot of things to enjoy out here” said one of the technical staff and mentors. “A family of red-tailed hawks, the mountains, the quiet. We encourage young people to be open to everything that is around.”

Healing Foods Oasis

Beata Tsosie-Pena

Beata Tsosie-Pena, founder of the Healing Foods Oasis, offers up cups of Cota, a popular beverage, made by boiling the whole cota tinctoria plant in water for five minutes, sometimes with cinnamon, spearmint or pennyroyal. The tea, sold as Cota, Indian Tea or Colorado Greenthread, is served hot or cold and sweetened with sugar or honey.
Photo courtesy of Wendy Mills

Beata Tsosie-Peña, a member of the Santa Clara Pueblo, is a certified permaculturalist and the Environmental Health and Justice Director of Tewa Women United (TWU). She is a quiet force of nature. It took several years that tested her gardening, community organizing and advocacy skills to realize her dream of transforming a barren slope on the edge of a local park into a garden of native plants and fruit trees, and a space for community empowerment. After only a year, the garden, with its swales and berms, is buzzing with pollinators, capturing and filtering rain water from an adjacent parking lot while holding the hillside in place.

The garden, a partnership between the Española municipality and TWU, employs traditional dry gardening techniques and modern approaches, such as drip-lines that minimize water use. The garden facilitates community access to healthy foods and medicines, and includes approximately 80 percent native plants, such as Cota tinctoria (cota), from which a cleansing, anti-inflammatory tea is made; Artemisia filifolia (sand sagebrush), used to treat indigestion and snakebites; and Amaranthus (amaranth), a complete food high in protein, fiber, vitamins A and C, and minerals. More than 120 desert-adapted trees, shrubs, vines, grasses, perennials and annuals grow in the garden.  

View of the Healing Foods Oasis from mid-slope. Plans are in the works to add arm rails and signage in Year 2.

View of the Healing Foods Oasis from mid-slope. Plans are in the works to add arm rails and signage in Year 2.
Photo © 2017 Mark Habeeb

Located in the shadow of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the garden’s healing aspect is integral to its mission. Los Alamos, with its massive nuclear waste dumps, is emblematic of the “culture of violence against Mother Earth—the soils, seeds, air, waters—that does continuous harm to the people,” Tsosie-Peña explained. “The Healing Garden is a way to help our youth reconnect with the land and reclaim our relationships to the natural world. The connection is right below the surface. Agriculture is the cornerstone of our spirituality.”

The community in this economically challenged town, where one-in-three people lives in poverty, is responding to the garden. Work days regularly attract 30 volunteers, including youth groups and seniors, who have contributed more than 1,000 volunteer hours. According to Corrine Sanchez, TWU’s executive director, “The Healing Foods Oasis is helping us tell a new story about Española. This is a story of a community with strong traditions and deep roots that supports one another and values working together.”

Cochiti Youth Experience

Our visit with Ken Romero, executive director of the Cochiti Youth Experience, began with a blessing, which he offered in the Keres language. “We have a big broad view of life and bless all humanity,” he said. “Every day is special as long as we can grow.”  This optimistic spirit and enthusiasm extends to Ken’s work, which teaches young people about the entire food pathway from planting and growing food sustainably to storing, preparing and eating it. For the Cochiti Youth Experience, food is a touchstone for health, community, economics, land and spirituality. If you improve food, you improve all those things.

The organization has an ambitious agenda that includes creation of a localized food system—supporting existing farmers, teaching Cochiti youth traditional farming techniques and enlisting older farmers to mentor younger generations. From a small seed planted in 2012, today the program farms 10 acres with the help of 42 youth, and supports farm-to-table programs that train youth in food preparation and provide food to tribal elders and the local school district, including a meal of traditional foods on Fridays. Four hundred children—one-third of all Cochiti children—were served lunch and a nutritious snack during the 2016-2017 school year.

At an age when young people are at risk for truancy and alcohol use, “We are here to enable all youth to make better lifestyle choices—nutrition, exercise, diet—and empower them to make good decisions for their future,” Romero said. Thanks to the program, farming is once again an attractive career option and one that strengthens community. “It’s important to get back to our heritage and advocate for tribal communities to define, maintain, and perpetuate our customs—through the food we grow and value.”

A final note:

Pueblo farmers are worried about climate change. One of the technical staff and mentors at the Nambé garden told us, “Jemez old timers knew what to plant and when—chilies on Mother’s Day and beans on San Juan Feast Day—and they passed this knowledge down. But things have changed. Today we get a lot less snow. Winters are colder and summers hotter. There is a lot more uncertainty.” Everywhere we went, people talked about the freak cold snap in May that damaged crops, especially fruit trees. Despite this, I came away feeling hopeful. The people we met were extraordinary individuals. Deeply respectful of the knowledge that is passed down, they are also open to technical innovations and approaches that align with Pueblo values that advance respect, compassion, balance, peace and empathy. The work these gardeners and farmers are doing is about much more than growing food. They are growing community and in the process offering a healing response to generations of trauma and loss. There is much we can learn from their example.

This article would not have been possible without the input of several people. Special thanks go to Steve Bell, Randy Blauvelt, Jona Charette, Eileen Egan, Mark Habeeb, Mike Roberts, Eileen Shendo and George Toya. For more information on the First Nations Development Institute, visit www.firstnations.org.


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