The Southwest high desert plateaus with scattered canyons and mesas have sustained Native people over thousands of years. Located atop a sandstone mesa, the Pueblo of Acoma has the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America, which is only possible because of a well-managed food system uniquely adapted to a high desert environment. The traditional knowledge tied to this food system has been passed down over many generations, shaping the genetic traits of Acoma’s heirloom plants. Today, traditional foods, cultural traditions and traditional knowledge are all interconnected and essential to community health.
No one knows this more than Aaron Lowden, Acoma Ancestral Lands Program Coordinator and Program Director of Acoma’s Traditional Farm Corps. Established in 2011, the program is restoring the traditional foods and farming methods at the core of Acoma’s strong agricultural heritage. Elders provided him with heirloom seeds, many of which had been stored for decades in baby-food jars. “My uncle taught me to pray and sing to the plants every day,” he says. “The plants are my children and require a lot of attention.” But the importance of this work weighs heavily on his mind … “If these traditions are lost, they are lost forever.”
Today, rare heirloom seeds lie suspended in baby-food jars, and ancient family plots lay fallow, in part due to centuries of federal policies and programs that forced assimilation into “modern” farming practices. These policies disrupted the transfer of traditional knowledge, incentivized unsustainable practices, and impaired food security.
One example was a federal program that offered tractors to families that sent their children away to Indian boarding schools. Tractor-based tilling requires fossil fuels and has high equipment costs. The greater use of water and nonrenewable resources make agriculture unsustainable in a desert environment. Today, federal programs continue to incentivize modern farming methods with subsidies and through extension services. As water is becoming more scare and weather patterns more erratic in the face of climate change, the risks of crop failures and system collapse is real.
Much work is needed to change policy, regulatory barriers and funding structures that suppress traditional farming, and central to this work is First Nation Development Institute’s belief that Native peoples hold the capacity and ingenuity to ensure the sustainable, economic, spiritual and cultural well-being of their communities. Lowden and many other traditional farmers have the knowledge, but their work requires support to overcome the legacy of federal policies and funding inequities.
First Nations is now working in partnership with Southwest tribes and pueblos to support a Native-led strategy to revitalize traditional farming. This work involves funder outreach and engagement. Together we hope to support a traditional farming movement that grows from culturally relevant planning and programming. The urgency of this work has increased due to climate change, as well as the continual need to ensure that elders pass on their accumulated knowledge, and baby-food jars full of seeds, to the younger generations.
There remains so much to learn from the people who have persevered through changes before. As noted by an Acoma elder: “We are so far behind, we’re ahead.”
Since 2012 First Nations has worked to support tribes in the Southwest in developing and implementing sustainable conservation strategies that build continuity of resource-management efforts, while reinforcing tribal community values. This work is growing and guided by feedback provided at a meeting on Increasing Ecological Stewardship of Tribal Lands, Natural Resources, and Historical Sites that was hosted in November 2018 and funded by the 11th Hour Project. The November convening focused on how to expand the use of traditional ecological knowledge and the resources needed to support this work. Strengthening tribal control of land and natural resources is essential to ensuring sustainability and a traditional way of life.
By Mary Adelzadeh, First Nations Senior Program Officer