Indigenous agriculture

Saving seeds and stories at Taos Pueblo


When Addelina Lucero's mother gifted her seeds, whether or not they would grow was a big question mark.

The seeds - blue corn and pumpkins - had been cultivated for generations at Taos Pueblo in the acequia-fed fields below Taos Mountain. But the annual rhythm of planting seeds according to this landscape's clock was interrupted. Like in most places, fewer people worked the land once grocery stores came to town.

The seeds had been saved, but lived dormant in a plastic jug for 40 years. Much of the generational knowledge of how to grow those seeds went dormant, too.

Still, Lucero needed to grow the crops for her son's ceremonies at Taos Pueblo. One spring, she gave the seeds a shot.

"They worked and they were magnificent. I still have them and this is what I brought to share," said Lucero at a seed exchange hosted by Taos Pueblo on Saturday (April 15).

It was the second annual seed exchange at the Pueblo's Red Willow Farm, a youth-led center for traditional agriculture and food justice. 

The farm is trying to strengthen the agricultural pillars of indigenous sovereignty. And because seeds are the heart of all agriculture, the exchange was a calling-in - that is, calling the indigenous people from around Northern New Mexico back into the agricultural cosmology of Pueblo culture through story and seed.

'Our foundation'

At one time, seeds for the crops we eat were as diverse as the people who grew them. It was before seed co-ops, companies and multinational chemical conglomerates. Seeds were handed down from family, neighbors and the occasional traveler.

Those seeds were worked for generations, co-creating with humanity entire civilizations from Chaco to China.

Daniel Martinez, the manager of Red Willow Farm, tells the story this way: "They say people domesticated corn, but I personally believe corn domesticated people. It gave us our foundation to stay put." 

It took thousands of years for corn to evolve from a wild-harvested, tropical grass. Corn moved up the spine of the Americas and became the sustaining crop of the hemisphere. Yet as singularly important as corn may be, it is not a singular plant.

Seeds adapt to their own unique climate and ecology - the elevation, moisture, daylight, temperature swings, wind, pollinators and other wildlife. Corn from Taos won't grow the same as corn from Las Cruces. Corn saved in different parts of Taos Valley are subtly different, for that matter.

But that seed diversity was eroded. Fewer families saved seeds and passed them on. Seeds became a commodity to be bought and sold, owned and patented during the 20th century. The vast majority of seeds planted in the United States - especially soybeans, corn, wheat and other grains - are owned by only a few of the biggest companies.

And the majority of those seeds are patented, genetically modified hybrids, meaning farmers can't legally save the seeds and farming operations must purchase the companies' seeds year after year.

"When not saving seeds, you're dependent on another system. You're dependent on seeds that aren't from this part of the world," Martinez said.

On the flip side, said Martinez, "To save seeds is to save your own prosperity."

But just how many types of seeds have farmers lost? The short answer: most of them. Most estimates of the worldwide loss of seed diversity come in between 90 and 95 percent of all agricultural crops.

Yet for all the practical value of seeds - that is, making human existence as we know it possible - they aren't just packets of genetic code. They are family with histories, stories and rites to be honored.

"Everything in our daily lives before colonization was based around agriculture, from our ceremonies to how we viewed the world to how we viewed each other," said Martinez. "Having the earth take care of you and you take care of the earth was the foundation of our lifestyle for countless generations."

'I didn't know'

Saving seeds is like saving a language, each corn kernel a word, each watered field a sentence, each year another chapter in the saga of a people born of and beholden to the land.

To really save seeds with an eye toward the future, you've got to farm. And you've got to do it consistently - year after year.

Henrietta Gomez, of both Taos Pueblo and Acoma Pueblo, is a longtime grower. Like her father and grandfather before her, she plants traditional blue and white corn at just the right time.

As Gomez tells it, to farm is no small task. "It's labor intensive ... to get your ditches ready, to get your fields ready," she said.

The corn seeds she plants, cares for, harvests, dries and plants again the following year are the same seeds "that have been in the family forever," said Gomez.

It's not just the seeds, but also the stories and subtleties of those seeds that have been in the family.

"We don't plant just any ol' time," Gomez said. At Taos Pueblo, seeds go into the ground according to a traditional calendar.

Not everyone is a lifelong farmer like Gomez. For some people at the Pueblo, the farming know-how waned with the waxing of grocery stores and modern agriculture. But some people are getting back into it, like Martinez and Tiana Suazo, both in their 20s.

Suazo didn't grow up farming, but found her way to it through college, a business degree and internships that turned her onto the notion of local food.

"As soon as I really started getting into agriculture, my grandfather started telling me a lot of the stories and the background of how much agriculture is integrated into our ceremonies," Suazo said.

"It's so strange I didn't know that for the longest time. I'm already 25, but I'm barely learning about the stories behind what we do," Suazo said.

Martinez also didn't grow up farming, but made his way to the farm after almost a decade of running a landscaping business. Of all the seeds he and his crew will plant this year, it is the traditional corn seed he said he's most excited for.

"I've never planted it myself, believe it or not," he said.

Slowly but surely, the rhythm of things is making more sense. "It's a very grounding experience. I'm still adjusting to the pace of the earth rather than the pace of modern society," said Martinez.

Global effort

The work at Taos Pueblo to save seeds is but one manifestation of a larger effort in both indigenous and non-native communities to save what genetic diversity is left.

Perhaps the most famous seed bank is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, the Noah's Ark of seeds.

The vault opened less than a decade ago and is the single largest repository of the world's seed stock.

In the indigenous communities of this continent, seed saving has become a staple of efforts at self-determination and reclaiming Native sovereignty from the claws of colonization.

Just down the road from Taos is Tesuque Pueblo, where a seed bank was built into the earth to preserve the genetic diversity of crops from Tesuque, other tribal communities in the Southwest and even crops such as quinoa, which came to the area from Bolivia several decades ago.

Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit in Tucson, Arizona, has a collection of thousands of varieties of crops from the arid Southwest - from corns, beans and squash to the wild relatives that first offered a hint at humanity's agricultural future. Many seeds are available for the average farmer, but the organization gives seeds away to Native farmers in the Southwest who are looking to become part of this agricultural effort.

But the torch of seed saving can't be carried by only a few organizations. As Bill McDorman, former executive director of Native Seeds/SEARCH has said, never put all your seeds somewhere you can't get them (i.e., Norway).

For that reason, Martinez, Lucero and those involved with Red Willow Farm are doing their part to keep their seeds in the hands of their people and planted in the fields of their tribe.

Martinez hopes that in the spirit of seed-saving projects both global and local, the farm can become a place where any indigenous person from Taos Pueblo or the whole region can come and get a handful of seeds, learn the calendar and give voice to the stories stretching back generations.

That will take time.

The first seed exchange last year was very modest. The one on Saturday was a little bigger, but was set back by a break-in at the farm before the event. The farm's managers found jars shattered and seeds scattered across the floor, but they gathered up what was left to share at the exchange.

In the coming weeks, they'll start planting the seeds they traded.

As Lucero said, "I believe the traditional way we look at seeds ... comes from a place-based thought. That is what's going to help us heal, feed us, nourish us and keep us going."