On a windy winter day in Acoma Pueblo in north-western New Mexico, Aaron Lowden knelt beside a field near the San Jose River, the tribe’s primary irrigator for centuries.
“The soil has been building up,” said Lowden, an Indigenous seed keeper and farmer, pushing his hand into the soft, dark dirt at the base of a stalk of dried Acoma blue corn. In the summer, this otherwise dry stretch of land turns into a “food forest”, said Lowden, pulling up a photo on his phone showing lush rows of corn, intercropped with Hopi yellow beans, and Acoma winter squash – the “three sisters” of Pueblo agriculture.
On the edges of the field are giant heirloom sunflowers – used to attract pollinators – and rows of amaranth. “By companion cropping, you’re replicating those systems you see in nature,” said Lowden, describing the traditional Indigenous practice of interplanting crops to deter weeds and pests, maintain moisture and enrich the soil. “This is thousands of years of knowledge passed down,” he added.
For the past decade, Lowden, 34, has worked to restore traditional crops and farming practices in Acoma. As program director for Ancestral Lands, a non-profit that supports land stewardship in Indigenous communities, he reintroduced traditional Acoma crops into the community and created a bank of 57 arid-adapted seeds native to the region.
His work is part of a broader movement to build food and seed sovereignty on tribal lands amidst staggering global biodiversity losses created by the modern agricultural system and growing food insecurities caused by climate crisis.
“It’s so important that we can bring back our seed diversity,” said Lowden, speaking inside the Ancestral Lands office in Acoma, a few doors down from the seed bank. “To stop monocropping and bring these resilient seeds home.”
According to the United Nations, 75% of crop diversity has been lost over the past century as farmers abandoned numerous local varieties of crops for high yield monocultures that are often shoehorned into environments they are poorly adapted to.
The Hopi, a sovereign nation in north-eastern Arizona, have been practicing resilient methods of farming for years. “Hopi’s one of the only places I know that corn is made to fit the environment, and not the environment manipulated to fit the corn,” said Dr Michael Kotutwa Johnson, a Hopi dryland farmer and academic from Arizona who relies on passive rain harvesting and drought-resistant seeds to sustain crops. “In agriculture across the world, you could argue that the fundamental problem is remaking the environment to fit products.”
“The industrialized food system has failed us,” added Lowden. “We need to restore our food system and that ecological knowledge that has supported us since the beginning.”
That ecological knowledge stretches back millennia in the southwest, where farming began as early as 2000 BC.
For Lowden, Acoma – the oldest continually inhabited community in North America – is a model of resilience. A community with a holistic, reciprocal and self-sustaining food system, superbly adapted to the high desert and capable of weathering extreme drought, climate change, and violent intrusions by outsiders.
In Acoma, “farming is not a hobby”, Lowden said. “It is the basis of our culture and our survival.”
‘The seeds are your children’
Since the arrival of the Spanish, Indigenous culture and food systems have been under constant disruption.
Roxanne Swendtzell, an Indigenous seed keeper and sculptor from Santa Clara Pueblo in northern New Mexico, said the story of Native American amaranth is a case in point. The Spanish wanted the Indigenous people to grow wheat and made cultivating amaranth illegal. “You ask most of the people ‘What’s amaranth?’; they don’t even have a memory of it. And yet it was one of our main crops. In this way, so much diversity was lost.”
Seed diversity and agriculture knowledge in Acoma, as in many communities, declined as “we shifted from economies of care to cash economies reliant on the national food system”, said Lowden.
When Lowden first joined Ancestral Lands in 2011, fifteen or fewer people in all of Acoma were farming, and most were over the age of 40. “They [farmers] were not renewing those seeds and propagating them,” said Lowden.
Through the Ancestral Lands Farm Corp, Lowden began to teach Acoma youth traditional farming methods, seed selection and saving, and food preparation. Since 2020 they have had as many as 65 farmers.
Last October, farm crew members were working to process the fall harvest. Near the entrance, a group of Acoma youth removed seeds from the heads of massive sunflowers as a layer of Hopi yellow beans dried on a tarp outside.
Heirloom gourds covered one corner of the room; Lowden noted that Acoma melons “smell like flowers when they are harvested” and Acoma banana squash, or “Tee-dee-shu-koo-meh daa-nee”, is named for its elongated shape.
Another variety, Northern People pumpkin, came from seeds saved by Lowden’s uncle, a traditional Acoma farmer and one of his first teachers.
“He told me those [seeds] are your children. Once you put them in the ground, you created that life, so you got to take responsibility,” said Lowden recalling his uncle’s words. “I always teach our young people everything about our food systems, our ways of being, are reciprocal.”
Some of the seeds from the harvest will be replanted next season and “grown out”. Others will be put in the seed bank and made available to Black and Indigenous people of color with guidance on how to grow them to minimize hybridization and cross-pollination.
Most of the varieties at the seed bank in Acoma were “rematriated” from other seedbanks to their communities of origin. “If your intention was really to care, to take these seeds and maintain the biodiversity, then you should put them back in the rightful hands of the people with know-how,” said Lowden.
Connecting to food
For Lowden, it is a joyous feeling when a seed variety is returned to the community.
“It just feels like a relative coming home,” said Lowden, who recently took the position of Indigenous Seedkeepers Network Program Coordinator at the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, a non-profit working to revitalize Indigenous food systems.
One of those rematriated crops is Acoma blue corn, which Lowden planted for the first time in 2020. The kernels – shelled into a bright orange Home Depot bucket – range in color from blue to deep purple to almost black.
“Our corn relates to the directions and our place in the world,” said Lowden. “It connects to our culture and songs.”
Blue corn is a crucial part of the traditional Acoma diet. “There are so many dishes you could name,” said Lowden, listing recipes for blue corn tamales, atole, and parched corn that is “kind of like Corn Nuts”.
Lowden showed a traditional blue corn topping called hi-yaa-shru-nee he made and added to red chile stew and served alongside Hopi yellow (tepary) beans for the crew’s lunch. (Dessert was pumpkin pie made from Acoma banana squash.)
“We forget how important food is because it’s so accessible to us,” said Lowden as he added the light blue cornflour to a cast iron pan on a stove outside the office. “The food that is accessible to us is so bad for our bodies.”
After the outbreak of the pandemic, the farm crew built hoop houses – passive solar cold frames with raised beds – where elders could grow fresh produce into the spring and winter to help address food security. Acoma, like many Indigenous communities, is a food desert. “The closest thing is McDonald’s,” said Lowden, motioning towards the Sky City Casino on interstate 40. The nearest grocery store is 40 miles (64 km) to the north-east.
The lack of access to healthy, affordable food has led to significant health disparities in Indigenous communities, including nutrition-related chronic diseases.
In 2015, internationally renowned sculptor Roxanne Swentzell started the Pueblo Food Experience project where, for three months, participants from Santa Clara Pueblo ate only foods available before European contact to see the potential health benefits.
The 14 volunteers had health problems ranging from diabetes to heart disease and cancer. “You name it, we had it,” she said. A doctor examined the group before and after the three months. “The results of the pre-contact diet,” said Swentzell, was profound. “All the different health issues, every single one of them improved.”
Swentzell attributes the health benefits, in part, to the co-evolution of the people to the foods and animals in the environment.
“I once read that it takes 20 generations in the same location for species (human included) to genetically adapt to that environment,” wrote Swentzell in the Pueblo Food Experience Cookbook she published in 2016.
“If we’ve been in a place without moving for 20 generations, eating the plants and animals that have been there for more than 20 generations, then everything starts to really align up,” Swentzell said.
“Most of these older varieties have proven to be superior in nutrition, less water demanding, and adaptable to climate,” said Clayton Broscoupe, a Mohawk traditional farmer, seed saver, and one of the founders of the Traditional Native American Farmers Association (TNAFA). “The more we’re using those varieties we have, the better off we will be.”
‘Our farming is based on survival’
Climate-resilient crops and water-conserving farming techniques could be critical amid growing heat, drought, and water scarcity in the south-west.
“That’s one of the biggest things,” said Lowden of traditional farming in Acoma. “I feel it can be our biggest response to climate change,” said Lowden.
Unlike most conventional farms, the field in Acoma is irrigated only twice a month and not at all if it rains. “We wait until the corn kind of shows us when it really, really needs the water,” said Lowden. “The Acoma varieties thrive. We always get something.”
In 2016, the Ancestral Lands Farm Corps planted a dryland field. Once widely practiced in Acoma, this form of farming uses passive rainwater harvesting to sustain superbly arid-adapted crops.
“We had three successful harvests,” said Lowden, who hopes to plant another field this summer. “It was almost an extinct practice.”
The Hopi, located in north-east Arizona, are the masters of this practice, growing successful fields in a region that receives an average of 8.5 in of rain annually.
“All of our agricultural techniques are designed to preserve soil moisture,” said Micheal Kotutwa, standing outside his house near the town of Kykotsmovi in north-eastern Arizona. “I think one of the biggest differences between traditional agriculture and conventional agriculture is that ours is based upon survival.”
For Lowden, farming is also a matter independence. “We are a nation here. We are not just Americans, we are Acoma. [A] big part of keeping that sovereignty is whether you can feed your people.”