‘Our Foods Are Beautiful!’

A Journey to Reignite Native Agriculture in the Pueblos

Food is life. Food sustains the body and feeds the spirit. With this knowledge as a framework, First Nations community partner YAKANAL, a New Mexico-based international program, is reconnecting Indigenous people to their land and traditional agriculture.

“The goal of restoring healthy Native foods allows the community to rely less on processed foods and can provide a sustainable source of income for Indigenous farmers,” explains Dr. Shelly Valdez, CEO of Native Pathways.

YAKANAL co-founders Dr. Isabel Hawkins (left) and Dr. Shelly Valdez in Peru at Machu Picchu.

Valdez co-founded YAKANAL in 2011 with Dr. Isabel Hawkins, an astronomer and project director for the Exploratorium in San Francisco. The organization is involved in many projects, or “cultural exchanges,” with Indigenous communities in the Southwest, Mesoamerica, and South America to achieve its overarching goal: to strengthen Indigenous languages, food sovereignty, and cultural identity through shared, intergenerational learning.

The word “YAKANAL” is the marriage of two Indigenous words that translate to “corn”: “YAKA” (Western Keres) and “NAL” (Yucatan Maya). As Valdez says, “Our cultures have always animated our relationship to corn.” It is a fitting description for whom a major priority is to revive traditional agricultural practices within Pueblo communities.

“We are restoring Pueblo values into agriculture and paying close attention to the plants, our oldest and wisest teachers,” explains Valdez, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe. “We are resisting a colonial food landscape in favor of green, fertile fields of Native foods, where bee pollinators are restoring a balanced ecosystem.”

With funding from General Motors, YAKANAL was one of six Native organizations to receive a $10,000 grant funded through First Nations’ Setting the Table for a Healthy Food System in Indian Country project, which supports work to build the organizational and program capacity of tribal food pantries and food banks, thus boosting control, cultural responsiveness, and infrastructure of community food systems.

“First Nations has been a champion of our work, especially around food sovereignty. It is beautiful to be in partnership with them,” says Valdez.

The team approach to food sovereignty

This First Nations grant is funding a project between YAKANAL and Laguna Pueblo Village that builds on a 2018 food sovereignty assessment conducted by YAKANAL and funded by First Nations that involved the six villages within the Laguna Pueblo community. Findings revealed a community-wide need to restore access to traditional agriculture, food, recipes, and cooking methods.

Photo credit: YAKANAL

“Our foods are beautiful!” says Valdez, who refers to them as gifts. “We aim to establish sustainable farm-to-table models, since consuming non-Native foods continues to cause life-threatening health issues in our community, and we will ignite opportunities to rekindle traditional recipes and cooking practices.” Processed white flour and sugar, she says, have been especially destructive to Native diets.

YAKANAL is engaging the entire Pueblo of Laguna community, from youth to elders, to learn and participate in agricultural practices historically part of the fabric of their society by deploying five teams: the Agriculture Team, Bee Team, Mother Moon Team, Seed Bank Team, and Horno Project Team.

The Agriculture Team is working with local farmers to pilot a farm-to-table program that delivers freshly picked foods to the local senior and elder care centers. The team has also partnered with the Laguna Development Corporation and local Market Place Grocery to clear a space in the produce area for local farmers to sell their harvests.

It is a win-win for everyone.

While YAKANAL is still in the early stages of the farm-to-table concept, it hopes that local farmers will be able to earn supplemental income and that the Pueblo communities will benefit from eating healthy, locally produced foods.

“We have never had that opportunity before, to offer fresh produce to local establishments that offer food services to our community, such as the two elder centers we are collaborating with. In the near future, we hope to work with our local schools and any programs that serve meals to community members,” says Valdez.

According to the 2018 food assessment, the Pueblo community wants to eat and buy their own Indigenous foods. “Now our farmers have an opportunity to provide this,” says the YAKANAL co-founder.

The agricultural landscape of the Pueblo of Laguna has been in slow decline for more than 40 years due to nearby uranium mining and irrigation issues. To help revive the once-fruitful land, the Ag Team has also provided heirloom seeds for community gardens to help grow bountiful yields of corn, squash, beans, peppers, melons, sunflowers, and other traditional foods.

This year, the team has given away 74 fruit trees ─ and continues to distribute more ─ to help fill the barren landscapes that elders had referenced in the food sovereignty assessment. In total, the Ag Team has gifted over 400 fruit trees to Laguna community members.

And the bees are taking notice of the fruit trees, too.

Hives are painted with Pueblo designs to honor cultural ties to bees. Photo credit: Alice Fernando-Ahmie

The buzz around bees

A key piece to the YAKANAL food sovereignty project is bees ─ natural pollinators essential to a healthy food system. Unfortunately, the organization says that bees are endangered because of chemical fertilizers used in commercial agriculture surrounding the Pueblo territories.

But with generous support and mentoring from the New Mexico Bee Association, the Bee Team has amassed 16 beehives within the local bee apiary, a small colony of a few thousand bees. “The unfiltered honey will help restore the cultural and nutritional well-being of community members, replacing unhealthy sweeteners with local honey that helps lessen health disparities, along with minimizing allergies and other autoimmune conditions,” says Valdez about the importance of raising bees.

To honor cultural ties to the bees, the beehives have been painted with Pueblo agricultural designs “to beautify the homes of these important relatives.” Valdez adds that they want the bees to know they are loved.

The youngest beekeeper, Joaquin Toribio, 4, has inspired other Pueblo children to care for bees. Photo credit: Alice Fernando-Ahmie

The Bee Team is growing, as more and more community members step up to become certified. This year, nine people have earned Level I and Level II Bee Training Certificates through the New Mexico Bee Association. The trainees included elders, young adults, and the youngest member, a 4-year-old boy named Joaquin Toribio, the grandson of an elder team member, who has been blessed with the transfer of knowledge from Bee Team members. Joaquin has inspired other children in the tribe to be excited about the bees, too.

The Bee Team has shared gifts with the community from their “pollinator relatives,” such as bee wax, and continues to provide education on the importance of not using pesticides. This fall, members plan to harvest and process their first containers of honey, which will be gifted to the tribe’s cultural leaders, including those at Acoma Pueblo, “to honor and support cultural continuance, as the honey reflects the wisdom of the land,” says Valdez.

The honey is processed mostly out of the Bee Team’s homes because YAKANAL has not yet secured a dedicated facility.

But it is on the Wish List.

The Mother Moon Project

Now in Phase III, the Mother Moon Project is working with local females to reignite their relationship with the moon through growing their understanding of medicinal plants important to Pueblo culture.

Women of the Mother Moon Project step back to admire progress on their tabletop hoop house.

Distinctive to females, the program is engaging youth, young adults, and elder females from the six villages in Laguna to rekindle their knowledge and relationship around local plants and learn about medicine plants, “our oldest teachers,” Valdez calls them.

The women are also building tabletop hoop houses in the six villages and at local senior and elderly care centers. They will grow local herbs, such as cilantro, mint, and wild parsley, to use in traditional recipes.

The team will be offering various community-wide workshops around agriculture in collaboration with the Laguna Rainbow Corporation, New Mexico State University, Southern Pueblo Extension Agriculture Office, and Native Seed Search.

The seeds are our children’

Photo credit: YAKANAL

From the 2018 food sovereignty assessment, YAKANAL learned that the Pueblo people want access to heirloom seeds to continue to grow traditional foods, such as pumpkins, squash, chilis, corn, and melons used in dishes passed down through generations.

To honor this request, the Seed Bank Team asked local farmers and elders to donate or sell seeds to the pilot seed cooperative. They are also partnering with Tucson-based Native Seed Search to access seeds. “They’ve been a wonderful partner and we have a rich relationship with program staff,” shares Valdez.

“The seeds are our children,” Valdez paints a verbal picture so perfectly. “We need to remind people that we have our own gifts that come from the land. We just need to take care of them and plant those seeds. Without the seeds, we don’t have the recipes.”

This year, YAKANAL has distributed about 179 seed packets to the Pueblo community. The oldest person to access the seed bank was 70 years old; the youngest was 13.

 Wanted: more space!

 YAKANAL’s big dream is to have a dedicated, brick-and-mortar agricultural center to process honey, create a space for farmers to sell their produce, offer training and education, and provide a home for their seeds.

“Right now, our seeds are stored in the homes of two YAKANAL team members, up and down their halls,” Valdez says good-naturedly. “Again, the seeds are our children, and we need a home to protect them.” She says the ideal scenario would be to find an existing home with four or five rooms and refurbish it.

Pueblo members build outdoor ovens out of adobe, sandstone, and lava rock. Photo credit: Alice Fernando-Ahmie

But securing funding to build the center to house all the teams under one roof has been the biggest challenge so far. Until the funding comes along, Valdez and the YAKANAL team continue to move forward on the many tasks still ahead.

Currently, they are building three hornos, or outdoor ovens, out of sandstone, adobe, and lava rock to determine whether clay or rock creates the optimum heat. When the third horno is finished, YAKANAL will host a large community celebration to cook the agricultural harvest and share “grandma’s recipes,” as well as traditional cooking methods.

One of Valdez’s favorite foods is roasted corn cooked for about six hours in an horno large enough to hold 50 loaves of bread. “It’s just an incredible, unique taste!” Some of the corn is hung outside homes to dry and used in stews and soups in the winter.

YAKANAL is grateful to First Nations for their support, and Valdez says they already see the positive impact this food sovereignty project has had on the Pueblo community.

Farmers and families are accessing and planting seeds, young adults and teenagers are learning and reengaging in farming, community members are planting gardens in their backyards, and more single mothers are helping and encouraging their children to learn these important skills.

“That’s what YAKANAL is all about,” says Valdez, bringing this story full circle, “to reignite the beauty of our traditional agricultural systems within our Pueblo community.”

Photo credit: Alice Fernando-Ahmie