Indian Farmers and Their Seeds

Seeds of Change

Text and photos by Gregory McNamee

seedsOn a wide bluff overlooking the Missouri River, a Lakota Indian farmer sows a handful of seeds in a bed of sandy, barren soil. In eleven weeks, tall rows of long-tasseled white corn will obscure his view. They will be resistant to most of the diseases that affect his neighbors' crops, will have used far less water than theirs, and will have matured far sooner as well, bringing him an early harvest and income in a normally money-short season.

In a California desert hamlet, a Mexican-American woman seasons a bubbling pot of chile con carne with a handful of chiltepine peppers, a condiment known to her great-grandmother but lost to later generations. Her fiery-hot chile will bring her praise at the approaching Cinco de Mayo fiesta. And, as she has learned to her delight, the patch of chiltepines she has been raising in her kitchen garden allow her to sell to a nearby grocer small quantities of what is, after saffron, the second most costly spice grown today.

In a suburb of New York City -- where, strangely enough, drought is now a problem -- a retired schoolteacher thins long strands of black-eyed peas that she has grown in pots without adding a single drop of tapwater. The season's scanty rainfall has been sufficient to nourish these arid-lands legumes, whose seeds come from the desert highlands of the Sierra Madre of central Mexico. For almost no effort, she will have an abundance of dried peas, rich in protein, to last through the winter.

These are only a few of the success stories that members of Native Seeds/SEARCH, an Arizona-based crop conservancy, can report. For more than a decade, the organization has provided high-quality seeds to small-scale gardeners, careful to select varieties that are immune to most pests and diseases, high in nutritional value and demanding few of the resources -- water, fertilizers and time -- that seem to be ever scarcer throughout the nation.

Native Seeds/SEARCH (the acronym stands for Southwest Endangered Arid-Lands Resources Clearinghouse) was founded in Tucson in 1983 as an outgrowth of the federally funded, national Meals for Millions program, which aimed in part to make rural and semi-rural communities nutritionally self-sufficient. When staff workers Gary Paul Nabhan, Barney Burns, Mahina Drees and other volunteers discovered that few Southwestern Indian reservations had reliable sources of fresh produce -- one of several factors that helps account for the high incidence of diabetes in Native American populations -- they established an agricultural-extension service to provide farmers with seeds of high-yield, indigenous crops.

But, they soon discovered, after decades of relying on supermarket food shipped in from afar, many Indian communities had lost knowledge of traditional farming methods -- and, worse, their stock of seeds, carefully selected and guarded by earlier generations. To remedy this, NS/S sent staff members to remote corners of the desert to recover both such agricultural wisdom and such genetic materials as had survived the passing years.


The researchers found them in seldom-visited places that they often had to reach on foot or muleback: chapalote, a delicious, ancient popcorn found in the highlands of southern Sinaloa, Mexico; Chemehuevi sweet corn from a Colorado River gold prospector's collection, gathered a century ago; lost strains of Taos Pueblo cilantro, a parsley-like herb widely used in Latin American and Chinese cooking; teosinte, a distant cousin of corn that, when crossbred, protects commercial corn from a broad spectrum of diseases (in 1970, half the U.S. crop was destroyed by a single kind of leaf-blight fungus); and vatna, a striped-green squash highly valued by the Hopi Indians for its fruit and the dyes that can be made from its seeds.

CucurbitsNS/S founding member Kevin Dahl regards the group's single most important discovery to be a sunflower bred by the Havasupai Indians in the deep reaches of the Grand Canyon. It is 100-percent resistant to a rust disease that has been destroying commercial sunflower crops throughout the country. Government researchers are already using the Havasupai sunflower to develop hybrids to battle this disease.

To date NS/S members have recovered nearly a thousand varieties of some 40 food plants that formed the basis of Southwestern Indian cuisine before the arrival of the Europeans. (Please see the accompanying recipe.) Of these, 200 are available to gardeners through NS/S's annual seed catalogs; seed packets are priced at $1.25 each, less expensive than most commercial breeds.

NS/S has distributed some 21,000 seed packets from its holdings, many of them free of charge to American Indian communities. Most of its 5,000-odd members are from the United States, Canada and Mexico, but NS/S also boasts on its rolls agronomists from Russia, Hungary, Lesotho, Australia, Nigeria and India. This kind of outreach and international cooperation, Dahl notes, is a large part of NS/S's mission, for native food crops are being lost at a swift clip throughout the world, with the result that a increasingly larger population -- some scholars would say already too large for the planet to sustain -- are dependent on an increasingly smaller repertoire of basic foodstuffs.

Indeed, the fundamental mission of Native Seeds/SEARCH and similar organizations throughout the country is to add more colors to a sadly washed-out genetic palette. By selecting single hybrids, industrial agriculture has diminished the number of varieties of food plants available to all but a devoted handful of farmers and experimental gardeners. At the turn of the century, for example, more than seven thousand varieties of apples were grown commercially in the United States; today only four varieties -- the Delicious, McIntosh, Winesap, and Jonathan -- grace the shelves of American markets. Fifty years ago the journalist and food critic A. J. Liebling remarked on this turn of events, "People who don't like food have made a triumph of the Delicious because it doesn't taste like an apple, and of the Golden Delicious because it doesn't taste like anything."

Every gardener knows that variety is an important ingredient of the pleasure one takes in working a patch of earth: thinning the sweet peas one minute, weeding the squash bed, straightening the scarecrow out in the corn, and gathering fresh greens and tomatoes for the dinner salad the next. Thanks to 15 years' effort, Native Seeds/SEARCH offers an even greater spectrum of food plants that can be grown in most parts of the country: dozens of types of chiles and beans, gourds and squashes, and exotic spices to liven one's daily bread.

One of the surest bets for gardeners in temperate climes is amaranth, a light-loving annual with long, brightly colored leaves that is both useful and highly ornamental. Native to the high mountains of Central and South America, amaranth (Amaranthus cruentus) has been cultivated there and in the southwestern United States for thousands of years. (The plant makes frequent appearances in Aztec and Mayan art, suggesting its importance as a foodstuff.) A staple of many traditional American Indian diets, amaranth produces protein-rich greens that can be cooked or eaten raw; alfalfa-like sprouts; and fine flour from its milled or ground seeds.

Amaranth grows well in most types of soil, although it flourishes best in mulched loam. In its early stages, it requires frequent watering (as a desert-dweller, I plant it in June or July, during the rainy season), but as it grows, it forms a dense canopy of long green, red, and yellow leaves that prevent water loss and keep out weeds. Drop a scattering of seedlings into a prepared bed along the edge of your garden and watch them grow; amaranth planted in early summer sprouts in under a week. A mature plant can reach heights of five to seven feet. It takes from four to five months from planting to harvest of the seedheads. Hummingbirds seem to like amaranth, too, an added bonus for the birdwatching gardener.


Native Southwest Recipe 

A typical Southwestern Indian recipe of AD 1400 might have been something like this stew. The vegetable ingredients can all be grown from NS/S stock.

Rehydrate 1 cup dried venison or antelope in 2 cups water. Drain excess water. Combine with 2 tsp dried red chiltepines or one cup diced hot green chiles and 3 tsp dried wild oregano [Mexican verbena] leaves [oregano can substitute]. Add cup venison-suet or sunflower oil; 2 cups amaranth greens; 1 cup prickly-pear pads, well cleaned and cut into 1-inch cubes; and 1 cup tomatoes. Simmer for 10-15 minutes and serve with warm tortillas.


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