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Corn: Spiritual, Nutritional, Cultural, and in Danger

In New Mexico, Arizona and, recently, Belize, the work to revitalize, promote and sustain traditional methods of farming is being headed up by the Traditional Native American Farmer’s Association (TNAFA). By challenging governmental policy and offering workshops ranging in length from a few hours to a few days, education and action are the group’s methods to encourage Native peoples to maintain the agrarian ways of their ancestors.

TNAFA symposiums focus mainly on traditional organic-farming practices, but their courses also discuss renewable energy and social planning. “Our driving force is educational programs to revitalize traditional agriculture for spiritual and human needs,” TNAFA Program Director Clayton Brascoupé, Mohawk and Tesuque Pueblo, says. “We find ways to bring youth back into agriculture and reintegrate them into farming, agriculture and food-related vocations based on traditional foods.”

Because corn is a staple food and has traditionally been one of the most sacred foods of Southwestern peoples much of TNAFA’s work is based on it, but it also covers the growing, harvesting and seed-saving of numerous Southwestern crops, including chilies, squashes, beans, melons and gourds. Participants learn Native recipes and food-preparation methods, and they discuss the crops’ ceremonial purposes and place in creation.

Program participant Carolina Macias, Mexica, attended one of the 12-day workshops and said it changed her life. “We learned permaculture from the ground up. To me, it seemed like a fairy tale to be able to sustain myself, but this was the catalyst to see that it was possible,” she says. “Asking how can one live sustainably brought me to a wonderful community that rooted my path.” She likens the threat of genetically modified organisms to ancestral seeds to the current worldwide eradication of indigenous knowledge that has evolved over thousands of years.

Brascoupé says one of the group’s main campaigns is to educate farmers about the threat hybrids, genetically engineered seeds and commercial farming practices pose to Native peoples. “We advocate prevention and letting people know there is this potential threat out there. Everyone has to be aware and vigilant, especially with corn, because it’s so easily pollinated and contaminated,” he says, adding that genetically modified seeds that cross-pollinate with ancient seed strains present three types of threats to Native people: spiritual, nutritional and cultural.

He says crops contaminated by genetically engineered seeds can be used only by those who have a contract with the maker of those seeds. All other individuals must destroy those crops, and the best way to discard such crops is to burn them. Brascoupé says the thought of having to destroy ancestral seeds has a devastating effect on farmers. “If we look at these traditional foods as related to us—like the Three Sisters—it would be very difficult, emotionally, to incinerate a relative,” he explains. “When I began to tell people about this, it hurt me even to explain it, because I was bringing really horrible news to the people.”

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Some varieties of corn have specific purposes in ceremony, and there are certain types of food made with a specific type necessary for a ceremony to be complete. “If they don’t have that, it can have a profound effect on the religious belief. If a genetically modified seed has been used to make that food, it has in some way been adulterated,” Brascoupé says.

In many Native creation stories, every entity in existence has a specific purpose. “We have the understanding that everything that we see, feel, touch, was created by the Creator for a purpose,” he says. Everything has a place, and everything is related to one another. There is a sense of responsibility between every piece in this universe. Brascoupé says that the genetically engineered crops were not part of that creation. “Where are their origins if, when our Creator created this world, they were not present?” he says. “They don’t have that relationship or responsibility to us.”

TNAFA has been asking these questions and prompting these discussions in Native communities throughout New Mexico and Arizona for 20 years. In 2004, it received grant money from Honor the Earth for seed-saving programs. This led to several political milestones. In 2006, at a New Mexico Food & Seed Sovereignty Alliance conference, TNAFA, the New Mexico Acequia Association, the Tewa Women United and Honor Our Pueblo Existence signed a Seed Sovereignty Declaration supporting the protection of the ancestral and spiritual connection between Native farmers and crops that are free from genetic engineering. Similar resolutions were then passed by the Tesuque Pueblo, Pojoaque Pueblo, the All Indian Pueblo Council (consisting of 19 pueblos) and the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council. The counties of Santa Fe and Rio Arriba then passed resolutions supporting the original declaration.

The aforementioned groups, now united, got the New Mexico legislature to approve Senate Joint Memorial 38 and House Memorial 84 in 2007, acts that recognize the importance of indigenous agricultural practices and Native seeds to the food security and cultural heritage of New Mexico. They also validate the rights of New Mexico farmers to protect their seeds from contamination, and calls for collaboration between New Mexico State University and TNAFA to encourage the farming of Native varieties and the promotion of traditional farming practices and animal husbandry.

In 2006 and 2010, the National Congress of American Indians passed similar resolutions promoting food and seed purity and the development of policy and programming to develop sustainable communities and agriculture.

Brascoupé and the affiliated parties continue in their legislative and community awareness initiatives. He says that the reasons for doing so are multifold and include protecting farmers of traditional seeds from potential litigation.

Speaking from a hotel room in Washington, D.C. while on a trip to educate legislators about his mission, Brascoupé says his work is arduous but necessary. “We didn’t choose to be put into this situation, but we are forced to accept it.”