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Mother Earth Gathering on the Navajo Nation Honors Preservation of Traditional Agriculture

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At 24, Kris Barney, a Navajo, already lives solidly in his life’s passion.

“I’ve been planting since I was 4 years old,” he told attendees at a recent award ceremony. “I remember hauling sacks of potatoes, corn, squash. I took it upon myself to keep that going.”

Barney was named runner-up for the Justin Boyd Willie Agricultural Humanitarian Of The Year Award, at the 5th annual Mother Earth Gathering, May 5 on the Navajo Nation. The award is in its second year, honoring the memory of a much-admired proponent of permaculture, traditional gardening and cultural education.

Barney runs the Tsé Chizhí community garden and seed exchange program, based in his Navajo community of Rough Rock in northeastern Arizona. He’s been doing the work for 10 years, focusing on education “from little kids all the way up to elders” so that agricultural traditions are not lost.

“I believe this is a precious thing,” he said. “We should all consider where our food comes from.”

That drive is what’s celebrated in the Justin Willie Award. Willie was an avid proponent of traditional agriculture and its preservation. He traveled to schools and communities in and near the Navajo community of Leupp, Arizona, establishing and maintaining farms, gardens and land rehabilitation projects. He also ventured widely, exchanging traditional knowledge with indigenous communities in South America and elsewhere.

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Willie’s family members and supporters include members of the Peshlakai Cultural Foundation, a Navajo, culturally-focused philanthropic organization. Jamescita Peshlakai, Willie’s neice and co-director of the Foundation, said the annual award in Willie’s name is meant to recognize traditional farmers.

“They work selflessly to bring food to our tables, not only for their families but for our communities,” she said, in presenting the awards before a crowd of about 200 people. Most award recipients are also teachers, she pointed out: “They give our children a sense of pride. That’s what we recognize when we look back on my uncle.”

A husband-and-wife team split the top prize this year. Lillian Hill, Hopi, and her husband Jacobo Marcus have been operating Hopi Tutskwa Permaculture in Kykotsmovi, Arizona since 2004. “Hopi Tutskwa” means the life ways and knowledge of the land. The organization’s mission is to promote food security through traditional Hopi farming practices and permaculture principles. Hill says she and her husband have been working with schools on both the Navajo and Hopi reservations to plant fruit tree orchards and school gardens.

She said Willie was an important teacher for her when she was just getting started in her work, as a student at Northern Arizona University.

“The permaculture work is dedicated to he and his family,” she told attendees at the gathering. And for her, the educational component is key. “It is our hope that we will be able to share that with the little ones coming up, so that they will be able to carry on our traditions as Native people.”

Barney has similar motives, but his focus this year is in a different kind of preservation: the seeds themselves.

Barney notes that the climate, particularly in the arid Southwest that the Navajo and Hopi tribes call home, continues to get hotter and drier. But the seeds he grows—heirloom, drought-tolerant varieties—adapted over generations to hot and dry conditions. They’re part of his heritage, and they’ll be perfectly suited to a scenario of climate change.

“We pray with corn. We eat corn. We use corn in our ceremonies,” he says. “These seeds are the lifeblood of generations past. I want to see them go into the next 100 years.”