"I didn't stage that!" laughed Clayton Brascoup?, the Mohawk/Algonquin director of the Traditional Native American Farmers Association, a Santa Fe nonprofit.
We had stopped by a garden center before driving out to Tesuque Pueblo to look at projects by students in the association's annual 10-day permaculture course. For the past five years, Indigenous people from all over the hemisphere have come to study this method of creating sustainable relationships among humans, plants, animals, and the earth.
The woman behind the counter in the store, recognizing Brascoup?, had enthusiastically described the herb garden she'd planted with skills developed in a previous summer's classes. "I made my life nice."
"Respect, caring, and sharing, that's what we teach in our communities, and that's what permaculture is about," explained Louie Hena, Tesuque Pueblo, environmental director of Picuris Pueblo and one of the four primary instructors. "I've been teaching it for five years, but really I've been doing it all my life."
This year's course is July 23-Aug. 3 in Santa Fe. It's free for most Indigenous people. Those employed by entities with a training budget and non-Indigenous people pay $500. Usually about 25 people attend the full session and graduate with a certificate in permaculture. Another 35 or so take just a few classes. Contact the association at (505) 983-2172 or firstname.lastname@example.org for location, lodging and details.
Roxanne Swentzel, Santa Clara Pueblo, another instructor and the director of Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute, which she co-founded in 1987, outlined a typical day.
"Visiting experts present sustainable approaches to activities such as gardening, housing and solar design, business, nutrition and medicinal-plant use, habitat restoration, appropriate technologies, pattern recognition, and astronomy. Then we do hands-on exercises. For example, we go out and fix a damaged area - put in water catchments and plantings or we might learn how to preserve and store food."
In the evenings, students sing around a fire and on weekends they may go whitewater rafting or attend feast days at nearby pueblos.
"The principles we teach can be taken back to any community or climate," said Ed Mendoza, Azteca/Mayan, the fourth member of the association team. Mendoza manages O'odham Oidak Farm at the Gila River Juvenile Detention Center and is a former board member of Native Seeds/SEARCH, the Tucson seed bank.
One central tenet of permaculture involves using the expertise and materials you already have on hand, which means elegant solutions to a wide variety of problems.
"At our farm, we use weeds as mulch," Mendoza said. "A lot of people throw them away and buy mulch, but as weeds decay they return to the soil the very nutrients they have extracted from it and they're free."
Swentzell described a Mayan student from Belize who organized a pottery guild that employed members of his community who worked with locally dug clay. Other graduates have set up produce and basket-making enterprises, gotten community-planning jobs, gone to universities to earn environmental-sciences degrees and successfully fought court battles against logging in Mexico's Sierra Madre.
The association emphasis on native crops means the course is especially applicable to Indigenous communities.
"Traditional foods have spiritual value, which you sense when you eat them," said Mendoza. "They also have high nutritional value, which can be measured scientifically. The area where I live, near the Pima reservations, has the highest incidence of diabetes in the world. Not that long ago, the foods we ate prevented us from getting that disease. Now, people are looking once more to the traditional foods. We need more young farmers coming up, growing this food, making it available. Then people can put their education in their mouth, so to speak, and regain their health and affirm their culture. Otherwise, all we have is some history that isn't being used."
The association gathering has emotional resonance as well. "It's Indigenous people talking together about how they survive," Swentzell said. "It's pretty amazing when you hear people from, say, the Northwest Coast talk about their tribe and the way they think and what they've done to sustain themselves. Even though they're from a different climate, there's a connection, and it's a wonderful feeling. We each learn that we're not alone."
"We're giving people the tools, and therefore the power, to make changes in their world," agreed Brascoup?. "These effects will continue for generations."
At Tesuque, on a hill above an elder's house, students had built gabions (permeable dams) from straw bales and stones. The small barriers prevented erosion by trapping topsoil, thereby encouraging plant growth and increasing the biodiversity of the area.
Brascoup? had added a long, low mound on the downhill side of the dwelling. These subtle changes altered the ecology of the hill, causing a lawn of medicinal tea to spring up around the house, a vital reminder of the power of caring for each other and the earth.