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Planting time for the Pueblo Farming Project

Ancestral Puebloan-style gardens at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center

CORTEZ, Colo. - On May 27 and 28, Pueblo men at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center will plant corn, beans and squash in the style of their ancestors, who lived in what is now southwestern Colorado until the late 13th century.

Some of the many thousands of dwellings, villages, fields and other sites the ancients left behind when they moved on to points south include those in Ute Mountain Tribal Park, Mesa Verde National Park and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.

Those planting the fields are an array of community leaders and cultural stewards, including Herman Agoyo, Ohkay Owingeh; Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, Lee Lomayestewa, Raleigh Puhuyaoma Sr., Owen Numkena and Morgan Saufkie, all Hopi; and Tom Lucero, Jemez. The seeds they'll use come from varied sources. Some are traditional varieties donated by Hopi farmers; others are from plants that archaeologists at Crow Canyon found well-suited to the area during previous gardening ventures.

Called the Pueblo Farming Project, the effort came out of a conviction that experiential involvement with agriculture is an essential means of understanding the lives of the ancestral farmers.

''The idea of studying ancient agricultural practices was a topic identified during Crow Canyon's consultations with the tribes,'' said Mark Varien, the center's vice president of programs.

During the growing season, adults and schoolchildren - Native and non-Native - who come to study at the world-renowned archaeological research and education facility will visit the fields and learn about traditional agriculture. Crow Canyon staff members directing the gardeners-in-training include Deloria Dallas, Hopi; Paul Ermigiotti; and Benjamin Bellorado, among others. After the crops are harvested in October, Pueblo women will demonstrate food-processing and preparation techniques during another meeting at the center.

The Colorado Historical Society and the Christensen Fund provided funding for the project, which got under way in 2006 with a preliminary meeting of about 16 farmers, staff members and visiting academics.

Dryland (not irrigated) agriculture depends on careful siting of fields in spots where plants can find moisture and are protected from wind. To that end, members of a smaller group convened in 2007 to choose three field locations. Each is about 1,312 square feet, according to Varien; two tracts were set aside for corn and the third for beans and squash.

When cleared, one of the little gardens - in the wide down-sloping greensward facing Crow Canyon's adobe-style main buildings - offered up a gift from the past, ratifying today's efforts: A small check dam made of melon-sized cobbles appeared, its presence indicating that ancestral farmers had also found that spot to be a good place to plant.

The Pueblo Farming Project must meet a high standard. Until the late 13th century, the ancestral Puebloans cultivated the forbidding landscape of southwestern Colorado with remarkable virtuosity. With elegant means - a digging stick, sophisticated environmental understanding, acute observational skills, and seeds they'd selected for characteristics such as the ability to germinate deep in the soil where moisture can be found - the agriculturists of yore fed communities that at their height were probably larger in size than the modern population of the area. And of course, if the year was a dry one, they couldn't rely on irrigation to save the crop.

Ernest Vallo, Acoma and chairman of Crow Canyon's Native American Advisory Group, had a solution for that problem. Speaking in a meeting of the group at Crow Canyon April 25, he said: ''We still do dryland farming at Acoma. And after we plant, we do a lot of dancing to make sure the rain gods bring rain.''

At the same meeting, Varien noted that each phase of the project is accompanied by a conference on Pueblo agriculture.

''We'll find out about agricultural techniques and crop yields,'' he said. ''But we'll also document the ways in which corn and farming are part of the way Pueblo people think of life.''

The fields' ongoing harvest will include educational materials for the on-campus programs and Native communities.

''We'll hold a workshop with Pueblo educators to design curricula for American Indian youth, and we hope to incorporate aspects of the gardening project,'' Varien said.

For more information, visit www.crowcanyon.org. To purchase heirloom seeds, visit www.seedsofchange.com; if you work for a nonprofit school, community or outreach group, find out about the company's seed contribution program by clicking on ''Donation Program.''