‘The art form of running is a game … It’s called the game of the clouds ... We don’t know where the clouds are going to but I’m sure they are racing to somewhere to where the rain is needed.José Rey Toledo, artist, Jemez Pueblo (1915-1994)

Dan Ninham
Special to Indian Country Today

SANTA FE, New Mexico — The stick racers of the Jemez Pueblo have known for generations that corn is at the heart of their existence.

They use corn pollen or corn meal to pray for rains to nourish the crops and protect them from the winds, and they clear the way each spring for rainwaters to flow into the fields, starting at the north and moving south.

When the work is done, it’s time for the stick race back to the plaza or kiva, kicking the stick (or ball) long distances along the mountain trails.

They separate into clans, then the runners place the stick on top of their foot and kick it. They run after it, pick it up, put it back on their foot, and do it again until they reach their destination.

There’s no material prize at the end for the clan that comes in first. The prize is in the rains that come to the fields to sustain the corn.

“As long as we take care of it, it will take care of us,” said Angelo Baca, 41, Diné and Hopi, the Utah Diné Bikeyah cultural resources coordinator who has done work with the nonprofit From Garden Warriors to Good Seeds.

“Corn is a sign of life, balance, harmony, and beauty. We strive to learn these ways and apply them to our lives.”

The changing climate, however, is disrupting the balance and harmony for the corn and other elements in Indian Country. Droughts and heat have damaged the crops in areas in New Mexico and Arizona, and other areas are suffering floods, wind storms, fires and changing weather patterns that disrupt animal feeding and migrations.

The changes are evident to Indigenous runners along the mountain trails and desert paths and to Native farmers trying to feed their people. Baca, a runner, sees the impact with his own eyes.

Angelo Baca, a Utah runner who is Diné and Hopi, says he has seen the impact of climate change while running in his homelands. (Photo courtesy of Angelo Baca)

“I’m concerned because of my personal experience with running in my own homelands and the mountains, valleys, canyons and waterways, that I am able to both physically and visually see the changes in the landscape,” he told Indian Country Today.

“The time to make better choices and choose a higher path for ourselves and for future generations is now.”

Impact on corn

Corn pollen, found in the tassels of grown corn, is used in the southwestern region much as tobacco, sweet grass, and sage are used in the northern and northeastern regions of the country. They are used to send prayers to the Creator.

The Native runners of the Jemez Pueblo are well-documented in their mountain-running exploits. The foot races are included in many of the seasonal feasts of the 19 New Mexico pueblos, though they have been put on hold for a second year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The fall corn races of the Jemez Pueblo are longtime traditions.

Daniel Madalena, a citizen of the Jemez Pueblo and an ultra-runner in training, sees the impact of climate change as he trains in the Jemez Mountains. Runners see dry lands, wind and smoke from the occasional fire can along the trails. (Photo courtesy of Peter Olson)

“The goal is to be the fastest person at the race,” said Daniel Madalena, 36, a citizen of the Jemez Pueblo and an ultra-runner in training. “The corn is really heavy so picking it up early in the race is always a bad idea unless you’re really fit. The goal is to take it through the plaza and to a family home within the plaza. You keep the prize and it’s sometimes money, or traditional gear.”

Madalena trains in the Jemez Mountains and in the footsteps of the so-called King of the Mountains, Stephen Gauchupin and Al Waquie, also Jemez Pueblo citizens, both multiple winners of the Pike’s Peak Marathon in Colorado Springs and the LaLuz Trail Run in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Waquie is also a five-time consecutive champion of the Empire State Building Run-up.

The mountain runners see first-hand the changes in the environment. Dry lands, wind and smoke from the occasional fire can are evident along the trails.

And corn crops have struggled to thrive in recent years. A report in The Arizona Republic in November 2020 found that the Hopi people have seen declining crops caused by lack of rain and extreme dry conditions. It is impacting their families, culture and traditions.

Drought endangers Indigenous agriculture

Craig Curley, Navajo, was one of the fastest high school cross-country runners in Arizona and was on the road from 5Ks to marathons when he switched to ultra-marathon training in 2016. He now continues to compete internationally in marathons, and is training for the Boston Marathon on Oct. 11.

Curley, 33, was born in Kinlichee, Arizona, about 50 miles from the Hopi Reservation. He sees the impact of the changing climate in his training and in Indigenous communities. A wildfire was ablaze recently in the Santa Rita Mountains as he trained.

“Climate change is a reality and not a normal drought,” Curley told Indian Country Today. “The summer months are more dry, and hotter than past years. Less of a winter and less rain in the summer months adds to the difficult circumstance. Families are putting in the extra effort to haul water for their animals and planting smaller gardens for their food and personal ceremonial purposes.

“Not everyone lives near a windmill or can depend on the city for water,” he said. “Trees are under stress and are in a weakened state from the lack of water, which make it easier for insects to intrude and kill them.”

Runner Craig Curley, Navajo, sees the stress of climate change on the environment as he trains, including smoke as he rain in the Santa Rita Mountains near Tucson recently. (Photo courtesy of Craig Curley)

Runners see the changes, he said.

“Instead of the vegetation growing to help feed the wild animals, the terrain is beginning to have more roads and trails that didn’t exist,” he said. “There’s also the air quality from wildfires that’s poisonous to our bodies, and as a runner you’re breathing in the air.”

Animals, too, are affected.

“One of the things I see is wild horses having to travel a long distance to find water,” he said. “Eventually the paths are everywhere and there's less grass able to grow.”

The climate is also complicating life for Indigenous communities.

“The piñon and juniper trees in the area are stressed by the lack of water,” he said. “Insects like to attack the piñon trees because the tree is unable to protect itself. Piñon trees produce seeds that are consumed for food. The juniper trees have berries which are used to create ghost beads or used to smudge.”

Clayton Brascoupe, Mohawk/Anishnabeg, is the founder and program director of the Traditional Native American Farmers Association, which has been active in restoring many of the old traditional foods back into the daily diets of local community. He is working now to adapt farming techniques to the demands of climate change. (Photo courtesy of Clayton Brascoupe)

Manuel "Manny" Pino, Acoma Pueblo, a former sociology professor and acclaimed runner who is active in environmental issues, said climate change will particularly impact Indigenous peoples in Arizona and New Mexico who rely heavily on farming and raising livestock such as cattle and sheep.

“Since the turn of the millennium in 2000, drought conditions in the American Southwest have devastated agriculture, water supplies, human health and many other aspects of society,” said Pino, who is active with the New Mexico Laguna Acoma Coalition for a Safe Environment and the Indigenous Environmental Network.

Manny Pino, a runner and retired sociology professor, is active in environmental issues. (Photo courtesy of Dan Ninham)

“In addition to the drought, agricultural and livestock grazing areas have been impacted by contamination from energy resource development on and near their traditional homelands,” he said.

Pino, 69, holds half-marathon and 20K master’s records in Arizona. His best marathon time was 2:27:52 in the USAT&F Masters National Championship at the Las Vegas International Marathon in 1993.

He recently retired as a professor of sociology and as coordinator of the American Indian studies at Scottsdale Community College in Scottsdale, Arizona. He continues to be an advocate for Native runners.

He also served as an advisor to the 2008 documentary film, “Poison Wind,” which describes the devastation wrought by uranium mining.

Lack of water poses some of the biggest problems, he told Indian Country Today.

“Sources that supply water are currently at the all-time lows, including Lake Mead on the Colorado River,” said Pino. “The largest reservoir in the U.S. is only 40 percent full and is projected to fall to the lowest levels since it was filled in the 1930s. Federal projections show the lake level will sit below the threshold elevation of 1,075 feet by the beginning of next year.

“Falling below this level means rationing water for the future. Lake Powell upstream on the Colorado is only 36 percent full. The Rio Grande River, which is largely used for agriculture, faces similar impacts,” he said.

Cultural traditions are at risk, he said.

“The traditional cultural lifeways are also intertwined with our ceremonies and spiritual foundations, the outcomes of productive growing seasons, water availability and protecting Mother Earth,” he said. “Now, with accelerated human-caused climate change, what does that leave for the future?”

Dealing with ‘climate chaos’

Clayton Brascoupe and his family have been planting traditional corn in the Pueblo of Tesuque in New Mexico since 1973. The corn they plant includes Pueblo white and blue, and Hopi white, blue, pink, and purple. The family has also planted a few Iroquois corn varieties, including Tuscarora white, Mohawk red and one called “Stuff Nose.”

Brascoupe, 70, Mohawk/Anishnabeg, is the founder and program director of the Traditional Native American Farmers Association, which has been active in restoring many of the old traditional foods back into the daily diets of local community.

The gardens are planted according to the unpredictable climate. This season they planted the Hopi white corn, which will require less water in a drought year. They plant by hand to get spacing and depth just right.

They also plant smaller sections of corn for trials and seed, he said.

“We’re dealing with climate chaos several ways,” Brascoupe said. “One is choosing the right variety for the predicted season. The springs have been difficult to predict, so we’ve chosen to plant a little later in the spring. The other end of the season, our normal frost date had been around Sept. 15, more or less. This has moved in the last seven to eight years to mid-October, but still not a sure thing.”

“The late spring planting has been helpful trying to beat some insect cycles,” he said.

Bobby Martin, 51, Navajo-Aztec/Mayan, is a full-time food grower, and his wife, Sonlatsa “Sunshine” Jim-Martin, 49, Navajo/Modoc, is manager of the Navajo Nation Division of Community Development.

“My grandma told that if you are going to grow corn you plant four seeds: one seed for Mother Earth, one seed for the animals, one seed for the gods, and one for yourself,” Bobby Martin said. “If you plant four seeds it gives you a good harvest.”

Bobby Martin is originally from Fort Defiance, Arizona, but they now live and work in Tohlakai, New Mexico, his wife’s hometown.

They, too, are adapting to the changing climate.

Bobby Martin, Navajo-Aztec/Mayan, is a full-time food grower, and his wife, Sonlatsa “Sunshine” Jim-Martin, 49, Navajo/Modoc, is manager of the Navajo Nation Division of Community Development. They are working to adapt their farming techniques to climate change. (Photo courtesy of Sunshine Jim-Martin)

“We plant Indigenous gardens with corn,” Jim-Martin said. “We use Indigenous corn seeds that we have been growing for over 12 years as a family. We trade Indigenous corn seeds or buy them from other Native American food growers to build up our seed bank.”

“This year we are planting blue corn, yellow corn, and Anasazi corn,” she said.

The use of a homemade organic thermal composting process is a big part of the success to growing corn and their crops, they said.

“We plant deeper now for our corn seeds to reach the moisture in the ground,” said Bobby. “We no longer are able to do irrigation techniques due to limited water.”

They grew more foods this year than in previous years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although they usually sell or trade their produce at markets, this year they gave it all away with community mutual-aid efforts, Bobby Martin said.

The crops are important to community traditions.

“We use every part of the corn in our traditional and ceremonial practices,” Jim-Martin said. “We collect the corn pollen for prayers. We harvest the corn silk for tea and food. We use the husk for tamale wrapping, grinding corn and baking a kinaalda’ corn cake in the ground, and also the husks we use for making other traditional foods like kneel down bread.

“We make a variety of Indigenous foods with fresh corn and dry corn,” she said. “We also use the corn cob for prayers for tobacco smoke. Every part of the corn is used, not wasted.”

Shannon Romero took over responsibility for the Resilience Garden when the pandemic forced the shut-down of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Romero, 43, Cochiti Pueblo/Santo Domingo Pueblo/Navajo, the center’s cultural education specialist, was in her first year on the job with little else to do. She and her assistant, Rea Thundercloud, 30, had to learn about irrigation, planting, crop rotation and adapting to the environment, using flood irrigation when the climate is too dry. They share their knowledge with the community.

“We teach how to harvest and save the seeds for the next year,” Romero said. “We teach our youth how to sustain ourselves.”

Shannon Romero, Cochiti Pueblo/Santo Domingo Pueblo/Navajo, at right, and her assistant, Rea Thundercloud, took over care and responsibility  for the Resilience Garden when the pandemic shut down the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico.   Romero isthe center’s cultural education specialist. They learned about irrigation, planting, crop rotation and adapting to the changing environment. (Photo by Dan Ninham for Indian Country Today)

Romero believes that traditional thinking is to use four seeds — for humans, the earth, animals and insects. She talks to the corn every day, and plays traditional songs for the corn.

“With our prayers we are responsible for these plants,” Romero said. “We know the animals and the insects are coming into our garden. We grow more.”

Thundercloud, who is Taos and Sandia Pueblos and Ho-Chunk, said her Indigenous knowledge is a base for how she thinks.

“I think I was brought to this garden because it is the best way to connect to corn,” Thundercloud said. “It helps me connect to the youth by helping them navigate with a more decolonized approach to their mindset. I think the best way to do that is to facilitate these conversations with the youth by grounding ourselves to connect to the plants, the water, and the language.

“It’s all interconnected.”

Looking ahead

Jennifer Fuentes, 49, Oneida, now living in Norman, Oklahoma, returned home to the Santa Fe area in the summer and hiked through the foothills and mountains in northern New Mexico. She saw evidence of what may be the new norm for the region.

A haze covered the area from nearby wildfires, and the sun was either obscured along the horizon or unusually red. The smell of smoke hovered in the air. At one time point, there were as many as 67 large fires burning across 12 states, from the Four Corners region to the Rockies of the Pacific Northwest. British Columbia, Canada, reported more than 300 wildfires.

What should have been a swath of green from the aspen trees was instead a forest of struggling or dying trees, the result of an invasion of the western tent caterpillar, a subspecies native to New Mexico and other western states. The pest invasions have been more active in the past decade, and the caterpillar is known to thrive during drought. Stressed trees are primary targets.

Joseph Brophy Toledo, Jemez Pueblo, a traditional leader and Flower Hill Institute cultural advisor who works with youths, spreads the word that the corn should be protected. (Photo courtesy of Josephy Brophy Toledo)

The Jemez Pueblo has been the location of wildfires for decades, if not centuries. A catastrophic fire, the Las Conchas Fire, occurred 10 years ago, starting about 1 p.m. on June 26, 2011, when a gust of wind blew a 75-foot-tall aspen into a power line.

It became the largest wildfire in New Mexico history, burning 56,593 acres and 245 square miles.

The wildfires further disturb the agriculture down below, said Joseph Brophy Toledo, 62, Jemez Pueblo, a traditional leader and Flower Hill Institute cultural advisor who works with youths.

“The run-offs in charred areas brings black water down onto our irrigation acequias and river and sometimes we have to wait for water to clear before irrigating our crops,” he said. “We do ceremony for fire to be cool without destruction to precious land and housing.”

Toledo now works to spread the word of the power of corn across the world and with Indigenous youth.

“When corn dies, our ceremony dies,” he said. “The healing corn is the most powerful kernel.”

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