TUCSON — It all began when Tohono O'odham Indian gardeners were offered free seeds for crops like broccoli and Brussels sprouts.
Thanks, they said, but they would prefer seeds for the crops their ancestors grew: brown beans, white-kerneled 60-day corn, orange-fleshed squash, casaba-like melons.
So archeologist Barney Burns and botanist-author Gary Nabhan set to work, planting seeds and cultivating the past.
Eleven years later, they have a regional seed bank for edible crops and other plants of cultural importance to more than 40 Native American tribes in Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico.
Foods include amaranth, corn in scores of colors and sizes, dozens of types of beans, watermelons, lentils and garbanzos. Non-edible plants include gourds and devil's claw, used in O'odham basketry.
The cultural heritage represented by such crops is essential to traditional Indians, says Angelo Joaquin Jr., new executive director of Native Seeds-SEARCH, the seed bank.
A genetic scientist may change a plant's seed by manipulating its genes, said Joaquin, a Tohono O'odham.
"The traditional farmer has done the same thing over a longer period of time. And he ends up with a piece of life, with prayers, traditions and ceremonies part of it," Joaquin said.
"When a seed becomes extinct, you've lost not only the piece of life but the songs, traditions and ceremonies attached to it."
Nabhan and Burns' wife, Mahina Drees, worked for a private aid group that first offered the non-native seeds to Native Americans. Drees, first director of the seed bank, said operators hope their work will help keep native cultures alive.
"Most of the cultures of the Southwest are defined by their farming," Drees said. "If they lose their agriculture, then they lose a sense of themselves. It's like losing their language."
The seed bank serves a larger purpose by preserving genetic diversity, said Jimmye Hillman, a retired University of Arizona agricultural economist. That's important because such desirable traits as resistance to disease, drought or bugs can be bred out of a crop.
"When you get things too pure--plant or animal--without resistance they get easily knocked off," Hillman said.
Most tribal farmers grow on small plots for their own use. The traditional crops, which have evolved to withstand adverse conditions, don't yield as much as genetically engineered hybrid seeds, Joaquin said.
The seed bank was founded in 1983, using corn, bean and squash seeds provided by old-time O'odham farmers.
Today, the nonprofit organization has seeds of some 1,300 varieties of plants representing more than 50 species. Its current catalogue offers nearly 350 types of seeds.
Native Seeds-SEARCH gets most of its $300,000 to $500,000 annual budget from memberships and sale of seeds, crafts and food. Project grants make up the rest.
Some Indian farmers grow seed under contract. Native Seeds-SEARCH raises other inventory on garden plots.
An adobe house is stocked with jars of seed and reserves of each variety frozen as backups.
An education program stresses the importance of traditional Indian diets in preventing diabetes.
The group shipped 30,000 packets of seeds last year. About 2,700 were given free to Native Americans, while others paid $1.50 per envelope.
There's international interest. One Norwegian customer was looking for short-season crop varieties. Joaquin said the aim is to keep alive the diversity represented in the jars. "These seeds have to be treated with respect, to honor the people who have gone before us."