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Sowing Seeds of Zuni Tradition

New Mexico pueblos seek to connect with their agrarian pasts through community gardens and other teaching projects.

June 22, 2003|Susan Montoya Bryan | Associated Press Writer

ZUNI PUEBLO, N.M — ZUNI PUEBLO, N.M. -- Adobe walls and stick fences stand guard against the elements, protecting a maze of gardens along the Zuni River from New Mexico's fierce winds and wildlife.

Pueblo members kneel next to the waffle gardens -- carefully planting corn, cilantro and other vegetables in the sunken square beds.

"Amazing," Roman Pawluk said as he studied details of black-and-white photographs taken a century ago.

"You can see there were squares within squares within squares," said Pawluk, head of the pueblo's conservation project. "Some of these were nurseries for young trees, some of them were nurseries for perennial plants like grapes and stuff, and some of them were annual crops like onions and things."

For now, these photos and tribal elders' memories are all that remain of Zuni's impressive waffle gardens, endless corn fields and renowned peach orchards. But Zuni and other Indian pueblos have begun efforts to reconnect with their past through community gardens and other teaching projects.

"It's so much a part of the culture," Pawluk said of growing food. "There's so much desire."

The pueblo is building four community gardens, each with its own watering tank. The goal is to revitalize Zuni agriculture and encourage more people to garden by making it easier.

"It's hard-living here," he said. "You can't ask people to do things that require a day of labor. There's TV now, bills and all the things of the modern world."

After poring over hundreds of years of knowledge about building waffle gardens, Pawluk has designed a more modern garden that makes mixing soils and maintaining the water-holding depressions unnecessary.

The pueblo plans to expand the program to schools next year and build a greenhouse that would be dedicated to native fruit and vegetable varieties.

Pawluk is not so much interested in returning to traditional waffle gardens but rather creating a gardening method that joins traditions with the benefits of modern science.

"Old principles, new methods," he said.

Pawluk was concerned a decade ago that Zuni's farming traditions were "flickering like a small flame about to go out after 3,000 years." His opinion is gradually changing now more young couples are farming, but he added that tribal leaders and others need to continue pushing agriculture's importance.

"There's a lot of work that needs to be done," he said.

In the hills south of Zuni, Andy Newell and his students have transformed part of the nearly vacant village of Ojo Caliente into a working farm -- complete with two horses, 54 chickens and a dog.

Newell, who teaches at Zuni Christian Mission School, said it was in the fields and gardens that pueblo children of the past learned the benefits of work, the lessons of responsibility and respect for others.

"The farming is great and everything, but it's more the life lessons that come through having to take care of yourself this way," he said while looking over the beginnings of a garden and orchard.

He brings a group of boys to the farm four days a week. They plant, build fences, feed the animals and fish at a nearby lake.

"Once they get here, there's an excitement, kind of like this new life has been breathed into them," Newell said. "They're throwing rocks, running around and chasing each other, exploring and discovering things."

Some might consider Newell crazy for moving into one of the village's abandoned rock and mud houses, but tribal member Alex Tsethlikai says he appreciates Newell teaching children about the land.

"It's good for them to be out here learning the old ways so when they grow up, they can teach their kids," said Tsethlikai, the father of four.

Several pueblos -- including San Felipe, Santo Domingo and Cochiti -- are also developing ways to weave agriculture into modern Indian life.

North of Albuquerque, Sandia Pueblo is gearing up for the fifth year of its community garden. This spring, children help water and weed rows of onion and bean sprouts after school.

More important than recognizing weeds are the history and language lessons. Sandia elders talk to the children in Tiwa while working in the field, teaching them words and their ancestors' ways.

"The drive is mainly trying to preserve our culture and our history and our traditions of who we are as Native American people," Sandia Pueblo Gov. Stuart Paisano said. "We've lost that a little bit."

Paisano said the garden brings Sandia together, especially during harvest time, when the pueblo turns out to pick vegetables and have a picnic.

Leilani McCook, 8, visited the garden with her grandmother last summer. She remembers picking tomatoes, chili and corn.

"I learned that we're supposed to take care of the garden and make sure nothing happens to it," Leilani said. "We have to keep it going in case we don't have any food or if we don't want to go to the store."

In northwest New Mexico, waffle gardens at Salmon Ruins serve as a classroom for children from Bloomfield and Kirtland.

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