ACOMA PUEBLO — Bright yellow hard hats bob up and down among the rows of tall, dark green corn as members of Acoma Pueblo’s Traditional Farm Corps program chop weeds and build up berms.
On this day, an overcast, relatively cool Friday morning earlier this month, the Farm Corps crew is working a 1.5-acre field just off Pueblo Road in Acomita, a village at Acoma Pueblo, about 60 miles west of Albuquerque. The field is planted with Acoma white corn, Hopi yellow watermelons and Acoma pumpkins.
Open to Acoma people ages 14 to 25, the Traditional Farm Corps program, operated by the Southwest Conservation Corps, is intended to revitalize and retain agricultural practices that were once woven tightly into the fabric of Acoma life but have come unraveled as the world around the pueblo changed and dragged the Acoma people with it.
“We were a self-sustaining people,” said Aaron Lowden, the young Acoma man who coordinates the traditional farming program. “That all changed with railroad jobs, other jobs and casinos. The people could make money and buy food.”
Farming started to fade from the pueblo, and, as it did, other aspects of Acoma life started to fray.
“It was a bit of a loss on the cultural side,” Lowden said. “Corn is used in our prayers. Our prayers bring the rain.”
By bringing traditional farming methods back to Acoma, the Farm Corps program seeks to restore a degree of independence, a sense of identity, pride, prayer and good, healthy food.
“Farm Corps is centered around the growing and harvest of local pueblo and indigenous traditional heirloom varieties of corn, beans, squash, melons and chile, using traditional methods such as flood irrigation and dry farming,” Lowden, 29, said. “We don’t grow anything that was not grown traditionally. We also lead educational sessions on cooking classes for traditional meals and on seed saving. We include these because we recognize that in order to revitalize our agricultural practices we need to teach not only how to grow but how to cook and also how to save the seed from these vanishing varieties of crops.”
Acomita is a village that was once used extensively for farming. The program’s field here is irrigated by water from the Rio San Jose, not much more than a spring-fed creek.
The Farm Corps tends another field of about two acres in the old village of Acoma, the Sky City atop a 357-feet high mesa. Dry-farming methods are employed there, which means the fields are watered only by rain. Seeds in this field are planted eight to 10 inches deep to give them the best chance for seizing on residual moisture.
Lowden said food harvested from the fields is distributed to the young people who work in the program and also to older people at Acoma’s senior citizens center. Heirloom seeds are used in both the Acomita and Sky City plots, and seed that is saved goes into the program’s community seed bank.
Lowden received 60 applications for the Farm Corps positions this year. Eight young Acoma people were selected for the program, which will continue through harvest season. Each is paid $300 per week and earns points toward the payment of tuition and the purchase of books for higher education.
Student Shaun Sanchez, 20, is in his third year with the Farm Corps program. He’s still in high school but has hopes of studying botany at a higher level some day.
“It’s crazy how our ancestors were already messing with corn genetics,” he said as he took a break from work in the Acomita corn field. “Hopefully we can get some heirloom seeds that don’t require as much water.”
Program student Mariah Ray, 16, is going into her senior year at Laguna/Acoma High School. This is her second year with the traditional farming program. She finds the experience rewarding in more than one way.
“I want to start my own crops — corn, pumpkin, watermelons — just like here,” she said. “But this gets you out, makes me really alive because I’m out with nature. It gives me time to think about stuff.”
Mariah’s sister, Rebecca “Becca” Ray, 20, is going into her second year at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo. A three-year veteran of the Traditional Farm Corps, Rebecca admits that early on her interest in the program was not limited to agriculture.
“I wanted to learn how to be social with everyone because I’m shy and keep to myself,” she said. “But this has helped me learn about my culture. I didn’t know we were a farming people.”
Close to the land
Every now and then, trains, a reminder of the forces that altered traditional Acoma life, rumble along tracks not far from the Acomita Farm Corps field. But trucks traveling along Pueblo Road honk their horns in salute to the Farm Corps crew toiling to bring back some part of that bygone time.
The bleating of the truck horns make Lowden smile.
“It is nice being down here by the road because our people drive by and see the young people working down here, and they honk and wave,” he said. “A clan-related grandfather said to me, ‘I didn’t think young people got up that early anymore.'”
Lowden is descended, on his mother’s side, from people who lived close to the land.
“My family lived in Acomita,” he said. “Mom grew up in a house with no electricity. There were 10 children in the family, seven girls and three boys. They used to go up on the mesas to get water from naturally occurring pools, get melted snow in the winter. They were always out in the field working. They raised sheep, grew their own corn and beans. My grandmother used to know how to make cheese and preserves. Farming was not a hobby then. It was all necessity.”
But as alternate ways of making a living emerged, the Acoma people no longer needed to depend on the land. They moved from their unwired houses to government housing on the pueblo.
“We moved away from out fields, and we began to lose ourselves,” Lowden said.
Only a handful of Acoma people cling to the old ways. Lowden said he believes that today there are only three shepherds on Acoma Pueblo, a community of 5,000 people.
“And these shepherds are old men — like our farmers,” he said. “One old farmer, probably 83, is in his field every day. Or when he is not, he is with his cattle. Really a strong old man.”
About six years ago, Lowden, inspired by stories of his family’s past, tried his hand at raising some crops. But it was not long before he learned all he did not know about that life.
“I wasn’t at my field every day and that got back to an uncle who took me aside and broke it down for me,” Lowden said. “I found out there is more to farming than putting seeds in the ground and watering. There is a philosophy to farming.”
Lowden’s uncle told him that crops are like living, breathing beings, that the corn has a life cycle like a human being.
“He said that putting seed in the earth is like putting a baby in a mother’s womb, that the earth gives birth when the corn comes out of the ground,” Lowden said. “He told me that when the babies are young, you need to be down there every day, giving them water and singing to them. When I heard that, I thought ‘Wow. That is so beautiful.'”
That talk with his uncle may well have been a turning point in Lowden’s life. In 2011, he joined the Southwest Conservation Corps, an organization whose mission is to empower individuals to positively impact their lives, their communities and the environment. He said the work can be challenging.
“We are a nonprofit organization. We fight for every cent we get,” he said. “Arranging for tools and vehicles, interviewing and hiring and dealing with personnel issues can be stressful.”
After an especially tough day, Lowden likes to go to the Acomita field.
“It is therapeutic,” he said. “The corn is tall and dark and strong. You are around all this land and see what your hard work can do. I tell my students, ‘Just step back and look.'”
He teaches his students to make blue corn drink and blue corn mush and to boil Indian tea. ”Maybe it won’t happen, but my dream is to get back to food sovereignty for our people, to keep our songs alive by singing in the field,” Lowden said. “We have young, native people farming. That’s something a lot of people probably didn’t think they would see again.
“It is so beautiful.”