AARON LOWDEN HELD TWO POUNDS OF DARK BLUE SEEDS and felt in them the weight of everything he had inherited from his Acoma Pueblo ancestors—and everything he hoped to secure for his community’s future. Acoma blue corn, missing from the pueblo for more than three decades, filled a few small, zippered plastic bags, but spoke of far more than he could fit in his hands.
“It’s like seeing a relative who has been gone,” Lowden says. “It’s bits and pieces of them, it’s their collective knowledge, and their work and labor to produce food for the community that we’re inheriting, and that sense of responsibility is really huge. It’s immense, especially with a seed that’s so rare and so finite.”
The seeds held the potential to renew more than just a harvest of corn. But first, those seeds had to be planted and survive. What if rain didn’t fall and the crop failed? What if hungry crows stripped away too many kernels before the harvest? What if there were no seeds for the next season? This variety of corn, unique to the pueblo, could disappear again.
“I talked to them and sang to them to let them know that they’re here again and they’re going to be cared for,” Lowden says. “We’re going to make sure they go back to the places they need to be in the community.”
In 2020 Lowden worked as a program manager at Ancestral Lands, which runs conservation crews that employ Native people and trains youth through stewardship projects that strengthen connections with significant sites and traditional lands. At Acoma, the program has worked for a decade to revive Indigenous foodways, farming practices, and food sovereignty. Those efforts include returning traditional crops to their original stewards.
Acoma’s cornfield sits between a ditch that delivers water from springs on the pueblo’s land, the bustling rail line that parallels I-40, the pilgrimage destination of Mount Taylor, and, out of view to the south, the pueblo’s ancestral Sky City. That first year, Lowden planted just two rows of seeds in the furrowed earth. Then he waited, visiting the fields every day that summer, even camping there so he could chase crows away.
“We were very cautious,” he says.
Seeds hold memories. A plant shares what it has learned from living in a certain landscape with the seeds it produces—how to wait for rainstorms, how to flourish under bold sun and gusting winds, how to root deep in the soil to draw lingering moisture from the clay.
So, too, did Acoma elders once pass down skills for seeing the high desert and the Río San José floodplain that winds through the pueblo as ground fertile for farming and rich with food sources. But connections from old to young were broken. Wisdom was lost. People forgot.
Still, seeds, even those separated for generations from where their parents grew, can return to that soil and remember. The Acoma blue corn did. By late June, the stalks were knee-high. In July, their tassels reached Lowden’s shoulders.
“When you see them sprout, it’s very powerful,” says Michelle Lowden, Aaron’s sister, who has helped at the farm for years. “They thrived. It felt like they knew the soil and to grow here.”
That year, the crop yielded 331 pounds of seeds. In 2021, it grew to 350 pounds. “It would have been more if it wasn’t for the ravens,” Aaron says. Now, the work is to see if more people, like those blue corn seeds, can return to their land.
On a windy day this spring, about 20 people gather at the field for a community planting event. They spend the morning nestling seeds for melons, amaranth, sunflowers, tobacco, gourds, and several varieties of corn into the ground. The seven-person Ancestral Lands crew had already readied the soil, digging it into rows and enriching it with compost.
Dried corn husks spot the soil and rustle in the wind as two women walk a row, following a man who uses a hoe to open pockets in the earth. One woman carries a jar of blue corn, dried kernels from last year’s harvest so dark they appear nearly black, their color offset with white tips and occasional splashes of burgundy. The seeds tinkle against the glass jar as she shakes some onto her palm, then lowers them into every other hole. Her dusty fingers nudge dirt over the seeds.
Another woman fills the alternating spaces with seeds for two varieties of Acoma winter squash. Planting the crops together is an idea based on the “Three Sisters” growing pattern developed on Indigenous farms. The squash plants will rise first, sprouting massive leaves that shade the soil to preserve moisture for the corn.
“It’s some little, small things that make people feel connected to our culture,” says pueblo member Mason Louis, pausing at his hoe. “Farming is like some little flicker of light, or an ember.”
WITH THE SEEDS PLANTED, Lowden moves the gate at the irrigation ditch to direct water toward the field. Everyone lines the dirt trough and quietly watches the water make its way, bits of grass and creamy foam speckling the otherwise chocolate color. The flow thickens as the soil saturates. Michelle’s three-year-old son, Naiyu, plays at its leading edge, shadowing it through the field and splashing his hands in
the water. An Ancestral Lands crew member, a jar of seeds tucked under his arm, follows it, too, ensuring that water reaches and saturates the far end of the field.
The goal is to teach a younger generation how to grow food sustainably, reviving traditional practices that existed long before the rise of permaculture and biodynamic techniques. Everything on the farm is done by hand. There’s no tilling. Lowden tries to keep oil and gas out of the field, so nothing comes with an engine. It’s all “people power,” he says. “We’ll be here pulling weeds all summer.”
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Over the previous months, they had dressed the fields with mulch, leaf droppings, and ponderosa pine needles to revitalize the soil. On this day, as the water seeps toward the seeds, five-gallon buckets of “worm castings” or “worm tea” are poured in, adding more microbes. Year by year, the field has responded as soil microorganisms flourish and beneficial animals and insects gather in a place that Lowden remembers as bare dirt.
Traditionally, Acoma people dry farmed, relying on rainfall, Louis explains. Time in the fields illuminates the reasoning behind other traditional practices, such as praying. “Most of our prayers go to the wind and the water,” he says. Water provides the lifeblood; wind spreads pollen. “We pray for ourselves last. Our families, the land, everything before ourselves.”
This spring’s planting event drew staff from the Pueblo of Acoma Health and Human Services Division, which brings behavioral health clients, prevention efforts, and youth programs to the field. Time spent there helps embed traditional values and practices. For teenagers, it can cultivate a strong sense of who they are and where they come from.
“This project is so much needed,” says Michelle Lowden, who works with the division and helped connect it with the fields. “It ties to mental wellness, behavioral health, spirituality, and physical health.”
After a decade with the Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps, Lowden left his role early this year to become coordinator of the Indigenous SeedKeepers Network, a program of the Flagstaff, Arizona–based Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance. Zada Miller, who started working with Ancestral Lands a decade ago as a teenager, took over Lowden’s role. Lowden, who still works at the farm and was out this summer picking squash bugs off plants and checking to see it young plants recovered after hailstorms shredded their leaves, looks to an even younger generation: “My thoughts are always with my nephew,” he says.
Michelle worked in this field when she was nine months pregnant; Naiyu’s umbilical cord is buried in it.
As an Ancestral Lands crew member hefts shovelfuls of packed dirt away from the end of one row to allow water into the next, Michelle asks, “Should we eat?”
“Yeah,” her brother says.
Dust plumes off the road and voices disappear in the wind, so she crosses the field to tell those still working to come over to a shade tent covering tables, coolers of bottled water, jars of seeds, and containers of plant seedlings, along with a nearby canvas tent that fills with the aromas of beans and blue corn mush, or atole. For a morning break, the thick, pale-blue porridge is ladled into 16-ounce cups with lids to keep out blowing sand.
Some people add honey or salt before sipping it. Plain, the warm atole tastes nutty. The last of it has to be shaken from the cup’s bottom. The newly returned blue corn also makes a thin bread, hominy, pancakes, and something Lowden calls an “Indigenous superfood bar.”
For lunch, Michelle cooks yellow Hopi beans that are similar to pinto beans but more flavorful. They were grown in the field and provided “so people can taste what they’re planting.” People enjoy the stewed beans with thick slices of bread.
“It’s not just gardening or planting,” she says. “Our whole cultural calendar revolves around planting. There’s so much teaching. Ultimately, we want to keep doing this so we connect to our culture and have access to healthy foods.”
TRAINS RUMBLE PAST on the nearby tracks. The rail line was part of a late-19th-century system that imported settlers, who brought a host of complications to Acoma farms. Among them were competitors for water, which caused some streams to be dammed and redirected. Uranium mining contaminated others. What water comes now is limited, and with the climate crisis, Lowden always wonders if there will be enough.
The trauma of the boarding-school system, which was designed to assimilate Native children by severing them from their families, language, and culture, did the most to make farming disappear. Pueblo children, who were forcibly placed in schools, lost the chance to learn from their elders about farming and foraging.
Lowden points to a “food forest” of edibles, like cedar, wheat grass, saltbush, and wolfberry, growing wild around the fields. “We just forgot these things,” he says. “There’s abundance here, if we remind ourselves where it is.”
The breakdown of traditional foodways and ongoing reliance on leaky federal systems left Acoma Pueblo with no grocery store for 35 miles. Visiting the nearest one, a Walmart in Grants, requires two to three hours when you include driving, shopping, and gassing up, Lowden says. Sometimes, finding fresh food requires a 130-mile round-trip drive to Albuquerque.
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When the pandemic hit, food access became even more difficult. Pueblo boundaries closed to protect residents. Even if people did make the drive, shelves were often empty.
In response, Acoma’s Health and Human Services Division created a food pantry that fed 275 to 450 families weekly for about 18 months. Joshua Juanico, a prevention and health promotion specialist with the division, became the emergency food-pantry coordinator. He was one of just four people who orchestrated food donations, including produce from the farm, and secured funding to purchase items like infant supplies, paper products, and laundry soap, then broke apart bulk purchases and repacked supplies into boxes that were given to families at drive-through events.
People also turned to traditional foodways. Previously, Lowden counted nine to 14 farmers at Acoma. In 2020, fields long left fallow greened up. Sixty-five people requested seeds from the seed bank that Ancestral Lands has built over a decade with such a moment in mind.
“We’re trying to create and build off this momentum, to realize this is something our ancestors were always prepared for,” Lowden says. An old word for Acoma means “the place prepared,” he says. “There’s always an idea that we should be prepared for anything that might come our way.”
SEEDS THAT GREW in this landscape for generations, learning a little more each season about how to thrive, vanished along with the farmers decades ago. The two had co-evolved: Corn has been cultivated by Indigenous farmers, and its seeds must be planted by people.
Lowden spent years searching for seeds lost to the tribe, including Acoma blue corn, before he found a source held by a nontribal organization that had collected corn seeds from Acoma farmers in 1986 and 1987. The 2020 negotiations to receive seeds from that organization marks a milestone in Lowden’s work on “seed rematriation,” as he calls it. Over a dozen varieties were collected from Acoma, many of which the pueblo has not yet recovered.
“Indigenous communities view these seeds as not only our biodiversity but our plant relatives,” Lowden says. “They’re something we’ve had relationships with since time immemorial.”
He also collects and propagates seeds gathered from community members and surrounding tribal people in the same bioregion. Acoma’s Ancestral Lands seed bank now stores more than 1,000 pounds of seeds in 16-ounce jars on overflowing shelves.
Each jar represents hands-on labor. Bean pods must be dried and then spread on a tarp. A harvester steps on the pods to crack them open and pours the beans into a container while the lighter shells fly away. With corn, they shuck the ears, and dry the kernels until they can be dislodged with a twist of the hand over the cob.
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In spring of this year, Lowden estimated they’d reached a point with the blue corn seeds where, even if the crop failed at the community garden, he had enough seeds to start again. That meant he could share the seeds with others. Lowden traced the corn back to families of the farmers who had contributed the seeds in the 1980s. Two of the six farmers who received blue corn seeds this spring are descendants of the original donors.
“You’re not only saying ‘Here’s your grandpa’s seed back,’ ” says Zarek Joe, who works with Ancestral Lands. “It’s ‘Here’s his legacy.’ ”
Joe joined the Ancestral Lands hiking program at age 12, but leaned toward the adult crews who worked outdoors and learned to take care of the land. At age 13, with a work permit, he started accruing a decade of experience removing invasive species. After joining the farm crew four years ago, he began gardening at home and teaching his younger brother, now eight, how to help.
He’s in the garden almost daily, checking if the melons, corn, peppers, herbs, cabbages, squash, turnips, or chard need water, adding mulch and compost to the soil, or just singing to the plants to share energy and connect with them. Sometimes he sings traditional songs. Other times, it’s Sam Smith.
“It makes a difference,” he says. “Having to be with family all day, we tend to butt heads, so I can work some things out in the field. Self-care with the garden.”
He’s stood by the mammoth sunflowers in his garden, their seed-heavy heads tipped toward him, and felt like a mother was looking down upon him. His own mother teases him that the corn he grows sends him messages about his future: It sprouts twin ears as a sign that, someday, he’ll have twins of his own.
“There was a prophecy that we will lose our ways and die out, but there will be a time when we come back,” Joe says of the Acoma people. “The knowledge isn’t really lost. It’s only forgotten, and it will make its way back.”
Tribes throughout New Mexico are embracing a revival in traditional farming techniques.
Acoma Pueblo isn’t alone in the effort to revive traditional farming practices, “rematriate” seeds, teach young farmers, share Indigenous food, and steward time-honored lifeways.
Burgeoning Indigenous agriculture is underway at Taos Pueblo’s Red Willow Center, which began as a volunteer-built demonstration project. Greenhouses at the center now produce year-round, supplying a farmers’ market open only to pueblo members. The Pueblo of Tesuque also farms traditional crops and herbal medicines on more than 70 acres and maintains a seed bank. Zuni waffle gardens, grids of sunken beds enclosed by raised mounds of earth that help trap moisture, have been reappearing in backyards around Zuni Pueblo, often with the assistance of the Zuni Sustainable Agriculture program.
Santa Ana Pueblo nurtures Southwestern plants and trees at its own nursery, in addition to running a program to grow and sell blue corn as part of a four-decade effort to use traditional communal agriculture for the benefit of its people.
Teresa K. Quintana, Cauigu (Kiowa), a program associate at the Institute of American Indian Arts, in Santa Fe, oversees the campus garden and greenhouse, which grow Indigenous foods from heirloom seeds, and an apiary that keeps five beehives and has inspired a growing pollinator garden along with a honey harvest. The institute shares what it learns from these projects with tribal communities, including six that are hosting beehives this year to experiment with starting an apiary of their own. “Gardening is trial and error. We learn something new every year,” Quintana says. “We usually have a crew of students, and they tell us they’re learning a life lesson or a gardening lesson, and in that way, the seeds are teaching us.” The IAIA campus, including its gardens, is open to visit.
In Albuquerque, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center’s Resilience Garden showcases traditional farming techniques. The center’s SEEDSS program (Sowing Ecological Education for Delivering Sustainable Stewardship) promotes traditional agricultural practices and cooking, as well as seed harvesting and preservation.
The Navajo Agricultural Products Industry tends several farms in northwestern New Mexico and supplies Navajo Pride–brand flour, pinto beans, and corn meal to a store on the reservation.