A Taste of Home: Digging into the Roots of an Indigenous Food Experience

Roxanne Swentzell is an artist, seed-saver, and a founder of the Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute. In 2013, she and her son, historian Porter Swentzell, along with 14 volunteers from the Santa Clara Pueblo, committed to an experiment: to eat only the foods of their ancestors for three months, which they dubbed the Pueblo Food Experience (PFE). In that time, they experienced remarkable changes to their health individually, and a greater connection to their collective roots. Since then, Roxanne has been working to spread the word and rekindle the viability of heritage foods in her community.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Jade: In doing your research for the PFE, did you discover a food you’d never had before?

Roxanne: There’s things like amaranth I’ve been growing for 30 years—I knew you could eat the young leaves, but I never learned how to process the seed. It was one of our staple foods, but was totally lost; now in the communities if you say “amaranth,” they go, “What’s that?” Also, things like wild spinaches, cat tails, wild things you can get out in the fields, those are things that I may have known about but I never tried before {laughs}.

1 - Harvesting Amaranth-lr

Harvesting amaranth at Roxanne’s garden. Image courtesy of Roxanne Swentzell

You offer classes to your community through your Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute—can you tell me more about that?

We teach certain things, like how to make tamales or process corn, and it changes based on what the needs are at the time. That’s why we put together the cookbook [The Pueblo Food Experience Cookbook]. A lot of times people don’t know where to start, and the cookbook seemed like a good way to help them start the conversation. Even though we’re a much more intact tribe than most in the US, many Pueblo people don’t know about these foods anymore. For me, that’s really scary, because if we lose these foods, we lose a lot. That’s the same for every culture—the diversity is very important. The connections are very important.

What needs or opportunities do you see right now?

For years now we’ve been getting enough seed to grow out enough food to get to more people. Now we’re slowly putting together a little processing facility so that a group of us gets together and processes some of this corn. And that’s just one product, so it’s a big project {laughs}. We’re working on one strand of this basket, and it’s going to take all our lives to put the basket back together. And that’s just one community—I’m desperate for the whole world to start doing this.

Have any other groups reached out to you about their experiences doing similar work?

Many of the tribes around the US are trying to find and nurture back their original diets, which is exciting because we’re all rediscovering and holding onto ourselves in this way again. The scary part of it is that as soon as it becomes a fad then people want to jump in on it. It’s fun to try other people’s food, but don’t take it—that’s a colonizing mentality. Just like the seeds I’ve been saving all these years, we are very adapted to very specific conditions. If you’re interested in going about finding health this manner, it’s a really fascinating journey—let’s find out what fits us, individually, the best. All your answers are in you.

Are there any community organizations you’ve been able to partner with?

I partner with the Traditional Native Farmer’s Association; I’ve been working with them for about 20 years, we’re very much on the same path. There’s also a group out of Tewa Women United called the Oasis of Espanola, and they’ve been working on putting together a food forest in Espanola. I also work with a little organization here in the pueblo called HOPE, Honoring Our Pueblo Existence; we do a lot of work together, but it’s very localized within the women’s society doing specific cultural stuff for the pueblo.

What crops are you focusing on this year?

I probably have over 35 varieties of corn from our area, and that means about 30 years to grow each one of them out. We have to pick and choose carefully or try desperately to get more people to grow them. Right now we’re focusing on our main corn, blue, white, red, and some of the sweet corns. The more unique varieties I’ve put in smaller fields just to keep the seed alive—I’m hoping that somebody will fall in love with them and maybe grow a whole field and keep them alive. But it’s a big job.

Do you have any other projects for the near future?

This year we’re building a greenhouse that’s combined with a turkey pen, because turkeys are a very important bird to us. It’s really good pest control; if you just walk turkeys through your field every morning, they take care of all the bugs and fertilize everything, and in the end you get turkey meat and feathers. I’m into putting things together like that. I’m also continuing to teach a few classes—I teach in the summer a design permaculture course that focuses on Native sustainability. I’m also wanting to focus on growing out more of the traditional medicine plants. So, all of that and more {laughs}.

Is there a particular recipe you enjoy teaching people who are interested in trying an ancestral way of eating?

The thing is, it’s not a specific food, it’s how you interact with it. The more connected you are to the process, the richer it is. You go out there and put that tomato seed in the ground and water it, see that first flower come out, watch that fruit grow {laughs} and you get all excited ‘cause it starts to turn red. All those moments you interacted with that plant, it’s almost like a spiritual experience, because, “Oh my god, that’s the tomato I grew.” This is when they talk about food as medicine—it becomes something much, much bigger. When we put that back in our food, we hold it so dear because we saw what it took. Reconnect to your food, step by step, put the basket back together. Instead of buying everything, try growing one of the things you eat often, and then if you can do that, grow another one. And then if you can do that, just keep going. Reconnect. Reconnect.

4 - Planting

Planting day at Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute. Image courtesy of Roxanne Swentzell

Easy Crops to Grow in Pots or Indoors:
Bell Peppers ~ Mint ~ Kale ~ Strawberries ~ Tomatoes

-Posted by Jade

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