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Rooted Into Mother Earth Through Gardening

Se'eh sivol or O'odham onions peek out from the ground at the Community Garden at the corner of McDowell and Longmore roads.

As descendants of this land, farming and gardening were responsibilities our ancestors took on. Traditional agricultural practices and fresh indigenous foods were grown and practiced in their backyards. As time passed and technology has improved, farming and gardening began to fade away, and today it is no longer a way of life.

Here within the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, both the O’odham and Piipaash were said to have practiced farming for thousands of years. Most recently, the SRPMIC Community Garden Program took on the responsibility to revitalize gardening and educate those who are open to learning the traditional agricultural practices.

“In the 1930s, farming as a subsistence way of life for the people ended. It all had to do with the Salt River Project, when they excavated the ancient Hohokam canals. It was originally for water to get to our people, but when the system was in place, the delivery costs were so high that the people couldn’t afford the cost of water, and so all that water ended up going to help develop Phoenix into what it is today. That basically ended the way we farmed,” said Community Garden Coordinator Jacob Butler.

Traditional foods quickly left the diet, and government commodity foods came into play. Commodity foods (where frybread and popovers came about) became the new way of life. Now, American Indians have one of the highest rates of obesity in the country.

U'us Mun - cow peas. Havol - lima bean.
“Our children were encouraged to get an education, encouraged not to work in fields (it wasn’t considered a respectable job), and to better their community by becoming doctors, lawyers and everything you see outside of our Community. There’s a gap between the ’30s to the early 2000s where any type of traditional food out here didn’t exist, unless it was on a small scale in people’s backyards,” said Butler.

What are the benefits and advantages of gardening? Well, to name a few, you get easy access to fresh produce, full control over chemicals and products used, a positive environmental impact, lower costs, and your own enjoyment. Although it may take a couple tries to establish your green thumb, the Community garden staff will tell you that it will pay off in the end.

The Community Garden sits at the corner of McDowell and Longmore roads, behind the old day school. You will quickly notice the entrance and various colors of plants flourishing in the desert. The garden has traditional crops such as tepary beans, corn, pumpkins and squash, as well as a pomegranate tree, various fruit trees, various cacti, agave, devil’s claw (used to weave traditional baskets) and more.

“One thing that really annoyed me was when some people came in and told us that our farming and gardening tactics were no longer alive here in our Community and that they could teach and show us how to get it started again. They were trying to show us how to be Native again. That really got me. That’s when I knew I had to do something about it,” said Butler.

The garden has various setups and designs on display for Community members. Dry-farming techniques and contemporary gardening practices are obvious. Drip systems used to be on display. The garden staff is working to get this going again.

Some of the restoration efforts include a greenhouse; in collaboration with Salt River High School, students can take an agricultural science class as an elective. SRHS also will have its own garden with help from the Community Garden staff. “This will help us to teach the culture and traditional ways to our children. It will be engrained in their cultural identity,” said Butler.

An example of a dry-farming technique. This is done in tiers and has an incline. When it rains, the water is trapped by the rocks for the plants, essentially helping the plants to grow.
“One benefit of a garden is eating your own food. Another is going there and being a part of your land and working that land (exercising). If you need help with anything, like if the plants are turning yellow or there’s a bug in the garden, anything, we will help with that. If you’re not comfortable with harvesting, we can help you with that as well,” said Butler.

“Talk to the earth and tell her to help teach you about the plant. She made this plant, and the plant knows this because its roots go deep into the earth. It can feel the heartbeat of the earth,” said Community Garden Technician Amson Collins.

“To put in into comparison, in the ’30s we had 13 varieties of the 16 tepary beans that grow indigenously in Arizona. Today, we only have two. Even the elders will tell you those aren’t traditional foods. In their lifetime, they don’t remember them. But that’s one of the hardest things; the greatest loss you’ll ever experience is a loss you never knew you had. It’s been so far out that none of our people remember that as something traditional. Now when we’re bringing something back, they feel it has no place here because they’ve never seen it in their lifetime,” said Butler.

For the O’odham and Piipaash, farming and gardening were essential for survival in the desert. Today we have the luxury of driving down to the grocery store, not really knowing what we’re putting into our bodies and our children’s bodies. Perhaps you’ll find interest and revitalize your roots to Mother Earth through gardening.

Community members are encouraged to establish their own home gardens. The Community Garden staff assists five to 10 families annually. Traditional seed varieties are offered to Community members to help start their own seed banks. Resources like book lists, plant charts and seed sources are also available. They do not provide any maintenance services.

For more information about the Community Garden, call (480) 362-6325.