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For citations, please see:
Joni Adamson, “Gardens in the Desert: Migration, Diaspora
and Food Sovereignty in the Work of Native North American
Women Writers.” Aspects of Transnational and Indigenous
Cultures Series, Hsinya Huang and Clara Shu-Chun Chang,
Ed., Cambridge Scholars P, 2014. 47- 70.
Wisdom from the past, creating solutions for the future.
-Tohono O’odham Community Action Mission Statement
In Gardens in the Dunes, Laguna Pueblo novelist Leslie Marmon Silko
tells the story of Sister Salt and Indigo, indigenous sisters living in the
desert between Arizona and California, near the Colorado River at the turn
of the nineteenth century. The sisters struggle to find foods to keep
themselves healthy and strong and thus Silko draws attention to the
importance of indigenous food traditions. Trained by their grandmother to
hunt for wild seeds and fruits in the desert and to grow the corn, beans,
squash and amaranth in their garden, the sisters carefully store their food
in earthen jars and grow their seeds in rain-irrigated gardens. Silko names
the sisters’ band the “Sand Lizards” and depicts them as part of a larger
2 Chapter Three
tribe which has been hunted, rounded up and sent to boarding schools and
reservations. Consequently, they can no longer hunt and gather foods or
grow the gardens they need to sustain themselves or remain together as a
distinct group.
Silko bases the Sand Lizards on an actual band of Tohono O’odham
people known as the Hia C-ed O’odham or Sand People (Nabhan,
Gathering the Desert 52). According to Gary Nabhan, the Sand People left
their traditional lands in the 1920s, when the river they depended upon
dried up. Engineers upstream from their village “had damned and diverted
[the river’s] entire flow. There was suddenly not a drop available to flood-
irrigate native crops as there had been for centuries. Without the ability to
farm [. . .] nearly all the Sand Papago left the area” (Nabhan 1997, 143).
Today this once distinct band has faded into the larger group of O’odham
people still living in the Sonoran Desert on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico
border. Silko’s depiction of the experiences of the Sand Lizard sisters,
especially after they are dispossessed from their lands and can no longer
engage in sustainable farming, points to the growing number of Native
North American women novelists and poets who are depicting the links
between food, justice and human rights in their fiction and poetry. These
writers are drawing attention to a growing movement that has alternatively
been called the “local foods,” “food justice,” or “food sovereignty
movement” and their novels and poems are provocatively pointing to
indigenous groups throughout the Americas that are working to restore
traditional foodways.
“Food sovereignty,” a concept that entered international policy debates
when it was put forward at the 1996 World Food Summit means “the
ability of countries and communities to control their own food supplies”
(McAfee 2004,10). According to anthropologist and food justice activist
Devon Peña, it is also the idea that all humans “regardless of their class,
race, age, or other social status” have a right “to a safe, nutritious and
stable source of food” (Peña 2005, 4; 5). For over thirty years, indigenous
peoples throughout the Americas have been formally organizing around
this concept. For example, at the 2007 Continental Summit of the
Indigenous Peoples and Nationalities of Abya Yala held in Iximche,
Guatemala, delegates from Abya Yala, which means “continent of life,”
spoke out against international trade agreements and policies that
subordinate indigenous food systems and ecologies to the logic of profit.
Representatives of indigenous groups from throughout the Americas,
signed a Declaration reaffirming their determination to defend their
“nutritional sovereignty” and called for all people of the world to join
them in the struggle “to guarantee our future” (Declaration of Iximche
Gardens in the Desert 3
Many of the delegates were farmers concerned about the dramatic
reduction of the world’s biodiverse food crops and the increasing
dominance of multinational biotechnology corporations selling
genetically-altered and patented varieties of corn, rice, and soy. At one
time, over 3000 plant species were used by humans for food, but today
only 150 are cultivated, and of these, only a few, including corn, rice and
soy, are cultivated to produce half the world’s food (Mushita and
Thompson 2007, 14). The threat posed by the cultivation of too narrow a
selection of food crops and seed varieties was demonstrated, say these
farmers, by the Irish potato famine of the 1850s. Abya Yala farmers are
resisting this reduction in biodiversity and working to protect local and
indigenous varieties of seed that have been freely sown and shared for
millennia. Indigenous varieties of corn, rice and soy are called
“landraces,” writes Vandana Shiva, and they evolved through thousands of
years of both natural and human selection by indigenous farmers. Today,
original varieties of these seeds, called “primitive cultivars,” are taken by
multinational biotechnology corporations, and hybridized or genetically
altered, so that they can be termed “advanced or elite” cultivars, then
patented as private property and sold for profit (Shiva 1997, 51-55). Shiva
calls the patenting of elite cultivars “biopiracy” because corporations
claim private ownership over the seeds while hiding the “prior use,
knowledge, and rights associated with indigenous uses of primitive
cultivars over the course of thousands of years (Shiva 1997, 73).
In what follows, I will examine the work of Native North American
women writers whose poetry and fiction is illustrating what is at stake
when the relationship between peoples and the wild and traditional foods
they gather or cultivate is threatened. Focusing on Navajo writers Laura
Tohe and Luci Tapahonso, I will examine how traditional place-based
people retain their cultural and food-based knowledges even when they no
longer have access to their homelands or are in diaspora. I will also
explore the implications of this analysis for environmental literary studies
and place studies. In The Future of Environmental Criticism, Lawrence
Buell notes that the concept of place has been a rich and tangled arena for
environmental humanists, but in the age of globalization, it is “a term of
value that even advocates perceive stands in need of redefinition” (Buell
2005, 62). I will examine what Native North American authors are
contributing to conversations about how we might live more responsibly
in an age when place-attachment is difficult to maintain and cultures and
habitats are being changed at a relentless pace. Then, turning to Tohono
O’odham writer Ofelia Zepeda, I will examine how Native North
4 Chapter Three
American women are creating an “ancient future, a term coined by
Andrew Mushita and Carol B. Thompson, that is built on the relationship
between people and the plants they cultivate for food and medicine
(Mushita and Thompson 2007, 4). I will explore what Silko’s Gardens in
the Dunes contributes to conversations among indigenous communities
around seeds, medicinal plants, biodiversity, biopiracy and patenting of
living organisms. Finally, I will explore how these conversations and
positions are being written into international documents such as the
Iximche Declaration and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which gives indigenous peoples and
communities the right “to protect their food sovereignty by maintaining,
controlling, protecting and developing their seeds” (UNDRIP 2007, Art.
Place-based Transience: Tohe and Tapahonso
Much has been made of the particular mobile quality of life under the
shadow of globalization. This mobility, which goes hand in hand with
political uprootedness and habitat degradation, writes Mitchell
Thomashow in Bringing the Biosphere Home, renders traditional notions
of “place” and “place-attachment” anachronistic (Thomashow 2002, 164).
These notions, forged by writers who often romanticize indigenous
cultures that associate features of the land with mythological origins and
significance, advocate self-sufficiency and prolonged residence in one
place. However, in the global age, it is estimated that there are over 100
million migrants and 20 million refugees, many of them displaced
indigenous peoples, and that “10 million people have left homes because
they can no longer make a living from their land” (Thomashow 2002, 169).
Such staggering transience, concludes Thomashow, calls on writers,
teachers, students and critics to put traditional concepts of place and place-
attachment, which simplistically examine one writer or one cultures ties
to a particular place, into a much broader perspective (Thomashow 2002,
Thomashow reminds his readers that migration of humans and non-
human species has always been a biospheric process and that
understanding of seasonal migrations or historic diasporas should be
brought to bear on understandings of place and sense of place. One has
only to look to Native North American creation myths and contemporary
literatures to see that Thomashow is making an important point. For
thousands of years, the indigenous peoples of North America traveled
Gardens in the Desert 5
extensively as they traded goods from the hogans in what is now the
American Southwest where the Navajo live today, to the Sonoran Desert
on what is now the U.S.-Mexico Border where the Tohono O’odham live
today, to the Southern Mexico and Guatamalan regions where the farmers
of Abya Yala gathered at the Iximche Summit. From shells and feathers
and turquoise, to the seeds of the “sacred trinity” of crops—corn, beans
and squash, there was constant movement south to north and north to
south on ancient highways that have been paved with asphalt and are still
in use. These highways, through valleys and along rivers, are still the
routes over which people, plants, animals, and consumer goods are
constantly on the move.
The work of Navajo poets Laura Tohe and Luci Tapahonso illustrate
how Navajo women writers weave stories of ancient migrations in search
of shelter, food and trade into stories of the historical experiences of
people under colonization. Both poets tells stories about the hunger their
forebears experienced as they were driven from their traditional lands,
mourning the loss of loved ones and lamenting the loss of their seeds and
gardens. They also tell about their people’s experiences in a contemporary,
rapidly changing world. Both of these writers lyrically depict the diverse
experiences of relatives who still live in Navajoland. They also depict the
experiences of the modern Diné who find themselves living far from their
traditional homelands. Historically, when migrating groups of people
maintain the integrity of their culture, even in new places, it is called a
diaspora. These groups, write Gerard Chaliand and Jean-Pierra Rageau in
the The Penguin Atlas of Diasporas, maintain collective memory which
“transmits both the historical facts that precipitated the dispersion and a
cultural heritage” (Chaliand and Rageau 1983, xiv-xv).
Tohe and Tapahonso both illustrate how “collective memory”
concerning migrations and food traditions helps place-based communities
retain their cultural and agroecological knowledges even when, by
necessity or choice, they live far from their homes. Indeed, the etymology
of diaspora has an agroecological origin. It means to “to sow, scatter”
(from the Greek), and is connected to the movement of peoples, animals,
plants and seeds. In her book of poetry and prose, Tséyi: Deep in the Rock:
Reflections on Canyon de Chelly, Laura Tohe draws deeply on the Navajo
oral tradition to create lyrical writings that are rooted in the Navajo “place
of emergence.” The Navajo, who call themselves, “Diné,” or “The
People,” believe they emerged from the earth into a beautiful, deep red
rock canyon, called “Tséyi” or as the European Americans call it, “Canyon
de Chelly.” The word “Tséyi'” means “the place deep within the rock
(Tohe i). Tséyi holds many stories for the Diné people about the ancient
6 Chapter Three
people who came before them and built cities into the sides of the red
cliffs and taught them to plant corn, beans, and squash near the edges of
the river running through the canyon. Today, the Diné continue to plant
gardens in the shadows of these red cliffs.
Tohe’s poem, “What Made this Earth Red?” is brief but within its few
lines it links the emergence story of the Diné to the historical migration
stories also included as part of their oral tradition. Migration stories
recount Diné travels throughout the region they call home and acquaint
listeners with how the Diné acquired their knowledge of the seasonal
migrations of wild animals, their love of the horses and sheep introduced
by the Spanish, and their mastery of both wild and domesticated foods.
These stories also name the mountains, rivers, and landmarks the people
encounter after they emerge from the earth. They tell how the people are
introduced to the materials for their clothing, baskets, and rugs, and how
they learn to hunt, gather and plant gardens. Tohe writes:
What made this earth red? These rocks red?
Was it the light from earth and sky to remind us at day’s end of the color of
our births?
Is it all the trails we took upon ourselves or that were forced upon us,
beginning with our blood trails to Hwééldi and back?
Our fragile lives, tentative, brave, wavering through all the worlds we’ve
And each time we arrived, the quickening of our hearts. (Tohe 2005, 3)
The red color of the cliffs is associated with “birth” and “blood” and thus
refers to the emergence story. The word “trails” refers to the vast cultural
knowledge encoded into the migration stories.
The word Hwééldi,which is a place name, points to the differences
between voluntary and seasonal human migrations and forced migrations
and diaspora. The phrase “our blood trails to Hwééldi and back” associates
the red of the canyon walls with Diné blood spilled by U.S. soldiers. This
refers to one of the most devastating events in Diné history called “The
Long Walk.” In 1864, Kit Carson, who is remembered in American
history as a “hero” but by the Diné as a murderous villain, rounded up
8,000 Navajos. After Carson’s troops killed the Diné’s beloved horses and
sheep and burned their gardens of corn, beans and squash, the people were
forced to walk more than 300 miles from northeastern Arizona and
northwestern New Mexico to Bosque Redondo, the name of a fort that had
been build in southern New Mexico. The Diné called this desolate place
Hwééldi. Many Diné died on “The Long Walk” and many were
murdered, including pregnant women who were too slow to keep up with
Gardens in the Desert 7
the pace of the march. “The Long Walk” and the military fort at
Hwééldi” was built as a reservation where the soldiers intended "to tame
the savages." However, the ill-planned site, named for a grove of
cottonwoods by the river, turned into a prison camp for the Diné. The
brackish river water caused severe intestinal problems, and diseases were
rampant. With little good water, the gardens that were planted at Hwééldi
failed. Insects destroyed the corn crop. The Diné endured the wretched
camp for four years, before the United States government finally allowed
them to return to their homelands (See Tapahonso 1993, 7).
Tohe’s references to the Long Walk and to the Navajo’s struggle to
provide themselves with food in a strange place asks readers to consider
one of the largely unexamined consequences of conquest and colonization,
which is the threat to a people’s food sovereignty. At Hwééldi, in the face
of genocide and despite being far from the soil and climate with which
they were most familiar, the Navajo struggled to grow their traditional
crops. As Devon Peña explains, when displaced indigenous peoples plant
gardens in new places of residence, they are, in a sense, rooting
themselves to both their cultural places of origin and their new places of
habitation as both a material and spiritual survival strategy. Gardens with
culturally-familiar plants are known throughout the Americas as “Meso-
American kitchen gardens” and are based on the “familiar sacred trinity of
Corn, Beans and Squash” (Peña 2005, 7). In The Story of Corn, Betty
Fussell writes that the corn that stands at the center of these traditional
gardens has provided indigenous American peoples with a seed and a food
through which they have encoded their cultural and agroecological
knowledge for thousands of years (Fussell 1992, 15). Writing about the
literal dispersal or diaspora of the most sacred of indigenous seeds,
Patricia Kleindienst writes that as the “mother of corn” migrated with
humans from Mesoamerica into North America, it evolved into hundreds
of “ethnoecological adaptations” that were dependent not only on the place
“where it was cultivated” but on “the people whose hands planted, tended
and harvested it. Oaxaca Green, Hopi Blue, Pawnee Black Eagle,
Cherokee White Eagle, Iroquois White” (Kleindienst 2006, 228-29).
Devon Peña adds that when indigenous peoples plant gardens which
conform to the ancient patterns of the Meso-American Garden in their new
communities, they become “stewards of a significant cultural and natural
resource (Peña 2005, 2). At Hwééldi, then, despite the inconceivably
cruel conditions of imprisonment, marauding insects and filthy water, the
Diné continued to plant gardens in traditional patterns. These gardens
should be understood, to use Peña’s words, as an important strategy for the
maintenance “of cultural identity through the preservation of cultivars that
8 Chapter Three
resonate with one’s foodways (Peña 2005, 6).
In Sáanii Dahataal: The Women Are Singing, Diné writer Luci
Tapahonso also puts the Long Walk at the center of poems and short
stories that preserve collective memory of Diné sense of place. In the
poem “In 1864,” the poet is driving home to the Navajo Nation from
Kansas with her daughters in the car. Across the miles, she tells her
daughters stories about how their great-grandmother and her family were
starving during the time preceding the Long Walk because “Kit Carson
and his army had burned all the fields, / and they killed our sheep right
before our eyes” (Tapahonso 1993, 8). The grandmother cannot face a
future without her crops, sheep, and land, so she and her family decide to
go to Hwééldi where the soldiers tell them they will be safe. Despite these
promises, over the next four years, the Diné lost 2,500 people to treachery,
starvation and disease before they were allowed to return home and begin
re-planting their cornfields and rebuilding their flocks of sheep. Tapahonso
recounts the horror of the Long Walk and the conditions at Hwééldi, but
she also wants her daughters to know that the Diné are strong and that they
survived because of their resilience. She tells her daughters that during
their time at Hwééldi, the Diné were forced to eat the foods of their
colonizers and jailers. They took these strange foods and transformed them
into the means of their survival. We “learned to use flour and now / fry
bread is considered to be the ‘traditional’ Navajo bread,and “It was there
that we acquired a deep appreciation for strong coffee (Tapahonso 1993,
Here, Tapahonso emphasizes how Diné migration and diaspora
introduced new, welcome elements into their culture. She re-emphasizes
this point in “Hills Brother’s Coffee. In this poem, Tapahonso recalls a
morning, after her mother had left the house, that her uncle walked from
his house to her mother’s house for a visit. My uncle is a small man,” she
write, “In Navajo, we call him, shidá'í, my mother's brother” (Tapahonso
1993, 27). While he waits, Tapahonso offers her uncle a cup of coffee and
he “spoons in sugar and cream / until it looks almost like a chocolate
shake (Tapahonso 1993, 27). Looking at the coffee can, he says, Oh,
that's the coffee with the man in a dress, / like a church man. / Ah-h, that's
the one that does it for me. / Very good coffee (Tapahonso 1993, 27).
Some coffee, he adds, “has no kick. / But this one is the one / It does it
good for me” (Tapahonso 1993, 28). Because coffee was first introduced
to the Diné during their imprisonment at Hwééldi, this scene recalls a
period of Diné history associated with hardship and deprivation. When
Diné crops failed to thrive, the U.S. government supplied the people with
coffee, white flour, canned tomatoes and peaches. Over the course of their
Gardens in the Desert 9
four year imprisonment, these foods became cherished new elements in
the Diné diet. Canned tomatoes were sprinkled with sugar, and even today,
they are still eaten as a dessert. Coffee is savored and valued as one of the
most modern, yet “traditional” of Diné foods. Today, there are few Diné
households that start the day without coffee. Sitting at her mother’s table,
the coffee brings a twinkle to her uncle’s eye. Looking at the can in which
the coffee is packaged, he smiles and comments on the “man in a dress.”
This comment dates the coffee can to the 1960s, when America’s most
popular brand of coffee, Hills Brothers, was still using the image of an
Arab man, dressed in traditional Muslim clothing, in their packaging and
marketing. The uncle finds humor in the idea of a man wearing “a dress.”
Tapahonso frames the poems in Sáanii Dahataal, including “In 1864”
and “Hills Brothers Coffee,” with an introductory essay recounting her
1300 mile drive with her daughters from Kansas to the Navajo Nation. At
the time Tapahonso published these poems, she was an English professor
working at the University of Kansas and living far from Tséyi. Like many
other Diné, Tapahonso was living in diaspora because the Diné are still
dealing with the social, economic and environmental uncertainties forced
upon their people in the 19th century by the U.S. government’s reservation
system. Because of continuing lack of economic opportunity on most
reservations, many indigenous American peoples must leave their homes
for jobs and educations in other places. On the drive home, Tapahonso
tells her daughters stories that help them understand the experience of a
people who are still very much oriented to the red cliffs and spires of Tséyi
but who are often living in diaspora. The story about an uncle chuckling
about a “man in a dress” illustrates that the Diné have been dealing with
the forces of what has recently been termed “globalization” since—at
leastthe days of the Long Walk. A coffee can stamped with an image of
a “man in a dress” represents the ways in which the world has been
globalizating since the sixteenth century. Coffee, which was originally
grown in Africa and later encountered by Europeans in the sixteenth
century during their travels in the Ottoman Empire (today known as
Turkey) was introduced to Europe and America through Italy (Norton
260). In the 1960s, coffee was still being associated by Hills Brothers
Coffee marketing with the Islamic empire where the beans were first
roasted and made into a drink valued today not only by the Diné but by
people all over the world. The Diné’s relationship to coffee also helps to
illustrate how local places are constantly changing in the face of global
economic and ecological forces. This is the reason Lawrence Buell,
Mitchell Thomashow and other critics have argued that we must rethink
conventional literary notions about place and place-attachment.
10 Chapter Three
In the twenty-first century, Mitchell Thomashow argues, we are living
with widespread cultural and ecological diaspora and much can be learned
from the experiences of those who are modeling a kind of place-based
transience or awareness of how one might live with a deep sense of care
about local places even while living in diaspora (Thomashow 2002, 174).
Tapahonso offers lyrical illustration of Thomashow’s suggestion in her
introductory essay. Arriving home on the Navajo Nation, she observes the
San Juan River slowly meandering near her parents’ house. This silent
river makes her more aware of all the landscapes through which she has
moved. The Kaw River near her adopted home in Lawrence, Kansas, is
very different from the San Juan River and flows wide and brown” and
deep and loud (Tapahonso 1993, ix). Tapahonso’s awareness of various
local landscapes is heightened by her own place-based knowledge of the
migrations and history of the Diné. Thus, her work offers a model of how
each of us might learn to practice place-based transience and, at the
same time, become more deeply aware of the constantly dynamic
relationships between the peoples, species and environmental conditions in
local places that are always in relationship to global political, economic
and environmental forces. In a world in which uprootedness is such a
looming demographic factor, both Tohe and Tapahonso are modeling a
flexibility that allows them to move between multiple perceptual worlds,
investigating deep time and traversing diverse landscapes that offer them
what Thomashow terms a “biospheric perspective” that is fundamental to
understanding global social and environmental change (Thomashow 2002,
The Ancient Future: Zepeda
Tohono O’odham poet and linguist Ofelia Zepeda, like Tohe and
Tapahonso, also offers models for how to develop multiple allegiances to
the local while cultivating deep concerns for broader global processes.
Zepeda is a professor at the University of Arizona and a MacArthur
Fellow who travels often between Tucson, Arizona where she lives and
works and the Tohono O’odham Nation where her family once lived. Like
Tohe and Tapahonso, Zepeda’s poetry connects stories about the
traditional migration routes that took the O’odham through the desert to
collect wild foods and to the Pacific Ocean to collect salt, traditional
agroecological practices that supplied them with flood-irrigated crops, and
laterafter colonization, migrations that took them away from their
homelands in search of jobs and education. Zepeda’s poetry is important
Gardens in the Desert 11
for helping to illustrate how the imposition of the U.S. government’s
reservation system forced indigenous peoples into the wage economy and
away from their traditional food gathering activities and how this has
posed increasing risks to their lives and health.
Zepeda’s collection, Ocean Power, poetically represents both the
traditional and contemporary activities of the people who live in what is
now southern Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico. The Tohono
O’odham, or Desert People, lived sustainably for hundreds of years by
gathering wild desert foods, planting traditional rain-irrigated gardens,
and, since the introduction of cattle by the Spanish, raising domesticated
animals. They found everything they needed to survive in the desert from
the grasses they used to make their tightly-woven baskets, to the cactus
fruits collected as an important part of their diet. Gathering fruit from the
towering saguaro cactus found only in the Sonoran Desert is one of the
most sacred, annual activities of the O’odham. Each year, this cactus
produces a waxy, white flower in the spring, which ripens into a ruby red
fruit at the end of the summer monsoon. The people knock the ripened
fruit with eight-foot long, hooked harvesting sticks from the tops of the
saguaro, collect the fruit into baskets, and make the fruit into a wine used
in a ceremony associated with the summer rains. In the poem “Pulling
Down the Clouds,” Zepeda writes about this food gathering activity. A
man lying on his bed smells rain, and is comforted in the knowledge that
there is a storm “somewhere out in the desert.” Falling into a deep sleep,
he “dreams of women with harvesting sticks / raised towards the sky
(Zepeda 1995, 9-10). The man knows that the rain will feed the gardens
the people depend on for the harvest of their corn and other traditional
desert foods. The people look forward to these rains, and can tell when it is
raining “somewhere in the desert,” just by “the smell of dirt” and the
“change in the molecules” in the air (Zepeda 1995, 9). The fruit, the
harvest, the wine, and the ceremony are all associated with the element
which gives life to the desert. Thus, the people say in their language that
with their long, harvesting sticks, they will “pull down the clouds”
(Zepeda 1995, 9).
Zepeda also illustrates how O’odham culture developed over centuries
in relation to culturally meaningful foods and plants that were considered
medicines. For example, the O’odham make a tea from the creosote bush
which has grown wild in this place for over seventeen thousand years
(Nabhan 1985, 12). The pungent resin in the plant is used for colds, chest
infections, intestinal discomfort, nausea, swollen limbs, and to ease the
pain of childbirth (Nabhan 1985, 14-15). The creosote bush has healing
properties and a scent associated with the smell of rain. This is the reason
12 Chapter Three
why many Tohono O’odham are buried with limbs of creosote lining their
graves. We see this in Zepeda’s poem, “Bury Me with a Band,” in which
Zepeda is joking with her mother about her future burial. The mother
wants to have a band playing traditional music at her funeral, but Zepeda
jokes that the grave will not be big enough for her mother and all the
members of the band. Later, when Zepeda’s beloved mother dies, the
family lines her grave with the fragrant rain-scented creosote “to remind
her of home one last time” (Zepeda 1995, 40).
Today, many Tohono O’odham still gather saguaro fruit and creosote,
but most are living and working in urban areas far from the saguaro and
creosote forests. From the 1930s on, tribal members were forced by the
U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to become wage laborers in the cotton fields
in order to retain their officially-recognized tribal status. The construction
of dams on the Colorado and Gila Rivers diverted water away from their
traditional fields and into the irrigated cotton fields of non-indigenous
farmers who owned the lands surrounding the reservation. Because they
no longer had water to irrigate their gardens, the O’odham were forced to
leave the reservation and become migrant laborers. Entire families would
leave their communities for six to eight months each year and it became
impossible for many families to plant, tend and maintain their fields or
collect wild foods (“The Tohono O’odham Traditional Food System
Zepeda’s family moved away from the reservation to the small town of
Stansfield, Arizona, located between Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona. She
grew up in fields where she was expected to thin and pick cotton and
records her vivid memories of migrations with her family from field to
field and the farms where owners would provide their workers with poor,
ramshackle housing. In “The Man Who Drowned in an Irrigation Ditch,”
she writes,
“We are called ‘the people of the cotton fields’
because of the labor our families did.
For us there was no reservation, no Housing and Urban Development,
no tribal support.
We were a people segregated in row houses
all lined up along the roads of our labor. (Zepeda 1995, 30)
Migrant workers were exposed to other dangers as well. She remembers
one summer evening when the women were called out to an irrigation
ditch. A well-loved old man had slipped and fell while trying to cross.
The man drowns and when the women reach the ditch, they respond in
unison. Zepeda writes, “With a single vocal act they release from the
Gardens in the Desert 13
depths a hard, deep, mournful wail. / This sound breaks the wave of bright
summer light above the green cotton fields” (Zepeda 1995, 33).
Despite the inability of many in the tribe to collect and grow traditional
foods, Zepeda’s poetry illustrates that they did not forget the
ethnoecological knowledge passed down to them by their elders. The
focus on wild foods, medicines and culturally meaningful plants illustrates
why indigenous peoples from throughout the American hemisphere are
finding their way back to their traditional foods and agriculture. Since the
1960s, the Tohono O’odham have experienced dramatically increasing
rates of diabetes, a disease that results when the body cannot break down
the refined sugars and starches commonly found in processed foods such
as white flour and fast foods such as fried foods, snack foods, and soda,
etc. Before they were forced to leave the reservation as migrant laborers,
diabetes was unknown among the O’odham. Today, over 70% of the
Tohono O’odham population suffers from this disease. According to
Tristan Reader, co-director of a Kellogg Foundation project to restore the
traditional O'odham foods, “The cause for this devastating change is the
destruction of the traditional food systems and diet” (Fighting Diabetes
with Native Foods 2006). When the Tohono O’odham began leaving the
reservation for jobs and began eating the cheap, highly processed foods
readily available in American grocery stores and fast food restaurants, they
were exposed to the risks of diabetes which include blindness, declining
health and early death. Rising rates of diabetes are being experienced not
only by the O’odham but by every indigenous group around the world and
this is one of the urgent reasons why the food sovereignty movement is
concerned with maintaining the integrity of traditional indigenous food
When the connections between traditional foods and human health are
made clear, the reasons why the Abya Yala delegates and the framers of
the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples are
both claiming sovereignty over the wild and traditional foods they have
depended on for millennia are revealed. Like the Abya Yala delegates, the
Tohono O’odham have begun fighting for something that indigenous
farmers and political ecologists have termed the “ancient future” (Mushita
and Thompson 2007, 4). The Tohono O’odham phrase this concept with
the words, O'odham Himdag,which mean Desert People's Way. They
are coming back to an “ancient future” by reintroducing traditional and
wild O'odham foods into their diets. These foods help regulate blood sugar
and significantly reduce the effects of diabetes (Fighting Diabetes with
Native Foods 2006). They have also organized Tohono O’odham
Community Action (TOCA) which is dedicated to creating a healthy,
14 Chapter Three
sustainable and culturally vital community. TOCA brings together elders,
doctors, nutritionists, ethnobotonists and scientists to cultivate and
distribute traditional foods to community members who are suffering from
diabetes. The mission of TOCA is to stimulate sustainable and culturally-
appropriate economic development through teaching traditional crafts like
basket-making and re-vitalizing traditional agroecological faming
practices. Along with other indigenous groups throughout the Americas
who are also organizing around human health and environmental issues,
they are contributing to something that the Ixchimche delegates have
called “nutritional sovereignty” by working to empower individuals to
reduce the high incidence of diabetes within the community.
Protecting Biodiversity through Sharing: Silko
Ofelia Zepeda’s poems illuminate the relationships between people and
plants and thus offer insight into why TOCA is working to revitalize
indigenous food traditions after years of disruption. TOCA food
initiatives, the Iximche Declaration, and the UNDRIP emerge out of a
half-century of indigenous and environmental alliance-formation in the
Americas that has been connecting traditional foods and seeds with human
rights and environmental protection. Tracing this history, historian Mark
Becker outlines the organizing that proceeded the Iximche Summit and
describes how indigenous peoples and nationalities of Abya Yala have
moved from “resistance to power” and explains why they are putting food
sovereignty at the center of their agenda (Becker 2008, 85). In the 1960s,
indigenous organizing efforts began to gain momentum when the
International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, a group of
anthropologists, met to condemn the abuses they were seeing in their field
work in South America. Their goal was to help build organizing capacity
in indigenous communities and they emphasized that they did not speak on
behalf of “native groups, but sought to enable indigenous peoples
themselves to put forward their case’” (Becker 2008, 88). Seventeen years
later, the indigenous-led Continental Summit of Indigenous Peoples and
Nationalities of Abya Yala represented decades of struggle for self-
determination, self-representation, and capacity-building. The summit was
significant, writes Becker, for recognizing that international trade policies
were undermining the ability of people to defend their “nutritional
sovereignty” and leading to the degradation of the quality of life for all
people, not just indigenous farmers (Declaration of Iximche 2007).
Gardens in the Desert 15
In Almanac of the Dead, Leslie Marmon Silko fictionalizes this history
of hemispheric alliance-formation. The novel ends with an army of
indigenous people, homeless army veterans, and “ecowarriors” organizing
in various ways to “retake the land.In an interview will Ellen Arnold,
Silko asserts that the notion of a “retaking of the land” should be taken to
mean doing things differently, “in a more spiritual way,” and getting
“along with each other, with the earth, and the animals” (Arnold 1998, 10).
She adds that if Almanac is about what has brought the Americas to the
brink of extinction, then her next novel, Gardens in the Dunes, asks,
“Where do we go from here?” (Arnold 1998, 21). By writing about two
young sisters who are taught by their grandmother to feed themselves by
planting traditional crops in the “old gardens, Silko implies that “where
we go from here” must be addressing the connections between food
sovereignty and social and economic injustices. Indeed, Silko tells Ellen
Arnold that in the course of writing Gardens in the Dunes, she discovered
that growing food and “how you grow your food” is “the most political
thing of all” (Arnold 1998, 3).
When we place Silko’s statement into the context of the complex
issues surrounding rising rates of diabetes and debates about food
sovereignty, the politics of food is revealed. Around the globe,
increasingly industrialized food production systems are at the center of
discussions of school lunch programs, E-coli and mad-cow scares,
deepening distrust of food safety regulators, animal welfare concerns, and
suspicions about the safety of genetically modified foods. The racial and
class politics of nutrition and food policy are coming to the fore as more
and more people recognize that lack of access to safe and nutritious food is
a human rights issue. Silko’s hope for Gardens in the Dunes, she tells
Arnold, is that the novel might move readers beyond the notion of “great
movements of armies towards consideration of how individuals “hold
[themselves] together, and how [. . .] seemingly powerless people can get
things done” (Arnold 1998, 23).
Two of the main characters in Gardens, Grandmother Fleet and Indigo,
illustrate exactly how seemingly powerless people can improve the lives
of their community. Grandmother Fleet plants seeds in sand dunes that
might look unfertile to an outsider. However, she understands the patterns
of the climate and the intricacies of the soil and knows where to plant each
variety of seed in order to get the highest yield of corn, bean, squash and
amaranth. She also possesses a broad ethnobotanical knowledge of foods
still largely unknown to non-indigenous cultures, such as amaranth, that
can sustain people in times of famine and drought. “When there was
nothing else to eat,” Indigo remembers, “there was amaranth; every
16 Chapter Three
morning and every night Sister Salt boiled up amaranth greens just like
Grandma Fleet taught her” (Silko 1999, 14). The seeds for amaranth and
other culturally meaningful foods represent the experience, inventiveness,
and hard work of Grandmother Fleet and her ancestors. They call attention
to indigenous agroecological knowledges that have collectively and
accretionally evolved through generations in the Americas. Grandmother
shares her ethnobotanical knowledge with Indigo and Sister Salt and
encourages them to be innovative by urging them to “collect as many
seeds as they could carry home” (Silko 1999, 83). Silko emphasizes
Grandmother Fleet’s understanding thatfor indigenous peoples around
the worldthe essence of agricultural innovation is seed collection and
exchange. Seeds shared and sown in new places reproduce themselves
freely and adapt to new climates and environments. Thus, when
indigenous and migrating people give seeds away, write Mushita and
Thompson, they help to increase botanical biodiversity as they assist “the
plants in adapting to new environments” (Mushita and Thompson 2007, 3).
Silko also illustrates how all this biological richness can be threatened
by those who reduce or destroy biodiversity in the name of religion,
science, law, power and profit. By depicting amaranth as an important
plant growing at the edges of Grandmother’s garden, Silko connects
Grandmother Fleet to the Aztecs and the politics that suppressed
knowledge about this important crop. Before Spanish colonization,
amaranth was the staple crop of the Aztec people and the foundation of
their wealth. The Aztecs grew this prolific plant because its seeds and
leaves provide much of the nutrition necessary for human sustenance.
Each plant produced 50,000 seeds and it is estimated that the Aztecs grew
20,000 tons of amaranth a year. However, in 1521, when the Spanish
conquistador Cortez saw the Aztecs making amaranth into a bread they
shaped into an image of one of their gods, he considered it an affront to
Catholicism and ordered the elimination of the crop. The Spanish razed
and burned vast fields of amaranth and made it a crime to cultivate the
plant. As Andrew Mushita and Carol Thompson observe, history often
remembers the wars that end great civilizations, but what is often forgotten
is the devastation that results when a food central to a culture’s well-being
is eliminated. Mushita and Thompson note that if amaranth had continued
to be cultivated, this grain would be nutritionally first among today’s great
staple crops, including wheat, rice and maize. Its loss as an important food
crop was political (Mushita and Thompson 2007, 28-31). Today, amaranth
is not widely cultivated, but it is still made into holiday cakes and eaten in
Meso-America as a “sign of rebellion against the ancient conquerors”
(Mushita and Thompson 2007, 30). Clearly, it is not an accident that it can
Gardens in the Desert 17
be found growing in Grandmother Fleet’s garden. As I have written
elsewhere, when Native North American writers incorporate culturally
meaningful plants and gardens into their work, “it is not necessarily a
romanticization of earlier, simpler times. It is often a powerful symbol of
political resistance” (Adamson 2001, 181).
Indigo’s journey to Europe and back provides readers with further
illustration of how seed collection and sharing contributes to the well-
being of communities and nations. Early in the novel, after she escapes
from a U.S. Indian Boarding School, Indigo is adopted by a wealthy white
American couple, Hattie and Edward, who take her on an extended trip
through Europe to visit the gardens there. Edward, a landed gentleman and
botanist who collects plant materials worldwide keeps detailed records of
his travels and carefully writes the Latin names of the plants he collects on
specimen collection envelops he keeps together with his field guides,
maps, boots and steamer trunks. During the trip, both Edward and Hattie
teach Indigo more about botany. While she is in England, Indigo visits the
“kitchen garden” of Hattie’s Aunt Bronwyn who shows her how many
plants from the Americas are growing there. “Your people,” Aunt
Bronwyn tells Indigo, “gave the world so many vegetables, fruits, and
flowers” (Silko 1999, 244). Here, Aunt Bronwyn alludes to plants that
originated in Meso-America which is recognized as one of the world’s
“centers of biological diversity” or regions which are known to be centers
for the domestication of food and medicinal plants (Nabhan 2009, 20).
Plants first domesticated in Meso-America include corn, bean, squash,
peanut, chocolate, tomato, sweet potato, and avocado. When Indigo sees
plants familiar to her in Aunt Bronwyn’s “kitchen garden, her “eyes
widened at the sight of food she knew” and she suddenly understands that
“seeds must be among the greatest travelers of all” (Silko 1999, 240; 291).
Indigo’s growing understanding of the global movement of seeds original
to the Americas helps readers better understand the contribution of
indigenous American peoples to the contemporary food traditions of
people around the world.
The novel celebrates seed diversity that nourishes people around the
world but it also interrogates the ethics of the plant breeding, hybridization
and biotechnologies that enrich colonizing nations and corporations. In her
interview with Ellen Arnold, Silko maintains that Gardens in the Dunes
asks readers to “love the gardens” and at the same time “question how
they came to be” (Arnold 1998, 20). Detailed information about Edward
who has secret dealings with the U.S. Bureau of Plant Industry in
Washington, D.C. and the Kew Botanical Gardens in Britain reveal that he
is actually engaging in the theft and transport of biological materials from
18 Chapter Three
foreign countries for the profit of nations that are capital-rich but
biodiversity-poor. Edward pursues orchids, citron, and seeds of all kinds
and thus raises questions about the history and practice of biopiracy.
Before the 19th century, when early Europeans collected plants deemed
valuable by the indigenous peoples they encountered and brought them
home to their own countries, it was usually not considered theft or piracy
since it did not deprive the original cultivators of their own resource. Both
Grandmother Fleet’s and Aunt Bronwyn’s gardens are examples of seed
sharing. In contrast, the field of “economic botany, which emerged in the
19th century, brought plant breeders and botanists together with nations
and corporations to develop new strains of plants to be sold and grown for
profit. During this period, British and American adventurers and botanists
pirated many valuable plants, including rubber from the Amazon and
failed to recognize or remunerate the original cultivators of the plants they
were stealing for profit (Mushita and Thompson 2007, 26). Edward’s
activities are a clear allusion to this subversive history. He travels with a
“list of plant materials desired by his private clients” who were “wealthy
collectors in the east and in Europe” all the while thinking with admiration
about Henry Wickham who had “smuggled seventy thousand rubber tree
seeds past Brazilian customs officers” so that Britain could profit from
“vast rubber plantations in Malaya and Ceylon” (Silko 1999, 129). Silko
also describes the destructive ecological impact such collecting has on the
biodiverse places from which rare plants are stolen. When Edward first
traveled to Brazil, a splendid “profusion of wild orchids flowers could be
seen along the riverbanks, and specimens were easily gathered. But the
orchid mania swept in, and [. . .] over the years [. . .] made the plants
increasingly scarce and difficult to find” (Silko 1999, 129).
Edward’s illicit work illustrates how biopiracy turns the open hand
offering seeds as a gift into a clenched fist symbolizing the enclosure of
common resources for private profit. The removal of plants and seeds,
writes Mushita and Thompson, was not an “exchange or free trade, for the
Europeans compensated neither the national governments nor the
traditional healers nor cultivators, for their knowledge or plant resources”
(Mushita and Thompson 2007, 27). The presence in the novel of a monkey
that Edward brings home from South American and names, Linnaeus, also
implies that Silko is questioning Western European and American
scientific categorizations and practices that first authorized plant breeders
and botanists to turn plants and seeds into commodities. The monkey is
obviously named after Carl Linnaeus, the eighteenth century founder of
modern botany and father of taxonomy who first suggested the possibility
of plant hybridization. In the 19th century, plant breeders began
Gardens in the Desert 19
hybridizing, or crossing, wild and indigenous-bred plants to produce seeds
that could be sold as commodities. Because they reproduce and multiply
freely, seeds, writes Vandana Shiva, present an obstacle to those looking
to sell them as a commodity. Modern plant breeding and hybridization
removed this obstacle because it created plants with superior traits that
grew from seeds that could not reproduce themselves or that, after two or
three years, would not reproduce true-to-type. A farmer using
hybridized seeds, Shiva explains, must return to the breeder for new seed
stock and this transforms seeds from a renewable resource into a
nonrenewable resource and commodity sold for profit (Shiva 1997, 49; 50).
To Indigo and Grandmother Fleet, the garden represents cultural
heritage and the place where people produce food for the community. To
Edward, the garden is “a laboratory” where the plant breeder schemes to
make a private fortune (Silko 1999, 73). These differing perceptions
represent current tensions emerging in the world over whether seeds and
medicinal plants should be considered the cultural heritage of a
community or the “invention” of one person, one nation or one
corporation with sole “rights” for ownership and profit. Indigenous
farmers such as those who gathered at the Iximche Summit understand that
traditional varieties of seed are often modified through natural or human
selection and naturally occurring hybridization which are all processes in
which they have been engaged for millennia. On the other hand, transgenic
organisms “are those that contain genetic material synthesized from DNA
obtained from other species” and this process can only happen in a
laboratory (McAfee 2003, 36). Abya Yala farmers have called for a ban
against transgenic organisms because of the risks of cross-pollination with
indigenous landraces. As Vandana Shiva observes, when patented
transgenic organisms cross-pollinate with indigenous landraces, even
accidently, corporations can claim that farmers owe them royalties (Shiva
1997, 54). This is just one of the reasons why the UN Declaration on the
Rights of Indigenous Peoples links social justice and environmental
protection and calls for the protection of indigenous seeds and medicinal
As Kathleen MacAfee writes in an article on the real and imagined
consequences of genetic engineering of corn in Mexico, members of the
international food sovereignty movement “oppose genetic engineering as a
strategy for agriculture not because it affronts an idealized ‘harmony with
Nature’ or the ‘purity’ of traditional crop landraces” but because it
introduces the threat that under proposed international trade laws, living
organisms can be patented (McAfee 2003, 34-35). For example, if
approved, the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) could make
20 Chapter Three
countries which sign this agreement liable for “unfair trade practices” if
they decline to import transgenic seeds on the grounds that they might
cross-pollinate with indigenous landraces. If approved, writes Canadian
water and human rights activist Maude Barlow, the FTAA will permit “the
practice of patenting plants and animal forms as well as seeds. It promotes
the private rights of corporations over local communities and their genetic
heritage and traditional medicines" (Barlow 2001). The precedent for this
rule finds its basis in the U.S. Plant Patent Act of 1930, which was the first
legislation in the world that treated growing things as intellectual property
and the subsequent 1994 U.S. Plant Variety Protection Act which
strengthened the original Plant Act by restricting farmers and breeders
“from selling any seeds from protected varieties and from breeding new
varieties from protected seeds” (Smith 2009, 313). U.S. negotiators hope
to extend these laws throughout the hemisphere with the FTAA and
require damage payments if patented transgenic crops are found growing
in the fields of farmers who did not purchase the seeds from biotechnology
corporations (McAfee 2003, 33).
When hemispheric indigenous alliances take a stand against transgenic
invasion, they are not worried simply about food safety or the genetic
contamination of their original landraces of seed; they are taking a stand
against the patenting of life by multinational corporations. Place-based
indigenous groups like TOCA and Abya Yala farmers are working with
ethnobotonists, microbiologists, progressive food policy-makers,
politicians, and the United Nations to create safeguards such as the
Iximche Summit and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous
Peoples (UNDRIP) which provide countries with a basis in international
law for choosing to reject or postpone the import of transgenic planting or
breeding materials. By declaring they will work to maintain, conserve, and
protect culturally meaningful plants, indigenous groups are not rejecting
biotechnology; they are seeking protection from patents which privatize
knowledge and restrict free sharing of seeds (Mushita and Thompson
2007, 74). As Vandana Shiva explains, the total genetic change achieved
by farmers over millenia has been far greater than that “achieved during
the last 100 to 200 years of more systematic science-based efforts” (Shiva
1997, 52). As Gardens in the Dunes illustrates, valuing the contributions
of plant breeders or scientists like Edward above the intellectual
contributions of the original cultivators of traditional medicines and foods
like Grandmother Fleet is a social and environmental injustice that has
negative impacts on the ability of indigenous communities to maintain
their sovereignty and well-being.
Gardens in the Desert 21
Wisdom from Our Past; Solutions for Our Future
The work of Native North American women writers reimagines place-
attachment in the global age by illustrating how contemporary indigenous
people, both those who still live in traditional places and those who are in
diaspora, are working to build the “ancient future.” Tohe, Tapahonso,
Zepeda and Silko each offer their readers insight into why indigenous
peoples around the world are arguing that seeds and medicinal plants must
be protected as a commonly shared resource. From the sixteenth century
on, the invasion and colonization of foreign lands by Europeans, writes
Vandana Shiva, was “made possible through the technology of the
gunboat” while, today, the invasion and takeover of the life itself is being
made possible through genetic engineering and patenting (Shiva1997, 45).
While it is often argued that patenting of seeds promotes innovation in
agriculture and will “save the world from hunger,indigenous farmers are
arguing that patents are leading to an erosion of biodiversity because fewer
indigenous seed varieties are being planted in a world that is increasingly
cultivating transgenic varieties of maize, rice and soy. Loss of
biodiversity, Vandana Shiva argues, starts a chain reaction; the
disappearance of one species is related to the extinction of innumerable
other species, with which it is interrelated through food webs and food
chains” (Shiva 1997, 66). Silko alludes to this chain reaction and to
indigenous resistance to the loss of biodiversity when Indigo plants
amaranth, a once valued plant almost lost when Spanish conquistadors
purposefully sought to destroy the nutritional sovereignty of the Aztec
people. By cultivating amaranth, Indigo illustrates how seemingly
powerless people can resist powerful forces that would sacrifice
biodiversity, food sovereignty and human health to power and profit.
Indigo, Grandmother Fleet and Aunt Bronwyn offer readers richly drawn
examples of how ordinary people, from different backgrounds and races,
can join together to strengthen local and global food systems, which, in
turn, will strengthen the health of the planet and its peoples. TOCA
explains their mission as the active search for “solutions for the future”
while building on the “wisdom of the past” (The Tohono O’odham
Traditional Food System” 2007). Silko’s novels suggest that it is not the
“great armies” of Almanac of the Dead that will show us how to “retake
the land” but the indigenous farmers of Gardens in the Dunes.
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22 Chapter Three
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Full-text available
Inspired by her own family’s immigrant history, master gardener Patricia Klindienst traveled the country, gathering stories of urban, suburban, and rural gardens created by people rarely presented in American gardening books: Native Americans, immigrants from across Asia and Europe, and ethnic peoples who were here long before our national boundaries were drawn. In The Earth Knows My Name, she writes about the beautiful yards and fields she discovered, each one an island of hope, offering us a model—on a sustainable scale—of a truly restorative ecology. “It lifts my heart to find the kind of intelligence, grace, and regard that are in this book’s pages.” —Barry Lopez, author of Artic Dreams
Full-text available
"Genetic pollution" in Oaxaca has become Exhibit A for critics of crop genetic engineering and the focus of angry charges and counterclaims by biotechnology researchers. Like many disputes about science and technology, this one is linked to economic and resource-control conflicts. To understand why this controversy is so intense, we need to locate the scientific findings and claims about crop gene flow within the broader frame of international agro-food restructuring and its consequences for agrarian communities. The dispute over maize transgene flow in Mexico has unfolded in the context of U.S. and "life industry" agendas for trade liberalization and worldwide expansion of intellectual property rights. Equally germane is the cultural and economic significance of corn and of small-scale farming in Mexico, where rural livelihoods have been hard hid by neoliberal reforms. Whether or not the contested report in Nature (November 2001) stands up to scientific scrutiny, it is probable that the introgression into Mexican local maize varieties of Bt transgene constructs from genetically engineered U.S. corn has occurred, despite Mexico's ban on GE grain planting. The possible risks posed by traveling transgenes are not well understood, but there are plausible scientific reasons for concern about possible hazards to agricultural biodiversity and agro-ecosystems. More troubling, however, are the likely consequences -for local food security, cultural survival, and national economic sovereignty- of the private ownership of staple-crop genetic resources and of the influence on trade policy, agricultural research, seed and food markets, and farming-system options of a small number of powerful states and transnational firms. Processes at the global level (e.g., in the WTO), regional level (e.g., trade pacts in the Americas) and local level (farmers' successes in agroecology and organizing) suggest that the political space for alternative agendas may be opening. Despite the privatization and narrowed focus of much research funding, genetics, ecology, crop science, and participatory research have much to contribute to widening this space by evaluating sustainable-farming options as well as biotechnology applications.
bioprospecting new form of appropriation of indigenous knowledge and their cultural and natural resource sovereignty
Thousands of indigenous activists from 24 countries gathered in Guatemala in the last week of March 2007 for the Third Continental Summit of Indigenous Peoples and Nationalities of Abya Yala. The gathering strengthened both local and transnational indigenous organizing efforts. The summit was entitled ‘From Resistance to Power,’ reflecting key concerns of how to move beyond resistance to oppressive regimes in order to claim positions of power in government. Evo Morales’ recent election as Bolivia's president inspired many activists to explore similar paths to challenge state power in their own countries. The meeting represented a merging of issues that had previously divided indigenous organizations, including disagreements over whether to follow an ethnic ‘Indianist’ or a leftist ‘Popular’ line. At the same time, a new focus on electoral paths to power raised threats of opportunism from candidates who pursue their own self-interests while compromising on key issues such as opposition to neoliberal economic policies. Nevertheless, the Guatemala summit reflected advances toward new levels of unity and points to a promising future for continental indigenous organizing initiatives.
The future of our food depends on tiny seeds in orchards and fields the world over. In 1943, one of the first to recognize this fact, the great botanist Nikolay Vavilov, lay dying of starvation in a Soviet prison. But in the years before Stalin jailed him as a scapegoat for the country’s famines, Vavilov had traveled over five continents, collecting hundreds of thousands of seeds in an effort to outline the ancient centers of agricultural diversity and guard against widespread hunger. Now, another remarkable scientist—and vivid storyteller—has retraced his footsteps. In Where Our Food Comes From, Gary Paul Nabhan weaves together Vavilov’s extraordinary story with his own expeditions to Earth’s richest agricultural landscapes and the cultures that tend them. Retracing Vavilov’s path from Mexico and the Colombian Amazon to the glaciers of the Pamirs in Tajikistan, he draws a vibrant portrait of changes that have occurred since Vavilov’s time and why they matter. In his travels, Nabhan shows how climate change, free trade policies, genetic engineering, and loss of traditional knowledge are threatening our food supply. Through discussions with local farmers, visits to local outdoor markets, and comparison of his own observations in eleven countries to those recorded in Vavilov’s journals and photos, Nabhan reveals just how much diversity has already been lost. But he also shows what resilient farmers and scientists in many regions are doing to save the remaining living riches of our world. It is a cruel irony that Vavilov, a man who spent his life working to foster nutrition, ultimately died from lack of it. In telling his story, Where Our Food Comes From brings to life the intricate relationships among culture, politics, the land, and the future of the world’s food.
American Indian Literature, Environmental Justice, and Ecocriticism: The Middle Place
  • Joni Adamson
Adamson, Joni. 2001. American Indian Literature, Environmental Justice, and Ecocriticism: The Middle Place. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Listening to the Spirits: An Interview with Leslie Marmon Silko
  • Ellen Arnold
Arnold, Ellen. 1998. "Listening to the Spirits: An Interview with Leslie Marmon Silko." Studies in American Indian Literatures 10 (3): 1-34.
The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination
  • Lawrence Buell
Buell, Lawrence. 2005. The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.