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Enduring Seeds

Native American Agriculture and Wild Plant Conservation

by Gary Paul Nabhan

225 pages, paperback, University of Arizona Press, 2002

In a series of beautifully written essays about Native American agriculture and wild plant conservation, Gary Paul Nabhan addresses the importance of conserving wild plants, the difficulties Native American peoples have had in preserving their agricultural traditions and current wild plant conservation efforts in North America.

Praise for Enduring Seeds

"A rich, complex book--wise, personal, and beautifully written." --Sierra.

"A gem of a book: scientifically sound, ethical, full of interesting and timely information about one of the paramount yet neglected environmental issues of our time." -- Garden.

"Gary Nabhan . . . is a seer and celebrant of the cultivated plant world before its defilement by modern agriculture. His interests and insights are as diverse as the wild seeds he gathers. Not only does he write beautifully about what he knows, he also goes out into the fields of native peoples collecting and conserving indigenous seeds, returning them to communities from which they have been lost. In words and actions, Nabhan aims to preserve no less than the 'remaining riches of the living world' ." --Gretel Ehrlich.

Quotes from Enduring Seeds

"In the oldest, most stable of the Native American farming villages, plant species that are otherwise rare or at the limits of their ranges have gradually accumulated. Mixed crop fields or fallow ones, hedges, ditches, dooryard gardens, and pastures as well as ungrazed scrublands--all offer habitats to an astonishing variety of plants and animals. As Jan Alcorn has shown among the Huastec Maya, the spatial heterogeneity of habitats created by native land management fosters both intraspecific and interspecific diversity."

"[E]cologist [David] Ehrenfeld argues that . . .'the presence of people may enhance the species richness of the area, rather than exert the negative effect that is more familiar to us.' "

"Some native farmers don't necessarily plant the same kind of corn every season, but vary their selection depending upon the weather. By having caches of other seedstocks for particular weather conditions, farmers can hedge their bets. Anthropologist Tim Dunnigan has told me of this kind of crop switching among Mexico's Mountain Pima. They keep several varieties of maize on hand, including a quick-maturing corn in case spring drought should delay planting, thus shortening the growing season. Other Mountain Pima maize varieties can be planted earlier in cool, wet springs, but need five months to mature."

. . .

" 'The green of those Pima fields spread along the river for many miles in the old days,' recalled the River Pima leader, George Webb. But that was in the time 'when there was plenty of water. Now the river is an empty bed full of sand. . . . Where everything used to be green, there were acres of dust, miles of dust, and the Pima Indians were suddenly, desperately poor.' "

" During [the last] three centuries, the Pima have lost at least seven crop species that were introduced to the Southwest prehistorically. Seven native varieties of five New World species survive precariously today in the dooryard gardens and small fields of the River Pima: sixty-day corn, white and brown teparies, mottled limas, narrow-seeded bottlegourds, and striped cushaw squash."

" In Once a River, Amadeo Rea has recorded twenty-nine species of birds that were extirpated in Pima country over the last century, and he counts another dozen bird species that dramatically declined because of habitat deterioration there. Fish, like the humpbacks, and river-loving mammals were left high and dry."

" Without these resources, the life of the [River Pima] changed radically over the last one hundred twenty years."

" [I]n 1867 . . . Jack Swilling . . . organized his Anglo neighbors to divert water out of the Salt River above the Pima villages. . . . Ethnohistorian Edward Spicer wrote that 'By 1887 the irrigation canal constructed to take water out of the Gila River utilized the whole flow. No water reached any of the Pima fields downstream."

" In 1901, Frank Russell claimed that there was so little cotton that there was not enough in Pima villages to finish making even one piece of cloth on a small loom. He added that 'the Pimas no longer spin and weave; the art is dying with the passing of the older generation.' "

" The last remaining grain amaranth apparently perished between 1870 and 1890. Varieties of common beans, squashes, and a small grain called kof--perhaps a relic goosefoot surviving from prehistoric times--ceased to exist even in hand- watered kitchen gardens. Foods that had been mentioned in the Pima creation myth were never again grown, prepared, or eaten after 1900."

" From 1898 to 1904, droughts and upstream diversion of water by Anglos kept the Pima from producing any crops at all. Groundwater pumping was soon initiated. It quickly depleted remaining springs and seeps near farmlands. Mesquite and cottonwood forests died as the water table dropped below the reach of their roots."

" Men such as George Webb were forced out of farming in the 1930s due to lack of irrigation water, even though the San Carlos Irrigation Project promised them a return to better days. 'When the dam was completed there would be plenty of water,' Webb remembered. ' And there was. For about five years. Then the water began to run short again. After another five years, it stopped altogether.' "

. . .

"How much of [the USDA's] 'Native American farming' effort draws upon crop resources traditionally utilized by the cultures involved? Neither the USDA nor the BIA bureaucrats track the actual use of native crops. To be sure, these agencies have hardly ever promoted those resources either."

" In a meeting with USDA officials, Kent Whealy of the Seed Savers Exchange pointed out why so many of our plant genetic resources are indeed imported from developing countries: 'There has never been a systematic, large- scale search for [crop] plants within the United States; the USDA has always done its explorations outside the U.S.' Further, USDA policy claims that in situ conservation of crops--which could be done by providing incentives to native farmers to keep growing their remaining traditional varieties-- is too unstable, risky, and ineffective, and therefore beyond the scope of its plant preservation concerns.

" The only real policy that our Department of Agriculture has for the native crop legacy of our country is a policy of neglect. Fortunately, tribal governments no longer believe fatalistically that this must be their policy as well. Among the Iroquois, the Sioux, the Mississippi band of the Anishabey, San Juan Pueblo, the Winnebago, the Tohono O'odham, the Navajo, and other tribes, there have emerged community or tribal projects to conserve and revive native crops as cottage industries for their rural-based tribal members."

Table of Contents of Enduring Seeds

  1. The Flowering of Diversity
  2. Diversity Lost: The Wet and the Dry Tropics
  3. Fields Infused with Wildness
  4. Invisible Erosion: The Rise and Fall of Native Farming
  5. A Spirit Earthly Enough: Locally Adapted Crops and Persistent Cultures
  6. New and Old Ways of Saving: Botanical Gardens, Seed Banks, Heritage Farms, and Biosphere Reserves
  7. Wild-Rice: The Endangered, the Sacred, and the Tamed
  8. The Exile and the Holy Anomaly: Wild American Sunflowers
  9. Lost Gourds and Spend Soils on the Shores of Okeechobee
  10. Drowning in a Shallow Gene Pool: The Factory Turkey
  11. Harvest Time: Northern Plains Agricultural Change
  12. Turning Foxholes into Compost Heaps, Shooting Ranges into Shelterbelts

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