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Dr. Barney Burns, Native Seeds/SEARCH co-founder, passes on, leaving us a legacy of hope and humor

By: Gary Paul Nabhan

Barney Burns Picture from: Flickr
Barney Burns
Picture from: Flickr

In the second week of August, the Tucson community, the Greater Southwest, indigenous peoples and farmers everywhere lost a good friend, an extraordinary seed saver and a historian of Southwest food and farming folkways. Dr. Barney T. Burns was far more than a co-founder of Native Seeds/SEARCH. He spent over four decades linking native farmers and artisans to the audiences, human rights support networks, and applied scholars who cared about them and their future. Trained as an archaeologist, dendrochronologist, climate scientist and ethnohistorian, Barney knew more about Northwest Mexico than anyone I have ever known, both through his first hand experiences and his readings in one of the most extensive libraries of borderlands archives and rare books I have ever seen.

If these details alone suggest that Barney was a stuffy scholar, nothing could be further than the truth. With a wry sense of humor, fun-loving trickery and shaggy dog storytelling, Barney amazed nearly every poor soul that ever traveled with him or dined with him. From the days when he was growing up in Carlsbad, New Mexico in the Fifties, to his very last days in the Tucson Mountains, Barney had a museum curator’s penchant for collecting and documenting the material cultures of our region, as if on some wild adventure to rediscover the Holy Grail.

His work benefited far more people than most of us will ever know. With his wife, seed collecting and traveling companion Mahina Drees, he kept hundreds of Tarahumara families alive during some of the worst droughts their land had ever witnessed, but did so be providing income through crafts sales, through reintroducing lost seeds, through sponsoring ecological restoration and water-harvesting projects, and through building a network of support for livable wages rather than simply offering hand-outs of one-time food relief. They were also key to efforts to stop World Bank-funded intrusions of highways, sawmill’s and mines into the Sierra Tarahumara in the Nineties, when no one thought that “Little Davids” could ever scare away such a Goliath. As co-founders of Native Seeds/SEARCH, Barney and Mahina made most of its original seed collections, but then continued with board duties for more than another quarter century after initiating the organization. As a compiler and co-author of the book The Other Southwest, journal articles and chapters in anthologies, Barney made a unique contribution to ethnohistoric and ethnobotanical scholarship as well.

Much of Barney’s work the last half of his life was done in tandem with Mahina Drees, singer-songwriter, non-profit activist and garden educator. Together they must have traveled more than a hundred thousand miles into remote villages on both sides of the border. No two people have worked harder to ensure an agriculturally diverse future for our region, and no one could have ever done it with as much adventurousness, hilarity and joy as Barney and Mahina have done. Each of them deserve to be regarded as true Keepers of the Multi-cultural Heritage of the Borderlands. Barney will be deeply and immediately missed by hundreds of his Raramuri, Yoreme, Mormon, Guarijio, Nde, O’odham, Mexican, and Yori friends.

Adios amigo, see you under the Sacred Tree on the other side of the Desert River.

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