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Borderlands reveal Indigenous food legacies

Rural Action - Thriving Communities, Healthy Environments

Gary Paul Nabhan

What most North Americans know of the deserts along the U.S./Mexico border is that there are zones of conflict between clashing cultures: pro- and anti-immigration advocates; red, brown, black and white “races;” proponents of food globalization or of native seed sovereignty; and protestors versus enablers of Trump’s ill-fated wall.

What escapes most eyes, ears and minds about this binational; and multicultural region is its pivotal importance in the past, present and future of heritage grains. The oldest archaeological evidence of the cultivation of cereal grains in the US comes from the binational Santa Cruz watershed, where 4400 year-old maize was excavated from prehistoric Hohokam sites in the heart of Tucson. By the time the Spanish conquistadors arrived in what is now the U.S., desert dwellers were not just cultivating a dozen land races of maize, but grain amaranth (huatle), grain chenopods (huauzontle), Sonoran panicgrass, a native millet (guegui), several kinds of chia, little-leaf barley, and Indian ricegrass. They were also the bean-eatingest people in the New World, consuming more calories from tepary beans, common beans, lima beans, runner beans, jack beans, mesquite and other wild legumes per day than most Americans now consume per month

The Spanish padres introduced soft white bread wheat and three other land races into the borderlands between 1750 and 1720, but only White Sonora candial wheat has survived. The particular barleys, sorghums, millets, and other small grains of Spanish and Canary Island origin that first arrived in the borderlands are now gone, but the favas, garbanzos, lentils, peas, and cowpeas somehow survived, as did Job’s tears in a few places. Thus New World summer crops were complemented by Old World winter crops in the seasonal planting cycle. While corn tortillas persisted, enormous white flour tortillas akin to the saj flatbreads of the Middle East outstripped tortillas de maiz in prominence in the borderlands dietary.

The Green Revolution took its toll on both New World and Old World cereal grains and pulses beginning in the 1960s, driving many drought- and heat-adapted grains into extinction in the fields, although some survived in seed banks. Others were given to me by Hispanic and indigenous elders whose families had abandoned growing them as field crops, but still valued their culinary qualities above all others.

Today, the Borderlands is full of innovative grain projects, with Jim Enote bringing back Zuni breadstuffs, Ramona and Terry Button of the Gila River Indian community bringing backs corns, wheat and tepary beans, Rick Schneiders and Richard Pratt bringing back blue corns, and San Xavier Co-op Farm of the Tohono O’odham Nation bringing back many legumes and grains.

I hope the many others—native and immigrant—who have participated in the grain schools of Native Seeds/SEARCH and Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance

will forgive me for not mentioning their personal and non-profit efforts by name. But the big-hearted entrepreneurs like Don Guerra of Barrio Bread, Emma and Jeff Zimmerman of Hayden Flour Mills, among others, have also played pivotal roles in these revivals.

While climate change is shifting grain hardiness zones as 100-150 days per year of temperatures over 100 degrees F are stressing production in many valleys along the border, drought- and heat tolerant land races of cereals and beans are needed now, more than ever before. The arid lands of this continent are now the laboratories for the future. These stress-tolerant, fine textured, nutritious and delicious legacies of the borderlands are here to stay.

Gary Nabhan is plant explorer, Franciscan brother and writer who lives 12 miles north of the US Mexico border where he founded Native Seed/SEARCH. He has written more than 30 books, including Jesus for Farmers and Fishers: Justice for All Those Marginalized By Our Food System, published by Broadleaf Books. He co edited the critically important Place Based Foods of Appalachia, a must read for food systems work in our region.

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