Tewa Women United,
Kha'p'oo Owingeh (Santa Clara Pueblo)
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How do we strengthen Indigenous communities from within so that we’re then able to share the knowledge we have about living sustainably through these hard times with everybody else once our communities are healthy and whole and strong and well.
For me that foundation is on seeds and our ability to grow our own food because if we lose that sovereignty, then basically the colonization and assimilation project is successful.
It was the incessant and awful thunder of high-explosive tests at Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL) that drove Beata Tsosie-Peña, recently returned home to nearby Santa Clara Pueblo, to pray about her future.
As the bombs detonated on the Jemez Plateau, the ancestral lands to the Tewa and other local Indigenous people, Beata began to draw connections between this violence tearing up the land and the violence visited on her community, which played out in addiction and suicides, domestic abuse, poverty and ill health.
Soon after her prayer, Beata says she stopped living in fear. She stepped into her strengths and joined Tewa Women United (TWU) in Española, a multicultural and multiracial organization founded in 1989 and led by Native and land-based women. Its name comes from the Tewa words, wi don gi mu: “we are one” in mind, heart, and in the spirit of love for all. As an Environmental Health and Justice Program Coordinator, Beata works to heal and restore the land. This work in turn restores her people from the cumulative traumas of centuries of racism, colonialism, poor health care, lack of self-determination, chronic exposure to environmental contaminants, and now, on top of everything else, climate change.
Climate change affects us all, but Indigenous and land-based people, like the 23 sovereign Nations in New Mexico, are disproportionately and uniquely vulnerable to its impacts.
Climate change affects us all, but Indigenous and land-based people, like the 23 sovereign Nations in New Mexico, are disproportionately and uniquely vulnerable to its impacts. At the same time however, they are also specially poised to offer adaptations and solutions to climate change that benefit us all. These adaptations come from what colonizers have tried so hard to rip from them - thousands of years of traditional ecological knowledge and a resilient and respectful coexistence with the natural world that adapted to climate changes in the past. “We still know how to survive solely off the land, with food from these places,” says Beata, “and that is priceless knowledge that needs to be preserved and cherished and protected.”
Beata’s ancestors had lived for centuries in the Puye cliffs dwellings and the greater Tewa territories before drought drove the community ten miles east towards the Rio Grande around 1550. Her people then endured successive waves of colonialism as the Spanish, Mexicans, Anglo settlers and ultimately the United States government stole their land and polluted much of their soil, air and drinking water through nuclear colonialism and extraction industries. Previous to the U.S. occupation, the Spanish, who appropriated over five million acres from Indigenous peoples, heavily tithed the Tewa people’s crops as payment to the mission system at the time. In Southern Indigenous Nations, like the Maya Achi, they made it illegal to plant traditional foods like amaranth. This separation from traditional foods continued with the U.S. government forcefully introducing commodified, shelf-stable, nutrient-poor and calorie-rich foods through detention camps, generations of boarding schools, and modern day food distribution that led to an increase in obesity and a high prevalence of illnesses like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
“We still know how to survive solely off the land, with food from these places, and that is priceless knowledge that needs to be preserved and cherished and protected.
“Today the food that most people buy in their local grocery store comes from thousands of miles away,” says Beata. It derives from big agricultural systems, dependent on chemicals and industrial fertilizers, that are not sustainable. “That’s inevitably going to crash and fail as climate change worsens,” she says, “and as these sources get slowly re-routed or depleted or cut off through war or bad relations [with other countries].”
On the Pueblo, “only families that do have land are growing food. It’s just a little bit of food. We’re not growing fields and fields to where there is enough to share with everybody,” she says. This threatens the Pueblo's health, its future access to water rights and its ability to respond to whatever world climate change serves up in the future. Not having whole communities invested in the food system also means fewer elders have the chance to pass down knowledge to young people. During the current pandemic, however, she says, it is encouraging to see that the number of families activating their fields has almost doubled.
Climate change is also challenging growers. It is delivering long, hot dry spells between summer monsoons. In her lifetime, Beata has witnessed the hottest days in the summer soar from 98°F to 105°F in Española. This is stunting plants that once thrived. Farmers are noticing decreased germination rates and greater susceptibility to squash bugs and grasshoppers. Some corn fields ran out of water from the ditches and produced little or very small cobs.
“Our ancestors were really intelligent researchers and biologists, so we have these seeds in the southwest that are very drought tolerant, that can grow in harsh desert environments with very little rainfall,” notes Beata. “But post Spanish colonization we’ve moved more to acequia farming, to where some of those seed strains have gotten a little spoiled [and used] to having extra water. Now when we have these extreme temperatures, we’re seeing how those seeds are going into shock.”
It’s not just the hot temperatures that are causing problems. The acequias are drying up mid-season because climate change in the southwest has exacerbated droughts. And drought has triggered wildfires. The Pueblo was still recovering from the devastating 2000 Cerro Grande fire when the Los Conchas fire ripped through the forests in June 2011. To keep the fire from encroaching on a nuclear waste dump near LANL, firefighters diverted the fire north, resulting in the destruction of 80% of the Pueblo’s watershed and most of the 1.5 million trees that had been planted to reforest the Cerro Grande burn zones.
The loss of the forest has reduced rain cloud formation and threatens the headwaters of Santa Clara Creek, which flows down through the pueblo to the Rio Grande, feeding its farmland along the way. The Pueblo had only recently won control over the headwaters after a 140-year battle. “It’s going to take hundreds of years to restore our forest and watershed to what it once was,” says Beata. “We are hopeful and determined that the forest will be restored, even if it’s not in our lifetime. There are many efforts currently underway.”
Indigenous peoples are constantly being taken from, “whether it’s our water, our seed knowledge, whether it’s land or other cultural resources, whether it’s our young people who don’t really have an economic base to return to,” she says. “How do we put back what’s been taken? How do we strengthen Indigenous communities from within so that we’re then able to share the knowledge we have about living sustainably through these hard times with everybody else once our communities are healthy and whole and strong and well? For me that foundation is on seeds and our ability to grow our own food because if we lose that sovereignty, then basically the colonization and assimilation agenda is successful.”
So, Beata and Tewa Women United are returning to traditional farming techniques and inviting young people to grow healthy, Indigenous foods through several projects. The Española Healing Foods Oasis (EHFO) is an edible and medicinal community garden of more than 200 native plant and tree species that showcases rock mulching, companion planting and traditional dry-land farming techniques. On a nearby steep slope highly susceptible to erosion, they are also using rock terraces that naturally filter water and ancient contouring techniques to slow down and catch rainwater. (Ancient rainwater gardens employing these kinds of earthworks can be seen in the surrounding mountains). The garden also utilizes western technology, in the form of a drip irrigation system below. Volunteers from the nearby Pueblos and Española have donated 5,000+ hours towards working in the garden.
“We do a lot of hands-on workshops with young people in the community,” Beata says. “We teach them about these methods, how to harvest seed, use the plants, how to eat them, cook with them, with the ultimate goal to reconnect with these plant relatives.” In conjunction with the New Mexico Food and Seed Sovereignty Alliance, the Española Public Library, and local Tesuque youth farmer and activist, Emily Arrasim, TWU has also started the Española Healing Foods Seed Library. It aims to re-establish Indigenous people’s relations with their native heirloom seeds and to ensure seed sovereignty and the right to save, breed and exchange their own seeds, free from the threat of genetically engineered contamination.
“The seeds are strong like the people." They’ve gone through colonization alongside us. They’ve gone through droughts before.”
“The seeds are strong like the people,” says Beata. “They’ve gone through colonization alongside us. They’ve gone through droughts before.” Unlike western cultures, which view seeds as property and patents to be fought over in a legal system, Beata says seeds are Indigenous relations to the land in accordance with natural law and spiritual and cultural beliefs. They are key to adapting to climate change, and she worries that companies might want to own and exploit them.
Instead, she has been sharing seed development with other Indigenous communities. Ten years ago, EHFO started planting Amaranth seeds brought to them by farmers in Guatemala. Each year the plants grew shorter, as the Amaranth adapted to the warmer temperatures and lower rainfall of Northern New Mexico. Tewa Women United returned the seeds and journeyed to help harvest the crops in Guatemala just when Covid-19 hit. Part of the way to survive climate change, says Beata, is to have healthy relations with neighbors and sharing knowledge without being hindered by militarized borders. Noting how rampant racism and white supremacy is throughout the country, among other polarizing divisions, she says, “I just hope we can come together in a larger base to really get things done because the urgency of climate change is really scary, and the young people are really aware. I’ve heard it.”
Another compounding issue for the health of the Tewa people in northern New Mexico is the legacy of pollution from the Los Alamos labs. World War II brought the Manhattan Project’s secret nuclear weapons development to the Pajarito plateau. At the foot of the Valles Caldera, a dormant supervolcano surrounded by piñon and juniper-covered mountains, this land with its hunting and gathering grounds, farmlands and ancestral sites, is deeply revered by Pueblo people. “This is our cathedral,” says Beata.
"Part of the way to survive climate change, says Beata, is to have healthy relations with neighbors and sharing knowledge without being hindered by militarized borders."
It was in this cathedral that the military constructed its nuclear labs and dumped its wastes: more than 21 million cubic feet of toxic waste has been buried there since 1943 in more than 2,100 unlined pits, shafts, trenches and other sites identified for cleanup in studies during the 1990s. Even after remediation of some cleanup sites, traces of radioactive liquid wastes that had been poured into canyons remain in areas downhill.
Some of these dangerous chemicals, like hexavalent chromium, along with arsenic, RDX explosive compounds and perchlorate have turned up in soil tests at the Espanola Farmers Market garden, 17.5 miles to the northeast of LANL at levels either close to, at or exceeding established health-protecting limits. TWU has noticed that petroleum by-products also wash into the Espanola Healing Foods Oasis garden from a nearby parking lot when it rains. The group is hoping that buried bricks inoculated with oyster mushroom mycelium might help remediate these poisons along with other bioremediation strategies. TWU also buried pillows inoculated with Turkey Tail mushrooms in hopes of helping to remediate the elevated levels of RDX found at the Farmers Market field. But these levels are highly troubling, notes Beata, especially because these environmental exposure standards are each set for an adult white male who is certainly less vulnerable than the usually smaller women and still-growing children living below the labs. It is also likely that the surrounding communities downhill and downwind from LANL, and those connected to it through water sources, have been chronically exposed to a mixture of nuclear isotopes, heavy metals and all sorts of industrial chemicals for decades.
“As Indigenous people we hunt, we fish, we grow our own food, we harvest rainwater, we collect clay for our potteries.” All of these things set us up for increased exposures just because of our traditional ways of life and that's not ever considered when determining environmental exposure regulations in our communities.
In addition, “as Indigenous people we hunt, we fish, we grow our own food, we harvest rainwater, we collect clay for our potteries,” says Beata. “All of these things set us up for increased exposures just because of our traditional ways of life.” TWU believes the standard for environmental protection should be for Nava To’i Jiya, a pregnant Pueblo woman working the land. If she is safe, everyone is safe. “We are collateral damage for a lot of the environmental harm happening. That’s where the term ‘sacrifice zone’ comes in, which is a real term, that was never retracted when describing the southwest. We are fodder for the national energy and military economy,” she says.
Add to this chronic exposure to contaminants: extensive oil and gas development on public lands in Rio Arriba county. Fracking further threatens water supplies and increases pollution, causing another set of health concerns, especially to people with asthma. And fossil fuels, of course, drive climate change, which is especially ominous for people whose sustenance and economies depend on the land, ecosystems and rivers not only for agriculture, but for hunting, fishing, forestry, energy, recreation and tourism. The liberation and return of stolen lands is vital in order for them to be managed ethically and restore the health of Native Peoples.
Not everyone in the Indigenous community has the time or resources to think about climate change, says Beata. There are many families who are barely getting by and young people who are giving in to addiction or worse from all the environmental racism and violence, centuries of exploitation and a public-school system that has failed them in many ways.
“We deserve love and support and care and wellness and health and beautiful spaces just like any other community or city in the country,” she says. “I get a lot of hope and inspiration from young people, even the ones who are struggling. They just have so much strength and desire for things to be different. There are some that are… connecting on a local and global level. They’re sharing ideas, they are inventing things. They want to know how to live off the land in a sustainable, healthy and reciprocal way. So it’s really just facilitating that. I think they’re really open to learning the big picture of what we’re facing as a people. They’re not giving into despair.”