Believe in the Seed
For Robert Mirabal, traditional farming is a practice that preserves both the environment and Pueblo culture
The New Mexican sat down with Taos Pueblo native son Robert Mirabal at his home at the foot of Taos Mountain to talk about traditional Pueblo farming and non-GMO heirloom seed preservation. A Grammy Award-winning musician, author, craftsman, actor and horseman who has garnered international acclaim as a gifted Native performer and storyteller, Mirabal remains passionately committed to the sacred ceremonial life and seasonal cycles of a farmer and Pueblo man.
Here are some highlights of that conversation.
Why is educating about corn and traditional farming your primary concern?
I believe in the seed. I really, truly believe in the seed and the connection with the blue corn maidens. I guarantee that my seeds will grow. That’s what my grandpas and grandmas did. A thousand years ago, they said, ‘I guarantee my seed.’ That’s what they said. Five hundred years ago they said the same thing. Hard work creates that optimistic element.
We never left the traditional way of life. We are still bonded and connected to the Earth like no other place in this country. This way of life is not for the faint of heart. We are still going to go out there with a shovel and a hoe, get on our knees and talk to the seed. Sometimes we’re angry at the seeds, sometimes we’re angry at the blue corn maidens. Sometimes we tell them off. But that’s also a prayer. Because that’s when you know you’re growing.
Do you have to work the soil?
No, we dance. We have a corn dance. (laughter)
Of course you have to work it. You have to work it hard-core. But you know what — I chose this life. I hated it as a little boy, because I knew that that was going to be my fate. I traveled all over the world as a musician, but I would always farm a small plot. I traveled everywhere, but I was much more attracted to the farmers, to the hard workers.
When do you plant?
You have to really vibe it out. There are certain things that you start indoors [in the late winter]. The corn you have to put in before Memorial Day. The first corn dance is May 3. You have a window of opportunity around that time. When Black Jack oak starts to bud out, it’s warm enough.
In the old times we followed a seasonal path, the moon, the sun and the stars, the different alignment of the stars on the mountain. So it’s those types of things.
Do you farm organically?
I [prefer to] say [I farm] traditionally because “organic” has so many different connotations to it. What I am most interested in is upholding tradition. Organic is traditional and traditional is organic.
What does genetically modified (GMO) seed mean to you?
It means laziness. We got too fat and we wanted everything right now. GMO agriculture was created to feed a lot of people. [GMO seeds] are guaranteed to produce. But at what cost?
How can you tell a GMO field?
This is in particular with corn. It all grows the same height and it all pollinates at the same time. My corn is gordo; it’s flaca; it’s all over the place. It does not all mature at the same time.
How do you know your seeds are not affected by GMOs?
I know that GMO can cross-pollinate and it becomes dangerous, [but] it’s really easy to tell the difference. That’s why I started planting here. I started planting the old sweet corn. I have a red sweet corn and I have a blue sweet corn — all traditional crops.
I want to be optimistic about it. We have our own water, our land base and our original seeds. We are self-sufficient. I guarantee my seeds.
How do you preserve the purity of the seed?
Through family and trade. We went to the cacique (tribal leader),
and the cacique didn’t have any seeds. So I started going to different families that had the old seeds. I have heirloom seeds that come from Jemez, San Juan, Navajo, Hopi, Ecuador and Mexico. Some of the seeds will not grow at this elevation. It all depends on where you plant and how well your soil is going to receive these different seeds.
How does Tiwa Farms fit into the picture?
[When I started] working with Tiwa Farms, which is a small, independent organization that I created to reinstill and reinspire Puebloan agriculture, I got a beat-up old tractor and we started plowing and tilling fields. I’m not saying that Taos Pueblo agriculture was dead. It just was not as strong as it should be.
Last year we plowed and planted close to 50 or 60 fields within the 3.5-mile radius of Taos Pueblo. The year before we did 110 fields. Out of that, probably 30 percent [made it] from the planting to the harvest. These are family or societal plots. If a grandma stops me by the side of the road and asks if I can plow her fields, [we do that]. Then we just leave it up to them.
My interest is having people utilizing the land and our rights to the water.
To what extent is the farming path tied to the spiritual life of the pueblo?
We are Pueblo people. We are farmers. If you’re a Pueblo man or woman, learn to farm. To me, there is no other way.
I think we tend to see our history in this state as the time when we battled the non-Natives. But our world goes much, much deeper than that. We have stories of the giants; we have stories of the corn maidens still living with us. So we still value the spiritual connection to what farming really means.
I know how hard it is to be a Pueblo Indian. You have to maintain land. You have to maintain water. You have to maintain culture. And it’s connected to the seeds.
To learn more about Robert Mirabal, including his performance schedule, weekly blog and online shop, log onto www.mirabal.com. Believe in the Corn: Manual for Puebloan Corn Growing, a book co-written by Mirabal and Nelson Zink in 2011, is no longer available in hard copy. An ebook version can be purchased from blurb.com. (Click on Bookstore, then on the magnifying glass in the horizontal menu and enter the book title in the search field.)