Be­lieve in the Seed

For Robert Mira­bal, tra­di­tional farm­ing is a prac­tice that pre­serves both the en­vi­ron­ment and Pue­blo cul­ture

Santa Fe New Mexican - Healthy Living - - APP - PHO­TOS BY RIMA KRISST

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.mira­ 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 (Click on Book­store, then on the mag­ni­fy­ing glass in the hor­i­zon­tal menu and en­ter the book ti­tle in the search field.)

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