The future of food
In a new book about American Indian food traditions, CSUEB ethnobotanist dishes up a fresh take on sustainability
BY MONIQUE BEELER
You, and the land around you, are what you eat — and think.
This philosophical twist on simple health advice every kid learns in grade school capsulizes what American Indians have known and practiced for thousands of years. The healthier your eating and food-growing habits, the healthier the land around you, and ultimately, the planet will be, says Enrique Salmon, an assistant professor in the ethnic studies department at Cal State East Bay.
But making long-term, sustainable food choices as a society requires people to share a system of thinking and values that prioritizes the well being of the land and its inhabitants — and the connections between them. As far as Salmon’s concerned, it’s not simply an environmentalist’s romantic notion; it’s time-tested wisdom that has promoted the survival of ancient cultures from the Hopi to his own northwestern Mexico tribe, the Rarámuri.
“(American Indians know) how to farm in arid regions; how to farm when you can’t count on constant rainfall; how to eat in these times of global climatic weirding — when the weather is weird, and we can’t predict it,” says Salmon, an ethnobotanist.
Ethnobotanists, he explains, study the interrelationship between plants and people.
“What I get really excited about is what we think about plants and each other and how our relationships with plants affect our landscape,” he says.
Salmon spent memorable hours as a child trekking along high country trails in northwest Mexico’s Sierra Madre, home to the 70,000-strong Rarámuri. Tagging along after his mother, an herbalist, he’d frequently snap off tiny leaves of fragrant plants such as menta poleo and pop them into his mouth as they walked.
Kernels of knowledge
“My grandmother was also what people would call a curandera, someone who cures with plants,” Salmon says. “The plant knowledge was just around all the time. I didn’t know there was a term, a field of study, to what I was doing until I was about to (pursue) my Ph.D.”
A lifetime of studying the plant-and-people connection, along with a doctorate in ethnobotany and degrees in anthropology and Southwest studies, makes Salmon particularly well qualified to point out what growing practices do and don’t work for civilizations and environments over the long haul, a question he’s closely considered in an era of climate change. He outlines much of what he’s learned in his first book, Eating the Landscape: American Indian Stewards of Food and Resilience, due out in spring from the University of Arizona Press.
Salmon joined the Cal State East Bay faculty in 2008 following three years as a program officer for a Palo Alto nonprofit organization, the Christensen Fund. His duties as a program officer took him to three continents: Africa, Australia, and North America.
“My job was to travel among indigenous people and find ways to get grants to them, so they could carry on their traditional land management practices,” says Salmon, noting that his book evolved out of these interactions. “My main region was the American Southwest and northern Mexico.”
Eating the landscape
At Cal State East Bay, Salmon teaches courses including “Father Sky, Mother Earth,” an American Indian science class; “God is Red,” in which students learn about American Indian worldviews; and “California Native American Ethnobotany.” In the spring, he plans to introduce a course, “East Bay Ethnobotany.”
In Eating the Landscape, Salmon takes a close-up look at ancient cultures — including Hopi, Rarámuri, and Pojoaque Pueblo — who have long revered the natural world and their deep connection to it, as reflected in their stories, songs, and religion. In accord with their values, each group developed food, farming, and cultural traditions (also known as foodways) that not only proved sustainable for crops and fields but literally promoted each tribe’s survival, even when faced with cataclysmic change in weather, social, or economic conditions.
“The whole point of (the book’s publication) now is how these indigenous farmers can help us see how human society can sustainably grow our food as global warming keeps getting worse,” he says. “We as human beings are going to have to learn to be more resilient.”
In an age of environmental change accompanied, in some cases, by fewer natural resources — whether water or oil — large-scale agriculture and the populations it feeds will need to make different choices, Salmon argues.
“For instance, it’s going to mean (growing) fewer foods reliant on water,” he says. “Some foods aren’t going to be available anymore; tomatoes is one. It’s going to be harder and harder to find good peaches.”
Art of growing local
“In the future — even now — big ag isn’t going to work,” he says. “(And) shipping in food from other countries is going to have to give way to local agriculture and local food.”
American Indians, on the other hand, long ago mastered the art of growing local — often in less-than-hospitable terrain. The Hopi, for example, have perfected dry farming techniques and cultivated species of corn and beans suitable to the parched northwest Arizona desert where they live, while the Rarámuri have learned how best to cultivate crops — in small, terraced patches no larger than an acre each — on steep slopes or tucked into arroyos scattered across their temperate, mountainous lands.
“The most important (thing) that comes up in the book and in my classes that I teach at Cal State East Bay (is) this relationship that indigenous people have with their landscape that goes beyond ‘We are part of nature’ or the watered down version we get from environmentalists,” Salmon explains. “It’s what I call a kincentric relationship.”
Salmon has observed the kincentric relationship model at work among tribes, including the Seri of the Sonora Desert and northern Mexico’s Rarámuri to which his family belongs. Among the people he has worked with and studied, rocks, clouds, rain, and other features of the landscape surrounding the culture literally are related as family, creating relationships that are reflected not only in the language of the society but ultimately in how people think.
Relating to rain
“We talk about water and rain and plants,” Salmon says. “We talk about their relationships as our uncle, our brothers. We can’t think about ourselves without including the environment. It’s impossible.”
As a youngster, Salmon’s family spent up to half the year on his grandparents’ Southern California farm, where they grew crops from corn to squash, edged by Black Mission fig trees and nopales prickly pear cacti. He routinely joined his grandmother in her vine-covered, latticed herb-house, where she introduced him to plants by name and kinship.
“She grew herbs like bawena, a spearmint she made into tea when my stomach was upset; epazote, it’s an herb for cooking with; cilantro; and ruda, which is another very Mexican herb for cooking,” he says.
As she ground dried plants into spices and remedies, she also nurtured her grandson’s botanical knowledge.
“She described the relationships the plants had with each other,” Salmon writes in Eating the Landscape. “She taught me that the plants were not only plants but were people, too. Some were Rarámuri, while others were Apaches and non-Indians.”
The typical older Rarámuri adult knows approximately 300 plants, while children as young as 9 are acquainted with at least 50 useful plants, he says. As he writes in “Eating the Landscape:”
I learned the names of plants, their uses, and their place in Rarámuri culture, philosophy and cosmology. I understood them to be relatives and living beings with emotions and lives of their own. I learned that they were part of my life as well and that I should always care for them.
Other American Indian farmers Salmon met — and writes about in Eating the Landscape — also carry on practices and philosophies that have endured for centuries and seen them through major changes, including modern shocks to their food systems, such as the industrialization of agriculture and genetic modification of crops. Their experiences represent history’s success stories from which contemporary society can take cues about resilience, he says.
“Between 1500 to roughly 1750, we lost 70 percent of the (indigenous) people who were in North America,” Salmon says. “(Most) couldn’t adapt to these sudden shocks. It’s the ones that survived that are the ones we can learn from. That’s the point.”
Salmon describes one group he worked with, the Pojoaque Pueblo, as a “model for cultural revival and survival.” Faced with near extinction twice, including most recently around the 1930s, the community now numbers in the low thousands.
When Pueblo leaders realized they could no longer rely on their tradition’s farming methods, due to changes in rainfall and soil, they turned to an agriculturist with expertise in South American indigenous growing techniques. The consultant taught them a method called waffle gardening.
“Around the edge of this 6-by-6 foot plot, you build little walls out of soil about 8 inches tall,” Salmon explains. “You look at it from above, and it looks like a waffle.”
The miniature walls do two things: stop the wind from blowing the soil away and drying it out, while helping create and retain just enough moisture to nurture the plants.
The ancient gardening technique is allowing the Pueblo to again cultivate traditional foods while also nurturing their once-fragile culture.
“They wanted to get to the point where they could feed themselves as a people,” Salmon says. “When I was there working with them, they were already able to feed their kids in the schools and the elders in the community center. That’s another example of resilience and adaption.”
Salmon also expressed regard for Hopi farmers he worked with, who demonstrated a gift for holding onto their customs — and, therefore, their Hopi identity — while integrating them with new ways, particularly technology. He points to an older Hopi farmer named Eric Polingyouma, with whom he developed a strong relationship.
“If my book were a novel, which it isn’t, he’d be a main character,” says Salmon, clutching a digging stick that Polingyouma gave him. Salmon demonstrates its use by bending over and, with one hand, rotating the polished blonde wood inlaid with shiny blocks of blue stone pantomimes digging into the ground and dropping maize kernels into furrows.
Today, Polingyouma, an octogenarian living with his wife Jane, uses a small tractor the size of a riding lawnmower to plow his fields in a Hopi community in Arizona. While he’s glad to take advantage of 21st-century agricultural technology, he nonetheless uses a tractor in what Salmon calls a “Hopi way.”
“Eric wouldn’t go just buy farm implements and use them straight out of the box,” Salmon says. “He would jury-rig it to be the way a traditional Hopi farmer would farm.”
In other words, he customizes the tractor’s attachments to accommodate digging sticks, a practice that lets him continue growing his traditional crops, such as corn, feeding his household, while retaining his Hopi sense of self.
Salmon says the Hopi people have a ritual for everything, from marriage rites to corn dances. Many food-oriented traditions and ceremonies for the indigenous people of North America, as evidenced by prehistoric rock art in Mexico, date to as early as 400 BC to 50 AD.
“The people (already) were beginning to link their identity and their morals to how they impacted the landscape,” writes Salmon about the cave drawings.
In modern industrialized cultures, he says, many people are disconnected from not only the land but the steps involved in cultivating — and sometimes preparing — the strawberries, broccoli, and chicken that make their way to a family’s dining table. This disconnection from our food’s origins contributes to declining stewardship of the environment.
“You talk to people today who have no idea what an avocado tree looks like,” Salmon says. “The point is: We have no relationship with food (sources), with plants, with our identity.”
A society with weak ties to the source of its food, the land, can lead to less than attentive caretaking of the environment, Salmon says.
“The result is all these negative impacts we’re having in the air, the waters, our oceans, our food. Even (on) our front and backyards we spray poison. The things modern industrialized society does to our land would be unthinkable to most indigenous people.”
In Rarámuri, for instance, there’s no word for poison or poisonous, he points out.
In forecasting and planning for the future health of the global landscape, Salmon acknowledges that food ranks as only one of many concerns.
“… But it is an essential one when we consider how we will adapt to global warming, which will include foods that can withstand droughts, higher temperatures, and other extreme climatic changes,” he writes in Eating the Landscape.
The solutions, he adds, one day may be found in the tiny fields of resilient American Indian farmers.