“We spent all day, from sun up to sun down in the fields, gathering under the big salt cedar tree to eat. Then we’d go back out again to plant,” recalls Priscilla Thomas, a historian with the Gu Vo District Culture Committee of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Thomas’ childhood memories are peppered with food production. “I learned how to prepare the seeds to be planted, putting them in the clay pots with moist corn husks, and then checking the seeds to see if they’ve sprouted.”
Thomas was born in Oakland, California, where her family moved as part of the Indian Relocation Act of 1956. “My parents worked at a food packing factory. We lived in apartments—there were three complexes that were all Tohono O’odham people,” she says. After her parents were laid off from the
factory, when Thomas was 7, they moved to an area called Ali Chugk, or Menager’s Dam, near Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. “When I came back to Menager’s, I lived with my grandmother and I spent all my days at the farm,” she says. “Back then each family had their own way of growing. We collected seed from the same corn but my uncle’s would be real tall. But my other uncle’s corn would be all stocky and short. On my grandmother’s side, her family was tall. On my grandfather’s side, his brothers and sisters were short. But the tall and short corn both produced the same amount. I asked my family, why does uncle’s corn grow that way? They said because your uncle is too short, the corn is respecting him. And I believed it! At that time, we would talk to the seedlings and explain why we need them, and sing them songs.”
Menager’s Dam is pinned against the Mexican border in the southwest corner of the Tohono O’odham Nation in the District of Gu Vo. The region is remarkably biodiverse, incredibly remote, and painfully food insecure. “Most people in the community shop in Casa Grande, and when few people have a vehicle that’s a problem. That’s a two-hour drive. It’s also a problem that the food is so expensive. It’s a triple whammy: it’s the distance, it’s the transportation, and it’s the economics of it. It’s problematic,” says Susan Warmack, a Gu Vo native and board president of the Native American Advancement Foundation (NAAF).
The border crossing at Menager’s Dam closed in the early 2000s, allowing only pedestrian access. “Before they closed the gate our nearest shopping area were the farms of Sonoita, Mexico, which are only 30 minutes away. You can see the farms across the border from our village,” says Priscilla Thomas. “When someone would go shop in Sonoita, families would all put in their orders. I remember I would go with my grandma all day. She had pieces of canvas and she would tie up all the food in a big bundle. Each bundle was what a different family asked for. When we got home the families would untie their bundles and trade each other before they went home. Now that they closed the border, we have to go north. We go to Casa Grande to shop for the whole month. Before we could just go buy from the Tohono O’odham farmers.” Geographic, economic, and political pressures nudge the community to drive their money out of the Tohono O’odham Nation and cart back processed food in bulk.
Yet, nestled just northeast of the Gu Vo District is San Simon School, and with it a gigantic school garden brimming with corn, melon, squash, peppers, tomatoes, sugar cane, and devil’s claw. The half-acre, tractor-scale garden is a wellspring of food heritage that came to fruition through the work of a handful of teachers, a supportive principal, and broad community partnerships. But the seeds for the garden were sown by the community elders.
“Elders who were basket weavers came to give blessings to our children and encourage them to move forward with their own basket weaving. The elders mentioned how they would like to see our children learning about O’odham farming techniques and growing some of the plants needed to weave baskets,” says Frank Rogers, the San Simon School principal of 14 years. From there, teacher interest began to build, but it still wasn’t enough. “Over the years, staff expressed an interest in having a garden, and I’ve off and on had gardens. I know how much work they are and how much fun they can be. I also know how fast the energy for having a garden can fizzle out. So we didn’t have a garden for years. I wanted to wait until we had the commitment to maintain and sustain a garden,” says Rogers.
The commitment Principal Rogers was looking for came through Larry Secakyuva, a Hopi dryland farmer working at the school as a bus driver, and Roy Calabaza, a Native farmer from the Santo Domingo Pueblo in New Mexico, then working as the school librarian. Together, with help of school staff and with the support of the community, they broke ground. Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA) lent expertise, tools, and seed. Indian Health Service donated a tractor. The Village of Cowlic lent tools and shared knowledge. Secakyuva and Calabaza tended the garden after school and on weekends. Calabaza helped keep the tractor running and Secakyuva plowed the field. Calabaza says, “Larry is retired now but he’s planning to come back and help us plow. I think he misses us.”
Today, Calabaza serves as the full-time garden coordinator, and the San Simon garden produces more than just food. The school garden is a two-directional spillway of traditional knowledge. Traditional Tohono O’odham knowledge flows into the garden through the elders and community members who remember the old ways. Virginia Montana, the school’s culture teacher, uses the space to teach song and ceremony, and to grow crops used in basket making and weaving. Traditional knowledge streams out of the garden into Tohono O’odham homes through student emissaries.
“As soon as they started the garden and the kids were bringing home what they grew, and bringing the seeds home for their parents from what they grew, their parents started planting them,” says Thomas. “And people started talking to the elders to find out how to grow things. That opened communication with the elders. The elders realized there’s only so much time for them to be here and they want to pass down the way we grew things.”
Thomas says that each family had their own method for growing and harvesting. “One of the elders I talked to about this said that she wants to pass down her family’s method of cleaning wheat,” says Thomas. “I told my mom and she said that would be good because their family always cleaned the wheat real good.”
The San Simon garden is fertile ground for ceremony as well. “Before we plant everything we do a dance,” says Calabaza. “One of our spiritual leaders from Pisinemo blesses the ground. At harvest time we have someone from the community come and bless the crops. Once we finish plowing we have someone come in and bless the fields.”
Montana says, “One little boy from Menager’s was in kindergarten last year and we were singing a song in the garden. At parent-teacher conference, he asked, ‘Can I sing that song for my mom, the song I sang out in the garden?’ He asked for the rattle, so I gave it to him and he started singing. I was so proud of him.”
“When the moon is at its crescent and tipping over to the side, that’s when the rain comes,” says Thomas. Rain ignites the smell of creosote and brings forth life. The San Simon school garden, like the tipping crescent moon, spills food heritage and ceremony. Like the rain igniting the sweet smell of creosote, the garden ignites and spreads inspiration and sense of place across the southwest corner of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Thomas continues, “I tell the kids, this is the area our ancestors were put and we are still here. This is how we survive. This is what makes you O’odham.” ✜
Native American Advancement Foundation (NAAF). NativeAmericanAdvancement.org.
Moses Thompson got his feet wet with school gardens at Manzo Elementary using gardening as a counseling tool. Today, Thompson works with the UA Community and School Garden Program and the Tucson Unified School District to spread the Manzo school garden model across the region.