Return of the corn
The roads that wind across the Taos Pueblo reservation pass through a cultural and environmental mosaic of a type common in the rural West, where natural beauty and human poverty overlap and sometimes blend. Here is a thicket of wild plums growing up along a lush irrigation ditch, the Sangre de Cristo mountains rising up as backdrop. Here is a tiny stuccoed house, accompanied by an old Chevy Chevelle that appears to be slowly melting into the shrubs and dirt. Nearby, a burned out, roofless shack sits undisturbed while a Rez dog, his thick fur dreadlocked with dirt and neglect, rambles in the dust alongside Deer Jaw road.
Occasionally, this intruder notices a shock of bright green. Each one is a cornfield, the maturing stalks emerald in the sunlight. It's surprising because after World War II many farmers in Taos Pueblo and in other parts of the West gave up traditional farming.
But farming, including corn growing, is slowly coming back to the Pueblo thanks to grassroots efforts that have sprouted over the last decade, such as the sustainable agriculture initiative and the Red Willow growers cooperative. Now, the return of the corn is also being helped along by a couple of guys who were looking for changes in their own lives, and by an old tractor named the Red Buffalo.
If the Americas were to adopt a pan-continental icon, it would surely be an ear of corn. Since the wild Mexican grass, teosinte, was domesticated some 6,000 years ago, corn has blanketed the New World, both literally and symbolically. For the Anasazi -- the ancestors of Taos and other Puebloans -- corn was one of the “three sister” crops, along with squash and beans. Maize is sacred to tribes in Mexico, and some believe that their Corn Mother, Tonantzin, morphed to become the Catholic icon Virgen de Guadalupe, whose halo resembles an ear of corn.
Corn is even sacred, in a crass, commercial and mundane way, to the U.S. agri-industrial monster, which has covered huge swaths of the West and Midwest with fields of genetically engineered corn for use in everything from plastics to Fritos to food oil to ketchup to auto fuel. National politicians supplicate themselves to corn, thanks to the weight that the Iowa caucus holds in the U.S. presidential nominating process. And the sweet variety, lasciviously slathered with butter, is sacrosanct at summer barbecues across the land.
By the time Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s men became the first Europeans to have contact with Taos Puebloans in 1540, corn had been a major staple and ceremonial icon in the Pueblo's fields for at least 200 years. The Spaniards would sometimes rely on that corn, and on at least one occasion, desecrate it: In 1696, during one of Taos Pueblo's many revolts against its occupiers, Diego de Vargas burned the cornfields in order to quell the rebellion.
The Europeans brought crops of their own, which the Puebloans adopted though without displacing their corn. In his 1898 account of the Pueblo, Merton Leland Miller noted, “The principal crops of Taos are corn and wheat... In summer the work of the men is, of course, mainly farming.” The 1890 Census called Taos, “the most independent of the Pueblo tribes both in material condition and in its attitude toward strangers. It would be difficult to find in the West, where farming is dependent upon irrigation, a more desirable tract of land than that owned by these Indians.” It said that crops raised in 9- to 13-acre plots were “remarkably fine.” Ten years later, the Pueblo’s population was about 440, with 142 acres under cultivation, probably about half of which was corn.
Over the next four decades, farming would flourish at Taos Pueblo, with both the population and per-capita farmed acreage increasing. In 1944, more than 2,300 acres were under cultivation, or about 2 acres per person. In 1949, Bernard J. Siegel observed that Toaseños “... think of themselves principally as farmers,” but that changes were afoot. Only about half of their subsistence was coming from local agriculture or hunting, and more and more were working for wages in town. That, said Siegel, eroded the social fabric: “Thus ... shifting ecological relationships of man to the land have effected serious inroads into the amount of time the active adult and younger generations can expect to spend at pueblo-centered activities.”
It wasn’t just at Taos. Beginning in the 1940s, there was a general trend away from farming, especially on a small-scale, in the Interior West. In the mid-'30s, more than 250,000 farms were scattered across valleys, plains and mesas. That had plummeted to just over 100,000 in the '70s. Former vegetable farms were gobbled up by consolidation and by subdivisions. Many of the farms that did remain lost their former diversity, and were devoted wholly to alfalfa or grass hay. Mostly, the post-World War II generation simply didn’t want to devote their lives to the backbreaking, no-money-making profession of farmer, whether they were in Taos Pueblo or Durango, Colorado. (Ironically, the sheer tonnage of corn grown across the U.S. has been increasing rapidly -- the U.S. grows about twice as much corn now as it did in 1980).
The difference in Taos was that, even as the cornfields fallowed, corn itself retained its ceremonial significance. The Corn Dances, which begin in early May and are repeated throughout the summer, remain some of the most important rituals of the year, even though their intent is to bless corn fields that have become more and more sparse. Corn pollen is akin to Holy Water. Yet so little corn is grown locally that, for these ceremonies and for traditional foods, the Pueblo relies mostly on a white farmer in eastern Colorado for its maize and often gets the paper-thin Piki corn bread from other pueblos.
That led Robert Mirabal, a Taos Puebloan and Grammy award-winning musician, to ask: What does the corn dance mean without corn? In late 2009, he brought a form of this question to his friend Nelson Zink, a therapist and sometime author who lives in the town of Taos. Mirabal told Zink that he was ready to get back to the old ways -- running, growing corn, eating traditional foods, and being more involved in the pueblo’s ceremonial life. Just a few months earlier, Zink had a hole blown in his own life when his wife and collaborator, Melissa, a nationally-revered artist, died. He figured maybe he couldn’t do much to get Mirabal onto the trails or into the kivas. But corn? That was something he could help with: He had grown up on a working farm in the Animas Valley north of Durango, and of all the crops his family grew, corn “was the most fun.”
“Corn is a human-sized plant,” says Zink, offering a corn-as-humanoid theory as to why people and the plant get along so well, as he gives me a tour of the cornfields scattered across the reservation. While this area’s off-limits to outsiders, and Zink -- of Swedish and other northern European descent -- and I can’t be mistaken for insiders, no one bothers us as we travel from plot to plot in Zink’s Subaru. By now most folks around here know who he is.*
Zink’s brother Ed had their dad’s old tractor on his land up in Durango. At Nelson’s prodding, Ed brought it down to a tractor mechanic in Velarde, N.M., where it was rebuilt and christened the Red Buffalo. The following spring, Mirabal and Zink plowed up a field for the musician and his family and planted white and blue corn. They built a small but effective motorized corn sheller, and even collected pollen from the first crop.
Before long, Red Buffalo, with Zink or Mirabal at the wheel, was busy breaking up long-unworked, clay-filled soil in other plots around the reservation, and Tiwa Farms was born. They even put out a couple of books and started a blog (with plenty of old tractor porn, for those of you who are into that). In 2011, Tiwa Farms prepared about 40 fields on the reservation.
On a hot, early August day, about half the fields are healthy-looking, populated with tall stalks, their tassels dancing in the wind. The others could use some help. “It was a bad year for corn,” says Zink. Drought plagued much of New Mexico, and though the Pueblo has plenty of water rights, the ditches are often overgrown, and the new farmers don’t necessarily have the motivation, or the know-how, to get water to their fields.
If someone wants to grow corn, Zink’ll drive the Red Buffalo up to their place and plow their field for them. Sometimes he plants the seed and offers whatever advice that he can. But that’s about it. After that, the field owner does with it what he will. Maybe it will all make a difference, maybe not -- Zink scoffs at any hint that he's trying to "save the Indians." For Zink, this is both more regional, and more personal, than that. It’s a return of sorts to his youth, which took place in a West that was much different than the one we’re in today. But it’s also his way of trying to approach the question that is on many a mind in this region these days.
“This isn’t just a Puebloan story,” he says, “It’s an American story, especially a southwestern story.” As we watch a family of tourists wander through the Pueblo’s dusty plaza, seeming a bit baffled by the vendors selling “Real Indian Stuff” or “Pies! Muffins! Bread!” (but certainly not any traditional corn-based foods) he goes on: “It’s a story about: What now? Where does the West go now?”
The healthiest of the 45 fields is Henry Lujan's. Every row looks good, and the ears are already starting to fill out. One can see where Lujan has expertly guided ditch water through the rows -- not too much, not too little. After our tour of the corn, we find Lujan sitting on the back porch of his modest little house. He hollers something about the white guys and then laughs, his smile revealing only a few remaining teeth. Compared to Zink, Lujan’s a talker, but he modestly evades questions about why his corn thrives while his neighbors' wilts. Finally, he attributes it to hard work, and leaves it at that. (Zink is hoping to enroll Lujan as Tiwa Farms' corn-growing coach.)
Taos Pueblo has an especially spirited history. The 1680 Pueblo revolt was coordinated out of Taos, which resulted in the Spanish occupiers fleeing and staying away for more than a decade. Taos also staged rebellions in 1613, 1640 and 1696. Finally, in 1847, Taos Puebloans joined up with their old foes to launch an insurgency against the new occupiers, U.S. forces. After a few successful attacks, the insurgents were vanquished and many of them killed while they holed up in the Pueblo church.
As I sit listening to Lujan talk about how he learned farming as a kid, it occurs to me that maybe Taos Pueblo -- along with all the other small farms that have sprouted in New Mexico, Colorado and beyond in recent years -- are part of a new revolt. Only this rebellion is waged not with weapons, but old tractors; not by killing, but by planting a seed; and not by burning churches, but by patiently nourishing the corn, as its stalk and its leaves, its ears and tassels, rise up from the earth.
*Mirabal was too busy preparing for his one man play, Po’Pay Speaks, to join us. The play, written by Mirabal, Zink and Taos gallery owner Stephen Parks, has Mirabal playing Po’Pay, the leader of the 1680 Pueblo revolt.
Photos: Top and bottom photos of corn grown at Cobblestone Farm in Hotchkiss, Colo.; and middle photo of green corn stalks in Henry Lujan's field on the Taos Pueblo reservation, all by the author. Historic black and white photo of cornfield near Tuba City, Ariz., by Ansel Adams, from the U.S. National Archives.
Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News and a 2011-2012 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder.