Cultivating Resilience with the Flower Hill Institute

By Briana Olson · Photos by Stephanie Cameron

Red-walled canyons of the Jemez.

“The natural thing to do,” says Roger Fragua of Flower Hill Institute, “would be to write about us as thousand-year-old farmers, planting thousand-year-old seeds.”

It would be true, for one, and it would make for a story we can all feel good about—Pueblo farmers raising corn and chile on Pueblo-owned land, proving that, at least in New Mexico, we’ve done something right. It would read like the story of a small but meaningful victory against the machines that can’t be beat. “But what we’re doing,” Fragua tells me, “is so much bigger than our pueblos, than New Mexico.” He holds up a hand-drawn map of the US, pointing out the regions and peoples and Indigenous foods represented on Flower Hill’s board of directors, from the whale-hunting, salmon-fishing Makaw of the Northwest to the wild-rice harvesting Oneida of the Great Lakes Region. Partnership is central to Flower Hill’s mission, and the experimental farm we’re going to visit is just one of the nonprofit’s projects.

Besides, as Fragua likes to say, what they’re growing in Flower Hill’s 4.5-acre plot on Jemez Pueblo isn’t really corn—it’s soil. Soil: that dynamic network of organic matter, clay, sand, gas, water, microbes, and tiny life forms that over time develops at the surface of the earth.

“Earth people came out of the earth. Everything that’s part of the earth is part of you,” says Brophy Toledo, cultural leader, musician, and co-founder, with Fragua, of Flower Hill. One afternoon, Fragua has told me, he and Toledo were together at a sacred site, a place where many paths come together and whose name translates as Flower Hill. There, Toledo said to Fragua, “I am so tired of hearing, and talking,” so when they came down, they decided to act. That was the beginning of the Flower Hill Institute: a native-owned, community directed nonprofit dedicated to cultural preservation and tribal stability. Four years later, as we walk along red rock and sand to a point overlooking the red-walled canyon behind Fragua’s home, Toledo identifies one medicinal plant after another: there’s cota, for the gut, and the tonic leaves of the aspen tree. I stop at a cluster of small, slender-stalked white flowers, and Toledo touches their thick, partially exposed roots, explaining that the roots can be dried and used for tea. Toledo’s training as a healer began when he was eleven years old. He learned from elders, and now he teaches young people, using the Towa language to root their study of the sciences to their cultural traditions.

“The fox taught us how to hunt,” Toledo says as we near the overlook, demonstrating the quiet of the fox walk, cupping a hand to his ear, listening. He is an engaging, charismatic teacher. As we turn to walk back down, he talks about the quiet flight and the night vision of owls, laughingly demonstrates a human attempt to turn his neck as far back as an owl can. Back inside, he shows me a photo of a model fieldhouse, a site situated near a spring that would have served as base camp for summer hunting and agriculture.
“Farming is cultural preservation,” Fragua says, often. So, too, is language. En route to the field, we talk about protecting the Towa language. Traditional law prohibits its transcription into writing to prevent exploitation. Towa, with roughly 3,800 Towa speakers alive today, remains important to ceremonies, prayers for clouds, rain, crops, and healthy people. As he steers his truck past rows of native white corn, Fragua recites what sounds like a mantra: “If you don’t have the language, you don’t have the song; if you don’t have the song, you don’t have the dance; if you don’t have the dance, you don’t have the ceremony.” For their science camps, Flower Hill partners with the South-Central Science Climate Center, UNM, and others to bring STEM curriculum to the pueblo. Toledo interprets the science instructors, adding context from Pueblo tradition, language, and history. The idea—in addition to building science skills—is to impress students with knowledge of their own people’s history as caretakers of the land, and to inspire them to take up the calling. “I tell them one of you needs to be a hydrologist,” Toledo explains, “because we’re not taking care of that memory. We need to do more water-shedding.”

top left, clockwise: Brophy Toledo and Roger Fragua of Flower Hill Institute; growing soil at Flower Hill farm; red walls of the Jemez; cota, aka Indian tea.

The farm, too, is a medium meant to inspire young people to conserve tribal knowledge—and to grow their own food. Corn, Fragua has told me, is “the very material and essence that we use to wake up every morning with.” Ceremonial use, he says, is the first priority for heirloom corn grown on Pueblo lands. This is one reason that, when the idea of a ten-tribe food hub was proposed, they found that there was no corn that was not being used. According to Fragua, Jemez Pueblo has gone from 1,400 to 400 irrigated acres. Forty-some miles from the nearest grocery store (not counting the gas station convenience store near the federally-owned recreation area), the pueblo, once characterized by orchards, wheat fields, and sheep, is now one of the stranger offshoots of industrial agriculture: a rural food desert. Part of Fragua’s refrain is well-known: Farming is hard; Walmart is easy. Nationwide, farmers are retiring with no one to take their place. In New Mexico, Fragua says, “We lay claim to the oldest farmers in the country.” It’s almost noon by the time we pile out of the truck, and no one has to ask why a young adult might choose to huddle over a screen in a cool room when they could be out here, risking failure in the hot sun.

And yet. As we talk about methods they’re experimenting with to conserve water and build soil, the beauty of the valley asserts itself. Toledo shares his thrill at having seen a swallowtail and then a monarch, one right after the other, while he was out here a couple days earlier. “I was singing to the plants about butterflies,” he says, gazing over the corn. There’s a mix of manure and humates at the head of each row, so the water runs through, becoming liquid fertilizer on its way to the plants. In one row, oblong mesh bags of the same mixture—“manure teabags,” Fragua calls them—are positioned at three-foot intervals, a test in slowing the water and carrying fertilizer all the way down. Their experiments in sustainable methods are a blend of modern (like the use of humates) and traditional (the burial of fish parts when planting the corn). They’ve adopted no-till practices, known to prevent erosion and slow the decomposition of organic matter, in turn decreasing the release of carbon dioxide. They’re also using cover crops, a seven-seed blend of legumes, which support the soil ecosystem in similar ways, as well as conserving moisture, supporting microorganisms, and helping the nutrient cycle stay healthy. “We’re lay people,” Fragua emphasizes, mentioning a plan to partner with NMSU to do more soil testing. He tells us how the day before, a couple guys were out here, gathering pollen. All parts of the plant are used in ceremonies—a practice the Soil Science Society of America refers to as cultural ecosystem services.

Cornfield at Flower Hill’s farm.

“We’re cultural preservationists,” Fragua says later, sitting at his kitchen table. He’s concerned about climate change, but he’s also concerned about economic self-sufficiency on tribal lands. Fragua is careful to state that the tribes’ work to protect sacred spaces is not an opposition to energy, “but we don’t want energy in our church, our graveyard, or our water. Energy development doesn’t have to happen at Chaco Canyon.” Flower Hill also hopes to help limit extraction in Bears Ears and Pecos, to which Jemez Pueblo is historically tied (the two pueblos are legally merged) and where Comexico now wants to drill, not far from a mine site that spilled toxic metals into Pecos River in the early 1990s. These, too, might be called cultural ecosystem services—sacred services the earth provides to a people, and that the people then cycle back to the earth.

In May, Flower Hill participated in the second annual conference on climate change hosted by the New Mexico Tribal Resilience Action Network (NMTRAN), titled “Climate Rezilience: The Power of Corn.” NMTRAN grew out of the Southwest Water and Climate Change Working Group, of which Flower Hill is a founding member. “Folks started talking from a Pueblo perspective,” Fragua says. “‘When corn dies, we die’ was a phrase that was getting thrown around.” Like the youth camps, NMTRAN brings science and tradition together. “I’d say there’s a pretty widespread understanding [in the pueblos] that the climate is changing,” Fragua says, “and I think more rapidly than we ever expected.” With extended droughts, flooding has worsened, and Jemez is near the sites of two of the largest fires in New Mexico history. “Try irrigating with black water,” Fragua says. “After that fire, all that comes downstream, and our rivers have gone black. . . . How do you irrigate with that?”

At one point during our visit, Toledo tells a story about a harvest dance. “Man, it started raining,” he says. “See it go by,” he says he told the younger people, “we can’t bring it back because it’s already passed us.” At the time, I find the lesson a bit cryptic, perhaps meaning something along the lines of carpe diem—seize the day, own your life. But water is more than metaphor. Water must be present to be conserved—a statement of the obvious, yes, and also a fact that is ignored every day by a significant percentage of earth’s human population. This is why Toledo wants to inspire young people to become farmers, to become hydrologists, to feel the soil and know where they come from.

“Some people say the youth are our future,” Fragua says, “but I have four children, and I’m never going to look like them again. No,” he says, “the elders are the future. And that puts the responsibility, this burden, and this challenge on us.” It’s an unusual take, one that demands a moment of reflection, a cognitive somersault. “Nobody’s taking land when we go on to the next stage of existence—that’s the general concept,” he says, regarding Pueblo views on land ownership. Nor can new soil simply replace the old. Healthy soil is mature, the result of long years of collaboration. The elders—all elders of all tribes of earth people—will leave the earth for the youth. Its condition will be our legacy. As Fragua says, “We’ve got to act fast.”

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