By Roxanne Swentzell

Photo by Stephanie Cameron

Left to right: Roxanne Swentzell, Marian Naranjo, and Beata Tsosie.

Mothers and food go together naturally. Our mother is our first nurturer. We grow inside her womb, keeping warm and fed from her body until we are born. We emerge to be held and fed from her body again until we are weaned. For many of us, her kitchen is where we are fed for many years. This is a common experience, one that has bridged people throughout the world throughout time.

I sit in front of Marian Naranjo, one of my ba-deh (elders) of Santa Clara Pueblo. We’re treating ourselves to someone else’s cooking, for a change. I ask her how she would describe herself and without hesitation, she says, “Mother, grandmother of eight.” She speaks softly and dreamily, like a lullaby, but also carefully and with intention. After a lifetime of learning how to reach people with her message, Naranjo tells me, “I created H.O.P.E. (Honoring Our Pueblo Existence) so that there would be an indigenous women’s voice of why our caretaking of the environment and health issues are vital to our traditions.” One of the many projects Naranjo helped create in the pueblo is the Bu-wah-te-wah (traditional cooking house). The cooking house is an adobe structure that houses the flat stones and hearths used for cooking.

Years ago, my organization, the Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute, joined with H.O.P.E. to test whether eating our precontact diet would help with health issues in our village. We were successful in proving without a doubt that the diet we ate before the Europeans arrived was very good for us. Along the way, we learned about our traditional paper-thin cornbread (buwah). Calling on mothers from other pueblos, who still knew how to make this bread, we learned how to make buwah again. As the cooking stones were coming back to life, Naranjo decided we needed a house where the stones could stay and be used again. As a community, we not only built the Bu-wah-te-wah, but also a second building for the grinding stones and the gathering of female energy—the Que-te-wah (women’s house).

Naranjo’s spirit is strong and connected to the larger spiritual picture. Food is not just a meal; it is sacred medicine. Prayer and community education were integral to every step we took to create the women’s house. In Naranjo’s words, “We are grounding our creation story in a lifeway our people once lived daily, by bringing back our sacred food that has proven to be our medicine, and educating in a prayerful manner to bring about healing from historical trauma.”

Flowering Tree and H.O.P.E. continue to walk down this path hand-in-hand, creating the mother space for nurturing through food and prayer. We believe that it is not just making good healthy food to eat, but how that food is prepared, gathered, grown, hunted, and prayed over that makes it healing. The whole process is how we create strong communities that can sustain themselves based on care and respect.

One morning a few years ago, as a few of the community women gathered at the women’s house to grind cornmeal, I listened while a younger woman, Beata Tsosie, talked about a project she had dreamed up and was busy working on: The Española Healing Food Oasis. She had taken a permaculture workshop that Flowering Tree Permaculture and Traditional Native American Farmers Association (TNAFA) taught years ago. Afterward, she exclaimed, “I saw the world in a whole new way.” One day Tsosie was in her car outside the Española library, watching the rain run off and erode the barren hillside just off the parking lot. The city had to repeatedly come in with heavy equipment and push the dirt back up the hill in order to protect the lot. Water is life, but Tsosie saw that this water was not valued. She wanted to apply what she’d learned about dryland food production and land reclamation on this abused hillside. In 2012, under the umbrella of Tewa Women United, Tsosie approached the city and convinced them to let her turn this “problem” into a food forest. The Española Healing Food Oasis was funded and approved to start breaking ground in 2016. “It started in a good way,” Tsosie said. “It started from a prayer and permission.” Tsosie learned to become a manager, with some two thousand hours from community volunteers to keep her busy.

Recently, we sat on a stone banco that borders the lower end of the Food Oasis while Tsosie’s young son ran around with a dried seed head from last year’s harvest. The hillside is contoured to catch any rainwater. Catchments are mulched with straw or rock, and a large variety of shrubs, fruit trees, and grasses dot the once barren hillside. Footpaths make it accessible and friendly.

So many people give up in the face of big industry and powers that seem uncaring, but Tsosie humbly took on one forgotten eroded hillside and, with her love and vision, nurtured life back into it. When I asked about her vision, Tsosie said, “I pray we one day have complete independent food sovereignty from colonizing and military institutions. Our youth need to have clean water and a connection to spiritual land-based education, and a place to honor indigenous values.”

It takes many caring people to create a healthy community. I love these two women for the way they have behaved as mothers. When mothers lead, we always have food and a feeling that everyone and everything matters. When mothers lead, everyone wins. Beauty surrounds us when mothers care for our environment. I stand with my sisterhood to help carry us into a future of caring communities, not just for humans but for all nature’s diversity.

For more information or donations: Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute