Agriculture by Design

At the Institute of American Indian Arts, gardening is both an art and a science.

By Melanie Lenart

Photo: Lawrence Shorty, USDA

At the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico “agriculture” is called “land art.” Here, the desert campus is viewed as a canvas for creative expression, where staff and students design and tend spiral gardens, shape soil into thunderbolt designs for planting corn, and even plant a turtle-shaped garden with a shell made of flowers that reflect the colors of a Lakota medicine wheel.

Offering four-year and graduate degrees in creative writing, studio art, museum studies, and performing arts, among other disciplines, IAIA calls itself “the only college in the world dedicated to the study of contemporary Native American and Alaska Native arts.” Now celebrating its 60th year, the federally chartered college enrolls students from more than 100 different tribal nations, enriching the campus with a variety of artistic traditions.

Don’t let the lovely designs fool you into thinking the gardens serve only an aesthetic role, however.  The gardens also support a variety of academic, environmental, and culinary initiatives, including maintaining a seed library, providing healthy food for the college café, and replenishing the local ecosystem. This purposeful integration of art and science is a story best told in photos.

Photo: Teresa K. Quintana

“Part of our efforts here are in response to helping to reconnect our communities with not only food and food sovereignty approaches but also to reconnect them with what we call the land arts,” said Melanie Kirby, the Extension educator with IAIA’s Land-Grant program. “Art is the overarching umbrella but it encompasses so many things. Being able to connect it with not only traditional knowledge but also western science has been really fun.”

Many of the designs have functional purposes that go beyond their natural beauty. During an April Zoom call with Native Science Report, Land Grant Program Associate Teresa Kaulaity Quintana said all garden plants yield either edible food or plant parts for making tea, salve or medicine. All of them serve bees or other pollinators too.

Photo: Teresa K. Quintana

Kirby and Quintana, along with full-time gardener Paul Quintana, work together year-round to keep the flowers blooming and the crops producing, keeping pollinators such as bees and butterflies in mind. They also arrange the plants so they can support each other as companion plants, helping neighboring plants resist ravaging by insects in the pesticide-free environment. “Everything we plant in this entire garden is planted with a companion, something that we know is going to help with pest control, help the yield, the flavor, give it shade if it needs it, or something like that,” Quintana said. “So that’s an example of how we live in our communities. We help one another, we live close with each other and help each other get through whatever it is and that’s just an example of that.”

Photo: Teresa K. Quintana

The spiral garden, too, goes beyond aesthetics. “Our hopes are that this helps with water erosion,” said Quintana, a Kiowa woman who lives in her husband Paul’s Cochiti Pueblo community with their four children. “We have a lot of water erosion problems and, you know, the spiral is a sacred shape to our Indigenous peoples. It’s just a good way to kind of collect water and save water too.”

Photo: Teresa K. Quintana

The Land Grant professionals often water crops using flood irrigation, a practice that dates back to harvesting water from rivers in ancient times. For instance, the Hohokam people living around what is now Phoenix, Arizona, built extensive canals for watering their fields.

Photo: Paul Quintana

Although the gardening project runs separately from the institute’s academic program, IAIA students get involved in a variety of ways. Ethnobotany students learn how to winnow amaranth, an ancient grain that had once been banned by colonizers. Ceramics students fashion clay to serve as ollas, buried pots that release water slowly. Photography students document blooms during the “golden hour” before sunset. Cinema students make music videos and horror films on location. Art students draw the gardens and turn bee housing into art forms.

Photo: Teresa K. Quintana

Kirby, who has a master’s degree in entomology, nurtures bees to serve as pollinators, provide honey that IAIA distributes as “Thunder Bee honey” to reflect their Thunderbird mascot, and teach students and community members how to launch an apiary of their own. She’s also helping to organize an exhibition of American Indian insect art for an upcoming Entomological Society of America conference.

Photo courtesy of the Institute for American Indian Arts

“As I like to say,” Kirby explained, “it takes a community to raise bees, because it really introduces and shows the connection between landscape, and habitat and stewardship and gardening and agriculture—all of those are very much a part of the environment, and that’s how these pollinators survive.”

Students can benefit from the food produced by the garden, too. They can grow their own food, as did one student who grew beans that enriched his sister’s coming-of-age ceremony, said Kirby, whose Indigenous roots go back to the Tortugas Pueblo. Although not federally recognized, she said many of their “cousin” tribes are.

Photo: Teresa K. Quintana

The Land-Grant program crew also grows food to share. The first stop after harvest is IAIA’s café, a link in the Café Bon Appétit chain that emphasizes locally grown food. When the café chef noticed that students weren’t eating the microgreens, Quintana and the chef offered taste tests until students grew to like the baby lettuce and other healthy microgreens cultivated in the on-site greenhouse.

The next stop for fresh food is the student food pantry. “Food security is a big deal,” Quintana said. “We do not want our students going hungry.”

Photo courtesy of the Institute of American Indian Arts

Many students haven’t done much cooking before arriving at the IAIA campus, so Kirby and Quintana also host community events teaching them how to prepare food. Roasting chilis, cooking with squash, harvesting and grinding corn to make tamales—all of these are things the Land-Grant professionals have taught since the two took their current positions in 2020, or during Quintana’s stint as gardener before that.

Photo: Nicole Lawe

Students aren’t the only ones learning as they go. Kirby and Quintana learned how to prepare the masa mixture for green tamales from community members. Plans for making masa even guide the timing of the harvest, as the kernels must be slightly mushy, not too dry, for this purpose. In the IAIA gardens, they generally grow blue corn from seed originally donated by the Santa Domingo Pueblo. The Land-Grant program has been growing and saving the seeds from that initial batch for about a decade now, from the time Quintana was an IAIA alumna. The seed collection now fills a file cabinet and several drawers. The display provides a sense of security to those working to restore pollinator habitat and food biodiversity.

Photo: Teresa K. Quintana

“The arts can be very therapeutic. Working with the land can be very therapeutic,” Kirby said. “And also the ability for [students] to find hope and resilience—especially, today’s generation, which is having to deal with a lot of eco-anxiety.” 

Restoring landscapes can help restore hope, she indicated. It encourages students, whether they’re Indigenous or part of the 20 percent of the IAIA student population from a non-Native community here in the US or abroad, to aspire to finding alternatives to the damaging industrial approach of covering the land with endless stretches of commercialized corn or wheat. The seed library contains what some call heirloom seeds, collected from plants that have been grown by Indigenous peoples for generations, as well as seeds from native wildflowers growing naturally in the area.

Photo: Melanie Kirby

Students can throw “seed bombs”—balls of soil holding a variety of wildflowers seeds—in selected areas to help restore the landscape. Once the flowers grow, they can enjoy the beauty of the landscape and the pollinators.  

“It relates to the larger Indigenous worldview—all the tribes have their distinct philosophies and approaches, but there are some common shared views of interconnectedness and reciprocity—so that’s where this comes in to try to help re-establish or regenerate biodiversity.”

A brief video documenting honey collection from the Institute’s “Thunder Bees” can be found here:

https://www.wevideo.com/view/2415898163

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Melanie Lenart is a regular contributor to Native Science Report.

Story published April 20, 2022

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