What happened at the 22nd Annual Indigenous Sustainability Design Course?

 Article written by Nicole Francis 
Picture credits: Clayton Brascoupe 

This years Indigenous Sustainable Communities Design Course (ISCDC 2018) was held in Northern New Mexico at the Camino De Paz School-Farm from July 22nd through August 3rd. It was attended by 30 students, and featured a majority of Indigenous women instructors for the two weeks of intensive hands on training.

As in previous years, the course follows the Indigenous permaculture approach which is defined as, “the harmonious integration of landscape and people.” Each teaching and skill share, every meal prepared together, each story told, and every field trip taken during the course connects the students to the holistic indigenous approach that is based in the beautiful and complex traditional knowledge of our elders and ancestors. As the course participants attended each day they spent their evening hours working in teams to incorporate these holistic concepts into projects to be presented during the final days of the course.

The first day of the course set the tone for the weeks to follow. The group of students gathered in a circle for introductions, to share their views, and express their emotions as they embarked on the next 13 days together. Coming together in this circle is also an exercise in demonstrating the broader teachings the design course is based upon. A ball of string is thrown from student to student around the circle, leaving a line of string connecting the next person to the last, as each person takes their turn to speak. Every student comes from a different territory, a different center of their universe, a different creation story, a different Nation and environment with a different life experience to share with one another. As the last person receives the ball of string the group now sees the result of the “string exercise.” Not only are they connected to the person that threw them the ball of string, but each connection in the circle has come together to create a web of interconnectedness. Clayton Brascoupe, the organizer and founder of the ISCDC remarks after this exercise, “The string illustrates how we’re all connected and interconnected. People, plants, animals, water, wind, stone, stars and more,” these are the threads in the web. He continues, “What we do will affect all, both positive or negative. Diversity is our strength, relationships are our foundation. Everyone is part of our community, everyone is important, everyone has responsibility, just as you see in nature.” It is with this teaching, the knowledge of the web of life, that the course unfolds.

Day two of the course was spent visiting ancestral and contemporary sites of “Indigenous permaculture.” Observations were made by the students at Tsankawi, an ancient Pueblo site where the people used natural designs to thrive and live in cooperation with the water, plants, animals, weather, the earth and landscape. Next, the students visited “Healing Oasis.” The urban garden incorporates water harvesting as well as food and medicinal plantings to create an intentional space in a public urban setting to restore the degraded landscape.

Healthy soil was the focus of the third day of instruction. Methods to grow and restore soils, including the hands on creation of earth worm composting boxes. In the afternoon the participants learned to make seed balls, an effective way to revegetate an area with native plants. Making traditional planting sticks was also part of an afternoon skill share. The planting sticks made their way into the fourth day of instruction as Clayton gave a demonstration with them to make round planting beds. Hands on work by the students included double dug and waffle style gardens with integrated drip systems. Day 5 began with a classroom discussion on types of gardening including ancient rock mulch, three sisters and bio-intensive gardens. Later that day, Los Rios Rafting company hosted an exciting afternoon on the Rio Grande River.

Red Willow Farm from Taos Pueblo, hosted the field trip and instruction on day 6. Community involvement and commitment, from the youth to elders, were key themes spoken about by Sheryl from Red Willow. Tribal member community involvement begins with putting seeds and intentions in the ground and culminates in a weekly farmers market that provides fresh produce, traditional foods for elders and other community members at affordable prices, and healing through community involvement. The farm must consider more than just the human needs for food, but also respecting the water and seasons in a dry, high altitude climate where drought and insects can affect crops. Observation of our natural surroundings and the hard work and commitment of community are part of the holistic ways we work in partnership with our surroundings instead of against them.

Food is our medicine! Having access to clean, non-gmo, ancestral foods is part of reclaiming and asserting ourselves as Indigenous people. Corn is the ancestral food for many Indigenous Nations. The traditions surrounding corn people are as varied as the communities they come from. The 7th day of the Design Course gave the students the opportunity to process corn into different forms of delicious, nutritious food. Blue corn was processed into Blue corn masa and the day was spent making and cooking blue corn tamales and tortillas. Food traditions are transmitters of medicine, health, language and culture.

Around half of the world’s farmers are women and in developing countries 79 percent of the economically active women are farmers (worldhunger.org). Day 8 instruction of the design course covered Indigenous Women in Agriculture. This was allowed by Norma and Hutch Naranjo (The Feasting Place) of the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo by opening their home and horno (earthen oven) for hands-on food preparation, and sharing their experience with traditional farming and food preparation from their Pueblo. The day finished with Nicolle Gonzalez, a certified nurse-midwife and founder of Changing Woman Initiative. The inspiring and thought provoking conversation included how Indigenous midwifery supports nation building and sovereignty, as well as discussing the history of midwifery in Indigenous communities and what is happening now.

Lilian Hill, Director at Hopi Tutskwa Permaculture Institute, started the 9th day off with sharing her expertise as an Earth builder. Earth building uses local materials, is less toxic, has a smaller carbon footprint with transportation, and will cool and heat structures efficiently. Students finished out the day and gave Earth building a try by repairing an horno (earthen oven) in the Santa Clara Pueblo.


Day 10 was spent in discussion with Rowen White, Indigenous seed steward and director at Sierra Seed Cooperative as well as Coordinator for the Indigenous SeedKeepers Network, a program of the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance. The day was  followed by a visit to the seed bank and farm at the Tesuque Pueblo with Emigdio Ballon. Clayton Brascoupe’s comments from that day, “How do we insure we have a healthy culturally appropriate diet, seeds that have the ability to thrive in a rapidly changing climate? Our ancestors provided these for our well being. We need to grow and protect our plant food relatives.” Rowen shared her seeds with the students and her experience as an Indigenous seed steward. “What are seeds?” she asks. Seeds are life, seeds are a blue print, seeds are our relatives, seeds are our ancestors seeds are resilient, seeds are alive….

There was a final field trip, on day 11, to the Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute, Santa Clara Pueblo. Roxanne Swentzell, founder, took the group on a tour of her home and desert oasis that was once only a parking lot and hard packed earth. Through her hard work and observation of the site, she created micro climates for plants to grow and thrive creating space for the land to heal. Everything has a use and even the grasshoppers are seen as a food source. By stacking functions the participants saved the garden by harvesting the grasshoppers and used the grasshoppers to contribute to a traditional and sovereign food experience. High protein grasshopper flour!

Back at La Paz farm for the afternoon session, Nicole Francis, Indigenous herbalist, forager and grassroot community educator, taught an herbal processing class. After a short lecture on the different herbal processing methods and ethics regarding collection, the students went to the kitchen and worked on cutting medicines for a fire cider. The final hour they made a healing salve from local medicinal plants.

As the course was coming to a close the 12th day was spent on the sustainable design course projects and their team presentations. After the presentations the students received their certifications of course completion. Thank you Clayton Brascoupe for encouraging and inspiring the graduates of the last 22 years of the Design Course!!

For more information please contact tnafa_org@yahoo.com 

Clayton Brascoupe 
Director, Traditional Native American Farmers Association 

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