PJ in the Owens Valley: the Indigenous Farming Project


 "The recovery of the people is tied to the recovery of food,

since food itself is medicine; not only for the body,

but for the soul, is the spiritual connection to history,

ancestors and the land."

-Winona LaDuke, in Recovering the Sacred

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I've been working on behalf of Planting Justice with a project called the Indigenous Farming Project (IFP), a tribal agriculture & nutrition pilot program in collaboration with San Francisco artist collective Future Farmers. Inspired by his train travels through the reservation lands, EPA Region 9 director Jared Blumenfeld recognized a common desire for developing food sovereignty projects within native communities and asked Amy Francheschini of Future Farmers to start up a program that would help tribes gain access to the resources they need to build resilient foodsystems on their lands.

Many tribal reservations are geographically isolated and are “food deserts” in which there is very little or no access to healthy fresh foods, (www.ers.usda.gov/data/fooddesert/fooddesert.html). In order to combat this health related epidemic, there has been a resurgence in the number of American Indians and their allies championing a revitalization of traditional food knowledge and ritual farming-and-gardening.

In spring 2012, Anya Kamenskaya, the IFP project manager, started the first IFP-sponsored site with the Environmental Department of the Big Pine Paiute of the Owens Valley. Over the course of the year, as I joined on as a co-project manager and permaculture designer, we were able to work with Alan Bacock, Tony Karl & Sally Manning of the Environmental Department to design & plan an active demonstration community garden on the land of the Big Pine Paiute Tribal Headquarters.

During the fall, we visited Big Pine to install a pre-fab greenhouse. It was a great community effort! The growing conditions are dry, dusty and very minimal in terms of rainfall. The challenge of this site is definitely to build healthy soil that retains maximum moisture in the landscape.

With the completion of the design process, the tribe was able to secure a grant from the First Nations Development Institute to further fund the garden installation and maintenance for the next year. This allowed the tribe to hire a garden manager, a tribal member name Joe Miller who has been growing food and selling at markets for the past few years.

We've had some successful community work days to jumpstart the implementation of the garden -- folks have been coming out early on weekend mornings this summer to gather & work in the garden, including digging and planting permaculture rainwater harvesting swales with fruiting perennials. The garden installation will continue with dry stack rock bed building (a plentiful resource out in the Owens Valley), an herb labyrinth, pie-shaped garden beds and row cropping. There is already a palpable sense of placemaking that is unfolding as the garden grows. In addition to continual planting and building, we are currently designing signage for the garden so that it can be an educational space for the community.

Last month the tribal council also approved the startup of a community farmers market at the garden site! The Nawanaki-ti Market is now in operation every Friday evening and currently featuring small local produce vendors, prepared foods such as pies & cookies, traditional crafts, and music and dance performances. The market is conveniently located right along Highway 395, so the space has a strong potential to attract curious passers by.


IFP is also collaborating with the Bishop Paiute Community Garden project. We installed a small pond there last month, and came back to a flourishing aquatic ecosystem, complete with mosquito fish! In October we will being installing a large greenhouse on site as well as helping to organize workshops on harvesting & cooking produce from the garden.

IFP's goals are to establish working relationships with 4 tribes in the Owens Valley and surrounding areas. We are currently moving into design phase with the Utu Utu Gwaitu Paiute Tribe in nearby Benton. Their site presents more design challenges with a very short growing season, very high desert winds and contaminated water, but the desire amongst the community to create a space for people young and old to gather and cultivate is very strong.

The Indigenous Farming Project continues to be received with support and enthusiasm by the tribal communities we've met in the Owens Valley. This dry desert valley that sits between the Sierra Nevada & White Mountain ranges has suffered from the presence of the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (LA-DWP), who drained the Owens Lake at the turn of the century.  Moving into an area that was already experiencing contention amongst landowning ranchers, native communities, and goldrushers, LA-DWP contributed to further ecological & social degradation. What was once a lush, alluvial marshland valley filled with native bird & plant communities is now a disparate, isolated area where topsoil is blown away by strong winds every year.

Throughout the last year of visiting the Owens Valley, however, a burgeoning community of younger people is taking land stewardship seriously, both within tribal lands and the larger community of the Owens Valley. There is the Owens Valley Growers Cooperative and Bishop Creek Farms -- two initiatives started by locals who are committed to cultivated an organic, local foodshed. We continue to meet families who are leaving their lives in the city to return to their roots in the valley to grow food & live in community.

IFP is also developing a web-based wiki map called the Puhidua Registry, which will allow growers in the valley to register their gardens, seed banks, farmers' markets, and any other agriculture & food sovereignty - related projects. The website will launch this September.

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Initially in my visits, I have found the community of the Owens Valley to be one that has suffered from environmental isolation, ecological degradation, and minimal economic opportunity. As I get to meet more people from both tribal and non-tribal circles, I can tell that there exists a strong sense of hope, love and pride for the resilience of the communities that have survived in the area. There are deep roots of relationships that have remained underground for many years and a quiet common vision that has been struggling to be heard. Through my work with the Indigenous Farming Project and all of the community members who have showed up to shape their communities and landscapes towards resilience, I can feel the powerful groundswell of change emerging.