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San Ildefonso Pueblo goes back to its future

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By Garrison Wells

Not more than a dozen miles from a high-profile lab so cutting edge that PhDs come and go like New York taxi drivers and high tech is old hat, the soil is worked hard — by hand — just like it was worked more than 400 years ago.

Knees bend and backs hurt.

Ancient farm implements wrestle with the dirt so that in a month or so, corn can be harvested, plucked from their rows by the same hands that planted them.

At Pueblo de San Ildefonso, it’s the old days, all over again.

“If you were to black out the rest of the world, the iPod, the stress, the cell phones, what would you do?” asked Darryl Martinez, who heads up the tribe’s agricultural program. “You would have to do the same things your ancestors did.”

A couple of weeks ago, a group of students from all over the United States got a taste of the 1,500-member Pueblo’s ancestry. They learned about the tribe from Timothy Martinez, one of the tribal councilmen, then spent much of the day in the heat working the Pueblo’s 1.5-acre farm.

Here’s what they learned: The tribes’ ancestors migrated from Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon to the Pajarito Plateau between 1200 and 1500 AD. A drought pushed them to settle along the banks of the Rio Grande where water for their crops and agricultural lifestyle was plentiful. The tribe filled the land with corn, melon and squash mostly.

It’s part of a program with the Department of Education, funded in part by Los Alamos National Laboratory and National Geographic magazine, in which students flock from all over the country to get first-hand lessons in traditional crop farming and food preparation and the language of Tewa.

What they get, said Timothy Martinez, is a history lesson.

“Corn isn’t just corn for food to us,” he said. “Keep in mind that everything here is sacred to Indian people.”

Indeed, this tiny plot of land, miniscule when you consider that the tribe owns more than 800,000 acres, is the seed that will help the tribe become self sufficient, Darryl Martinez said.

The program got started in 2009. Darryl and Tim were hired for the task by the tribe because they could speak the old language of Tewa. The idea was to teach the ancient ways of sustainable farming, the language and old traditions to the younger members of the tribe.

They started teaching kids 7 to 14 years old.

“When you lose your language, you lose your culture,” Tim Martinez said.

To Darryl Martinez, it was a way of honoring their ancestors.

“Times change,” he said. “They are still changing.”

The first harvest comes in September. The tribe hopes it is the first of many, and that the acreage they plant each year grows as well.

Soon, Darryl said, he expects the tribe to be completely self-sufficient.

“In three years we want to be on our own,” he said.