When she was little, exploring among old ruins, Roxanne Swentzell remembers occasionally finding turquoise beads. She describes holding them up to squint through each tiny hole: “I was looking into the past.” These memories were so alive to her that, many years later, as a Native artist of great renown, she commemorated them by creating a large clay sculpture of a woman gazing into the past through the hole in her own turquoise bead. “We’re walking right alongside it,” Roxanne says of the past. “We’ve always walked side by side.” Sitting outside Roxanne’s living room window, the sculpture is a reminder; she holds this sense of simultaneity between her thumb and her forefinger.
From an acclaimed family of potters and sculptors whose Santa Clara Pueblo roots span all the way back to the days before contact with Europeans, Roxanne grew up with the code of sustainability the Pueblo people had always lived by. Back in the early ’80s, when Roxanne found herself, at 23, “homeless, living in a tent—an army tent—with two babies,” she admits feeling desperation. “So in between when my kids were napping, I spent a whole year mixing mud and making adobes. When I needed help lifting a beam or a viga into place, my mom and my aunties were there.” As she worked on her passive solar house, she paid for it by selling the first of her now famously engaging clay sculptures of Pueblo people, created in an adjacent plywood shack. Today, Roxanne says, “I am the house in the trees.” And it’s true—you can’t miss the house, it rises up out of the arid, mostly barren landscape, a welcoming oasis of green and shade, healthy garden beds, ponds, turkeys, beehives and, beneath your feet, a rich loamy soil.
Soon after the house’s completion, she met the man who would become her husband, Joel Glanzburg, who’d recently learned the basics of permaculture. She was already primed for all the possibilities this new concept offered. “I saw that the research could work in this high desert climate,” she says. In 1987, Roxanne, Joel and their friend Brett Bakker created Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute, a non-profit organization based out of her home, where they began teaching and sharing sustainable practices for living in this arid environment. “I’ve never been sure what Flowering Tree would become and I still don’t know,” Roxanne says. “It’s an evolution of cultural preservation. This has Pueblo roots. We’re planting seeds within ourselves and outside.” In permaculture terms, instead of fixing something, you ask: What’s missing? And the answer, in this case, turns out to be nothing less than a cultural revolution.
Appropriately enough, it grew out of Flowering Tree’s seed bank project. “We asked ourselves, ‘What grew here? How was it grown, how was it used, how was it taken care of?’ We weren’t trying to do this as a museum,” says Roxanne. “Then it’s not out in the world, living its life.” As they became aware of how many of these indigenous plants were gone, they realized it was because “we just go to Walmart, instead, we buy fast food. The plants that have survived have done so because they’ve adapted to this soil, this air, this sunlight. It takes time for a plant to change to fit a place.”
A year or so ago, Roxanne read in an article—“Don’t ask me where,” she laughs, “I don’t remember!”— that humans also adapt to place, and that this adaptation takes our genetic code twenty generations to complete. People who remain in the same place as their ancestors for that length of time—roughly 600 years—are now better physically equipped to survive there, too, much like the plants that have mutated to survive. Twenty generations ago, in the 1400s, the Pueblo people abandoned their nomadic lifestyle. Until well into the 20th century, their descendants grew corn, squash and beans while also consuming those plants, animals and birds indigenous to northern New Mexico.
But mitigating circumstances—the new railroad system, World War II, enforced boarding schools for Native children—caused a far-reaching lifestyle upheaval that affected their diet. “We have health issues like crazy in the Pueblo,” Roxanne says. So, in the spirit of permaculture’s emphasis on noting of nature’s patterns and asking what’s missing, Roxanne decided to see what would happen if instead of consuming genetically modified foods and other chemical-laden, corn-syrup enhanced fast foods and sodas, they changed their diet back.
“I got 14 volunteers, ages 6 to 65, all with different health conditions, including obesity, diabetes, lupus, autoimmune problems, heart disease, high cholesterol and depression,” says Roxanne. “We were very scientific—everybody had blood tests and physicals, we got weighed. And we went cold turkey. Now we were going to eat only what our pre-contact Pueblo ancestors ate.”
Until this project, laughs Jonathan Loretto, one of the volunteers, “I always thought that the Pueblo diet was—what?—fry bread, red and green chile.” Chastity Sandoval-Swentzell says that, after the initial blood tests, “I found out I was pre-diabetic, and I’m only 31. I have three children and I want to be here for them. It was kind of scary for me.” So she was game for this new-old diet.
What was the diet? “Whatever was here,” says Roxanne. “All the indigenous plants. Deer, elk, rabbit, squirrel, buffalo, turkeys, ducks. Fish. Different cactuses, berries, roots, wild fruits and cultivated stuff they grew, mostly corn, squash and beans. It wasn’t easy. We had to figure out where to find these. We’d go through a whole grocery store, all the aisles, and only find two things in there we could eat. We had to create a Facebook page,” she laughs, “to support each other so we wouldn’t starve! Early on, one woman called me saying she was standing in front of McDonald’s and I thought, ‘Uh oh, don’t go in!’ But she said, ‘Guess what I found! A prickly pear root that’s ripe! We can eat it!’ It was in a pot, a part of their landscaping! But we all went down and got some. We couldn’t have typical spices, no catsup, no sugar, no olive oil or salad dressing or butter. And we coveted salt. We knew our ancestors had a place where they got it. My son Porter, the historian, said, ‘It’s behind the Sandia mountains.’ We made a pilgrimage and found it, in an old lakebed. On the way, we found ancestral sites, places people would take journeys to. It was very emotional to be reconnected to something so important, a part of who we were and still are. It felt like a ceremony.”
After an astonishingly short time—three months—the results, says Roxanne, “were better than I could ever imagine.” Marian Naranjo says, “My blood test at the beginning showed I was headed for a stroke. But after the three months, my blood test was normal, I lost 50 pounds and my energy level is awesome—I’m doing things I hadn’t done in forever!” To a person, the chronic illnesses that doctors had said were incurable and that they’d just have to suffer with, says Roxanne, “were not just better—they were gone! A number of the women saved their lives by going on this diet, their illnesses? Gone!”
Roxanne wants others to benefit from their discovery. “We’ve sent packets with a booklet and a video DVD documenting our experiences to as many tribes as we could,” says Roxanne. They’ve also written a cookbook of recipes they developed from scratch, which is being printed by the Santa Fe School for Advanced Research.
“It’s so scary at first,” Roxanne acknowledges, “to be outside the dominant culture.” But sharing food sources and meals together has strengthened the community of Santa Clara Pueblo. As Marian Naranjo points out, their ancestors “kept themselves healthy with just what they had here.” Roxanne adds, “Every time we don’t buy that coke or cookie, we are winning the battle for our existence. And with this diet, we have our whole ancestral line backing us.”
What Roxanne and the Flowering Tree Institute have done is expand the whole permaculture concept into brand new, literally lifesaving territory, connecting us back to something eternal—which we’d lost but still carried in our cells, that is ancestral. Because the truth is that no matter how much of our personal energy we invest in water catchment, passive solar, swales and other permaculture projects, if we don’t learn how to eat to heal our bodies, we aren’t going to survive and neither will our children. And that doesn’t just mean eating organic or gluten-free—it’s much more radical and also much simpler than that.
We all came from somewhere. “Everyone has roots that they can research and find, and it does something for the soul to know where we’re from and how we’re connected to a place and a people.” The plants and people have evolved together to survive, a relationship established so long ago, Roxanne continues, that “it’s in our cells. Plants are our ancestors, too. And they’re still here. The corn is my mother that’s taking care of me.”
She describes another of her sculptures: a Pueblo clown eating corn on the cob. He’s holding the cob alongside his grinning mouth. Rows of corn kernels, rows of teeth. “He’s showing you that they are one,” laughs Roxanne. We’re at a sobering but not hopeless crossroads in human evolution, she adds. “Without humor, we won’t make it—it’ll be too sad.”
The works of Roxanne Swentzell can be viewed at the Tower Gallery at 78 Cities of Gold Road in Santa Fe. 505.455.3037. roxanneswentzell.net.
Story by Gail Snyder; photos by Kitty Leaken