The one and a half million acre Fort Apache Reservation in eastern Arizona experiences all four seasons and a variety of landscapes, starting at 2,600’ above sea level on the southwest side and ranging up to 11,400’ at the peak of Mt. Baldy, a sacred mountain at the eastern border. Historically Apache people relied on a combination of wild and cultivated foods, planting crops like corn, beans and pumpkins in the spring, moving seasonally around the landscape hunting and foraging for foods like acorns, and then returning to farm sites associated with a family or clan in the fall to harvest.
In 1871 the reservation where the White Mountain Apache now reside was created by an executive order of President Grant, as part of his new “peace policy.” Because the White Mountain Apache had sided with the army as a self-preservation strategy, they fared better that Geronimo’s band, the Chiricahua, and other Apache communities. Even so, the creation of this reservation involved the violent dispossession of Apache traditional hunting and gathering lands, and greatly constrained their food culture.
At the turn of the 20th century, BIA agents promoted cattle farming and leasing out land, which lead to degradation of the ecosystem. Unsustainable commercial timber exploitation also diminished wild food sources and led to erosion of soil. In some families, farming knowledge was lost when youth were sent to boarding schools, and others today do not have the financial resources to farm. It is against these challenges that Ndee Bikiyaa, The People’s Farm, is working in an effort to restore personal and cultural health to the White Mountain Apache through agriculture
The former Fort Apache, which housed the American army in the 19th and early 20th centuries, now makes up a 288 acre National Register Historic District, with 27 historic buildings. The White Mountain Apache Natural Resources office is housed in one of these buildings, and it is out of this office that the Ndee Bikiyaa is based.
Ndee Bikiyaa began as a for-profit farming venture that has since been redeveloped into a community food initiative. The farm began in 1980 with a grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to plant 800 acres of alfalfa and rye. Due to funding and management issues, the farm lay fallow through the 1990’s. Then in 2005, as part of the continuing struggle to quantify the tribe’s water rights, the tribal government sought to re-evaluate the farm as a means of developing its water use, and hired a consulting firm to determine the most profitable use of the fields. The firm recommended putting the fields into organic production. It became clear that it would be too expensive to certify all of the fields, and so the project was scaled back to 120 acres of hay and a 2 acre garden with raised beds, a shade structure, and several cold-frame hoophouses. Currently, Ndee Bikiyaa sells produce at cost to community members through farmers markets, provides fresh produce to the tribal rehabilitation program, organizes community events like harvest festivals and workshops, and hosts volunteers, interns and seasonal employees in the summer.
The two acre garden is tended entirely by hand, utilizing lasagna bed gardens to help make the heavy clay soils more fertile. These were created (see upcoming Hopi post for exact directions!) by digging out the heavy clay soil and layering in black cinders to help with water filtration, as well as manure and leaves. Garlic,onions, peppers, tomatoes, squash and potatoes are now thriving in these beds. All of the plants in the garden are started from seed in the farm’s greenhouse. Farm staff are in the process of building a new passive solar greenhouse, as the old greenhouse was built in the 1970’s and is located offsite. They are also working, through a First Nations Development Institute grant, to remodel a house on the site, which will provide a space to clean and package produce. This will be an integral part of the farm receiving GAP certification, which will allow them to sell produce to schools, the IHS hospital, the casino, and other tribal institutions.
While most of Ndee Bikiyaa’s operations are centered at the farm site, they also tend to a cornfield originally created by the Nohwike’ Bágowa (House of our Footsteps) tribal museum and cultural center. This site was created as model of Apache family fields in the early 20th century, as a means of creating an educational space for community members and visitors to learn about Apache history. Traditionally Apache grew blue corn for flour, and white and yellow corn for a ceremonial fermented corn drink, tulapai. This year, Clayton and his coworkers planted Hopi blue corn at the cultural center site, and yellow corn at the farm site. Clayton described how he takes pride and comfort in planting in a place that has been farmed for thousands of years, protected by the canyon walls.
Clayton highlighted youth involvement as both a success and future goal of the farm. Many school groups have come through the garden and corn field, where students have learned that their food started as plants in the ground before making their way to the produce shelves in Wal-Mart. Cheryl Pailzote, the water resources director who oversees the farm, described how in the near future, they were going to create garden beds for the 150 youth at the Boys and Girls Club. As Clayton noted, “In our songs everything is mentioned about our corn, from root to stalk to leaves to tassel. The corn used to be the center of our life and we lost it.” Through community workshops, harvest fests and youth programming, in addition to the crops they’re planting, Ndee Bikiyaa is working on returning this essential element to the community.