The Cultural Conservancy (TCC) originated in 1985 as The Sacred Land Foundation (SLF), an organization created to collect and disseminate information about sacred lands and to promote the protection of sacred sites. In 1992 the SLF became the Cultural Conservancy, to reflect the organization’s increasing efforts to form land trusts and help local native groups acquire land and property rights in order to protect traditional land-based cultures. A majority-native board was also elected, and Melissa Nelson (Turtle Mountain Chippewa) was brought on as the director. Melissa has a PhD in Cultural Ecology with an emphasis in Native American Studies from the University of CA Davis, and serves as a professor of American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University. Under the guidance of Melissa and the board, TCC has worked with tribes from across North and South America as well as the Pacific for the past two decades to: protect sacred sites from everything from ski resorts to telescope developments; present public forums on agriculture and native lands; and conduct media work on the preservation and revitalization of indigenous knowledge. (See here for a long list of their accomplishments).
TCC recognized the profound relationship between the health of the land, waters, food, and people. Many of their programs have been focused on the link between cultural diversity, biological diversity and native heritage as it relates to the landscape. Genocidal policies in California, launched by Spanish missionaries in the 18th century and increased by the California State government in the 19th century, caused traditional knowledge about the land to go dormant in many cases. TCC saw revitalizing indigenous knowledge as necessary to protecting and reclaiming sacred sites. With this in mind, TCC has been conducting language preservation and media work with tribes, documenting language and stories and helping to build more solid cases for the protection of lands. Recording cultural material has been a sensitive issue for some communities, so Melissa explained that at TCC “we do what’s often called ‘catch and release’ ethnography, where we will do high-quality audiophile recordings, and then release it back to the community, and not even retain a copy, to honor their intellectual property rights.” In other cases the files are shared and made public, as in the case of the Paiute Salt Song Trail Project. The Salt Song Trail is one thousand miles long, and the songs that correspond to different sites along the way were being lost as elders were passing on. The collaborative work done between TCC and the Paiute community resulted in the award-winning documentary film, “The Salt Song Trail: Bringing Creation Back Together” and “Salt Song Trail – A Living Documentary” DVD featuring two short films, “The Old Woman Mountains” and “Stewart Indian Boarding School.” They also completed a “Salt Song Trail Map of Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute) Sacred Landscapes, Culture Areas and Bands,” featuring the one thousand mile long that travels through a variety of native landscapes and ecosystems. In addition to preserving this information, Melissa noted that when issues came up, like pipelines or mining or locating dumpsites, the Paiute used these recordings of their salt songs as evidence to prove that the territory was ancestral territory, and these were sacred sites. She notes “We really saw the power of audio and video recordings as evidence when necessary to prove ancestral ties to certain landscapes that can really provide evidence in court and make a difference for EPA and BLM and other folks charged with protecting cultural heritage.”
These salt songs were not just about salt, but about food ways more broadly, including hunting grounds and gathering sites for food and medicinal plants. TCC continued this work, conducting oral history projects about traditional native food ways in other Native communities. Reflecting on presentations by Kiowa chef Lois Ellen Frank, Melissa stated, “We didn’t just eke out a living, just like wildlife trying to get our daily calories. We had bitters, salts, and sweet, sour. We had cuisine, and taste.”
Up until the mid 2000’s, TCC’s focus had been mainly in rural areas in California and the southwest. But then the organization began to address the needs and struggles of the urban native communities. According to Melissa, “a lot of the urban communities and my native students were like, ‘what about us? We’re still native, even though we’ve been here 3 generations, since my grandparents came on relocation. We need access to healthy foods. We need to grow our own foods.’” So in 2006 TCC developed a partnership with the American Indian Friendship House, and created an urban organic garden in the middle of the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland that focused on traditional foods, herbs, and medicines. Native American women in recovery and their children worked in the garden, and TCC hosted workshops on Native cooking, nutrition, gardening, and mental health. The garden thrived for a couple of years, and then during the recession when funding dried up, they lost the space.
TCC now works in collaboration with the Indian Valley Organic Farm & Garden (IVOF&G) at the College of Marin Indian Valley Campus to grow Native foods, and to provide organic foods as well as education about nutrition and plants to the local Native community. The 5.8 acre farm was established in 2009 as a teaching farm for the College’s Environmental Landscaping and Organic Farming degree program. Three years ago IVOF&G invited TCC to partner with them, because they wanted to partner with the Native community to establish an ethnobotanical teaching garden. For the past year, TCC has been consulting with local Coastal Miwok, Southern Pomo and Wahpo tribes and elders about the potential layout of the one and a half acre garden, and which species to plant. Plans for the garden include medicine plants, food plants, and those that are used for basketry. In addition they will be building social spaces and outdoor Tule structure classrooms into the garden. Many of the perennials are already growing in the Farm’s greenhouse, and will be planted this winter.
In the mean time, the IVOF&G gave TCC a bed in the main vegetable garden to grow Native food crops. Melissa worked with Kaylena Bray (Seneca) the garden program and social media consultant for TCC, to establish a Three Sisters garden using Iroquois white corn. Kaylena’s parents, David and Wendy Bray Traveled to the farm to conduct a workshop and planting ceremony. In addition to the white corn, the garden also includes tepary beans, Taos blue hubbard squash, and Hopi blue dye sunflowers, seeds that TCC got from TOCA and Native Seeds/SEARCH in Arizona. This three sisters garden also includes a fourth sister—amaranth. This will be featured even more prominently in the plot of Andean crops that they are working on establishing.
Working with rare and indigenous seeds is important to TCC, and they’ve been focusing some of their planting on the Slow Food Ark of Taste, which is like an endangered species list of rare native food varieties in North America. TCC has set up a seed bank in a warehouse adjacent to the farm, and is looking forward to providing opportunities for people to cultivate and share these native seeds. The preservation of Native seeds and food ways has become a central focus of TCC work. Melissa has become involved in the issue on a policy level, delivering speeches at the international Terra Madre gathering, meeting with policy makers, creating manifestos and statements to protect native foods, all in an effort to protect them on a local, national, and international level.
This fall Melissa is teaching a native science course at San Francisco State University, and her students will be spending a lot of time at the farm. They will also be conducting research projects around CSA’s, urban Indian health and food access, and food deserts.
The Cultural Conservancy also received funding for a pilot project that purchases Community Service Learning (CSA) boxes from the farm, which are then distributed to urban Natives. Boxes are delivered to the American Indian Child Resource Center (AICRC) in Oakland, and to the Elder’s Luncheon and Community Dinner at the Intertribal Friendship House, also in Oakland, as well as a few families in the area. TCC is also in discussions with two Native American health centers in San Francisco that are also very interested in incorporating these CSA boxes into their health and nutrition and diabetes prevention programs. This is currently a pilot project, but TCC is prepared to go back to their funders to tell them what a success it has been, and since they can’t keep up with the demand, they need to be able to supply more boxes to Indian agencies, health centers, and families. In addition, they would like to incorporate more Native food products, even ones traded for or purchased such as blue corn flour from New Mexico Pueblos and Tanka bars from the Lakota-run Tanka Bar company.
Two interns, former SF State students Trevor Ware and Michelle Honey help prepare boxes. Trevor is Caddo/Kiowa/Lenape/Shawnee from OK. The Caddo tribe has 300 acres of agricultural land that is currently not being utilized, so Trevor’s goal is to obtain a practical education in organic farming at the IVOF&G, and foodways revitalization from TCC, and then bring this knowledge back to his home to work that land.
TCC also realized that it was not enough to just distribute produce, people need to know how to utilize it. TCC staff Kaylena Bray and Deezbah O’hare have been conducting cooking demonstrations at the American Indian Child Resource Center, teaching about nutrition and simple recipes for the CSA produce
In addition to the work that TCC conducts directly with local Native communities, they have established The Mino-Niibi Fund for Indigenous Cultures. Mino-Niibi means “good water” in Ojibway. The fund provides small $5000-$10,000 grants to indigenous led organizations in the Americas and the Pacific that are focusing on food sovereignty and health, ecocultural health, water and sacred sites, and on regenerative livelihoods. They are currently partnered with indigenous communities from Canada, Paraguay, Guam, and New Zealand, preserving language and traditional food varieties, and supporting artists.
TCC has also been working on the Guardians of the Waters Canoe Project, which focuses on renewing indigenous watercraft traditions in the Pacific. Hands on workshops focus on constructing canoes and paddles, and highlight the importance of physical activity for health.
As Melissa highlighted, “food is really part of everything we do. When you protect the food, you have to protect the water, you have to protect the soil, you have to know the seeds, you have to have the stories and the songs, and you have to have the ceremonies to honor their spirits. Our work is really becoming more and more about native food ways, food sovereignty, and what we call, ‘ecocultural health’, because again, you can’t have healthy people without healthy land and water. So, that’s really become a focal point for our work.”