Traditional Native American Farmers Association (TNAFA) Trip to Belize to Connect with Mayan Farmers Part 1: The Uchben Kah Corn Conference

photo by Elizabeth Hoover

Clayton Brascoupe helped to found the Traditional Native American Farmers Association (TNAFA) in 1992 as a means to increase interest in traditional agriculture in Native communities, especially among youth. As part of this work, nearly every summer since 1996 Clayton has hosted the Indigenous Sustainable Community Design Course, a 1-2 week long course that brings together a handful of Indigenous farmers in training from across Turtle Island to learn about seed saving, sustainable farming practices, and traditional food production.

For the past decade Clayton has also been collaborating with Mayan farmers in Belize- hosting beginning farmers at his design course and bringing North American Indigenous farmers down to Belize to learn from their traditional growing practices.

North American delegation from L to R: Clayton Brascoupe, Brian Monongye, Terrylynn Brant, Robyn Pailzote, Janene Yazzie, Elesio Curley, Kolette Dayish, Elizabeth Hoover, Colleen Cooley

This past January 2020 I was fortunate to join a group of 7 North American farmers (representing Navajo, Hopi, Mohawk, and Apache communities, as well as the Seventh Generation Fund, International Indian Treaty Council, and the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance) to attend a three day Indigenous corn conference in Pueblo Viejo, Toledo, and to tour farms belonging to friends and past students.

Clayton Brascoupe and Omar Raquena who worked together to coordinate the corn conference. Omar described how they weren’t able to invite entire community, but handpicked people who have experience in corn planting. The intention was to bring a group together to discuss, share their experiences, and create a declaration. He described, “we are planting a seed, we need to water it, need to give it adequate elements to grown. For our future, our kids, our grandchildren.” At the conclusion of the conference, Omar stated “mother corn is asking us to rescue her so that’s what we’re doing” photo by Elizabeth Hoover

The three day conference, hosted at the San Francisco de Jeronimo Roman Catholic School of Pueblo Viejo, took several years of planning between Clayton and Omar Raquena, and brought together over 90 Indigenous farmers from across Belize and Guatemala (the plan was for a hand selected 40 farmers due to funding purposes, but as people heard about the event and became interested, the number attending suddenly doubled). For three days, the assembled group of Indigenous farmers described the challenges they were facing preserving native varieties of corn, their concerns about hybrid and GMO seeds and the chemicals that many farmers were applying to their fields, and brainstormed about how to support each other going forward in maintaining their heirloom varieties and increasing youth participation in planting.

Clayton welcoming farmers from across Belize, Guatemala, and North America to the corn conference on the first day. photo by Elizabeth Hoover
One of the first presenters was Terrylynn Brant, Mohawk from Six Nations. Terrylynn spoke about Mohawk seed culture and ceremonies and sang a seed song. She described to the assembled farmers about how “Our farming teaching has many ethics. How to organize our communities how to organize. Be proud.” She also firmly stated; “I do not believe we as Indigenous people have lost anything. People say our seeds are lost. I think we’ve fallen down in our responsibilities as seed keepers. I have 4 varieties I’m breeding right now. If every farmer took the gumption to breed, we’d be back to hundreds. That’s our obligation as farmers to keep that going.” photo by Elizabeth Hoover


Janene Yazzie presented information about the International Indian Treaty Council and their work at the United Nations to advocate for Indigenous rights and the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. She described how “That’s why GMOs are such a threat–not only the way it creates ownership of seeds, but the way it changes memory of seeds. These seeds don’t know where they come from, they are of no use to our bodies.” photo by Elizabeth Hoover
Brian spoke about Hopi corn teaching. “Let’s continue to plant that seed for our future generation but also keep walking into the prayers of our ancestors that have put those prayers out for us to keep going forward. We have to fall back on our histories of relationships as people. Protect our land, territory, and resources. Perpetuate this knowledge that was given to us in the beginning.” photo by Elizabeth Hoover

The assembled farmers discussed (mostly in English, some in Spanish or Mayan with translation) some of the challenges of maintaining traditional farming practices in their communities: young people go to school where they are taught in English, and mocked for speaking their Indigenous Mayan languages. In general, people don’t respect farmers. When people plant they don’t practice the ceremonies anymore to ask the land permission. An increasing reliance on the wage economy has meant that youth don’t want to help in the fields unless they are paid. The farmers remained resolute in the need to protect and preserve local varieties of corn, and to be more creative in how to get the youth interested in farming. Clayton concluded the day with a presentation about farming and seed banking efforts at Tesuque Pueblo in New Mexico.

Supper the first evening. We were fed three meals a day in the school cafeteria, all consisting of many deliciously cooked corn products! Lots of tortillas, tamales, and atole! photo by Elizabeth Hoover
We were fed so many delicious foods from local corn! Here are some tortillas and tamales. photo by Elizabeth Hoover

The second day of the conference focused on cultural information that people wanted to share about corn, as well as discussions around some of the challenges farmers are facing.

Mario, from Rabinal, Baja Verapaz, Guatemala, represents a community association that is working to preserve their original seeds. Speaking in Spanish with Omar translating into English, he described that their original blue corn is healthier for their bodies, and not as susceptible to the weevil as the hybrid corns. Farmers in his region get more money per acre to sell the hybrid corn because that’s what other people want, but they prefer the traditional corn for home consumption. It is challenging to keep the seeds from cross pollinating, so he saves seeds from the center of his fields. photo by Elizabeth Hoover

Omar’s dad Peter Raquena, from San Pedro Columbia in Belize, described that he doesn’t plant hybrid corn because of its susceptibility to weevils. He advised his fellow farmers that if they plant their corn at least a month, or a month and two weeks apart from when their neighbors plant hybrid corn, it won’t cross pollinate. He was vehement: “We have to go with our local corn, creole corn. Maize negro. It has lots of protein, something good for me to preserve. The GMO is coming around and it’s going to destroy all of our ancestor seeds.” photo by Elizabeth Hoover

Sylvester Tesecum spoke in Maya, with a little English sprinkled in. He’s been growing this corn since he was 18, and he is now 62. This corn doesn’t get weevils. With one of the other participants, Mr. Rash translating, he told the story of the origins of corn: One day a nest of weevy ants had their nest under a big rock. A woodpecker peered down and saw the ants marching one by one carrying white kernels of corn to stash under the rock. The woodpecker went and knocked on the rock, but the rock was too hard for his bill. After pecking all around the big rock he gave up. He decided he was going to need some help if he was going to eat like these ants. So he went to the Chaak, the god, and asked him if he could do him a favor. The chaak began to rumble, ‘tell me what’s your problem’, and there was thunder and lightning. The woodpecker asked him to break the rock. A flash came, bam! and the rock split to pieces. The corn that was underneath the big rock that did not get burned remained as white as this one, the one that did not really get burned remains this one reddish yellow, but the one that really got burned were black. And because the woodpecker was close by when the rock was blasted, that’s why he has a red head. photo by Elizabeth Hoover
Felicita Cantun described how “corn is special to us Mayas— we use it as a food we use it for ceremonies. We use the four colors during ceremonies–red for east, white for north, black for west, yellow for the south. Four colors. Also, the corn is not just food but also medicine. Also we know that planting is mostly done in rows, however when we plan the corn we do not plant them in rows, we plant in spiral, going like a caracol.” photo by Elizabeth Hoover

Terrylynn shared three important Haudenosaunee cultural elements: the creation story, the Great Law that brought together and brought peace to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, and the Thanksgiving Address. She reflected; “if we don’t watch what we eat we will no longer be Haudenosaunee Mohawk people. We will no longer have the DNA of our ancestors. What you eat over time changes who you are.” She described her efforts to keep GMO pollen out of her fields of heirloom corn, planting sunflowers on the edges to try to catch some of the pollen. In the past, she had to turn under a field of blue corn because her neighbor planted GMO corn. She advised the crowd “Fight til you die to keep GMO away from corn. You don’t know what you’re losing, that’s ancestor of life.” As a former teacher, Terrylynn also suggested that teachers create a project where students map and document what kinds of crops and seeds families are currently planting . By creating a database of sorts, the community will have documentation of what they had if multinational corporations and GMO crops disrupt their food systems. photo by Elizabeth Hoover

Eugenio Ah from San Antonio— “Science really is changing the way we are living when it comes to food production, When we’re using chemical and fertilizer, changing how food is being produced.” He reflected on how food like tomatoes that are grown with chemical fertilizers don’t taste as good as organic tomatoes whose plants just feed off of biomass. He also stated, “My goal is food security but a want to add that for me I want to see seed sovereignty then food security. So we can control our source of food.” An important component of that food is corn. “When I’m working there [in the fields] and I come up to the house, I drink corn drink to refresh, I feel all the fibers of my body being charged. At lunch time don’t give me rice or flour tortilla doesn’t hold me down I’ll be hungry right away. I need corn. If you have nothing else I can have fried peppers and corn.” Eugenio is working to train his 10 year old grandson (who accompanied him to the conference) to be a farmer, bringing him along to all of the workshops and trainings that he attends. He relayed a heartbreaking story about attending a career day in Punta Gorda, but none of the students were interested in hearing about farming—they directed all of their attention towards the firemen, police, doctors. “I say anybody hungry? I tell them who is going to feed the policeman, nurses. Everybody went silent. After my presentation I have two small kids beside me. Hurts my heart, I wanted to cry.” He encouraged the parents and educators in the crowd; “We need to look at farming as a career, a calling.” photo by Elizabeth Hoover

Eliseo Curley, a corn grower, sheepherder and weaver from the Navajo Nation, described farming in Shiprock area using river to irrigate. He also told that Navajo story of how turkey saved everyone from a flood brought on by Coyote stealing the water monster’s baby, and then provided all of the colors of corn by shaking them from his by Elizabeth Hoover

Colleen Cooley sharing seeds with Felicita. Colleen presented about the dry land farming her family does outside of Flagstaff AZ. photos by Elizabeth Hoover

Robyn Pailzote from the White Mountain Apache tribe, described how her family does dryland farming, relying mostly on rain. In some places they bury clay pots, which they fill with water that then slowly creeps out during droughts. They pull weeds out by hand or mix black walnut with water to keep weeds out. Corn is one of the few plants that can co-exist with black walnut. photo by Elizabeth Hoover


Brian described how Hopi farmers rely on snow in winter, so when spring comes around they have moist soil to put seeds in. They sometimes plant seeds as deep as 5-12 inches in the ground so that they are able to reach the moisture. The root system reaches down until it finds moisture. When they plant the seed they don’t irrigate because the want the corn’s root to grow downward, to become resilient and strong. photo by Elizabeth Hoover


Clayton described the work in NM to create GMO free zones, as well as the importance of having seeds stored in multiple places in case one is destroyed. He told the story of a farmer whose seed shed was destroyed in a fire, but he was able to get all of his seeds back because he had shared them with all of his neighbors over the years. photo by Elizabeth Hoover

A group of Achi Maya presenters from Guatemala (Mario, Mario, Aura and Reyna) representing the Asociacion Qachuu Aloom “Madre Tierra” presented about their efforts to preserve heirloom amaranth varieties. photo by Elizabeth Hoover

At the end of the second day, the conference broke into four groups to discuss three questions: 1) What is the most important thing that has come up for you at this gathering? 2) What is most important for you as a farmer in your community to get support for? and 3) How do you want to see this move forward? The intention of these group discussions was to inform the Declaration to be written at the end of the conference.

Group 1 focused on the importance of protecting both local seed and spiritual practices, and teaching these practices to the youth; preserving the integrity of local seeds; seeking technical support to create localized seed banks; gain government recognition as a group whose voice should be recognized; form committees to represent their communities and concerns; bring back seed sovereignty by finding and supporting farmers who are keeping local seeds. In their presentation this group also focused on time– resisting the urge to use chemicals or hybrid seeds because they grow faster or eliminate the need for hand weeding. As Mr. Tush, at the conference representing the Agriculture Department (holding the mic) stated, “We need to educate farmers that local and native seeds are the best. We need to bring back seed sovereignty– we need to embed that into us again.” photo by Elizabeth Hoover

Group 2: (Paper held by the village calderon, and Rufus Bol) focused on their concerns about the risk of loss of local seeds through neglect or cross-pollination with hybrid seeds, the challenges and importance of encouraging youth to take up farming; the need to avoid using chemical fertilizers and herbicides because of concerns about contaminating the soil and environment; and the need to develop a local seed bank. They highlighted the importance of teaching future generations, sharing Indigenous knowledge, forming an association of farmers, and drafting a resolution to protect their native seeds. photo by Elizabeth Hoover

Group 3 discussed the importance of saving seeds (including developing local seed banks) and passing them on, but also making it an intergenerational activity– involving local schools to develop curriculum that involves local corn. Participants also reflected on the importance of networking through events like this to share ideas and solutions. The group also discussed the challenges of access to land for some tribal farmers in US and Canada, and the need to lift the spirit and profile of the farmer. photo by Elizabeth Hoover

Group 4 focused on the importance of saving local corn seed every year; sharing the information they learned at this conference with their local communities; and establishing a committee or association in order to host more of these conferences and to present a united front to the government in order to better resist multinational ag corporations like Monsanto. photo by Elizabeth Hoover

A ceremony was held to ask for health and safe passage for all of the participants, and their future crops. photo by Elizabeth Hoover
Students from the school gave a musical and dancing performance. photo by Elizabeth Hoover
On the last night of the conference, the group from North America hosted a small giveaway to thank our hosts. photo by Elizabeth Hoover


At the conclusion of the conference a group was formed, tasked with planning additional events and community statements about the preservation of heirloom seeds. photo by Elizabeth Hoover

The third day of the conference was centered around workshopping the Declaration of Indigenous Corn Keepers Conference (UchbenKah). Janene Yazzie created the first draft based on days worth of notes from the conference, and the group spent the morning reworking it to reflect what they felt were the most pressing issues, and what would be best received among their colleagues. The first agreed upon draft is included below, but should be considered as a living document. Conference participants wanted to take this document home to share with their communities, and to translate into their Native languages.

The conference concluded with a series of field trips, starting with a trip to  field trip to Mr Raphael’s field, planted all by hand. He’s growing yellow corn and three types of beans- kidney beans, black beans, and small red beans. Some of the land was cleared using slash and burn and then slash and mulch for a few seasons. Every 7-8 years he will rotate to a new patch of land to let this land rest. photo by Elizabeth Hoover
Mr. Raphael describes his planting methods to Eugenio, Jose, and Terrylynn. photo by Elizabeth Hoover
This yellow corn was planted October 23 (shown here on January 19). photo by Elizabeth Hoover
Elizabeth, Kollette, Eliseo, Colleen and Robyn in the corn

The next stop was to the Uchben Kaj museum and cultural center and archaeological site, maintained by the community based nonprofit Uchben’kaj Kin Ajaw Association (UKAA). The ancient city was founded around 2200 years ago as a farming hamlet and grew to be a small city that was continuously occupied for almost 1,000 years. Uchben Kaj is Mopan Maya for “the old (or ancient) place”.

Jose Mes gave us a history of the 57 acre archaeological site, and also described the work they are doing to support local farmers, including helping to plant corn and cacao and working to start seed banks. photos by Elizabeth Hoover
The site has 24 stelas, 6 of which are carved. photo by Elizabeth Hoover
Much of the site is still hiding beneath the foliage
and they gave us one last corn snack for the road! photo by Elizabeth Hoover

Many thanks to principal Steven Sho and the students at the San Francisco de Jeronimo Roman Catholic School of Pueblo Viejo for sharing your school with us for the conference!

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