November 2014

The Traditional Native American Farmers Association


Healing Mother Earth through Traditional Knowledge and Wisdom


Malin Alegria


Formed in 1991, the Traditional Native American Farmers Association’s mission is to “revitalize traditional agriculture for spiritual and human need.” The idea is that if we revitalize traditional Native agriculture we will contribute to stabilizing Native communities in three ways: offering economic opportunities for self-sufficiency through sustainable, natural and cultural resource development; rebuilding a means for cultural transmission while reclaiming damaged eco- and social systems; and creating a healthy organic food supply while restoring plant and animal biodiversity to Native lands.

At the beginning, we were trying to rebuild as cultural survivors,” says Clayton Brascoupe, TNAFA’s director, from his cool adobe home/office on the plaza of Tesuque Pueblo, near Santa Fe, New Mexico. “I teach by telling stories because that’s how I learned. I’m Mohawk, but I wasn’t raised in the Mohawk community. I was raised in my grandmother’s home in upstate New York. She was born on an Iroquois Reserve in Ontario but moved to her husband’s reservation. Iroquois communities have been divided by an international border since the Revolutionary War.

My grandmother had all kinds of stories. She told me stories about her life, her community and everyday things. Sometimes, she would tell stories about how those communities used to function and how they would support and care for one another. I started to notice remnants of community social networks around me. But it was all fractured because of wars, disease, loss of lands and outside religious influences. My grandmother talked about how they would organize and assist one another in agriculture and other things. Traditional Iroquois people, within those communities, still function somewhat within those social frameworks. Mutually beneficial relationships also exist in nature and can be found in the Iroquois agricultural method of ‘intercropping’ known as the ‘Three Sisters Garden.’”

Farming seemed to be the foundation of those social frameworks,” Clayton recalled. “When I was young, the community was experiencing a loss of a lot of land. A hydroelectric project was taking the best farmland. There are pictures of ladies in the early 1950s lying down in front of bulldozers, trying to prevent homes and farms from being flattened. The loss of lands was but another blow in the disintegration of our community’s social fabric. That vision always stayed with me and interested me. How do we reclaim and rebuild a sustainable community utilizing traditional knowledge and culture? Whenever the older people talked, they described this picture about how people supported and cared and needed each other. Everyone in the community—young, old, men, women—shared responsibilities. And though I could see it crumbling around me, it was my idea that I wanted this for myself and for my children and grandchildren.”

When Clayton and his wife, Margaret, first started their family, they intentionally sought out traditional elders, farmers and groups to learn how to rebuild healthy, sustainable families and communities. This calling sent them all over the United States, Canada, México, and to Guatemala and other parts of Central America to collect stories and traditional agricultural and living practices. These stories opened their eyes, and they integrated them into their own family.

Now, 20 years later, the annual 13-day training Clayton and Margaret offer in Indigenous Sustainable Communities Design is a continuation of their journey. The course is a testament to Clayton and Margaret’s vision, love and dedication to heal and rebuild harmonious communities. Guided by a variety of knowledgeable teachers, the course allows students to experience and relearn a traditional social framework of being. It is designed to demonstrate how various disciplines should be integrated into a living system. It builds the capacity of the participants to design and implement sustainable projects and to rebuild farm or restoration programs in Native communities, both rural and urban.

The design course provides intensive training in ecological design, natural farming, seed saving, traditional food and nutrition, indigenous women in agriculture, alternative energies, passive solar design, earth building, earth restoration, natural healing and restoring community through midwifery. Using a permaculture approach, the course works with nature’s model of sustainability and diversity. It starts with farm and garden designs, composting and soils. This leads into seeds, seed saving, growing for seed and, then, traditional foods and nutrition.

As cultural survivors, this desire to heal and rebuild resonates with indigenous people from all corners of the Earth. Individuals have traveled by air from Brazil, Belize, Canada, Colombia, Venezuela, El Salvador, and Guatemala and on foot and bus from Copper Canyon, México, the U.S. Southwest, and other states in search of the Earth knowledge offered by this intensive training. Many students have gone on to create jobs, environmental-restoration projects, community agricultural projects (urban and rural), seed-saving programs, seed storage (“libraries”) and women’s health nutrition projects.

Everyone who participates in this two-week course is forever changed.

Each day I feel closer to the whole group, and I’m not wanting to leave! It’s really throwing me off to be here. It’s making me question what I’m doing back home. What can I do better? What do I still have to learn? How can I be a better resource to my people? How can I do more? …It’s awesome to see that we’re all here for similar reasons: to relearn our traditions, to serve our Creator, to retake our place as stewards of the land. There’s a deeper learning that’s taking place here than just that of the book or specific knowledge of permaculture design and techniques.” – Arlo Star


For more information, visit or contact Clayton Brascoupe at TNAFA is an Affiliate Program of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples.


Malin Alegria is a writer, educator, Aztec dancer and wannabe farmer.


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