By Patricia Trujillo Ph.D., with NNMC students Joy Dili, Erik García, Evelynne González, Michelle Martínez, Codiee Myles, Shayna Porter, Nicole Soderberg and Tatiana Smith
We dedicate this article to the late Emily “Awa Povi” Martínez from Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo. Joy Dili interviewed Ms. Martínez for the Plant Stories assignment featured in this article. She was an elder who shared important plant knowledge and the Tewa names of plants. She passed away very shortly after the interview. We offer our story to honor our elders and ancestors.
Many of us in the Norte are taught since a young age to give a ceremonial offering each morning. My Pueblo sisters offer corn meal and prayers. I was taught to acknowledge the sun in prayer for a new day; I whisper Ave Marías to myself in the car on my way to work, but I know that my gramita did it through song. We pray to the directions, to our ancestors, to our respective Creator. An offering is acknowledgement that we are part of a bigger world, and the humble action of gratitude pays respect to our relationships that allow us to do good for Mother Earth and her creatures. Our offerings are the introduction to the stories of our day.
But, often in our modern world, even amidst our practices of offerings, we are jolted into our daily positions at work; in my world it’s in the classroom as students and teachers. We attend meetings, strike tasks off of our to-do lists and are constantly moving to the next thing. We grab something to eat in our cars as we move from one appointment to the next, often fueled on sugar and caffeine. Our intentionality can quickly shift. Even if we start the day from a place of process and connection, we can slide into being product-and outcome-oriented. As a college professor, I see this all the time, in the profession and in the actions of students and faculty. We are all going at a hundred miles an hour and forget to connect.
It’s ironic, qué no? College classrooms are supposed to be the place where students prepare for the real world, but often there can be very little connection between the theory and practice of knowledge shared in classrooms to the work happening in the greater community. I decided to be mindful of this in designing a course for Fall 2016, “Writing the Land: Storytelling, Environment and Indigenous Knowledge,” at Northern New Mexico College. In the course, cross-listed between English and Pueblo Indian Studies, students were introduced to writings by indigenous authors from the Americas and asked to consider how storytelling is a decolonial methodology for addressing historical and ongoing struggles for sovereignty and self-determination in their homelands, and how to co-exist with settler societies. As Leslie Marmon Silko writes, “I will tell you something about stories. They aren’t just entertainment. They are all we have to fight off illness and death. You don’t have anything if you don’t have stories.”
In this course, we moved away from single-authored papers as major assessments for gaining knowledge. Students did get to reflect individually in short response papers, but our major assignments were different. Our major assignments engaged in indigenous methodologies of de-centering authors from authority and centering community voice for power sharing. As the Pueblo adage says, “It takes a thousand voices to tell a single story.” For midterms, students in the course were asked to plan, schedule and provide a community storytelling event for our campus. The students designed an event called “Food Stories,” where we invited our campus community to share in a collective understanding of storytelling. Students organized a potluck and invited four storytellers.
The event started with two original songs, “Red or Green” and “My Grandmother’s Kitchen,” performed by Michelle Harvier. One speaker, Richard Sedillo from Ohkay Owingeh, shared stories of growing up with his grandfather, who still used a horse-drawn wagon for farming. The second speaker, Beata Tsosie-Peña of Kha’po Owingeh, shared stories of corn. Lastly, Daniel Chatchou, from Camaroon, Africa, told the group of his food traditions. Over 50 students, faculty and staff gathered for the successful event. Students from ENGL 399 prepared foods near and dear to their hearts and began the event by telling some of their own food stories.
In the reflections after the event, students and participants shared a sense of gratitude. Codiee Myles, a student from class reflected, “I’m proud of what we did. We made this place [the college] feel real home-y.” When we are connected to a place, we have a sense of belonging. So, how do we create more educational spaces that encourage connection, service and sense of belonging?
As we veered into our final project, I knew that we had to put our storytelling to work in the community. Knowing that the organization Tewa Women United was hard at work in the community installing the Española Healing Foods Oasis, I asked if we could use the opportunity to create a bridge between Northern New Mexico College and that community project. TWU was very receptive, and Beata Tsosie-Peña, program coordinator for Environmental Health and Justice at TWU, responded whole-heartedly. She and I co-designed a six-week project that allowed us the opportunity to go out to the garden, brought an indigenous environmental activist into our classroom to share in discussion and actively demonstrated to students the power of such relationships. It established ways to put our literature to work; all these dialogues about the power of story began to be demonstrated in our expanded classroom. All of a sudden, stories were alive and supporting—not only our learning—but TWU and the hundreds of plants in the healing garden.
The final project was to create a story-based gift for the community. Alongside the project, we read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.’ Kimmerer asks, “What else can you offer the Earth, which has everything? What else can you give but something of yourself? A homemade ceremony, a ceremony that makes a home.” In our case, we knew that there is the physical labor of the Española Healing Foods Oasis that community members have volunteered to prepare, plant and care for the garden. We viewed this firsthand on a visit where we held class in the dirt. But, how could we make an offering of our stories?
In conversation, Beata mentioned that over 200 varieties of medicinal or companion plants were included in the garden. She wanted to make sure that visitors to the garden were able to identify and get to know the plants, their usages and their names in Tewa, Spanish, English and scientific. I asked, what if I ask my students to perform research and write the plant stories? We agreed that this would be an important gift that would help build relationships between students and the garden. I set to work and developed an assignment where students had to research and write the stories of five plants they selected. We got the list from the landscape architect. Some students were reluctant to jump in; I heard things like “I’m not a planter. I don’t know which one to choose,” to “Manzanilla! I want to do that one. I use that all the time.” After choosing five, they had to provide the plant name in all the languages mentioned above and write the story of the plant however they chose. It could be formal academic writing, or they could choose to write from the plant’s perspective in the first-person point of view. However they chose to write the plant stories, their responsibility was to provide information to the community and to honor the plants.
Students really got into this project! They hit the library, Google, and even had to perform interviews with native speakers of Tewa and New Mexico Spanish. Not everyone had access to interview resources, so guess what? They had to share and support each other in the work. Students got savvy and began to share sources and books with one another. This was not the classic final-exam paper, where students are forced to write in isolation for an audience of a single professor. No, they were talking to each other, to professors and members of their community. Each had to present their work to each other, and finally, as a group present it as a gift to the Healing Oasis.
Beata, who was along with us for the entirety of the project, helped us reframe the end of our semester from a “final exam” to a final ceremony. Collectively, we decided that our offering would be a “Ceremony to Reconnect with Our Plant Relatives.” The students collated a binder with their stories, organized for easy usage by the greater community. On our last day of class in December, we went out once again to the garden. This time our purpose was to present gifts to the plants and to leave our offerings in the ground. Each student wrote his or her intentions on a sheet of paper, which we buried and blessed with tobacco and sage. We presented our stories and prayed that they will be used to heal pain in our community. And, in the end, we became part of the story of the Healing Oasis Garden. There were some tears, and lots of laughter. But we all imagined ourselves connected to the well-being of our plants, our beautiful healing oasis, and the people who tend and visit there. And isn’t that what stories are supposed to do? All of a sudden, all of these people from various geographies belonged to a new shared place—a new home.
The next time you are in town, pop by and visit the Española Healing Foods Oasis behind City Hall. Spend some time, and read the plant stories. Maybe you’ll find yourself connecting with the plants as well. Until then, be inspired with these reflections by the students in the course:
Codiee Myles: After doing all this research to find out what these plants can do, it really changed my perspective on plants. This made me realize that nature really can provide for us and that not every sickness requires a doctor. Before this project, if I would have seen these plants, I would have thought that they were just weeds and useless. Now I realize that they are much more than that. I hope that whoever gets to read [our stories] about these plants realizes too that they can do much more than what we think.
Erik García: Through our class and the books we’ve been reading I can say I found a deeper appreciation for Mother Earth. I’ve learned to improve my ways. For example, now I can go riding or walking without headphones. I feel the music is a distraction to the natural world. By appreciating the land more, the thought process is to get us to understand the importance it plays on our lives. Once we’ve discovered and gained knowledge, we hope it changes the viewpoint, and [hu]mankind will help save the world.
Evelynne González: The most interesting thing about learning plant stories was that each plant has a purpose in nature, they are all here for a reason, and our ancestors would use many of these plants before medicine was available. I feel that there is a connection from researching these plants’ connections to the Earth because one can imagine cultivating such plants and later boiling a cup of yerba manza root for a cold. We are drinking in all that power. Or when one has a deep craving for nopalitos with red chile, we can just go to our backyard and pick them. There is a great satisfaction that came from learning plant stories, knowing that these plants can benefit the community is satisfying. All it takes is a little dirtywork!
Joy Dili: The importance of plants is that they can teach us more than we know. Their knowledge remains endless, and they survived since the beginning of time; surely this makes them more than experts. The words of my plants were strong, funny, sure of themselves, a bit wild, and they all had passion to give. The gifts that they provide are something I will always respect and be thankful for. I would like to have a better relationship with these plants in the future by planting and seeing them grow. The experience I gained in this class has been more than rewarding, and I’m grateful to be a part of this project. It’s amazing the things you think you know, until you take the time to really understand it from the beginning. We could learn so much from plants. I surely did.
Tatiana Smith: When starting this project I didn’t want to do it. I was like ewww! We have to plant and get dirty?! But after picking my plants I began to bond with them. The very first bonding experience was actually going to the garden and smelling white sage for the first time. That scent created such amazing feelings inside me, and I knew that I found one of my plants. After this project I feel more connected with these plants and the plants my classmates researched as well.
Shayna Porter: Coming from a big city, I never got a chance to understand Mother Nature. After taking PIS 399 I can say that my nonchalant ways of interacting with Mother Nature have changed. Before doing this project I had no knowledge of how important and valuable a plant can be. While I was doing research on the five plants I was assigned, it made me want to change my city-like ways. Instead of taking a hike to get cardio, I can take a hike to connect with Mother Nature. Instead of stressing myself out with worries, I can place my stress or worries onto a plant and ask it to hold it for me. I learned that having a garden and showing those plants love is a spiritual and therapeutic act. Now I feel like I have moral obligation to Mother Nature.
Michelle Martínez: How am I supposed to be a good neighbor/friend if I hardly associate with any plants? This project was a perfect opportunity to change that and I’m glad that I did it. I know so much more because of it. During this research project, I have felt a deep calling to start getting familiar with the plants that we are sharing this Earth with. I have been inspired to become friends with these plants and get to know their names and stories. I would love to know how to identify plants when I walk by and know who they are. I want to learn about how plants heal and also be able to practice it. One of my goals is to plant a New Mexico locust near my house and become close with that plant and learn from it.
Nicole Soderberg: Plants are our healers in so many ways. They help us in healing our bodies to healing our spirit, heart and mind. They live in this same world as we do and share some of the same issues humans have. We are more alike than we think. We must respect the value of taking care of our elders. They have known this Earth for many years and have lived through issues we might not have encountered yet. So we must listen when they speak and help them when they struggle to walk and grow. We must protect them when danger is near and make sure they get to live a full cycle of life. The more I learn about plants the more connected I feel to them. I understand them more and the interconnectedness of Mother Earth and all her beings. As we are out and about in our busy days, plants wait patiently for us to come visit and share a conversation with them. To take time to get to know each other and the world around us is what nature intended.
Patricia Trujillo, Ph.D., is the director of Equity and Diversity and an associate professor of English and Chicana/o Studies at Northern New Mexico College. She was born and raised in the Española Valley. Dr. Trujillo is invested in community-based action research. She serves on the boards of the Northern Río Grande National Heritage Area, Tewa Women United, and NewMexicoWomen.org