Meet Reyna Banteah, a farmer from the Pueblo of Zuni, and hear how she conserves treasured seeds to cultivate a more resilient, community-led future. Words and Photos by Abigail LaFleur-Shaffer. Additional photos by Nate Francis.
I’m sure the thought of endangered animal species has crossed your mind a time or two; but have you ever thought of the extinction of a plant species?
Meet Reyna Banteah, a seed saver, farmer, and founder of Ts’uyya Farm in Albuquerque, New Mexico who continues a long lineage of conserving treasured seeds of native plants and medicines, saving an integral part of Indigenous culture that we now have the privilege of accessing.
Reyna is from the Pueblo of Zuni, a community and culture that has a deep agricultural history. The Zuni settled along a river where mountains meet desert landscape; a rugged terrain that bred steadfastness and strength in the Native plants and people to endure and adapt as nature takes its course.
Reyna is most inspired by her culture’s focus on community; before what we know today as single families being the heads of households, Zunis were focused on communal living, “through extended family raising each other’s children and helping each other out…And the same thing goes with agriculture,” Reyna explains.
“A lot of families invited other families over to help with planting or harvesting; it was coming together to complete their tasks—that’s what inspired me in this. The hard stuff becomes less hard when you have others helping you. And the same thing goes with raising children or learning your language. There are others around you to help you learn all of the different things that we used to know how to do.”
Reyna wears the Hurricane XLT2 sandals in Black.
Reyna’s passion for seed conservation initially sprouted through her participation in a Zuni sustainability program where she spent most of her time cataloging seeds. Through this process, she organized seeds by detailed descriptions of where the seed was derived, variety and origin, germination rate, growing conditions, and sometimes watering and irrigation notes.
Seed catalogs are an important resource for us to learn about seeds as they are passed down through generations. The program continued to shed light on the lack of farming in Reyna’s community. Reyna grew up observing older generations of farmers and farming for other purposes (such as alfalfa for cattle), but not many from the younger generations were taking on the role of growing food for the community. And like dreamers and doers do, Reyna saw an opportunity to begin a farming program.
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Through integrating Indigenous and modern farming practices with a focus on seed conservation, Reyna hopes that her farm will be one of many collaborative community farms that reconnects people with traditional agriculture, especially within her Zuni community.
When Reyna walks onto her plot of land, she finds calmness, as if she’s discovered nature’s secret place. As Reyna tends to her crops, nurturing each plant and getting her hands into the dirt, the hours seem to pass by as swiftly as the hummingbird gathering its food from each flower. Working in the fields isn’t easy, the days are hot and difficult, but despite the sweat and muscle that go into producing a harvest, Reyna finds peace in seeing the fruits of her labor. Even though the work is hard, it’s rewarding as it strips away the worries and stress of the outside world.
When seeds aren’t planted, they can be forgotten. Reyna is driven by the important effects that seed saving can (and will) have on her community. “It comes back to how we’re taking care of ourselves and making sure we’re eating the right foods, more culturally appropriate foods. It’s important because we had this diet made up of our traditional crops for millenia and when we diverted from that, our community started becoming unhealthy,” Reyna said.
And that is what drives Reyna—continuing her passion to make sure people, especially those in her community, live healthy lives and return to their traditional way of eating, as well as the traditional and sustainable process of saving and planting seeds.
Reyna wears the Hurricane XLT2 sandals in Black.
Taking land from Native people and the devastation it caused for different Indigenous communities was not only a “loss of land, but also a biodiversity loss, a loss of water, a loss of access to formal hunting or fishing grounds,” Reyna said.
“Food sovereignty is building the resilience of a people or a community to take back some of that knowledge and also to take back our own systems of making sure that we are healthy, without outside influences. The more we practice our own traditional knowledge, the more we can appreciate and learn that we do need our land, we need clean water and the access to all the things we used to have,” explains Reyna.
She expresses deep gratitude for her seeds and their yield, “It’s really cool to see how giving seeds are.” Despite our human impact on this earth, the earth still generously gives; plant one seed and over time, through care and nurturing, that one seed will produce thousands of more seeds, thus sustaining us, as they have been for centuries.
“I see the impact that agriculture has on different Indigenous communities. Once you get communities established where they know they can take care of themselves by growing their own food, it’s easier for those communities to start taking back other forms of knowledge, thus increasing their land-based knowledge. Cultural survival stems from agriculture and from taking part in caring for the land.”
Watching the life cycle of plants is like watching life and death in shorter cycles. Each growing and harvesting season, Reyna transforms into a new farmer as she gains new insight observing her crops, her seeds, and how they adapt to their surroundings. Sometimes that can result in a small harvest, yet Reyna finds solace in learning which seeds will withstand and will produce despite its environment, in preparation for her next growing season.
“Anything you put in the ground, you just have to have faith, as you continue to nurture and care for it,” Reyna shared. “Rebuilding our agricultural resilience that has carried us forward to this day—and will need to be carried on for our future—is what inspires me.”
*For resources to dig deeper into Indigenous farming, Reyna’s recommends checking out Rowen White, director and founder of Sierra Seeds and a Seed Keeper from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne; Permaculture Skills Center to learn more about regenerative land design; Traditional Native American Farmers Association whose mission is to revitalize traditional agriculture for spiritual and human needs, by creating awareness and support for Native environmental issues; and Hopi Tutskwa Permaculture, a community Indigenous-led non-profit based in the Village of Kykotsmovi, located in Northern Arizona on the Indigenous Hopi Reservation.
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