Who could imagine that a potato might be one of the most compelling reasons to validate and protect Utah’s two threatened national monuments?
A native potato recently discovered by two university researchers is showcasing just how much value and potential there is in listening to Native wisdom as we grapple with the environmental, social, and economic challenges of our times.
This native potato tied to indigenous farming practices dating back 11,000 years is a celebration of, and a plea to keep intact Utah’s two national monuments, Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears. Both are under review by the Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. This potato illustrates in scientific and indigenous terms how important Bears Ears is to Native people, and it also helps us understand how important traditional knowledge is to the stewardship of public lands.
Researchers Lisbeth Louderback and Bruce Pavlik at the University of Utah came across potato starch residue on an 11,000 year old grinding stone. Soon after, they found S. jamesii growing in Grand Staircase-Escalante. They were led to Bears Ears National Monument, where more populations were found.
Amazingly, this potato species (Solanum jamesiiS. jamesii) is shaking up western scientific understanding of indigenous farming and is confirming what Native people have always known. Of course, everyone knows that tribes have long consumedthroughout the Four Corners region as one of our nutritious traditional foods, but this research helps to confirm the sophistication of our pre-colonial civilizations that Tribes have always recognized. We know our value through our ceremonies, arts, and our deep understanding of the world around us. We also know we traded extensively across North and South America. Furthermore, we still know how to find, harvest, process, and cook this tuber in our traditional ways. Indigenous wisdom thus extends and enriches western science, rather than the other way around.
These researchers validate and prove that Pueblo people knew how to cultivate this species despite the complex scientific understanding required to propagate and ultimately conserve this valuable species.
Perhaps most remarkably is the humility and good faith of the University of Utah researchers towards Tribes. They acknowledge that it is the Native Americans who properly stewarded this potato over the millennia. The potato would not exist in Bears Ears or Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments today if Tribal members had not travelled by foot, and developed the knowledge for cultivation. Furthermore, we do not yet know if there might be Pueblo gardeners still growing this potato with traditional cultivation methods., but now that this conversation has begun, we expect to find out.
Most importantly, the aim of these researchers is to gift the potato back to the original Native stewards. We are grateful for this, and will encourage indigenous farmers to share this gift with all Americans. Reclaiming local traditional food systems helps tribes heal from past wounds and respects our intellectual property by allowing us to lead our own cultural revitalization as sovereign nations.
As a scientist fluent in traditional knowledge and the scientific method I value the strengths of both cultures. I learned from my Native American elders that food is central to life and touches on spirituality, culture, art, and family across all cultures. My grandpa, a Navajo medicine man taught me the importance of our indigenous food heritage, including the physical health of the individual and the well-being of the land. When I was a child, he introduced this potato to me as, “ƚeeyi’ naa’mááz” which literally means “rolling underground in the soil” in the Diné language.
Native Americans are still here. We embrace the values of traditional knowledge as science. Our greatest contributions to society are long-awaited and are yet to be realized. Bears Ears gives hope to the next generation that we might one day be heard and included in land stewardship practices across America. Tribes are our Country’s greatest experts in how to live sustainably on our Mother Earth.
I ask Zinke and President Trump to give our wisdom a chance to blossom and bear fruit similar to what we are beginning to see in this little potato. Please listen to our indigenous truth. Allow the wisdom of this landscape to nourish our minds and bodies for generations to come.
Secretary Zinke, please demonstrate as much wisdom in your executive report as our native potato is teaching us, and leave Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments alone.
Cynthia Wilson is the Traditional Foods Program Director at Utah Diné Bikéyah. She was raised in Monument Valley and holds a masters degree in nutrition from the University of Utah.