Past Projects: Cultural Memory Bank

Cultural memory banking, a term coined by anthropologist Virginia Nazarea, recognizes the intimate link existing between human cultures and their crops. In the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico, farmers are the keepers of many traditions. Unfortunately, they are becoming a diminishing force in many communities. Fewer and fewer youths move into the agricultural sector, choosing instead to pursue educational or job opportunities elsewhere. Thus, the knowledge associated with planting, cultivating, harvesting, and using the crops long associated with these cultures is at risk of being lost. Though seed banks conserve germplasm, they do not typically also conserve the traditional knowledge that develops over generations of agricultural practice – knowledge that would enrich our understanding of how a crop was cultivated and utilized within a community and hopefully provide critical insight on managing these resources for future generations.

In the late 1990s, NS/S undertook to expand our seed bank efforts to include a cultural component, integrating cultural information – the agricultural practices, stories, songs, and recipes associated with specific crops in the seed bank – with our existing database of collection information. In effect, we would combine the geneticist's concern for conserving unique traits of a crop with a folklorist's concern for conserving oral history about the crop.

We started by returning to interview farmers from whom early collections of seed had been made by NS/S staff. From August 1997 to 1999, trips were made to interview Navajo, Mt. Pima, Tarahumara and Tohono O’odham farmers and elders. We asked each farmer what types of crops they grew, how each was grown, how they located their fields and knew when to plant, how they chose which seeds to save for planting and how they were stored from year to year, and how each crop was used, including cooking techniques and recipes.

As originally intended, the CMB would have been primarily an in-house resource, accessed via our computers. But information gleaned from conversations before, during and after the interview process suggested an alternative application: the information we were gathering was of most importance to the communities with whom we were talking! That is, it was more critical that Native American farmers and youths learn about their own agricultural traditions than it was that NS/S document them. Thus was born the idea of refocusing the goals of the CMB project in such a way as to ensure that the information we were collecting would go back to the communities that would benefit most from that same information.

Agricultural Traditions of the Diné CD-ROM

As a model, we designed a computer program on Navajo agriculture that would be used exclusively in schools on the reservation to introduce students to the rich heritage associated with Navajo agricultural traditions. The CD would integrate artwork by young Diné artists, audio recordings with Navajo elders, graphics, images, interviews and bilingual text to demonstrate what crops have been traditionally utilized by the Navajo and how they were planted, harvested, and cooked.

In 2003, the Agricultural Traditions of the Diné CD-ROM was completed. The CD was presented at the 15th Annual Navajo Studies Conference held in October, 2003 at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. An ideal venue for sharing the CMB project and making it available to educators, the conference promotes studies of Navajo language, culture, history and all aspects of Navajo life, fosters involvement of youth and elders in Navajo studies, encourages collaborative research among and between Navajo and non-Navajo, and encourages the preservation and perpetuation of information about Navajo life.

Future Applications

Though it made sense to focus initial efforts on ensuring critical information regarding care and use of traditional crop resources was in the hands of those to whom it matters on an every day basis, it remains important to NS/S’s stewardship capabilities to incorporate relevant cultural information into our own database and management strategies. Thus, we come full circle. The next steps in our CMB project are those originally envisioned – developing database capabilities for the photographs, audio recordings, cultural information, recipes, songs, etc. that are associated with specific crops in the NS/S collection. Through no effort of NS/S’s, many projects to record traditional knowledge and cultural information important to the long-term survival of language, cuisine, agriculture, songs and traditions have been initiated and/or completed since we began in earnest with the CMB. We applaud those efforts and encourage additional ones.

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