by Karen Reichhardt
Native Seeds/SEARCH (NS/S) is honored to celebrate the life of an extraordinary woman and seedkeeper during this year’s Women’s History Month. Laura Kerman (1895-1999), a Tohono O’odham woman from Topawa, Arizona, is recognized as an influential resource and inspiration during the founding and early years of our organization. Some of the first seeds in the seedbank were donated by Laura and her family. With their help we were able to locate seeds disappearing due to decline in farming. She was a beloved tribal elder who shared her knowledge and culture.
Laura often described herself as being “born before we knew the years had numbers”. Her life began living a semi-nomadic lifestyle in grass houses centered along perennial streams in the Baboquivari Mountains. Later her family moved to Topawa where the government built wells and charcos, in a settled lifestyle of ak-chin farming and ranching. Her family helped build San Solano Mission in the early 1900s. As a young girl she attended Phoenix Indian School for about two years until her father brought her home on horseback. Though she traveled widely, her life was always centered around her home and farm in Topawa. She held jobs on and off the reservation, including with Dr. Robert H. Forbes, a renowned professor at the University of Arizona, with whom she worked for many years. Laura described Dr. Forbes with great respect as an innovative plant explorer, professor and politician. Another influential person Laura’s life was Father Bonaventure. “Ventura” as Laura called him, employed Laura as a catechist on the reservation. In retirement she travelled with clergy, including around the U.S. and to Rome representing her tribe at cultural events and as an ambassador to her nation.
We met Laura prior to founding NS/S when she was in her 80s, retired and energetically pursuing pottery, ceramics and storytelling. She welcomed friends near and far to her door, enthusiastically sharing her culture and storytelling with children and adults. Examples of her pottery figurines and photographs of her lifestyle are part of the collection at the Arizona State Museum.
On a warm evening during NS/S’s first fundraising event on San Juan’s Day in 1983 at the Tucson Botanical Gardens, Laura sang a rain song and then raindrops fell. She talked about that evening for years. For more information about Laura Kerman, read her memoir recorded by NS/S founder Karen Reichhardt and published in the Journal of the Southwest (Vol. 61 No. 3 autumn 2019).