Tohono O'odham lecturer addresses tradition

By Michael Eilers

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Anjelo Joaquin, executive director of Native Seeds/SEARCH and activist for the Tohono O'odham Nation, will present a lecture titled "Preserving Agricultural Heritage" Jan. 21, the first in a series of free lectures presented by the Arizona State Museum.

Joaquin has worked with the Tohono O'odham on a variety of issues, including the establishment of water rights, housing on the reservations, and the conservation of Native American beliefs and rituals. He also founded the Walia festival, a yearly festival celebrating the social dance music of his people.

Wildcat: What is the primary purpose of Native Seeds/SEARCH?

Anjelo Joaquin, Jr.: (The intention is) to preserve genetic diversity through conserving traditional food crops of the Southwest. We have 1,200-1,300 species of crops which are collected, grown and cultivated. About 200 species are offered to the public through a catalog. Maintaining crop diversity is important because a difference in genetics may mean the difference in a crop's survival in the future. Desert plants are specifically adapted to the climate, "selected" for this environment by both nature and agriculture, and we don't want to waste the hard work of the native farmers of these lands.

WC: Could you briefly describe what you're going to talk about during your lecture?

A.J.: Traditional floodwater farming methods, the sacredness of water and land to the O'odham, and intellectual property rights. Indigenous groups are finding that people have exploited their knowledge and traditional teachings for profit, and are becoming concerned with ways to prevent this exploitation. An example is pharmaceutical research, which often involves researchers asking indigenous peoples about their traditional knowledge of medicinal plants. If they use this knowledge to "find" a cure or medication for an illness, the pharmaceutical companies make billions, and the people get nothing. Plus, there is usually a "run" on the plant, which endangers the species. People are also incorporating Native American symbols into their artwork and designs for profit, not taking into account the fact that these symbols have a cultural and spiritual meaning for their original creators. Patents and copyrights require proof of an idea's uniqueness and its author, but traditional knowledge is passed down through generations, and doesn't have an author, so those methods aren't applicable.

WC: Why do you think it is important for students to attend this lecture series?

A.J.: We hear the word "biodiversity" used quite a lot, and people have to learn that cultural diversity is every bit as important. Different perspectives will be offered, and students should attend and learn from them.

WC: In the Southwest, there are many examples of conflict between sacred lands and economic interests, such as the O'odham struggle for water rights, or the controversy over the Mt. Graham telescope project. How should these conflicts be resolved?

A.J.: As long as people come to the table with an open mind, and hear the perspectives of the different groups, then the discussion can begin. Often people on both sides aren't prepared to do that. Both sides must have open minds.

WC: Like the majority of my fellow students, I don't speak the same language, tell the same stories, or live on the same land as my ancestors from just three generations ago. Why is cultural preservation important to your people, when so many Americans seem willing to shed their ancestral ties?

A.J.: The "himdag," which means "way of life," is a set of beliefs which guide the O'odham through their lives' experiences. It is a set of beliefs handed down from generation to generation, and it helps us understand why we are unique, and have a unique perspective of life. Because our reservation is so huge, about the size of Connecticut, we have been isolated from the impact of the dominant culture, and this has allowed us to continue our traditions. One of our goals is to preserve the O'odham language, which we're doing by teaching it in our schools, beginning in the first grade. Because the language is so closely tied to the himdag, it is essential that the language be preserved. Many words don't translate to English, or from English back to O'odham. The language makes (the transmission of the himdag) possible.

WC: What can you tell us about the Arizona State Museum's exhibit on American Indians, titled "Paths of Life: American Indians of the Southwest"?

A.J.: "Paths of Life" is a nontraditional exhibit, in that the Arizona State Museum brought together a panel of Native Americans and asked them, "What do you want people to know about you?" When you walk through that exhibit, you are receiving information about what the people themselves thought was important for you to know.

Anjelo Joaquin's lecture will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 21, in the auditorium of the Center for English as a Second Language on the UA campus. Call 621-6281 for details.

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