maker of: the Pueblo Food Experience
One day, when she was in her twenties, Roxanne Swentzell paced a barren corner of her grandmother’s land at Santa Clara Pueblo. She was a homeless, single mother of two, but this patch of earth with nothing but an unpaved road running through it would be hers. “I literally came out in my pajamas and drew foundation lines in the dirt,” she says. “I started building a house. Every brick.”
More than three decades later, she sits at her dining room table, sipping lemon ginger tea. “It’s not a perfect square,” she says, surveying the earthen walls around her. “It’s rough, but it’s a good house.” She’s cultivated many things in this place: a family that can fill this long table, a body of artwork that adorns her walls and graces numerous museum collections, and a lush food forest that casts a green glow through every window. Today, Swentzell describes a treasure that she’s been nurturing just as long, but that has only recently revealed its true powers.
Not far from the house, there’s a low adobe structure with a cool, dark room inside. Shelves holding hundreds of glass jars line the walls. It’s Swentzell’s seed bank, a vast library of traditional Pueblo crops that she’s cultivated for many seasons. These foods are no longer staples of the modern Pueblo diet, and a number of them are in danger of going extinct.
Two years ago, Swentzell and a group of thirteen Pueblo people from around New Mexico drew upon her living archive. They radically altered their diets, only eating foods that their ancestors would have consumed before colonization. The experiment was called the Pueblo Food Experience, and it had a dramatic effect on the bodies—and minds—of its participants. This summer, Swentzell and her collaborator Patricia M. Perea published The Pueblo Food Experience Cookbook (Museum of New Mexico Press), a remarkable chronicle of their journey.
“I’m into cultural preservation,” Swentzell says. “I’m interested in how indigenous cultures of the Southwest survived, whether it’s the crops we grew or how we made buildings, shoes, pottery, language. Every aspect of it is my interest.” She founded the Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute in 1987 with Joel Glanzburg, her husband at the time. For ten years, they worked to build a sustainable homestead, creating a balanced ecosystem of diverse flora in the harsh climate of the high desert.
I was growing out this food and saving it, but people were not eating it anymore. It was just this museum of seeds
Flowering Tree, which operates as a nonprofit, has mounted numerous educational projects aimed at furthering Pueblo traditions and strengthening communities. Swentzell teaches a variety of skills at workshops and gatherings, including the art of pottery making. She descends from a long line of Santa Clara potters and used the medium to communicate as a child, when she struggled with a severe speech impediment. Now she owns the Tower Gallery in Pojoaque, where she exhibits her bronze, clay, and glass sculptures, along with works by her daughter Rose B. Simpson and other artists in the family.
The seed bank has become one of Flowering Tree’s most monumental undertakings. For a time, Swentzell struggled to find a contemporary purpose for the project. “I was growing out this food and saving it, but people were not eating it anymore. It was just this museum of seeds,” she says. “As everyone raced to McDonald’s and Walmart, I was preserving these old crops year after year. I would say, ‘How long can I do this? What’s the point?’”
About four years ago, Swentzell’s son Porter came to her with an intriguing idea. He’s a lifelong scholar of Pueblo history and culture who is currently an assistant professor of Indigenous Liberal Studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts. In his research, he’d been piecing together the main components of the Pueblo diet before the arrival of European colonists. “At that point, Porter was having health issues,” Swentzell says. “The doctors were telling him, ‘You’re heading for a heart attack. You’re not doing well.’ We would say, ‘Well, how did they cook back then? What if we could eat that way now?’”
They conducted the first manifestation of the Pueblo Food Experience over several weeks, with Swentzell as the cook and her son as the guinea pig. “His health improved very, very quickly,” she recalls. They felt like they were on the edge of an epiphany, but they didn’t record any of the results, and Porter soon returned to his regular diet. Two years later, they engaged thirteen Pueblo people of all ages for a second phase of the project. This time they had funding from the Chamiza Foundation, the Santa Fe Community Foundation, and the Silicon Valley Institute. All of the participants received complete physical examinations before the experiment began.
“The doctor did live blood tests for us,” Swentzell says. “You could see your blood moving and working in action. It was fascinating—and heartbreaking. I left crying after I saw my blood cells, because they were all clumped and clustered. They looked like they were struggling, and the doctor told me it’s because they weren’t able to properly digest the meat I was eating.” Some of the participants hadn’t seen a physician in years, and it was a reality check that launched them into the three-month diet.
Most of the participants lost between fifty and a hundred pounds, and a variety of conditions, such as diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, depression, and autoimmune disorders, were under control.
The Pueblo Food Experience Cookbook records the simple diet that the program’s participants vowed to follow. For grains, they ate three varieties of corn, along with amaranth, quinoa, Indian rice grass seed, and purslane seed. For protein, there was buffalo, elk, sheep, a variety of fowl and fish, beans, and fried grasshoppers for a crunchy snack. Squash gets its own section of the book, but there’s also prickly pear pads, dandelion greens, Rocky Mountain bee weed, and other veggies.
Most of the recipes in the cookbook feature just three or four of these ingredients. There are instructions for making tamales and tortillas, a butternut squash soup with turkey broth, an elk casserole, and a rabbit stew. The drinks section features sunflower coffee, squawbush lemonade, and a berry veggie smoothie. Desserts made with amaranth flower and grain-based snacks such as popcorn round out the diet.
Over the first few weeks, the participants experienced simultaneous bouts of sickness. “It went in waves,” says Swentzell. “Each time we felt like, ‘Wow, I feel good! I’ve never felt this good.’ We were getting all of that poison out of our bodies. Layers and layers of it.” Together, they battled sugar cravings and swapped tips on crock pot cooking. The group met for potlucks every two weeks and watched each other with amazement as their bodies transformed. As the experiment continued, they challenged each other to follow traditional methods for gathering food. They went in on a local buffalo and harvested the meat, and Porter took them on an ancestral pilgrimage to Estancia Basin to gather salt.
“It’s reconnecting to what you eat, so it’s not just this packaged object,” says Swentzell. “These crops belong to Pueblo people, and they’ve been here for thousands of years with us. They’re very adapted to our bodies. We’ve been eating foreign food, and if we continue eating foreign food, we will actually genetically change in maybe five more generations. We’ll literally be different things.”
This was the breakthrough of the Pueblo Food Experience. Swentzell says it gave the participants an understanding of how their bodies fit into their ancestral environment—down to a molecular level. At the end of the experiment, they returned to the doctor and found that their health had drastically improved. Most of the participants lost between fifty and a hundred pounds, and a variety of conditions, such as diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, depression, and autoimmune disorders, were under control.
“After those three months, my blood cells were spread out and moving around. They were happy,” says Swentzell. “We proved that our bodies fit our old food better. It becomes medicine.” It’s been two years since the first round of the project. Several of the original participants have continued to follow the diet, and other groups have taken the challenge. Swentzell estimates that she follows it “ninety percent” of the time, and she’s still experiencing the benefits of it.
Now, with the cookbook in hand, she’s reaching out to her own tribe and other Indigenous communities to spread the word. “We’re still suffering from colonization. There’s a lot of pain and trauma working its way through the tribes of this country,” she says. “Our bodies have been colonized in more ways than just the land. The food is an invasion. Let’s take ourselves back.” Swentzell has challenged friends from other tribes to identify their ancestral foods, and conduct their own experiments. “What’s your original diet?” she says. “Everybody has a genetic code to food. Do it and tell me how you feel.”
I ask Swentzell if the Pueblo Food Experience fits into her art practice. Perhaps she sees herself as a sculptor of communities or the leader of a communal performance art piece. She laughs and turns to a small bronze sculpture that sits between us on the table. It’s a Native figure, cradling a tea candle in its arms and bearing a serene expression. “My art started as a way of communicating to people, so it’s a language,” she says, picking up the piece. “I need to communicate, so I make art. I need food, so I chose this diet. I need shelter, so I built this house. The culture is what puts it all together.”