Barney Burns is an anthropologist devoted to preserving the culture and agriculture of the native tribes of Northwestern Mexico--the Mayo, the Yaqui and especially the Tarahumara. He and his wife, Mahina, run a wholesale business called Unknown Mexico, through which they travel to the Sierra Madres and interact with the people there, buying their crafts and importing them to our country for sale. Burns is also the co-founder of Native Seeds/SEARCH, a local nonprofit that collects, distributes, produces and preserves unique varieties of Southwestern seeds that native peoples have used for centuries. He'll lead a tour of the Tarahumara region this April to benefit the organization. (The tour is currently full, but the waiting list is short--call 887-2340 to get on it.)
How did you first get interested in the native tribes of Mexico?
You won't believe this, but it started when I was six years old. A photographer in my home town in New Mexico showed a film that he'd made in Tarahumara country, and so I became aware of the people there. Over the years, I occasionally saw them in Juarez, Chihuaha, where my mom and I would go to visit friends and shop. Then, when I went to college, I started reading about the Tarahumara in the library. And in '69 I made my first trip into their region to watch the Easter ceremonies. In those days, you needed a four-wheel drive, and it took eight to 12 hours to get to where they live in the high Sierra Madre Mountains. The road was full of mud and ruts--it was just terrible. Today the trip takes about an hour and 15 minutes.
How did you start Unknown Mexico?
Right after I started traveling to Tarahumara country, they told me stories about how people had starved to death or frozen that year. And I said to myself, there's no reason for this to be going on because this culture is so rich. So I started importing their crafts into the U.S. First, we did some museum exhibits, and through those exhibits we developed an interest over here, and now Tarahumara crafts are popular all over the country. But back in '69 it was a real challenge to introduce them. I was the first person to do it.
How does your business help the tribes whose crafts you import?
Well, it's very fortunate that we exist because during the last 13 years, the Tarahumara have experienced a prolonged drought and a lot of the people have been forced to leave the mountains and go into the cities looking for work. But thanks to the money we bring in for them, those who are craftsmen have been allowed to remain in the mountains and buy the food and supplies they need--things like sugar, coffee, cloth and metal goods. They're farmers and they grow corn, beans and squash, producing 95 percent of their food, but they don't have cotton cloth and they don't know how to make metal, so they have to purchase knives and pots and things to live and work.
What does Native Seeds/SEARCH have to do with all of this?
We're a genetic seed bank that preserves adapted varieties of crops from the greater Southwest (including Northwest Mexico, of course). In the regions where the Tarahumara and Mayo live, many varieties have been lost because of the droughts. So we're trying to get the seeds back to their communities. We also solicit monies from various agencies that we invest in our Treasure of the Sierra Madre project, which helps the people improve their gardens, construct nurseries and reclaim eroded farmland. It's critical for craft production, because the Tarahumara weavers are dependent on sotol plants for making baskets. They were worried about overexploiting these plants, so we're teaching them how to germinate them. We have a project manager who's been living with the Tarahumara and speaks their language--he's been in the mountains for 15 or 16 years now--and we've planted tens of thousands of sotol seedlings. It lets the people not have to move to the cities and beg.
Tell me about the tours you lead, especially the one coming up.
The trip is to acquaint the participants with the geology, biology, history and anthropology of Northwestern Mexico--to show people why the region is so critical to the modern world. This particular tour is filled now, but we'll probably do another in the near future.
Anything else you'd like to talk about?
Well, it's interesting that Native Seeds/SEARCH's most popular seed is a unique variety of basil that I and my mother discovered in New Mexico, and we used to grow it since the early '50s. It's called "Mrs. Burns' Famous Lemon Basil," and it's now popular all over the world. Actually, 50 pounds of it have been sold to a company in Europe, so somewhere in France or Italy people are eating a Southwestern seed variety in their pesto or salads or soups or God knows what. I use it in hamburger meat.