Pauma Tribal Farms

On the drive to Pauma Valley, it’s wise to slow down on Cole Grade Road. Not just because there are two hairpin turns as the road drops eight percent, but because a perfect, panoramic view appears for only an instant at the top of the first bend: blue sky, straw-colored hills, a valley flush with sage- and olive-green fields. At sunrise, clouds hang low over Pauma Valley as if it were a theater set, and the scene is bathed in early morning light.

It’s in this valley where Chairman Temet Aguilar, the passionate and visionary leader of the Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians, is hard at work.

“My title, ‘Chairman,’ is an artificial construct that was set up by the federal government,” he says. “It has nothing to do with our traditions and our way of life. But we’ve massaged it using our customs and traditions, which are what the Tribe has relied on every day to survive and become successful—not just economically, but in terms of regaining some of our sovereignty. And most importantly, to regain a foothold on our land.”

The Pauma Tribe recently acquired 140 acres of land contiguous to the reservation. “We own all the land from Highway 76 up Reservation Road now. If you’ve ever been to Pauma, you know the road. We now own both sides. And we’re not even close to being done.”

The 140 acres is mostly orange orchards, adding 14,000 trees to the 30,000 the Tribe already had. This year, they plan to appoint a Tribal Councilmember dedicated solely to maintaining Pauma Tribal Farms.

On the farms, Pauma members are also growing avocados, grapefruits, lemons, and limes, and have recently planted olives and grapes. Pauma Gardens, in partnership with Solidarity Farm, produces seasonal vegetables, and members are learning how to grow food there. “This is just the beginning,” says Chairman Aguilar. “There are other lands and possibilities that will really open up our opportunity to exercise our food sovereignty.” 

To once again have sovereignty over their foodways and exercise self-sufficiency in fulfilling nutritional needs, determining health outcomes, and overseeing land management practices, is something Pauma and all Tribal communities have universally fought for for generations. It is a long-awaited moment of healing, liberation, and reclamation.

The Chairman recounts his childhood on the reservation, being raised in a one-bedroom trailer on commodities, the food the federal government provides each reservation. “Food high in fat content, all canned, nothing fresh,” he recalls. “There’s a problem when food is made more for profit than it is for nutrients. That’s why we see a high prevalence of obesity and diabetes in our communities.”

It’s a bitter irony that a global pandemic is just what the Chairman thinks will flip the script in Pauma’s favor. “We have seen pandemics before,” he says. “This is nothing new to the Tribes. You’re talking to people who haven’t forgotten that the U.S. government tried to exterminate us through viruses.”

“But it’s during this pandemic,” he continues, “that people are finally waking up to things we have always known. I’ve told the Council that this pandemic has proven one thing to us as Natives: that our traditional way of life is the way. On our reservation, nobody goes hungry, and nobody is left homeless, pandemic times or not. Can any other city, state, or nation say that? I’ve visited cities where elders and children are left on the street. Our people don’t go hungry and they aren’t left homeless because that is our way of life—and we are not wealthy. It means we’re doing something right.” 

Investing in agriculture is another instance where Chairman Aguilar knows that Tribal ways will protect his people in a way that mainstream, profit-driven thinking can’t. 

“The first investment we made in agriculture, years ago, was a farm that was losing money,” Chairman Aguilar remembers. “They wanted $1 million for it. As an economic development project, that wasn’t going to work. But to us, we saw all the value. That’s the beauty of the Tribe. We don’t do everything just because it has to make a profit. We do things because we know they’re the right thing to do—and it pays off.”

Chairman Aguilar welcomes non-Natives to join Pauma in reconnecting with the land and rethinking what makes a resilient society. As a professor at San Diego State University and Palomar College, he tells his diverse body of students, “Native history is your history, if you are here. If you plan on always living here and raising your children here, why not know its history? Why are we talking about European history? There is a history—and you have a history—here.”

Allies are core to the Chairman’s vision. Allies in farming, in land stewardship, in helping tell the Tribe’s story using new technology and a bold media footprint. And allies in simply realizing that there is much to learn from Tribal ways. 

“Without allies, our opposition is too big. There’s too much money and power out there that will push our Tribes around, even with our status,” says the Chairman. “We’ve seen it. We saw a pipeline go right through the Dakotas, until there was a different administration. Those were sacred lands, and they knew the pipeline would leak, and still it went through. It only takes one billionaire to change the game with big industry.”

All around San Diego County, there is no question that agriculture is at risk. But not so in Pauma Valley. If we have any hope for preserving agricultural land and sustaining food production for the true long term, it’s by uplifting and expanding projects like Pauma Tribal Farms, and listening to Tribal wisdom on resilience.

“During chaos is when change comes,” Chairman Aguilar says. “This is our opportunity to reclaim our place. Learn who and what we are, again. Reconnect back to the land. It’s a rough project, believe me, but we have some very strong  members, employees, and allies on our side. Our story is about our survival, and our resistance. And our people are very good storytellers. We’re so good, that we’re still here.

“I don’t care if we have to buy back our land, acre by acre—I’ll buy it back, if that’s the means for doing it. It’s not so Indians can have more land. We want to bring balance to this region by providing jobs, providing opportunities for youth to learn about agriculture. We should have never lost our connection with food in the first place. We won’t lose it again.”

Temet Aguilar is the Tribal Chairman of the Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians. The Pauma people and their ancestors have lived in Pauma Valley and surrounding area since time immemorial. Pauma Tribal Farms encompasses 300+ acres (and growing!) of citrus and avocados, and 32 acres of olives. The team holds a vision for sustainable, diversified economic development and integrating conservation practices into all aspects of their agricultural enterprises.

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