misconceptions about Navajo food

Written as extra credit for Mr. Vecenti’s NIS 226 Navajo Nation Government class.

Last Saturday, June 4, I was about to do a presentation in Window Rock to the Navajo Nation Youth Council. I had received an invitation from a fellow member of Generation Indigenous, Triston Black, who that morning was elected as President of the Youth Council. My presentation was a proposal to start a Navajo Youth Working Group on Climate that will be modeled off of the EPA National group I’m a member of and which can be used to provide feedback directly to National environmental policies and programs. Food sovereignty was one of the bullets in my many topics the group could discuss and research. Before I managed to give my presentation, Vice President Jonathan Nez stepped into the room to discuss food sovereignty and the importance of gardening. He invited us to his Vice Presidential house after our meeting for a cookout and to see his demonstration.

I carpooled over to the event with my friend Chris Brown, a graduate of Yale University who came back home to work in the health programs with COPE. Chris was telling me some of the gardening initiatives he has been a part of with COPE. I knew COPE was involved in food sovereignty topics, having gone to a conference in the fall at the Tribal Museum, but I hadn’t realized to what extent they were promoting the same ideas. I told him about the AISES initiative I was helping write grants for, a collaborative community garden project through Navajo Department of Agriculture at the Navajo Nation Fairgrounds. Apparently my group isn’t the only one talking about using that space for a community program. However, the project is stalled to the point that we are only doing periodic demonstrations and plantings at the Ag building while we await approval for in-kind surveying services on the garden site.

When we got to Mr. Nez’s house, we were asked to sit with our food and listen to a number of speakers representing different groups. Mr. Nez again addressed us, stressing the importance of family building through gardening, of eating healthy, organic, non-GMO foods, and of buying and selling Navajo-produced rather than importing. He proposed many adjustments to the system. One of the women in the gathering told me she had helped push the “Junk Food Tax” through in recent years. Everything they said I agree with, yet I couldn’t help but notice the sugary Brisk teas and sodas, bottled water, bags of chips, pizza, and mutton stew. At least there were vegetable trays and someone cut a watermelon, but all of the food came with Basha’s bags and labels. I’ve shopped at Basha’s before and know how limited the green section is, let alone the organic, and most certainly let alone the non-GMO section. I found it mildly hypocritical to preach one thing while eating another. I mentioned to Mr. Nez the La Montanita Co-op in Gallup, a place that sells local, organic, non-GMO food – and a lot of vegan products – in a crammed store. He had never heard of it, but Chris had and he told him the directions.

When we were done eating, we learned that it was time for us to do the next plots. We were shown how to plant a “Lasagna Style” garden. Although we were all in nice clothes (and someone even had on heels), we picked up the tools and began digging shovel-deep. In sections, we removed dirt, piled in the lasagna ingredients, then moved the dirt from the next section onto the top of the first, continuing until the whole row was completed. The layers included laying down cardboard and wetting it, then adding various mixtures of straw, manure, pine needles, compost, and these mysterious handfuls of ash and what they referred to as “protein” to make the soil rich. Mr. Nez stressed how wonderful the soil is on the Navajo Nation and how we need to be growing crops. I wondered how many kinds of crops he’s tried growing in the sandy, alkaline soil…where any moisture gets whisked away immediately. This environment definitely requires certain crops that know how to thrive here.

As we completed the lasagna garden and planted kale, melon, and other seeds in the beds, Mr. Nez showed us the various holes being dug to the west of the garden. These holes were in a square array with a few feet of separation between holes. They were layering these holes in the same way. He explained this is where the corn, squash, and beans were being planted in a Three Sisters style garden. He then helped cleaned up the area, and I noticed that some of the workers were throwing their watermelon rinds into the lasagna layers. However, Mr. Nez was collecting all of the trash and throwing it into the same bin. Someone noticed that their recycling bin had become a trash bin, so people worked to separate again. Before we left, with seed samples provided by Tolani Lake, I asked Mr. Nez if he had spoken to the Department of Agriculture. I told him about the demonstrations there and how they have an enormous list of programs doing this kind of work. He said he wants to see it at schools and in more communities; I asked if he had talked to Carole Palmer because she has been a part of starting many of these gardens at schools all across the Reservation, and she knows dozens of other organizations doing the same. He didn’t seem like he knew what I was talking about.

This morning, I saw Chris’s picture on the Native News Online feed and realized our gardening day has been published on the national media. I glanced through the article and saw, yet again, the mentioning of a Three Sisters garden and how Mr. Nez has this new vision for the Navajo people. While I absolutely agree with his vision – about wanting to control the food system, getting Navajo produce in the Basha’s stores, fighting diabetes and obesity through a more traditional diet, etc., I couldn’t help but be frustrated on many levels. I am definitely impressed with how active Mr. Nez is and how he has popped into more than one of my meetings in the several months that I’ve lived in the Window Rock area. He is constantly on the move. I believe he does leave a positive impression with the youth. I also believe he is hasty to push his programs without doing his research, and I had a long conversation with people in already-existing organizations who reiterating everything I had thought.

I learned that Mr. Nez was already offered a list of all of these community projects in existence, but he either didn’t look at the list or refused to take it when it was offered. He has this attitude like people aren’t already doing this work whereas the work is being done, we just need help from someone like him to expose the work and support it. One of the largest problems with these projects is they tend to die. There is motivation for only so long, but keeping a project sustained is the issue. It’s more of a lifestyle change and less of a project fad to make these initiatives last. Another huge issue I see is this disconnect; for example, Mr. Nez preaching about very specific foods, then serving another. Or how he was throwing away watermelon rinds in the very same garden he was promoting compost. How else do nutrients get back into the soil if we don’t promote it? Fix nitrate all you want with crop types and rotations, but soil depletion is still a real thing.

Most significantly for the Navajo people, the types of foods and styles of gardening is something that is clashing significantly. Even in Mr. Nez’s garden, his use of the Three Sisters model is infuriating to many traditional farmers and educators. I have seen this model planted in schools as well and have been asked to dispel this myth. This style of gardening is specifically Iroquoian. While many tribes used companion planting, Three Sisters very distinctly refers to the New York region of the country – quite the opposite to where we were here in Arizona. You know this is true because even the various seals used within Navajoland demonstrate the four sacred crops. Yes, corn, beans, and squash – of varieties native to this region – are part of those crops. But tobacco is being left completely out of the picture. To me, that’s almost sacrilegious to leave ceremonial tobacco out of traditional planting initiatives on Dine Bikeyah.

To follow this last point, planting corn in a square is also something completely foreign to the southwest. The Hopi are known to have planted their corn in spirals. There was also the importance of where you plant, and before land ownership was a practiced thing on the Navajo Reservation, crops could be planted where they best thrived rather than wherever a particular owner of a plot of land could arrange to have a garden. This included planting corn in areas known to flood, or also planting peaches in canyons such as in Canyon de Chelly where the walls protect the trees from the awful winds this area is prone to, particularly in the spring.

Finally, there are a few conversations I don’t hear being discussed enough when it comes to food. I feel like so many demonstrations happen for planting, but how many happen after the planting is done? How many harvesting, canning, or seed-saving talks are given? Will Mr. Nez be doing this as well? And, most importantly to me, what about the Navajo traditional plants? This includes knowing the names in Navajo of the plants (which we were not given at the demonstration) and knowing the traditional medicinal plants. When I give my talk at the Chinle Science Camp this coming Monday, I will be stressing these exact points. Most importantly, I will try to instill in the kids the need to view food as medicine, and vice versa. Some plants are more clearly for caloric or nutritional purposes than for healing, but there are places where the two completely overlap. And realizing mutton, frybread, and certain other dishes are not in fact Navajo in the genuine ethnic sense I think is important to reconsider how the diet here has changed so rapidly.

I don’t mean to undermine the efforts Mr. Nez is making because I know how easy it could be to just sit there as the Vice President and not engage with the community. He obviously is very active in the community. I just wish he would listen more to the community, to the projects we have going, and to the experience we have before trying to promote a “new thing” that is in fact very old and popular. With his help, however, we could potentially really turn around a lot of projects, unite the community, and dispel many of these myths and bad practices I have mentioned. I will continue to reach out to him about the activities already happening, whether through the youth or not, and hopefully there will be a change for the future of Navajo food sovereignty.

Urban Gardening

I’m from the country.  My family, like most, rarely buys a lot of produce from the grocery stores.  Most of use grow our own produce.  When we are short on something – or if we simply don’t grow it – we trade with surrounding farms.  For example, my land grows a lot of blackberries, but this old man down the lane has his own cherry tree.  We swap fruits to make pies quite often.  Right next to that man is a sweet corn farm with the best corn I have ever had – much better than our own grown-in-poor-top-soil, small corn.  That we pay for with cash and there is always a crowd.  And the farmer’s market?  Biggest event I’ve ever seen.  It’s more of a trading post than a market.  But at home, even meats and eggs are obtained differently.  A lot of people have their own chickens and their own eggs; my family can’t keep chickens with our coyote problem, so we sometimes swap hot peppers or pattypan squash – our best crops – in exchange for a dozen.  In the fall, our swap becomes homemade applesauce or pear dumplings from our orchard.  Meats?  Well, most everything we have is venison, pheasant, or salmon – things we hunted and cleaned ourselves.

That’s what I grew up to know.  Now that I live in Cleveland, my world is has been flipped completely upside-down.  The people beside me grow tomatoes in pots.  They bought the tomatoes at a store.  I just don’t get it!!!  At home, we start everything from seed in our greenhouse then transplant things.  And it’s not uncommon for us to haul buckets of water when the well goes dry or when our only hose is tangled over a few acres in the other direction.  No, in Cleveland, I got in trouble for planting corn.  I planted some flowers and the groundskeeper ripped them out.  I was made fun of for growing plants.  I was beside myself.  Other people had flowers, but apparently my grow-yourself-dinner concept was some taboo “hippie” notion to the man next door.  Unbelievable.

Looking at Cleveland – or any city at all – makes me a little sick inside.  I think of all that asphalt, all the buildings which have destroyed greenspace and plastered it with an impenetrable cover.  In fact, it is this exact disgust that got me into Civil/Environmental Engineering.  It started in 9th grade when my friend made a speech about her grandmother being an architect.  Apparently she designs a lot of green roofs.  Green roofs!  The perfect solution to replacing what a building has destroyed, assuming that your building doesn’t taper and that your roof is the same surface area as your foundation.  Green roofs are simply roofs made into gardens.  They can be somewhat complex, however, because you have to plan for soil depths and how to deal with drainage and root penetration on your roof materials.  Here are some pictures of green roofs in existence today:

Chicago

Portland

Dearborn

When I was on a design team last year, my group got to redesign a building on campus in Cleveland.  I submitted a design for the roof that included greenspace, walkways, and even a greenhouse!  The building is very close to our campus wind turbine, so I included anemometers and other weather testing equipment that would be useful for scientific study.  I also proposed that the greenhouse be used for biological and pharmaceudical research, and that tests be done on growing different kinds of plants under different roof conditions.  Here is a shot of my roof:

But back to the guy next door who reported my corn-growing to my landlord: I decided he had no business calling me out, but that maybe I wouldn’t plant in the front yard anymore.  Instead, I took a look at the back of the building.  There is no grass at the back – it is completely asphalt.  We park on it, but there is a section behind the garage that is completely useless.  No car can go in and out of it, yet it’s paved over.  Gross.

I found the solution, though.  Why not make raised beds?  It’s the same idea as a green roof, but on the ground.  So I went and bought several planks of wood, nails, and tools.  I decided to do it the hard way and used handtools only.  I used a hand saw to cut through several boards, then nailed the boards to form two rectangular frames.  My brother suggested that I line them to trap the soil, so I bought landscaping mesh, hand-stitched pieces to form a wide enough swath, then used pushpins to tack in the lining.  I filled the boxes with a mix of peat moss, top soil, and manure, then added some moisture beads (because being over asphalt would make the beds a lot hotter and drier).

I started a lot of seeds inside during March, April, and May.  It was a tough year to start this experiment because we had snow and frost clear into May.  Nonetheless, I got a lot of things to come up from seed.  When it was time to transplant or directly sow the seeds, I took them outside.  Here is what managed to survive the weather on my first attempts…

This is my backyard garden, cleverly utilizing the useless asphalt space:

This is the left garden up-close:

This is the right garden up-close (with some basil plants on a salvaged milk crate):

Here are some storage blocks I salvaged from the trash, anchored with zipties, and used to hold some of my basil plants:

I planted broccoli and brussel sprouts together, but the rain off the roof blasted the seeds out of the ground.  I think only the broccoli took seed – and it’s kind of scattered.  But the cabbage moth likes it!:

I love portulacas, so I planted them and some poppies (which bloomed out already):

Marigolds have natural pesticidal properties.  We used to use them on the organic farm I worked for last year (Squire Valleevue, CWRU).  I planted seeds throughout my garden:

The sunflowers in the back will give nice blooms and then seeds in a short time:

They also provide stalks for my green beans, planted in a pot balanced on the frame, to grow up on:

My peas are taking over the ground of the right bed:

I planted cucumbers in two hanging baskets, then hung them on the fence behind the garden to vine:

My tomatoes didn’t do very well and only one plant survived, but here it is in a pot:

My peppers most certainly did the best.  I started bell and a hot variety pack from seed, and I’m just now learning which ones I have.  Look like anaheim, cayenne, and… we will see!:

Yesterday, I harvested three anaheim peppers and some fresh basil.  I bought a few more ingredients from the local market and made vegan (and gluten-free) stuffed peppers.  ( For more on my recipe, read my post at http://heartsmartandpennywise.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/vegan-stuffed-peppers )

I had tried to grow a lot of herbs and was going to barter with them.  Sadly, they didn’t do very well.  It’s difficult to keep everything watered.  Obviously, the plants in my asphalt garden need to like full sun… but I still planted things that prefer shade.  Those I put on my porch.  Check it out:

My hanging baskets are just for looks.  I planted some begonias and salvia.  The salvia are doing especially well:

Unfortunately, I went on vacation for about a week and my plants didn’t get watered.  When I left, they were thriving.  I came back to find most of them dead (like my parsley and lavender) or almost dead (like my vegetables).  My beets are doing okay:

But my radishes are clinging on to life:

And my carrots are… well they grew so well and now they’re all dried up and dead:

My lettuce has been very frustrating… I planted seeds about three times now.  I see the problem, though.  There are bugs eating them!  The devils were crawling over the soil when I took the picture:

I love bleeding hearts, but my plant only had one flower this year.  It’s not doing the best.  Hard to keep them watered enough:

These are the cute little pots I tried growing my lavender seeds in:

I put up a string of lights for atmosphere to go along with my windchimes, unvisited hummingbird feeder, and solar-powered butterfly light (which you can see in the picture of my porch above):

Not a complete success… but certainly not a failure!  This project gives me something to do and makes me feel good about living in a city.  More people should get involved in urban gardening!!!  Soon I hope to dedicate a page or whole blog to Cleveland: restaurant reviews, farmers markets, and green projects.  Speaking of which…

There are more ways to be chic in the city than just urban gardening.  For example, check out http://www.freshwatercleveland.com/features/furniture111110.aspx to read more about this chopping block I have:

This block is made from recycled wood!  I was given this by a Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA) studen who lived with me last summer.  I’ll have to write about recycling efforts in Cleveland with another entry.  Cool stuff!

Hope you enjoyed this.