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.

just be heard.

Why am I even writing? At first, it was a little bit just wanting to rant. My sarcasm got me a side-job. It was pleasant. But now that I’ve found a niche, it had become much more than that.

I just want to make people think.

You go through your ordinary day except suddenly you recall something I’ve said about the environment or society. You make the smallest change. Those changes add up.

And as far as native awareness goes…I began reposting and writing to spark awareness. It’s working. I’m getting friends posting to my Facebook wall about sports mascots and casinos and membership rights…. There are people liking statuses about racism and “red power” concepts who aren’t native. I know it sounds silly to rely on Facebook….but the reality is so many people are on it and so much information is circulating.

Seriously. I have friends reconsidering their outlooks. I have white and black and Asian friends sympathizing and de-Chiefing and raising awareness. I’m even encouraging a profoundly deaf friend to seek a way of medically assisting the disadvantaged through the IHS because I know she’s passionate about health rights and making a change.

Rag on me all you want for my writing random posts because it’s these little things that spark the mind that encourage the biggest changes. And it’s slowly working 😘

Hawai’i: Vacation or Genocide Museum?

As I sit at Yours Truly at Shaker Square and contemplate whether or not the eggs here were grown on a petri dish, I finish up an article for my column with The Athenian.  I decided to share it on this page because my column is travel satire and this blog is, generally speaking, my satire blog.  The article I’m doing this week is about tourism in Hawai’i.  I have a lot of Native Hawai’ian friends that I met while at AISES National Conference in Alaska last October-November (see my travel blog to read about that amazing trip).  These friends enlightened me on the horrible history behind Hawai’i becoming a state.  All I can do is spread the word and hope that my satirical quip does their Kingdom justice:

 

*****

 

Are you American?  Do you find Hawai’i absolutely beautiful?  Are you dying to go lay on its beaches, drink pina coladas, say aloha a lot, and maybe even surf or see some sharks?  Are you going to show up in a Hawai’ian printed shirt or this cute new outfit that you got just for the beach?  Are you wondering if there will be seashells that you can take some home?  Maybe you’ll run into some celebrities or see a luau?  Can’t wait to wear some leis and start dancing?  Or maybe you want to meet a native on the island.  You know, one of those Americans who were born there or moved there a long time ago.  Right?

Newsflash: Hawai’i wasn’t put in the ocean for American tourism.

Tourism in Hawai’i is a popular thing, but with a very dark history.  People rave about the islands and they don’t even know anything about them, just that there are beaches and resorts.  But that’s not the real Hawai’i.  Apparently no one teaches the history of Hawai’i in school.  (And I don’t mean Pearl Harbor, although that was technically the first attack on “American” soil before 9/11 happened.)  But it makes sense that we don’t learn the real history of what happened in America.  I mean, no one says “The American government committed the greatest genocide in recorded history” because they did (the Trail of Tears).  It’s just like no one says “The American government murdered Queen Liliuokalani in 1893 after throwing her off the throne, then forcefully took the islands of the Kingdom of Hawai’i from the welcoming and unsuspecting native peoples” because they did.  And where is the justice for it?  I guess you could say it rests in the unapproved Akaka Bill.

Hawai’i is probably the only time you’ll hear me say that “a reservation is the solution”.  As horrible as American Indian reservations are – from the reason of their origin to their current conditions – the native peoples of Hawai’i are in desperate need to have their freedoms returned to them.  As my one Navajo friend put it, “There is one line of royal blood in all of America, and that royal blood is Hawai’ian.”  But why did we, as a nation, take Hawai’i?  What justified the evils that were done?  Many argue it was a defensive strategy in terms of military tactics.  Today, Hawai’i is just an enormous tourist population – and the islands aren’t very large.  Imagine living in a small town all your life and suddenly foreigners get the priority on jobs and start moving in.  Imagine that this became a countrywide issue because another government assassinated the president and killed a bunch of people and no one did anything about it.  Imagine the 9/11 site being turned into a casino, a strip club, or an amusement park.  But what does it matter, right?  I mean, what’s said is done… The kingdom is in ruins, the tourism economy is thriving, and we get to eat pineapples.  Oh, drat!  Americans have it so bad.

But don’t let this take away from your long-deserved vacation.  I mean flying to Hawai’i won’t kill any more natives (it will just contribute to the destruction of the planet as a whole, but not segregation in that).  Besides, it’s not like we can change anything now, right?  We can just let the people who care about the Akaka Bill worry about the Akaka Bill.  Isn’t that what we’re told we should do?  Yeah we’re just supposed to let the people who know what they’re doing to fix the problems (like the environment) while we continue to live as frivolously as we’re allowed to and capable of.  In the meantime, let’s indulge ourselves in the American state of Hawai’i and take some awesome cover photos as we lounge on the stolen beaches of the former Kingdom of Hawai’i.  Maybe someone someday will care enough to make a change.