Preserving Native American Food Culture

Grassroots food movements help revive the dwindling Native American food culture.

| June 2014

  • Jonathan Yazze sets up fencing in the arid landscape of his farm. When his father, a well-known medicine man, died a few years earlier, in the Navajo tradition Yazze rested his father’s fields — literally leaving plants, gear, and tools where they lay — for two years. His farm, in the back country of the Navajo Reservation, came back to life in the spring of 2011.
    Photo by Jason Houston
  • Rose Marie Williams (at right) visits with her aunt, Tsosie Hyden, in Pasture Canyon, an oasis-like wash several miles outside of Tuba City, where year-round springs flow from caves. Access is difficult, but Rose Marie and others are testing crops here, eager to take advantage of the fertile soil and natural irrigation.
    Photo by Jason Houston
  • Rose Marie’s husband, Dan, sells corn from their truck just off the main road into Tuba City.
    Photo by Jason Houston
  • As part its effort to support local farmers, DINÉ, Inc., helps with marketing and infrastructure. For DanRose Farms, that help included replacing small signs fixed to cardboard boxes with more visible, permanent billboards.
    Photo by Jason Houston
  • As part its effort to support local farmers, DINÉ, Inc., helps with marketing and infrastructure. For DanRose Farms, that help included replacing small signs fixed to cardboard boxes with more visible, permanent billboards.
    Photo by Jason Houston
  • Tyrone Thompson is the farm manager at the North Leupp Family Farm, a community program providing land, education, and basic infrastructure, like irrigation, for members who want to grow their own food.
    Photo by Jason Houston
  • The focus of the Summer Harvest Festival is on traditional offerings like kneel-down bread, which is cooked throughout the day over hot coals buried in the ground.
    Photo by Jason Houston
  • The Summer Harvest Festival brings together people from within the Navajo communities, as well as from the outside.
    Photo by Jason Houston
  • Most of the food for the Summer Harvest Festival comes from the farm members’ plots, like the North Leupp Family Farm.
    Photo by Jason Houston
  • A photo on the wall of Carl Honeyestewa’s home shows his great-grandfather Yukioma, one of the founding elders of Hotevilla, site of the famous Hopi terraced gardens.
    Photo by Jason Houston
  • Carl and his father, Luther, tend several plots of land between Tuba City and Hotevilla, growing corn and a variety of melons.
    Photo by Jason Houston
  • Traditional Hopi corn comes in diverse varieties and colors.
    Photo by Jason Houston
  • In Moenkopi, just outside Tuba City, Carl points out the seasonal run of water through a nearby wash, which provides some irrigation.
    Photo by Jason Houston
  • Further out from town, where there is no available ground water, the Honeyestewas use traditional dry-farming techniques, conserving water from the occasional rains in ways that will sustain the plants for the entire season.
    Photo by Jason Houston
  • "Reclaiming Our Food" by Tanya Denckla Cobb explores and explains the motivations and theoretical models that are leading the way to transforming our food system.
    Cover courtesy Storey Publishing

Over the last decade a food revolution has taken place: more and more people have changed they way they eat and what they eat, turning increasingly to local food sources. In Reclaiming Our Food (Storey Publishing, 2011) by Tanya Denckla Cobb tells the stories of people across America who are finding new ways to grow, process and distribute food for their own communities. The following excerpt from "Food Heritage" discusses several grassroots food movements that aim to revive Native American food culture.

You can purchase this book in the Capper’s Farmer store: Reclaiming Our Food.

Reviving Native American Food Culture

Farmers of the Navajo and Hopi

In the high desert plateau of northern Arizona, the Navajo and Hopi people tended gardens and livestock for hundreds of years, using inventive dryland farming techniques. But over the past century, as bureaucratic policies have redistributed land and water, and as young people have left the reservation and Western culture moved in, the once thriving farmlands have dried up, and with them have gone not just age-old agricultural knowledge but an entire cultural tradition. Here, though, in a place where — perhaps as a microcosm of larger society — the growing disconnect between people and land threatens the basic foundations of community, we find oases of growth and hope.

One spark of the grassroots movement to reclaim tribal food and agricultural traditions is Navajo rancher Rose Marie Williams, who is working to resurrect her grandfather’s farm, running cattle and sheep and tending fields of corn, melon, squash, and other crops, with the help of her husband and children. She is an outspoken advocate of traditional Navajo farming techniques, and she passes along her enthusiasm and knowledge at local schools, conferences, and community meetings.

Williams is not alone in her mission to preserve tribal knowledge and build community resilience on the reservation. Jonathan Yazzie, another Navajo farmer, whose family’s long farming heritage goes back for generations, is now working with DINÉ, Inc., a nonprofit using education and community outreach to support Navajo communities and revive tribal heritage, including the techniques of dryland farming. Like Williams and Yazzie, Carl Honeyestewa, a retired U.S. marine and one of the dwindling number of Hopi farmers, practices traditional dryland farming methods, keeping his tribe’s agricultural legacy alive in a time when the entire Hopi culture is endangered. And the North Leupp Family Farm, a Navajo community farming project not unlike many others around the country, works to rebuild connections between people and land, engaging communities in growing food to supplement the family table, finding respite in gardening, and rediscovering a sense of place.



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