Preserving Native American Food Culture

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


| June 2014



Jonathan Yazze preserves native American food culture on ancestral land.

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

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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