When you live in a land of little water, a trickle is a big deal.
On the sprawling Hopi and Navajo reservations of Northeastern Arizona, farmers for centuries have been relying on nearby hills to irrigate their crops—using the water that falls on nearby mesas, rushes into rocky arroyos, and then fans out into strategically placed corn and squash fields to water the crops.
So when Ashley John rides her horse into the arroyos above her house on the Navajo reservation, the sound of water that some might think of as a flash flood is really a blessing. On a late summer afternoon, she follows the water down into her family’s fields below, where a flock of sheep runs out to see what the activity is all about. A late August rainstorm lightly wets the soil at their house, but a full-blown gully washer somewhere a few miles into the hills is what the corn needs this time of year as it sets kernels and hardens into starchy dry or flint corn.
Ashley is a young farmer, planting gardens on the Rez with a youth program in Dilkon, Arizona, where she is teaching young Navajos to reclaim their agricultural heritage growing corn, beans, squash and other food crops.
Archaeologists say tribes have been growing corn, beans and squash together, the legendary “Three Sisters” of native agriculture, for perhaps 5,000 years. In some regions, other crops native to the Americas were grown as well: cotton, in particular, which the Pueblos learned to spin into yarn and dye with local wild plants.
Later, after the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, the Southwestern tribes added crops from the old world–melons, primarily, but also others–and in some cases began adopting European farming techniques.
“To this day, we use a mix of our old ways and the new ways, when it comes to agriculture,” Earl Tulley, a Navajo cultural activist, said.
In the Navajo creation myth, it is the turkey that brought seeds into this world, known to the Navajo as the fourth world. All the creatures of the third world were climbing up into this world through a ponderosa pine to escape a flood, and the turkey was the last to emerge through into the fourth world, because the gobbler was busy picking up seeds so the Dine’ could bring their traditional plants into this world.
“These aren’t stories like Cinderella,” Earl Tulley explained. “This is the history of our people.”
Since emerging into this world, the Navajo people have been saving seeds of these crops, the three sisters and others, to pass down through the generations. Interestingly, there is solid archaeological evidence that tribes have kept domesticated turkeys for over 2,000 years, making the turkey the only animal (other than dogs) domesticated in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans.
Over the centuries, the seeds each group of people saved became their own. The Hopi and Navajo, for instance, both grow a winter squash, Cucurbita argyrosperma, known as a kushaw/cushaw or a “tail” squash because its shape has a body and a tail. It is eaten when young like a summer squash, or allowed to ripen until autumn, when it becomes a good winter squash. Both Hopis and Navajos have traditionally grown a blue hubbard type of squash as well (Cucurbita maxima). In other nearby tribes, such as the Picuris and Taos pueblos, pink and blue hubbard types were grown and preserved over centuries.
Beans, too, are native to the Americas. When the Spanish arrived, there were thousands of varieties of bean being grown by tribes across the two continents. Taos Pueblo grows a red bean similar to a kidney, and the Pojoque Pueblo has many bean varieties. The Hopis have grown black, pink and yellow beans for generations.
In many ways, the tribes held on to their native agricultural techniques and attitudes. For instance, Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, a cultural preservation specialist with the Hopi tribe, talks about how Hopi farmers won’t thin peaches on a tree, because each peach that exists is a perfect gift from the Creator. “Every peach has a spirit,” he said. “Our farming culture is totally different, in the sense of our connection to the natural world.”
These days, though, the pressures of the modern world have reached even the most remote area of the nation’s biggest reservation. Television, convenience stores, junk food and Hollywood have all infiltrated modern tribal life.
And with that, the diabetes rate went through the roof. Earl Tulley, who works as a senior development co-ordinator for Navajo Housing Authority, said one of his goals in coming years is to bring traditional Navajo agriculture back to the reservation. As modern life came to the Rez, many tribal members moved from traditional mud-floored hogans into more modern, but often cheaply built, homes built by the Navajo Housing Authority. Interestingly, the tribe has an official policy that it does not allow gardens in NHA housing developments.
It’s not usually enforced, Tulley said, but not many Navajos are still growing gardens in the housing units. “Everywhere you go on the Rez it’s just carbs and sugar,” he said. “If people can just begin to see, you put a seed in the ground and then you have food, we could change that.”
“Food is medicine,” he said. “Everything is interconnected. What we consume becomes our flesh.”
Tulley is hoping to help inspire a revival of agriculture on the Navajo reservation, which he says is currently being led by older people who have retired and are trying to come back to the land. For the most part, he says, they start over with those three sisters.
Pulling into the Basha’s grocery parking lot in Pinon, Arizona, in his light blue 1986 GMC truck which he uses to commute for his job, Earl pulls up to chat with Wilfred Begay, an elderly Navajo man selling ears of roasted corn out of the back of his pickup. Begay grows the white corn 17 miles north of the Basha’s grocery store in a very small community called Burnt Corn, Arizona, where he also has blue and yellow corn. The white, he says, is best for “thez shi bezh,” which translates as “cooked in earth.”
Begay says his family digs a hole in the ground and lights a fire, usually of juniper or pinyon wood, and lets it burn down to ash. They then throw in corn detritus–stalks, husks–and a bit of dirt. Last in is the corn, which is then covered by dirt and left to steam overnight. The technique differs from the similar Spanish food known as “chicos,” in which corn is roasted overnight in an above-ground earthen oven called an horno. Many of the Pueblo tribes to the East have adopted the horno technique, but Begay says the Navajo way is his favorite.
“The Mexican way doesn’t taste as good as the Navajo,” he said, through a translator.
Rattling on down the road, Earl and his sister, Polly Bitsui, take visitors to the home of his uncle, aunts, cousins, who all grow corn and other crops in the washes around Pinon. Corn is always the main crop, acres upon acres of it, but the edges of the corn fields are reserved for other food–beans, squash, and many melons.
His mother, age 92, who lives in a home with Earl and Polly’s niece, wants to come with us to a relative’s house , where they are making “kneel down bread,” the traditional bread made from fresh milky white corn. There, they talk about finding a stash of half-century-old corn seed that belonged to their father, which they planted and found would still grow. That corn is now being turned into kneel-down bread in the wood ovens.
Later, the family takes everyone out to the fields where the corn was picked. Good summer rains this year meant their field had been flooded and muddy for weeks, so they hadn’t been out to the field in two weeks.
“We just came out one day and realized the corn was ready,” Dorthea Prsalabaa said. The family, all together, plants the corn and tends the corn. But they never watered it and never fertilized it. They let the sky take care of that part, the ancestors.
“My grandpa is buried up there,” Dorthea’s son Skinny Smith said, waving toward the pink, juniper-studded cliffs in the distance, overlooking the family corn field. “Before he died, he always said he would look over the corn plants. He was buried in 1973, and the corn has grown well ever since then.”
Kristen Davenport is a farmer, herbalist and writer living in the Rocky Mountains outside of Taos, New Mexico. Raised in Roswell, she worked for newspapers across the Southwest — including several years on the Navajo reservation — before settling on a 20-acre family farm. Now, Kristen and her husband, Avrum, are raising two kids and growing garlic for Baker Creek Heirloom Seed, and growing vegetables and herbs for markets around Northern New Mexico.