Navajo Wild Plants

In American Southwest Indian traditions, like for the Navajo and Hopi tribes, wild plants from the region served a variety of purposes and were of great importance.

  • Baya Meehan, a Navajo tribal member from Copper Mine, Ariz., gathers pinyon in the autumn. Pinyon nuts—from the Pinus edulis tree—were a staple food crop for prehistoric tribes, such as the Navajo, Hopi, and Pueblo, who inhabit the Southwest.
    Photos by Kelley Fowler
  • Navajo Oliver Whitehair and his daughter Rita Whitehair gather juniper berries for food and medicine.
    Photos by Kelley Fowler
  • Marcella Tulley, age 92, mother of Navajo activist Earl Tulley, remembers gathering cota for medicine, tea and dying. Cota–Thelesperma species–makes a beautiful deep orange red dye, which the Navajo have traditionally used to dye wool for their world renowned blankets. Cota is also used as a kidney medicine in Western herbal traditions, and it is used by the Navajo to settle an upset stomach. Its flavor is similar to a green tea, but the liquid is usually dark orange.
    Photos by Kelley Fowler
  • Baya Meehan gathers pinyon in the autumn. Even today, in good pinyon years, it is a big sustenance crop for the Southwest. It is also a cash crop – in Santa Fe, a pound of fresh roasted pinyon nuts sells for $25.
    Photos by Kelley Fowler

In Hopi, it’s called “talasi.” In Navajo, “tata-deen.” In the Navajo and Hopi traditions of the American Southwest, corn pollen is a sacred substance, used in ceremony.

But before there was corn pollen, there was cattail pollen.

“Cattail pollen is maybe even more powerful,” Arnold Clifford, a Navajo ethnobotanist who chronicles Navajo plant use on the reservation, said.

The wild plants of the Southwest have been used for millennia by native tribes of the area—mostly Navajo and Pueblo tribes, including the Hopi, who are related to the Pueblo people. Many of those plants are still used today, in conjunction with the plants the people began cultivating when agriculture (including corn) came to the region via Central America an estimated 5,000 years ago.

How the ancient people discovered the process of getting the most nutrition out of their corn is unknown, but it turns out that corn is a food that lacks niacin, because its niacin is bound up.  When you mix that same corn with an alkaline solution of lime or ash, its nutritional profile is improved—niacin becomes available to the human eating it, and the amino acid profile of the corn is improved. This process, called nixtamilization, also can drastically increase the calcium content of corn.

The science is complex, but the bowl of blue-corn mush is not–and nearly every household that makes “hopi word” or “thos-cheen” uses some fine juniper ash (typically made from burned greenery of nearby juniper trees) added to the water with the blue corn. The alkalinity of the ash improves the nutrition of the corn, but Polly Bitsui, who has been using this process for decades, says for her, it’s about flavor–thosh cheen isn’t thosh cheen without the juniper ash.



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