A version of this article appeared in Indian Country Today in September 2012.
This has been a great year for gardening,” said Randy Chatto, left, coordinator of the ERNEH Project: Empowering Ramah Navajos to Eat Healthy Using Traditional Foods, in northern New Mexico’s high desert. “Last year was dry and gloomy, with only three good rains. But this year, the summer monsoons came early, and everything’s growing well.”
Driving along two-lane roads to visit gardens on a bright August day, we could see that the grass in the piñon- and juniper-dotted fields was bright green and high-desert wildflowers painted the roadsides yellow, purple and vermilion. When we got to the plots, we found them laden with squash, melons, tomatoes and peppers, drooping from vines and hiding under leaves. Blossoms on the plants promised more bounty in the weeks to come.
Chatto, a tribal member, described the project, which started four years ago with just four 4-by-4-foot box gardens. Since then, it’s burgeoned to include 82 box, raised-bed and in-ground gardens at homes and offices and a one-and-one-quarter-acre community garden on the Ramah Navajo reservation, a semi-autonomous entity that’s separated geographically from the main Navajo reservation.
The multi-year venture — one of 17 the Centers for Disease Control has supported in Native communities nationwide — is among many creative activities the tribe has undertaken to support well-being. Chatto works through the tribal health center, where his collaborators include ERNEH project director Louise Ingraham, evaluator Louis J. Lafrado and, until recently, administrator Carolyn Finster.
The CDC funded the endeavor through its Native Diabetes Wellness Program. The driving idea is that traditional gardened, gathered, hunted and fished foods help indigenous people prevent and control this devastating illness. Diabetes affects them at twice the rate of the white population and is increasingly appearing in children as well as adults, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
However wonderful this year’s weather has been for the Ramah Navajo, its long-term unpredictability, presumably due to climate change, adds one more challenge for horticulturists in a region that already offers plenty of them: high altitude, alkaline soil, low soil fertility, scarce rain in typical years and a short growing season (the first hard freeze is usually in mid-September). Add to that a drop-off in gardening activities among younger generations in recent years, and the ERNEH Project had to figure out a veritable Rubix cube of issues in order to grow, for the most part, the community’s heirloom crops.
“Our bodies know the heritage varieties,” said Ramah Navajo health and human services director Alvin Rafelito. The heirloom seeds are also acclimatized to the local altitude and climate—as unpredictable as that has become—and seeds from elsewhere aren’t necessarily an option. “We tried growing Hopi corn last year, and it turned out like grass.”
So, how could the Ramah Navajo help their heritage crops thrive in a changing world? “Water and soil were the first issues we addressed,” said Chatto. “If you don’t deal with those issues, nothing else will work.” After that, he considered how to handle the dearth of winter snow in recent years (which means the soil is less moist at spring planting time) and hotter summers.
Chatto started small, with box gardens, which feed families in a manageable way and allow improvisation when necessary. “Some suggested plowing big fields from the get-go, but the elders advised me to start slow and build from there,” he recalled. “Smaller gardens meant we could irrigate and hand-water if conditions required.”
During the project’s second growing season, the community garden got underway. In it, an ingenious drip-irrigation system collects rain in a barrel held high by a stack of old tires, and gravity sends the water trickling through long rows of robust squash plants. “The system saves water by directing it where it’s needed,” said Chatto.
Composting is another technique Chatto added to the mix. “In years past, we Ramah Navajo lived in a more fertile area but were pushed out in the late 19th century,” he said. “So now we need to take advantage of non-traditional ideas to help our gardens.” He had soil tests done, then looked around the community to see what would provide missing nutrients at little or no cost.
“I was driving along and saw a pile of lawn clippings,” recalled Chatto. “Then I spotted a bale of shredded paper an office was discarding. Those are carbon sources. I visited sheepherders and asked if I could have manure for the nitrogen the soil needed. ‘Take all you want!’ the grandparents replied.” To make up for minimal spring snowmelt, gardeners soaked seeds before planting them, noted Rafelito.
Things fell into place. The gardens we visited had already supplied four squash harvests, with some of the bounty distributed to elders, diabetes patients and needy families. Gardening provides more than wholesome food, though, Chatto said: “It’s a good workout. You bend and move and sweat.”
According to Rafelito, working the soil also contributes to emotional well-being: “Gardens draw people out in a positive way. While gardening, folks bring up things it’s hard to talk about elsewhere.” And in the sunshine, surrounded by vibrant blossoms and ripening vegetables, they’re optimistic.
Even complaints have a sunny side. A gardener reported to Rafelito that someone was stealing her chilies. “That’s great!” he responded. It meant they were showing an interest. “Have patience,” he counseled. “Soon they’ll start their own garden.”
Rafelito didn’t want those assigned to community service in the gardens to see digging and weeding as punishment. He made sure they knew their labor was appreciated, then went a step further, ensuring they had plots for their own plants. “Soon they were coming to the garden on their own, because it was a place of healing for them,” he said. When we visited the community plot, there were quiet smiles from those hoeing between the rows.
The gardens have potential economic spinoffs. “By next year, we should be producing enough to sell to an area restaurant, La Tinaja.” Rafelito envisions a financial-literacy project for school kids that would involve them growing and selling produce. This would mean more money turning over in the community, rather than immediately flooding out to bordertown stores, as happens on most reservations. “The kids could then start savings accounts and learn to manage money,” said Rafelito.
As the 17 Centers for Disease Control traditional-foods projects, including the one at Ramah Navajo, move into their last year, CDC scientists Dawn Satterfield and Melinda Rose Frank, Navajo, reflected on the program. “The experience has been so rich,” said Satterfield. “The tribal representatives who advised us at the start were spot on. They told us to involve kids and to support culture and traditional foods as sources of health.”
At biannual meetings, the 17 communities have shared both stories and seeds, said Frank. “I grew up on a ranch, and when I told my father about this, he recalled swapping seeds with Utes, Pueblos and other people.” These kinds of exchanges create enduring connections and strengthen communities and the program, she said.
As we were leaving the Ramah Navajo community plot, we walked around its edge, just inside the surrounding fence. Rafelito, far right, pointed out non-domesticated food and medicine plants flourishing there, including purslane, which diabetics, including his mother, have found appears to control blood-sugar levels.
“Everyone knows about the Three Sisters,” Rafelito said. “But here, beyond the cultivated area, you’ll find the Three Wild Brothers—purslane, amaranth and lamb’s quarters. And don’t forget Cousin Chile. It’s an extended family that works together, along with our human community.”
“It shows that to keep the entire community healthy, we must be stewards of the land,” Chatto said.
Said Rafelito: “Then we will heal ourselves.”
Photographs by Joseph Zummo. For more on CDC diabetes programs and Native grantees, go to www.cdc.gov/diabetes/projects/diabetes-wellness.htm. c. Stephanie Woodard.