Sanctified: A Navajo harvest feast

Published in Saveur magazine in 2006. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Justin Willie is heading home with a pick-up-load of split juniper logs. The wood clonks musically in the bed of the truck as it bumps along a sandy track in the western reaches of his Navajo community’s reservation, a 45-minute drive northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona. In an hour or so, as the sun slips down toward the surrounding red-rock cliffs and paints the world rose and chocolate-brown, he and a few friends and family will collaborate on the pit-roast of several domestic turkeys in preparation for a harvest feast the following day.

The meal will take place in nearby Leupp, a reservation town where Willie, 46, is a community health educator. As such, he establishes community gardens and teaches in the schools under the auspices of Northern Arizona University’s Diabetes Prevention Education and Healthy Gardens Program, based in Flagstaff. The meal is one of five come-one-come-all admission-free gatherings the organization sponsored in fall 2005 in towns around the reservation.

 That’s up from just one harvest feast in 2004, the program’s first year. Through the feasts, the group calls attention to the importance of healthy eating in fighting diabetes, which afflicts about 20 percent of Navajos — about four times the national average, according to the Journal of Nutrition. “Our program is growing quickly,” says Roberta Nez, a Navajo and an administrator of the group. “We’ve tapped into something the community understands. Navajos have always planted. It’s part of us.”

About a quarter mile from his home, Willie stops the truck at a barely perceptible crossroads and points out a faint track at right angles to our path. It’s all that remains of a major route from St. Louis to San Francisco during the 1800s: two narrowly spaced, uneven ruts in the prairie that arise in the east, pass through an opening in the cliff we’ve been driving along, and head toward the San Francisco Peaks — Navajo sacred mountains on the western horizon. I could easily imagine the lurching covered wagons and a little Navajo girl — Willie’s grandmother at the end of the 19th century — who would perch on top of the boulders and watch the stream of strangers traversing a place her extended family, or clan, had inhabited for centuries.

            In the coming years, those travelers would transform the continent and create far-reaching changes in the land and in her people’s well-being that her grandson and his Healthy Gardens colleagues must now work to heal. Diversion of water to white-owned ranches made farming difficult for Navajos; timber companies chopped down forests and altered watersheds; and vast commercial sheep and cattle operations tore up Navajo grazing ranges and fouled rivers. 

            Increasingly, tribal members stopped working the land and sought off-reservation jobs. As they replaced their traditional fare first with government-provided “commodity” foods, such as white flour, white sugar, and lard, then with modern packaged foods, numbers of Type II (adult onset) diabetes cases skyrocketed. The pattern is typical of Native communities across the United States.

The physical distress is a symptom of a broader crisis in Indian Country — the struggle to maintain traditional cultures and spirituality in the face of these changes. Eating right is a critical stratagem in the battle. “Food is a language,” Willie says. “Our traditions are not written down, but you can learn them through our foods.” By way of example, he describes his mother feeding him and his siblings breakfast from a large bowl of cornmeal mush that she had dotted at four places around the rim with pinches of sacred corn pollen, indicating the four cardinal directions. As she spooned the mush into her children’s mouths, she’d say to each in turn, “With this, you walk in beauty.” Willie contrasts this with a central Christian sacrament: “During communion, you get a piece of bread to heal you symbolically. But in our case, the food actually feeds you. It’s not an abstraction. It makes an intrinsic connection between spirit and body.”

In a separate interview, John Sharpe, chef-owner of The Turquoise Room, the restaurant of La Posada Hotel, a landmarked property in nearby Winslow, Arizona, concurred with Willie. Sharpe, who has made his restaurant an economic catalyst by purchasing produce and meat from area suppliers and by helping start a farmers’ market in Flagstaff, called Native dishes “beyond cooking as we know it.” Sharpe has also worked side-by-side with Native cooks: “As you watch their gestures, you see a profound spirituality — one that transcends religion.”

Willie and I get out of the truck and hike around, as he points out the scattered homes of his extended family, thousand-year-old Anasazi dwellings and rock art, and the spot at the base of a cliff where for decades his grandmother’s loom was set up. The seemingly forbidding landscape is rich with edible and medicinal plants. Though not domesticated and planted in prepared plots, they have been maintained in the wild and harvested by Navajo people for centuries. We see cota, used in a tea that soothes stomachaches, and ephedra, the source of an energizing, calcium-rich drink that Navajos consumed before trading posts brought coffee to the region. We find lamb’s quarters, purslane, amaranth, and other wild greens and taste the tiny grains of a grass Willie calls Indian rice.

            When we arrive at Willie’s home, he uses the juniper logs to build a roaring fire in a three-foot-deep, four-foot-wide rock-lined pit that’s about 30 feet from the hogan. An octagonal dome that’s about 25 feet across, it has the traditional sunrise-facing front door. Once made of logs plastered with mud, today’s hogans may be constructed of two-by-fours and plywood or, like Willie’s, of cinderblock. 

Willie’s cousin Tyrone Thompson arrives, followed by Roberta Nez; her husband, Wilfred; and their three young children. The kids want to climb on nearby rock outcroppings. “Watch out for snakes,” the adults warn them as they run off to play.

Willie takes over the creation of the turkey stuffing. “No bread, no fat,” he proclaims, eschewing the typical modern stuffing elements as he flings into a large bowl generous handfuls of long-time Navajo favorites: dried squash slices, hominy, dried plums and apricots, rough-chopped Hatch chiles, and tart sumac berries from a bush by the hogan’s door. To reconstitute the dried items, he stirs in a few cups of hot water he boiled on a propane-fueled range in the hogan’s small kitchen area. When the water has been absorbed, he scoops the dressing into the ten-pound birds’ cavities and triple-wraps them in aluminum foil.

As he works, he keeps up a patter, like that of a television chef. Energetic and talkative, Willie can’t resist the opportunity to teach — something he’s done since obtaining an agriculture degree some 25 years ago. Ten years after that, he added training in permaculture, a system of sustainable agriculture and community development that draws on indigenous ideas from around the world. 

“Traditional Navajo cooks improvise and add elements to a dish,” he announces. “However, the new ingredients are of the same order as the original ones. We might add bananas and citrus to the old-time peaches, apples, and melons in a fruit dish, but we won’t add sweetener, as a mainstream cook would. If it’s a savory dish, we may add or substitute different vegetables, meats, or herbs, but we won’t add salt, sugar, or fat.”

If virtuosity in combining ingredients is a hallmark of many other cuisines, simplicity is the primary virtue of Navajo cookery. “This arose partly because we always cooked seasonally with whatever was available in the immediate vicinity,” says Willie. Spirituality also plays a part. For a Navajo cook to be in harmony with those who will consume a dish, he or she needs to be involved in the life cycle of the ingredients. “There’s no life in opening a can of beans. You have to care for the plant, harvest it, and process it by hand — working life into it and offering life to those who eat it,” says Willie. “This creates harmony between the earth and the people.”

The pit has been blazing for about an hour, and the rocks are red-hot. The men shovel out most of the fire and use a sling that Wilbert Nez has just fashioned out of chicken wire to lower the wrapped turkeys into the hole. They then push the flaming logs and glowing coals back over the birds and throw on more logs, which promptly catch fire. 

            The assembled company pulls camp chairs around the fire. Overhead, the constellations and the bright white streak of the Milky Way stand out against the velvet-black moonless sky. After the group gossips and jokes for awhile in Navajo and in English, Roberta Nez begins to talk about the Healthy Gardens project and its multifaceted efforts: putting in six large community gardens at schools and hospitals, inspiring dozens of both Navajos and members of the nearby Hopi community to plant home gardens, teaching composting and seed-saving, and demonstrating medicinal tea making. 

The program has touched a nerve, she says: “People miss gathering and eating like we did in the old days.” On many reservations across the country — from Pueblos in New Mexico to Lakota communities in the Dakotas — similar gardening programs reconnect Native people with much-loved ancient foodways.

Willie decides that he’ll leave the turkeys in the pit for about three hours. The rest of us eventually disperse into the night, leaving him to remove them and let them chill in the cold night air. The next day, in the watery turquoise light of a desert morning, we regroup in Leupp. When Willie peels the foil off the birds, we see that the timing was just right: the skin is glossy brown, the flesh is soft and moist, and the stuffing juicy.

There is plenty more food to prepare before the early-afternoon arrival of the guests, though. More gardening coordinators from the diabetes program arrive to cook and to set up tables in Leupp’s gathering hall. Roberto Nutlouis and Valencia Herder, both Navajo, start preparing a type of succotash. As they chop squash and shuck corn, they share information on traditional plant uses. 

As Nutlouis pulls off corn silk, he remembers that his grandmother used it as frostbite medicine. “Pack it around fingers or toes that have gotten frozen,” he advises. Herder offers the recipe for kneel-down bread, a paste of ground fresh corn that’s wrapped up in the husks — tamale-style — and pit- or oven-baked at medium heat for an hour. We learn that you can make something like shredded wheat by rolling up corn silks, drying them, then eating them with sheep’s milk.

Laurie Monti, the nurse-practitioner who directs the Healthy Gardens project, slices summer squash that’ll be oven-baked in large covered dishes. She and her project staffers promote old-time foods — including corn, beans, squash, melons, foraged greens and teas, lamb and game meat — even as they help people find healthy ways to incorporate ingredients that are newly available in the region, ranging from Swiss chard they might grow in their gardens to kiwis they can buy at a supermarket. “Traditional foods are essential, however, because they have medicinal properties,” she says. “Blue corn has the highest level of antioxidants known in any food. Prickly pear cactus slows sugar uptake and helps pancreatic function. For Navajo people, getting cut off from them has been like severing their life source.”

            Guests drift in, bearing feather-light yellow-corn bread; pillow-soft wheat tortillas; melons; salads of greens, tomatoes, and spicy radishes; a zucchini bake laced with julienned strips of Navajo Churro lamb, remarkable for its fresh, clean, almost grassy taste; a pan of Baby Dolls, made of blue corn meal mush that’s been wrapped in corn husks, tied around the middle with a strip of the husk, and boiled (shown here); and a fine-textured, cooled blue-cornmeal mush, jiggling like a jelly in a big white bowl.

When I remark on the many uses of blue corn, rancher Colleen Biakeddy, who supplies lamb to John Sharpe, explains: “Blue corn mush is our Jell-O, our pudding, our polenta, our dumplings. You can let it cool, then slice or cube it. Sun-dry the pieces, and they become crackers or croutons.”

Carrie Thompson, the tortilla-maker, who gardens near Willie’s field with her husband, Jackie, offers a prayer, and we tuck into plates piled with the day’s offerings. After the meal, she and other elders take turns standing and lecturing the 100-plus guests about cooking and the old days. Sadie C. Lister, maker of the blue-corn dishes, offers a recipe and a life lesson: “Roast and dry the blue corn, and grind it twice. Then use juniper ash in the cooking water for a nice flavor. If you do this, the corn will nurture you all your days.”

After several hours of stories and advice, Lister’s octogenarian sister, Maryann Morris, plays a few lilting tunes on her harmonica; Lister offers a closing prayer; and Leupp’s harvest feast comes to an end. The golden light of afternoon slants over the land, as the participants wend their way home, sated and sanctified.

Text and photos shown here c. Stephanie Woodard.

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