Journey to the Four Corners with Bioneers Indigeneity Program, DAY 3

Journey to the Four Corners with Bioneers Indigeneity Program, DAY 3

Navajo and Hopi Food and Farming, Part I

Alexis Bunten, Bioneers Indigeneity Program

This blog series is to share our week-long journey to the Four Corners region to experience first-hand amazing work undertaken by our partners with from the Colorado Plateau Intertribal Conversations Group, and inspired by our collective efforts to protect the Rights of Nature.

Anything written in this blog series reflects my personal interpretations of the 2017 Kinship Journey to the Four Corners, and does not reflect Bioneers Collective Heritage Institute, or the opinions of the wonderful people I traveled with.

On the third morning of the journey, we woke up in Moenkopi, Arizona, where we stayed at the Legacy Inn and Suites. Moenkopi, lies at the very edge of the Hopi Reservation, which is surrounded by the much larger, Navajo Reservation. From where we were staying, all we had to do was cross the street and we’d be back on Navajoland, in Tuba City. (Click on the links to catch up on Day 1 and Day 2.)

Rosemary Williams shares a funny story.

We drove to Rosemary Williams family farm in Kerley Valley to learn about her techniques for producing the most abundant organic, dry crop yields for miles around. (I remembered Tom Goldtooth talking about growing up near Tuba City harvesting corn and watermelons on his family’s Kerley Valley farm in his 2016 Bioneers Indigenous Forum Presentation, the Art of Intergenerational Activism, with his son, Dallas Goldtooth.) Rosemary is a member of the CPIC gathering, a grandmother, and traditional farming expert.

Picking a juicy melon from Rosemary’s productive Kerley Valley fields.

We sat under an awning, listening intently to Rosemary, as she talked about the lessons and stories she learned from her grandfather as a small girl. All the grandkids used to run up the wash and over a huge sand dune –it must have been miles—to go back for lunch time each day.

Beyond the wash behind Rosemary’s fields lie the hill Rosemary’s grandfather instructed all the kids to run up at lunchtime, miles away.

Developing a sense of urgency was vital to the farm’s operations; if something threatens the crops, speed in addressing the issue can mean the difference between success and failure for the annual food supply. Indeed, when the wind blew some of the clothes off a scarecrow, Rosemary hustled to fix the situation. (This happened a few times during our visit. Rosemary quickly ran off to adjust something and would be back with us in no time.)

One of my favorite grandfather lessons that Rosemary shared was the idea that “weeds are our friends. Love them, and that way, they won’t hurt you do bad.” Plus, Rosemary added, “They keep you young because they keep you weeding!”

Even the weeds, adjacent to the well-tended fields, were beautiful.

Rosemary didn’t sugarcoat the harsh times growing up, “Rosemary is lazy. That’s why we are here and we are going to choke out all the corn,” Rosemary demonstrated her grandfather giving voice to the weeds themselves to berate her as a child for not doing her part to keep the farm thriving. Despite the hard life, the old times were also incredibly beautiful, as Rosemary recalled her grandfather laying down with all the grandkids in the fields at night, with all the grandkids surrounding him like a spoke, their little heads closest to his body so they could all equally hear grandfather’s stories about the constellations.

Rosemary talked about the annual cycle on the farm from the springtime irrigation (that’s right, this dry farm only irrigates once per year), to staggered plantings, ensuring that a variety of foods would be ready from month to month –and what a diversity of plant foods she grew! Rosemary’s fields produced yellow, blue and white corn, a wide variety of melons, and other favorites like traditional Navajo squashes, and more recently introduced zucchinis and tomatoes. The traditional diet was so healthy, for body and soul.

Noel Littlejohns reveals an ear of corn. Even the short corn stalks produced beautiful, healthy corn.
The Diné people tended heirloom varieties for generations until they were perfectly adjusted to the regional elevation, soil and moisture.

Rosemary demonstrates how to gather pollen from the corn. The pollen from Rosemary’s organic, non-GMO, heirloom corn is highly sought after for its role in prayer.

After the farm visit, we had lunch with Rosemary at Navajo-owned Hogan Family Restaurant, where I was excited to finally try a local favorite, mutton stew. People always talk about mutton like it is “old tough sheep,” but I found the mutton stew delicious. It was surprisingly light and not too salty, unlike some of the Anglo food I ate on the first two days of the journey. And, the mutton was boiled to perfection, tender, juicy and delicious.

Mutton stew with frybread. Yummmmmmmmm.

We all recognized what a precious gift we experienced getting to know Rosemary, who we all regarded as a real national treasure. Today, Rosemary splits her time between her family farm, and teaching children throughout the region about farming, health, and wellness.

After lunch, we all walked across the parking lot, where our host with CPIC, Deon Ben, showed us what a traditional Navajo Hogan looked like, and how it would have been constructed.

After we finished shopping at the Trading Post next store to the hogan (that had excellent inventory, I might add) we broke up into groups for different excursions. My group visited the Navajo Interactive Museum, whose origins began as a cultural exhibit at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. I really appreciated how the architecture of the museum was based on a Navajo world view. Upon entering the Hogan-shaped building, visitors are invited to watch a short film that outlines the Diné creation story –I loved the animation, which transported me to a more magical place where I could take in the stories of the worlds that existed before the current fourth world we live in now, where people, animals and fantastic beings communicated with ease.

I liked this exhibit showing materials used to dye fibers in Navajo weaving.

The inside of the museum spoked out in different directions with exhibits that covered a lot of territory, from the Navajo creation story and cosmology, to traditional economy, history, current issues, government structure, arts and more.

A peak inside 1 direction of the Hogan-shaped Navajo Interactive Museum.

By now, I had already learned much of this information by listening to our Navajo hosts the first day and a half of our journey, and the museum interpretation corroborated exactly with oral history (oral history in Indian country is usually similar to reading a book, or seeing an exhibit, only better because it includes personal stories to back up “the facts”). The group that came with me to the museum really enjoyed the 1983 ethnographic film, Seasons of a Navajo. I remembered seeing the film in an undergraduate anthropology class and being captivated.

How fitting was this little interpretive sign about corn, after just having visited a Navajo farm with its yellow and white varieties ready to harvest?

As I was finishing up at the museum, I heard a “hot tip” that Tuba City has a place to go see dinosaur footprints. Two of us set out to find them, and we were successful! Pulling off the side of the road next to the red painted sign for “Dinosaur Tracks,” we were greeted by a young guide, Tyler, who showed us exactly where to find the footprints, eggs, and even dinosaur scat (though, online sources suggest that the interpretation about bones, scat and even T-Rex footprints are incorrect). I tried to ask our guide whether the local Navajo had any old stories about these tracks, but he didn’t understand my question. These tracks were “discovered” by non-Natives in the 20th century during road construction, but my common sense tells me that Native peoples usually know what’s on their homelands, especially if it is something unusual like giant lizard tracks. Maybe Tyler did know the answer to my question and kept it from me for cultural reasons. Who knows?

Dilophosaurus weatherilli were a crested species of meat-eating dinosaur living during the Jurassic period.

Don’t be fooled by the size of the track in the last image. I definitely wouldn’t want to run into one of these 20 foot-long, thousand pound predators!

Impromptu tours at Dinosaur Tracks were on a “volunteer basis,” but I wouldn’t have walked around the site without one of the guides pointing out what to see. It was a once in a lifetime experience to witness these tracks close up out in the open (e.g., not cut out of the ground in placed in a museum), but I couldn’t help but think that if the tracks are not protected, the weather will erode them away within a few generations. This reflection foreshadowed one of the bigger emerging lessons of the trip –that things we enjoy now, like the water resources needed to farm, will not necessarily be here for our grandchildren and beyond.

After our free afternoon, the whole group came back together for an evening program at the Learning Center, the dedicated space for community-building efforts of our partners with the Colorado Plateau Intertribal Conversations group (CPIC) in Tuba City and Moenkopi. In a few short years, CPIC has supported community gardening and a farmers’ market, while teaching workshops to youth and lifelong learners about how to grow, prepare and preserve fresh produce.

Staci Tsiniginnie, with CPIC, shares the many types of community empowerment workshops held inside the Learning Center, with its state of the art communications equipment (that’s a drop down screen on the ceiling) and facilities.

This inspirational work of CPIC demonstrates how a community can become self-empowered. By re-introducing the knowledge of how to grow, share and cook healthy, organic produce today, CPIC members are actively addressing the intergenerational trauma of genocide embodied within the unhealthy diet of preserved and commodity foods begun when the US military systematically destroyed Navajo farms, and replaced the traditional foods with unhealthy commodities, like white flour and sugar, whose legacy is ever present in the gut-busting (and sadly, now considered “traditional”) fry bread ubiquitous throughout the reservation.

After Staci’s presentation, we were in for a special treat, a catered dinner under the stars prepared by Somana Tootsie, a Hopi caterer and genius food artist from 3rd Mesa. Somana shared with us the story of how she came to become a caterer with mentorship from our partner, Tony Skrelunas at CPIC and Diné Hozho. Our mouths watered as Somana described the sumptuous meal we were about to eat, whose flavors and textures, she had carefully planned to take our palates on a journey.

Somana Tootsie describes how she became a caterer, and the food we were about to enjoy in front of the CPIC Learning Center, and on the grounds of the Moenkopi Farmers Market.

We started with a salad of locally grown organic corn, squash with a light garlic braise, greens and tomatoes followed by steamed pork bundles, with meat so tender and juicy that it fell apart as we opened the corn skin wraps. Three distinctly different sauces accompanied the pork, chipotle with carmelized wild onion, pineapple and smoked cumin, and chile verde green chive salsa with fresh avocado with an undertone of fresh roasted jalapeno in light vinegar.

Inspired by the aesthetics of salade niciouse, the fresh veggies that Somana prepared us was a true feast for the eyes as well as the heart.
(Notice the racks of drying fruit in the background, another project of CPIC educational workshops held at the Learning Center.)

We were all eager to get in line for dinner after hearing Somana’s description of what we were about to eat. And boy, did she deliver!

Dessert was traditional corn mush topped with a sauce of Clover Honey, elderberries and blueberries, topped with roasted sunflower seeds and pepitas (pumpkin seeds). The slightly mealy texture of the mush combined with the smooth, tart and sweet of the sauce was brought alive by the salty taste and crunchy texture of the nuts. My mouth is watering as I write, remembering how delicious and special our meal with Somana and her family was. And, it goes without mentioning that not only was this a community effort, but a family one as well, as Somana’s mother and children came to help with the catering, exemplifying Indigenous values of the Colorado Plateau, where food, farming, family and community are inexorably intertwined.

Our group ended the meal under the big stars of the Hopi Reservation long after the sun had set, satiated by what we had learned and eaten over the course of a good, long day. We settled in for a good night’s sleep and ready to head out to the Hopi Mesas the next morning, Day 4 of our Journey to the Four Corners.

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