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Traditional Navajo Foods and Lifestyle Bring Health and Strength

Reprinted by permission from Indian Country Today

By Brenda Norrell
Indian Country Today Correspondent

SHIPROCK, NM -- Seated on the edge of his pickup load of steamed and roasted corn, Dennison Benally enjoys the sweet life of a Navajo summer day. Surrounded by his family, he talks easily of roasting corn in its husks, fresh from the cornfields, in the family’s outdoor kiln-style oven made of rocks.

It is this corn, naadaa, a gift of the Holy People, which nourished Navajos through the ages.

Photo of Dennison Benally with steamed corn

When Navajo came from the Four Worlds, they were without food so the turkey shook himself and kernels of corn fell from under his wings.

Dennison Benally
Photo by Brenda Norrell

Navajo elder Kenneth Foster said the Navajo Creation story tells how Changing Woman, the first Navajo woman, was transformed into a sacred being. Corn meal was used for the blessing. When Mother Earth gave birth to Monster Slayer and Son of Waters, the twins journeyed to their father the sun. They were told that they had come from the "land of growing corn and rain."

Before his death, Navajo elder Howard McKinley, who lived to be nearly 100 years old, recalled how corn pollen was used in ceremonies and corn silk was used for healing teas. Navajo women sang corn grinding songs as they ground corn on grinding stones. Parched corn was ground together with pinons for nut butter similar to peanut butter.

McKinley remembered picking wild yucca bananas and wild potatoes. He remembered how blocks of frozen water from Blue Canyon were stored as chunks of ice for summer months in cut-rock houses near his home in Tse Ho Tso (Meadow between the rocks) known as Fort Defiance, Arizona.

"People wouldn’t be getting cancer today if they were still eating the wild foods," McKinley said. He served as a tribal councilman most of his life and traveled with Annie Wauneka, who became a legend, encouraging Navajos to adopt safer health practices in the fight against tuberculosis.

When McKinley saw Navajo elderly being served corn dogs on a napkin, he helped revolutionize Navajo food programs in the mid-20th century.

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It was called "the corn dog harvest" in Washington.

McKinley, a storyteller, received a master’s degree and always walked long distances. If he needed to go to Albuquerque, about 175 miles away, he would just start out walking, sleeping in trees to avoid coyotes. While sharing stories on the front porch of his home, he credited his long life to walking and laughter.

Just down the road from McKinley’s home in Fort Defiance, Louva Dahozy and her daughter Katherine Arviso launched innovative projects for decades; proving traditional Navajo foods are healthier than modern diets packed with fat, sugar and salt.

Arviso, while director of the tribe’s Navajo Food and Nutrition department, led a scientific study of traditional foods, which revealed the secrets of ancient Navajo foods. Among those, the ash made from burning juniper needles, cooked in blue corn meal mush, is an amazing source of calcium and minerals.

Blue corn meal mush with juniper ash (Taa niil) has 802 mg of calcium in one cup, compared to 2.4 mg of the same amount without ash (Toshchiin.) Minerals were also found in Navajo edible white clay, grey clay, tumbleweed ash and Zuni Lake salt.

The study showed that ash was superior to baking soda in boiled hominy corn. The ash added calcium and Vitamin A, while the baking soda added sodium which can increase hypertension.

Dried foods, stored for winter, were analyzed including dried yellow squash and zucchini squash and watermelon, good sources of vitamins and minerals. The study revealed high sources of protein and iron in mutton blood sausage, liver and heart.

Traditional Navajo "creamer" made from ground corn offered protein, fiber, calcium, magnesium and iron. Wild greens were very high in Vitamin A. One half cup of Navajo spinach "waa" (Cleome serulatum) contained four times the recommended daily allowance for Vitamin A.

Chiilchin, sumac berries, were found high in Vitamin C. Roasted pinons offer protein, potassium, magnesium, iron and zinc.

The yucca bananas from the Yucca Bacata, wide bladed yucca, are nutritious, sweet and delicious. The ripe fruit was eaten fresh or prepared for winter. The pulp from the wild banana fruits was either scraped and baked on a hot rock or the fruits were baked in a bowl in hot coals. The baked fruit was sometimes made into a roll, with a hole pushed through the center to allow air to circulate. A piece of the dried roll could be cut and added to corn meal mush.

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Yucca was used in many ways. The center blades were used to make "gazoo" cheese by mixing the blades with goat’s milk. The blades were used for making brushes or as a combination needle and thread. The roots were prized as natural soap and shampoo.

Food clay or dleesh to Navajos, was mixed with wild potato or tomatillo berry to counteract the tart and astringent taste. Mixed with the box thorn, it became a remedy for upset stomachs.

Before the days of mutton, brought by the Spaniards, and fry bread, ingredients brought by the Calvary and traders, Navajo traditional foods were wild plants and game. During times of hunger, wild grass seeds were gathered and ponies were eaten.

Dahozy points out Navajos grew strong and healthy on the wild foods and game. Long before the days of fast foods, canned foods, and frozen foods Navajos gathered and hunted their foods.

Navajo gathered wild grass seeds for grain and ground their corn. White flour, later used for fry bread, arrived with the Calvary on the Long Walk of suffering and exile to Fort Sumner, N.M. After the turn of the century, trading posts sold the first canned and processed foods and soft drinks.

"Navajo traditional foods are not the white flour and greasy foods that traders brought to the reservation," Dahozy said.

For more health news from Indian Country:

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