Through food: learning the importance of preserving the land
Updated: Mar 16
The US government’s violent interference between the Diné and their ancestral lands
Photo credit: Joel Wigelsworth
“Not only did our people survive manifest destiny or colonisation, but so have our ingredients. And now they supply the world… Yet, Indigenous cuisine of North America has been overlooked for so long,”
- chef and activist Brian Yazzie, live chef demo in April of 2020.
Yazzie is Diné; the Diné - or Navajo Nation as referred to in English - are an Indigenous community and culture in North America. Their reservation lands reside across four states in the Southwest: Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and as of 2018, Colorado.
Throughout that April demo Yazzie discussed his culinary school experience of flipping through French, Italian and Japanese cookbooks and recognising the ingredients as part of his own culture and upbringing in Dennehotso, Arizona located on the Northeastern part of the Navajo Nation.
Yazzie is one voice within a large network of Indigenous chefs, writers, health workers, farmers, seed savers and journalists whose work is tied strongly to the intersections of culture, health, food, education and policy within their community. Within this community of activists spread across North America, sits a commonly shared acknowledgement of inherited historical traumas and a belief in the power of resilience through foodways. At the very centre of these foodways sits a multifaceted legacy of historical, spiritual and reciprocal connection with the earth.
Prior to European contact and American colonisation, the Indigenous diet, though varied from region to region based on the landscape, was largely plant-heavy, with a mixture of foraged and wild ingredients. Regenerative agricultural practices like the ‘Three Sisters’; the growing of corn, squash and beans together replenished the soil they cultivated. Animals like rabbit, deer and antelope were wild and hunted in the Southwest. Later sheep and goats were added as livestock. Overall, theNative American diet did not include wheat, dairy, sugar, pork or chicken until after European contact. That contact also introduced a new agricultural ideology that prioritised profitability over longevity and forced groups, including the Diné, out of their ancestral lands.
Photo credit: Joel Wigelsworth
Hwéeldi – the Long Walk
The practice of tribal removal - whereby the government forced Diné out of their ancestral lands - came into effect with the signing of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 by President Andrew Jackson. The Indian Removal Act allowed the removal of more than 100,000 people from their home so the US government could occupy the territory east of the Mississippi River, in order to cultivate the land for lucrative, slave-laboured cotton fields. Though the Act specified that forcible removal wasn’t allowed, and clearly stated the need for peaceful treaties and agreements, this was regularly ignored by the government. Though a precursor to the term coined in 1845 the Indian Removal Act was part of the pseudo-religious ideology of ‘Manifest Destiny’ that drove US foreign policy. Coined by newspaper editor John O'Sullivan, ‘manifest destiny’ justified removal by force through the belief that God chose the American people to reform the world. The US government took this to heart, extending the practice of colonisation in the name of God from coast to coast. Translation: the means justify the ends.
Land ownership based on monetary exchange, written deed and dominance over the land is a Euro-western concept, but the assertion that Native American peoples didn’t understand land ownership at all is a complete misconception.Ownership was instead steeped in the ideas of ancestry and stewardship as law professor Rebecca Tsosie (Yaqui) writes in her chapter within the book American Indian Nations: Yesterday Today and Tomorrow (AltaMira Press 2007), “while it is true that no Native people employed the concept of ‘fee simple’ or maintained written land titles prior to the arrival of the Europeans, there is a rich tradition of ‘rights’ and ‘responsibilities’ that accompanies Native narratives about the land. In the broader sense of ‘ownership,’ Native peoples most definitely maintained political and cultural claims to their ancestral lands.”
Diné writer, professor, daughter of a Navajo code talker and poet laureate of the Navajo Nation (2015–2019) Laura Tohe describes the Diné concept of Nahasdzáán (Mother Earth) in her journal article ‘Hwéeldi Bééhániih: Remembering the Long Walk’ (Wicazo Sa Review, 2007).
“The Dine philosophy teaches that we humans depend on Nahasdzáán and that she must be cared for and respected; our survival depends on it. After the umbilical stem falls off the baby, it is buried near the child’s home. This ensures the child will never be lost. That the child will remain tied to Nahasdzáán. These beliefs remained in the hearts and minds of the people who were forced out of the homeland. Even though they were imprisoned hundreds of miles away, the land within the four sacred mountains was still there for them. It held their birth stems.”
As indicated by both Tsosie and Tohe, home and connection to the land on which that home was built carries huge significance for the people affected by the 1830 act and their ancestors who are trying to heal the trauma removal from those homes caused.
From 1863 – 1868 the Diné were amongst the many tribes forced by the American government to leave their ancestral homes. The Diné were to walk to Hwéeldi, also known as the Bosque Redondo Reservation, at Fort Sumner New Mexico. The name Hwéeldi signifies both the reservation and the walk itself within Diné culture, referred to as the ‘Long Walk’ within the Eurocentric teaching of American history. It was led by General Carleton; the US military implemented a scorched-earth tactic, killing off animals, destroying water sources and burning plants, villages and resources. The Diné were left with no other option for survival but to make the 250-450 mile walk to internment camps. More than 10,000 men, women, children and elders made this walk. The journey killed over 1000 along the way.
For those who made it to the camps alive, this inevitably brought about dietary changes, including the inclusion of ingredients provided by the government which had never before been a major part of their diet. Referred to as ‘surrender foods’ by anthropologist Charlotte J Frisbie in her book Food Sovereignty; The Navajo Way (UNM Press, 2018) this included bacon/lard, white flour (often vermin infested) sugar and coffee. These are the origins of fry bread; a deep-fried combination of flour, sugar, water and lard and a food with layered meanings and conflicting associations. Necessary for survival during this time of scarcity, fry bread is still prevalent within Native North American culture, often associated with celebratory feast days and fairs. It is a symbol of forced resilience that also represents a time of affliction and oppression, a separation from culture, stolen land, abject poverty, refusal of resources and, consequently declining health. These issues, though slowly changing through community-based advocacy and sovereignty work, remain prevalent within many Indigenous communities.
Following the ‘Treaty of Bosque Redondo’ in 1868, between the US government and the Diné leaders, the Diné were to reside within specific lands outlined within the treaty as part of their reservation. Articles agreed upon within the treaty also included the compulsory education of Diné children within residential or boarding schools, overseen by the US government, for no less than 10 years, and agricultural supplies, tools, seeds and support delivered by the government to the Diné to aid in the development of their reservations.
The new reservation lands, as specified by the American government, though coincided with some of ancestral lands and areas where the Diné previously lived, were much smaller than where they had previously occupied. European settlers (by now considered ‘American’) now largely occupied the tribe’s best hunting and most fertile gathering lands significantly reducing the size of the Diné’s tribal reservation, forcing their land-based foodways to further adapt.
Forced resilience gave way to innovations and ideas of resistance, which will be explored further in Part Two, to be published on 17 March 2021.
Pre-colonial foods included the hunting of smaller animals like prairie dogs and rabbits and the gathering plants that were available in the area such as wild onions, celery, spinach, yucca fruit and piñon nuts, though some varieties may have been available pre-contact. Other dietary staples which had also been a part of the Diné pre-contact diet included Native salt - alkaline deposits gathered from the top of rocks and salt beds, blue corn and blue cornmeal, and the keeping of goats and sheep whose milk provided a supplemental source of calcium alongside the primary use of calcium-producing ash, used within dishes like Tanaashgiizh (blue corn mush).
Sheep also provided meat for the occasional treat of mutton stew, a dish, like Tanaashgiizh; this is still eaten regularly within present-day Navajo culture. The traditional agricultural farming incorporated the practice of seed saving; a cultural tradition based in stewardship, including the preservation of seed varietals and the knowledge and heritage they contained, for future crops and generations. Plant varieties included beans, watermelons, muskmelons, squash, pumpkins, corn and potatoes. There was also a strong network of inter-tribal trade for additional goods and services.
Photo captions: Both images are of Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, the ancestral home of the Diné and site where Kit Carson and the U.S. Army torched Diné orchards and fields, and starting point of the Long Walk. Diné have returned to live in and farm the canyon, but not in the numbers preceding the Long Walk.
Adrienne Katz Kennedy is a trained dance anthropologist, now food writer. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, she calls London home by way of formative years spent living in New Mexico. Adrienne’s work explores the connections between food, culture, and identity, occasionally drawing upon her Jewish heritage as a jumping-off point for exploration. She’s @akatzkennedy on Instagram/Twitter. adriennekatzkennedy.com