Iowa Public Television


Native Americans of the Southwest (Part 2)

posted on April 1, 2005

In a complicated age, filled with rapidly changing technologies, it's sometimes EASY to forget the past. For others, it's HARD to forget ... especially in places where people still live in something less than modern times.

Last week, we got an inside look at the Navajo Nation of northeast Arizona, one of the country's largest Indian reservations. There we met Walter Whitewater, a member of the Navajo Nation, and Lois Ellen Frank, a photographer, chef, and author based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The two colleagues have been working together for years trying to revive the farming and food traditions of many Southwestern Indian nations. Laurel Bower Burgmaier picks up the story.

Native Americans of the Southwest (Part 2) Calvin & Mary Nez, Tolani Lake, AZ: (translation on bottom of screen) "We are the ones doing this. Our children, our grandchildren today, they're not around. I don't think they are interested in this way. They are too lazy. They're too involved in the western way of life. They don't think it's necessary to learn the traditional ways. I doubt if they will want to continue our way of life. It won't happen."

Calvin and Mary Nez farm on the Navajo reservation. They live a very simple life, having no electricity or running water. But, they are happy. They have lived on this land more than 70 years and their family has survived by harvesting corn on the same field they work today. The Nez' are proud of the traditions their parents taught them with food and farming. They hope their children and grandchildren will carry on this way of life. But, they admit they don't think it will happen.

Walter Whitewater, Santa Fe, NM: "This is our ways. This is our way of life the Creator gave us. We have to maintain and we have to take care of it."

Walter Whitewater grew up on the Navajo reservation. He relishes the chance to demonstrate what he learned from native elders like his late Grandmother Susie Whitewater Begay. He hopes to pass on the knowledge she had for his culture's time-honored ways.

Walter Whitewater, Santa Fe, NM: "Today, things are changing, but some of us have to learn these ways and this is something that I feel comfortable sharing with other people, with other different nations."

Tedra Begay is Navajo, but she grew up in Gilbert, Arizona. She is a college student who spends part of her time helping Lois Ellen Frank, local photographer, chef and author, prepare native recipes.

Tedra Begay, Gilbert, Arizona: "Growing up in the city, I don't get that much, know my culture and stuff like that. But, through Walter and Lois, I learned more about foods here than anywhere else."

Another way Whitewater and Frank are making an impact is by reminding all generations of Native Americans about the importance of wild plants. Frank says the desert is rich with native plants that they have used for food, medicine and spiritual rituals for thousands of years.

Lois Ellen Frank, Santa Fe, NM: "Wild foods are really important to Native People because during times cultivated foods couldn't be grown, wild foods were used in conjunction with a failed crop...And, those foods are going to be significantly important to the health and the well-being of the people. We know through studies, the traditional diet was probably more healthy. It's only when you deviate from that diet that health ailments have started to crop up and show themselves amongst native people. So, there is a movement to go back to the traditional diet."

One such movement is the Dine (Den-UH), or Navajo, Community Foods Project, a Navajo owned non-profit organization headquartered on the reservation. Hank Willie heads up the project.

Hank Willie, Seba Dalkai, AZ: "Traditional foods are beneficial in a lot of ways. Mainly, when people ate traditional foods, traditional crops and wild plants, they didn't have diabetes...We're trying to bring that awareness back."

Willie says they are teaching younger Navajo by bringing in elders to describe their time-honored ways. Calandra Willie is Walter Whitewater's daughter. She is an example of a young, contemporary Navajo who values her peoples' native customs.

Calandra Willie, Seba Dalkai , AZ: "The sacred thing that we use is corn pollen and that is the one thing I think moves us forward with our prayers and stuff. That is the one thing that keeps me going too. It's just our beliefs and what I've been taught as a little kid until now and that is one of the things that I think I hold dear to myself."

The Navajo use a method called dry farming, or in other words, they don't irrigate their crop land. The Foods Project is introducing a drip line to help.

Hank Willie, Seba Dalkai, AZ: "To offset the drought that we're in right now, so we don't rely much on the rains. You can put more plants in a smaller area with the drip system than with the dry land."

Farming on the reservation can be harsh. This year, Whitewater's family experienced one of their worst harvests because of severe drought. Usually, they share an abundance of produce to feed them through the winter. When times are tough, they look to their native traditions for survival.

Walter Whitewater, Santa Fe, NM: "Stick with the native food and that is the truth. That is what my father says and that is what the elders say...Those that are aware of it, that is what we are trying to do and to show and saying, "Look, this is one of the ways we can achieve and have a better health, have a better life and continue on with this way of life that was given to us."

Whitewater and Frank hope their efforts will keep the Navajo's food and farming traditions alive for generations to come. By reawakening their own heritage, they say they are creating meals with a sense of history, place and pride.

Lois Ellen Frank, Santa Fe, NM: "Every tradition has their way. Some of the pueblos say that if you cook when you are angry, the chilies get hotter. So, I always try and have that goodness, have that love for the people that I teach...And, what a good feeling to nurture and carry on that legacy."

For Market to Market, I'm Laurel Bower Burgmaier.

Tags: communities food Native Americans news whitewater