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The Native Americans of the Southwest (Part 1)

posted on March 25, 2005

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation this week announced the finalists for its Rural Entrepreneurship Development grants. Those selected will each receive up to $2 million to promote and develop entrepreneurial activity in their region.

Among the finalists were Native American groups representing tribes in North Carolina, Nebraska, South Dakota, and New Mexico. Cash infusions of any stripe are well-needed on most reservations, where Native Americans work to build a better economic future, while honoring a proud heritage of the past.

In the Navajo Nation of the American Southwest, the cultural preservation plays out in the revival of traditional food and farming practices. Laurel Bower-Burgmaier explains.

The Native Americans of the Southwest (Part 1) Walter Whitewater, Navajo Nation: Introduces himself in his native language...

Walter Whitewater is a member of the Navajo Nation from Pinon, Arizona. Occupying 17-million acres, the Navajo Nation makes up one of the largest Indian territories in the U.S. Whitewater lives and works as a chef in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but every summer he takes several weeks off from his cooking duties to fulfill his ceremonial obligations on the reservation located in northeastern Arizona.


Walter Whitewater, Navajo: "In our way, the food is very sacred, especially with the corn. It is very sacred to the people. It is not only food; it is our prayer. It's the way we use it; the way we absorb from it and the way we take care of it. There is teaching behind that and that has always been in our ceremony. And, that is how we survive."

To the Native Americans of the Southwest, people, plants, animals and spirits are all interconnected in an unbroken circle of being. The Navajo especially revere corn because it yields pollen, which is important in their healing rituals. Corn roasts like this one on Whitewater's family farm are common.


First, a large earthen pit is built. Then, the corn is roasted overnight. At sunrise, people gather around the pit to eat the ears in honor of the first rays of sun. Prayers are offered to spirits and the rest of the corn is dried and used by the family as a vital food source the rest of the year.


It's rich food traditions like a corn roast that influenced Santa Fe-based photographer, author and chef Lois Ellen Frank to get to know the Navajo culture better. Frank and Whitewater met in the early 1990s while preparing a ceremonial feast on an Apache reservation in White River, Arizona. Whitewater has been Frank's culinary advisor ever since, ensuring that the decorations used in her photo shoots are appropriate to Native American customs.

Lois Ellen Frank, chef & food photographer: "I think one of the main things that I have learned from Walter and some of the other families that I have worked with has been what I'm going to label balance... Balance is a way of life, an approach to food, a respect. The fact that what we do today affects tomorrow and the next day; and the next."

Since the sixteenth century, the Navajo people have cultivated corn, beans, squash, chilies, and melons, using farming and planting techniques that have been handed down for generations. Whitewater's father Thomas farms on the reservation with many other family members.

Thomas Whitewater, Navajo Nation: (Walter translates for his father) "He says it is important that has been there for us for generations and generations --since the creation of time. That is why it is very important to the people and why we keep the way."

They work among the canyons, at the base of cliffs, and in and around mesas using a method called dry farming. George Yazzi is Whitewater's uncle.

George Yazzi, Navajo Nation: "Dry farming is where we don't use irrigation water. We just look up to the natural Mother Nature, like snow in the wintertime. We haul the water. We do it the old way. I guess that is the way they did it way back a long time ago."

Native elders believe their food traditions are a way of honoring their heritage. The food traditions tell who they are, where they came from, where they are now and where they will go in the future. Frank's admiration for her own background --she's part Kiowa-- helped her relate to these beliefs. She started interviewing native elders who were becoming concerned that their food traditions were being lost.

Lois Ellen Frank, food photographer & chef: "Part of what is happening, especially among native youth, is they are losing a little bit of their traditions. Some of that comes from language, some of that comes from cultural process. I think Walter and I are role models for our youth. We are showing that you can have a career, you can be a traditional person and live in a contemporary world."

In 2002, Frank and Whitewater wrote a book called Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations hoping to share the agriculture traditions of different tribes with both native and non-native people.

Lois Ellen Frank, chef & food photographer: " Some of the most important foods in the world are corn and beans, squash, chilies, tomatoes and I want to show America as a whole the important contribution that native people have made to American cuisine."

They hope this book is a start to keeping the time-honored ways of American Indians alive, as well as, a tool in teaching indigenous cultures how traditional foods are better for their health. Next week, we'll take a closer look at the work being done by Frank and Whitewater, as well as many others.

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

Tags: communities food Native Americans news whitewater