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Indigenous tribes push to preserve Native American food culture


The origin story of America's Thanksgiving holiday imagines the pilgrims surviving harsh winters because of friendly Native Americans who taught them how to farm. Since then, Indigenous peoples have had to adapt to the food system Europeans developed here. They often lack access to healthy foods. But there's a movement to preserve traditional farming practices. From member station KNAU in Flagstaff, Ariz., Melissa Sevigny reports.

MELISSA SEVIGNY, BYLINE: At Coffee Pot Farms on the Navajo Nation, Cherilyn Yazzie starts the day with prayer.

CHERILYN YAZZIE: Just pray and ask for a good day, for, you know, more rain if possible, but just for things to be healthy.

SEVIGNY: Ceremony and seed collecting are part of the seasonal rhythms of the off-grid farm. But Yazzie also uses non-traditional techniques, like hoop houses and a walk-behind tractor. She grows enough produce to feed 30 or 40 families.

YAZZIE: It feels good. And then the other thing is when you see plants grow, it's just something - you're like, wow. It's always - it's, like, magical every time you see a little seed come up. You're like, woo. How you doing, little plant?

SEVIGNY: Yazzie studied to be a social worker, but she realized she couldn't convince people to eat healthy food if they didn't have access to it. The Navajo and Hopi nations, home to nearly 200,000 people and larger than West Virginia, have just 15 grocery stores.

YAZZIE: One of the things that I thought was, OK, well, if our ancestors were given from our holy people seeds that says, OK, you're going to grow your own food, you're given cattle or sheep and you're supposed to be sustainable that way, how come we're not doing it?

SEVIGNY: Hopi chef Somana Tootsie says many traditional ways of growing and cooking food have been lost.

SOMANA TOOTSIE: Not everybody has that privilege of being able to be that connected with their culture.

SEVIGNY: Today, she's teaching a class of Hopi and Navajo students in Flagstaff. She demonstrates how to turn a corn husk into a spoon.

TOOTSIE: The other thing you can use these for is making a brush.

SEVIGNY: Tootsie emphasizes cultures change and adapt to different technologies. The students roast sweet potatoes in a cob oven and boil corn tea in an aluminum pot.

TOOTSIE: To showcase what new technology can do with traditional knowledge is really amazing. So I wanted the kids to be able to appreciate that and be able to understand, you know, like, it's not a stagnant culture.

SEVIGNY: The kids make their own tea blends out of local plants like sage and juniper berries, plus a few things borrowed from other cultures, like oolong and pineapple. This is Lexii Jacob, Lauren Tohey and Trinity Begay.

LEXII JACOB: I put in the sage and the cranberry.

LAUREN TOHEY: I just, like, decided on, like, sage and that grounded tea corn.

TRINITY BEGAY: This one's a black tea and I'm going to put, like, a few cranberries in it.

SEVIGNY: Sixteen-year-old Nizhonii Black says her home on the Navajo nation is 45 minutes away from a grocery store. She wants to learn how to grow more food for her family.

NIZHONII BLACK: Knowing that beans can actually help the corn grow, like, bringing nutrients into the ground and the corn can use that to grow, I think that's one thing I brought back home.

SEVIGNY: Somana Tootsie hopes some of these kids will go on to be botanists or chefs. And by connecting with plants and with food, they connect with their cultures, as well.

TOOTSIE: There's a spiritual aspect of it. You don't waste things. You're mindful about, like, every part of what you're using, so that way there's no waste. You know, you don't disrespect the earth. You don't disrespect the plant.

SEVIGNY: She says, when you touch and taste the food, you're touching history. For NPR News, I'm Melissa Sevigny.

(SOUNDBITE OF KUPLA'S "UNDER THE BRIDGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Melissa grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science from the University of Arizona and an M.FA. in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University. Her first book, Mythical River, forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press, is about water issues in the Southwest. She has worked as a science communicator for NASA’s Phoenix Mars Scout Mission, the Water Resources Research Center, and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Melissa relocated to Flagstaff in 2015 to join KNAU’s team. She enjoys hiking, fishing and reading fantasy novels.