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By Diné Policy Institute
The Navajo Nation Council and the Diné College Board of Regents established Diné Policy Institute (DPI) in 2005 to articulate, analyze, and apply the Diné Bi Beehaz’áanii (Navajo Law) to issues impacting the Diné (Navajo) people by educating, collaborating, and serving as a resource for policy and research. Since 2011, DPI has studied the Navajo Nation food system through primary research, meetings with Diné knowledge holders, community-based data collection, and literature and historical reviews under the Diné Food Sovereignty Initiative. The purpose of this research was to better understand the systemic issues that have shaped the current Diné food system and its negative health, community, economic, cultural, and environmental impacts, and to identify strategies and recommendations for creating positive change for the Diné people. The following passages are excerpted from DPI’s comprehensive report, Diné Food Sovereignty.
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In the most basic analysis, food is an essential component of human life. Food nourishes and sustains us; without adequate access to food, human beings cannot survive. As a basic necessity for life, food is interconnected with every sector of life and well-being, including health (physical, mental, and spiritual), economy, family and community, and the environment. For these reasons, the right to food is a fundamental human right, and is recognized by the United Nations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966.
Many of the issues faced today on the Navajo Nation can be directly tied to the food system. An examination of the Navajo Nation food system reveals that our current food system not only does not serve the needs of the Navajo Nation, but also negatively impacts the well-being of the Diné people.
These issues include epidemic levels of nutritionally related illness, including diabetes and obesity, food insufficiency (high rates of hunger), significant leakage of Navajo dollars to border towns, and disintegration of Diné lifeways and K’é (the ancient system of kinship observed between Diné people and all living things in existence), among other issues; all while the Navajo Nation grapples with extremely high rates of unemployment, dependence on natural resource extraction revenue, and unstable federal funding.
By reconnecting with traditional foods and revitalizing knowledge and practices around those foods, the Navajo Nation can begin to proactively address these issues in ways that restore hózhó (holistic well-being). Restoring hózhó will have positive impacts on the health and relationships of the people, as well as our interconnectedness with the land, while also leading to greater self-sufficiency for the Diné people and the Navajo Nation.
Diné knowledge and food
This section is not intended to speak for the cultural beliefs and perspectives of all Diné people, but is a representation of significant themes and teachings that DPI encountered through its research. The section was informed by a DPI-hosted Advisory Circle on the topic of food, work with DPI’s cultural liaison, conversations with traditional practitioners, medicine people, and community-based knowledge holders, as well as interviews with farmers, ranchers, and community members.
Why is culture so important in analyzing the Navajo food system?
Diné people have a rich history with food that has helped to form and shape Diné identity. Many of the most important teachings, lessons, and philosophies that orient Diné perspective on life are rooted in traditional stories and teachings of food and the many life beings in the Diné environment that provide for food. Not only are important guidelines for life embedded in teachings on food, but very practical knowledge of Diné environments, ecology, climate, social interaction, and health and wellness, among others, are fundamentally tied to the teachings and practices of food.
Connections to food: placed for us
The relationship that Diné people have with food can be traced back to the origins of Diné existence. Diné traditional oral narratives speak of plants being placed on the earth in a sacred and holy way by the Diyin Dine’é (Holy People) to provide for the sustenance and well-being of the Diné people. These plants predated human beings, and were placed for the people with laws and rules to guide the people to interact in an appropriate manner with the sacred life beings. It is said that the blessings of sacred food plants were given by Changing Woman to feed the Diné people. Also, according to oral narratives, Diné people owe our existence to a food plant, corn, as we are said to be made from this plant. The oral narratives tell us that, in the making of the human beings, corn was used in formation of our physical beings, especially the right and left sides of our brains, and for this reason we have a particular connection to this plant, which also provides for our sustenance. The importance of corn in connection to our origins is also seen in the stories of some clan groups who are said to have originated from corn.
Roles, relationship, and duty
As with all things in life, in traditional Diné teachings, the plants and animals that are consumed as foods are understood and interacted with in terms of relationships, based on the system of K’é. All plants and animals are seen as life beings, and in this way, these beings are looked at as relatives to the Diné people. They are alive and have a voice and inner spirit, just as human beings do. Plants can hear, think, feel, and communicate. As living beings, Diné people are to treat plants with the same respect and duty of care as we would our birth mothers, siblings, and clan relatives. We address them with song and prayer, and treat them as sacred beings. Diné teachings reflect a responsibility to protect these life beings, which have been placed on the earth with particular purposes. At the time of creation, it was determined what roles specific plants would play, including which would serve as food for Diné people. The Diné people were not to exercise ownership or alteration of these life beings, just as they would not do the same to their mothers or siblings.
Food as part of the environment: laws and rules for reverence
Diné oral narratives hold that when foods were placed on the earth for the people, laws or rules were provided to guide the people’s interaction with, and accessing of, these life beings. Earth, sky, plants, and all living things in existence live according to Diné Bibee Nahaz’áanii Bitsésiléi (Fundamental Laws of the Diné). These laws, as described by Nahasdzáán dóó Yádiłhił Bits’áádéé’ Bee Nahaz’áanii (Diné Natural Law), call for the appropriate respect, reverence, and protocol of offering for the accessing of natural elements, including our food sources. Our elders teach that Diné people were charged with the responsibility to care for and protect sacred life beings, such as plants, animals, and other life-sustaining elements, as is described in Diné Natural Law:
The Diné have a sacred obligation and duty to respect, preserve, and protect all that was provided for we were designated as the steward of these relatives through our use of the sacred gifts of language and thinking.
As such, alteration or other abuse of the properties of living things would cause negative consequences to the people. At their creation, the rules for how plants could be used were set in place. Some of these laws guide what cannot be accessed for food, including certain plants that are for other animals or are not to be consumed at all. These rules also address plants and animals that have been affected by forces of nature, such as lightning, as well as foods of certain kinds that are not to be consumed during and after certain ceremonies. Even specific guidelines for what parts of plants and animals can be consumed were given. At the root of these laws and teachings is the focus on maintaining reverence for the life beings that make up our food sources and living in balance with those life beings as part of the greater, interconnected environment of all things living.
In relation to cultivated plants, it is said that the Holy People shared with the Diné people the teachings of how to plant, nurture, prepare, eat, and store our sacred cultivated crops, such as corn. The importance of these teachings to our well-being was made clear in that the Holy People shared that we would be safe and healthy until the day that we forgot our seeds, our farms, and our agriculture. It was said that when we forgot these things, we would be afflicted by disease and hardship again, which is what some elders point to as the onset of diabetes, obesity, and other ills facing Diné people today.
The quantity of foods and other resources consumed is another concept for which guidance is provided from Diné teachings. The Diné teaching of t’óó bikíínígo (take just enough) was provided to ensure that we are able to access and consume only what is necessary for our survival, while also being careful to protect and conserve the foods and natural elements to which we have access, not overusing them, which would create imbalance. By overusing these precious food sources, it was said, they would move away from us, or they would disappear or no longer exist for humans to access.
Spirituality and wellness
Our traditional teachings also tell that food plants hold a unique place with respect to Diné spirituality. Diné people access some plant life that also serves as our food for purposes of prayer and healing. Positive blessings, good health, and wellness are sought through these plant life beings that we ingest or otherwise access. The corn plant is especially important to Diné spirituality, in that corn is used in various ways within ceremonies, prayers, and offerings. Corn pollen and corn meal provide for the connection that Diné people seek to access the positive effects of spirituality.
Not only do we utilize corn as a catalyst to engaging Diné spirituality, but the teachings say that prior to planting, harvesting, or gathering food plants, prayers are to be done to help maintain the connection that we share. Also related to spiritual connection to corn, it is even said that corn prays for the Diné people to live in hózhó and restore and maintain the natural cycle of life.
Diné teachings also convey the healing and wellness-promoting role of foods in the Diné worldview. Plants accessed for traditional purposes, such as corn, beans, squash, and tobacco, are said to be important to our mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being. Foods like alkáád (ground-cooked corn cake) make up a key part of the wellness sought from ceremonies and are also used in daily life. While certain herbs and other plant-based foods contribute directly to restoration of hózhó in the ceremonial setting, cultivated crops such as corn and squash are said to help promote and maintain health and wellness by nourishing and strengthening Diné people and preventing adverse health in ways that go beyond purely chemical or physiological effects. From these teachings and generations of positive health and wellness, we internalized the idea that the natural foods that we grew and harvested will nurture our bodies toward wellness.
Looking at food through the lens of nutrition, Diné elders point to a vastly different diet among Diné people today than that which sustained our people for generations in the past. They highlight the fact that today’s diet among Diné people is high in fat, sugar, and salt. They note that adoption of foods such as eggs, bacon, and potatoes from mainstream America into the common Diné diet, as well as fast food and ready-made foods, has led to adverse health effects. In terms of food portions, modern mainstream American restaurants promote the “all-you-can eat” approach to dining, which is antithetical to that of the Diné traditional teaching of t’óó bikíínígo, or “take just what you need.”
Shifts in the types and portions of foods consumed by Diné are seen as leading to a number of adverse effects, such as diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure. Knowledge holders have observed that Diné people have higher incidents of allergies today than in the past, and that, due to the modern diet, puberty ceremonies are occurring at younger ages for girls. In addition, whereas Diné people of generations past were aware of the teachings and origins of the historically consumed traditional foods, today there is a general lack of awareness of what is being consumed. Elders say that when a person raises crops or livestock, they know what goes into that food source and where it is coming from. In the modern Diné diet, many items purchased at grocery stores are shipped long distances and are loaded with ingredients that are difficult to identify.
T’áá Diné Bich’iya’: Traditional Navajo foods
The term “traditional food” is one that can be complicated and have varying interpretations. Diné oral narratives share that there were sacred plants initially placed for the Diné people: corn, beans, squash, and tobacco. By consuming sacred food plants, it is said that a person will live a long life and reach the ultimate goal of sacred existence in old age. Through the blessings of the Holy People, the Diné people were bestowed with cornfields to provide our food, and it was said that if we ever lost sight of our traditional foods, we would have health problems. By eating corn, beans, and squash, our bodies and organs function as they should and healthy skin is promoted.
Although some more recent concepts of “traditional foods” include foods such as fried bread, fried potatoes, and Navajo tacos, when asked to describe what is meant by traditional foods or T’áá Diné bich’iya’, elders describe foods that have been part of the Diné diet since the time prior to American conquest. These pre-conquest traditional foods of our ancestors typically fell into two main categories: cultivated crops and wild foods. Cultivated crops were made up of the white, blue, yellow, and multicolored corn, as well as beans, squash, melons, peaches, apricots, and others. Traditionally harvested wild foods were made up of naturally occurring plants like hashk’aan (yucca fruit), chiiłchin (sumac berries), wild celery, wild oats, acorns, herbs, berries, and other plants. Traditional meats included prairie dog and rabbit, as well as horse and deer meat. Prepared traditional foods included steamed corn, stews, blue corn mush, dumplings, iced blue corn, nitsidi go’í (kneel down bread, similar to tamales made with fresh corn), noodles, pancakes, piki bread (paper thin, rolled bread), and corn bread. However, although the naturally occurring and cultivated crops made up the majority of the Diné diet in generations of the past, today they are scarcely seen or prepared, as the Diné food system and the Diné lifeway have been dramatically affected by the mainstream American diet. This has led to a marked decline in the frequency with which Diné people partake in traditional food practices, and many Diné young people are completely unaware or unknowledgeable of these ancient foods that once sustained the Diné people.
Diné K’ehgo Bee Iiná: Lifeway
To Diné people of past generations, food was not just a commodity that could be purchased and used to satisfy hunger or cravings. The many teachings, lessons, activities, and experiences associated with food were deeply intertwined with the lifeway of the people, a lifeway that provided for strong, healthy, well-balanced individuals and tight-knit families and communities.
In Diné society of the past, all aspects of interaction with food were important. As with many aspects of Diné life, planting and harvesting of crops and wild foods were guided by the order of Nature, as these activities were closely associated to the seasons. Each plant would grow and mature at certain times of the year, and was planted, harvested, or collected at specific times of the year. Accordingly, certain foods were eaten at particular times of the year. The planting and cultivation of crops that was done each year was a group effort of the local extended family group. While elders speak of how groups of people from the same clans would come together and work together in the plowing, planting, weeding, protection, and harvesting for community farms, they are quick to point out that this system of community effort has all but disappeared. It is this type of teamwork and community-building effort that helped to maintain tight-knit Diné communities and concern for the well-being of each other that many elders note has dwindled today. Not only did people come together to plant, tend to, and harvest traditional foods, but they also came together to help each other with preparation of traditional foods like alkáád.
These community efforts also provided food security for our people, in that all of the families who participated were able to partake of the produce at harvest time, many times having ample amounts to store for the winter. When more than enough food was harvested, crops like watermelon and cantaloupe were stored in the cellar for later consumption. Focus on the importance of Diné spiritual lifeway was maintained, as prayers were done for the seeds before and after planting.
Through investing our own time, energy, and effort into growing our own foods, Diné people instilled core values that had sustained our people through many hardships in the past. They built and maintained an appreciation for the food they had nurtured into existence, and an ethic for hard work was cultivated within them. Young people learned through observation and participation in the processes related to farming and preparation of traditional foods, as well as their relation to seasonal and ceremonial concepts. With determination, will, and respect for the teachings of proper interaction with food plants, the people cultivated their own food, exercising true self-sufficiency. The Diné teaching of T’áá hwó ájít’éego (self-determination, self-sufficiency, and motivation) was experienced through the continuous cycles related to food.
Elders observe that today the traditional teachings and lifeway related to food are declining. Whereas in generations past, youth were raised being involved in observing, participating in, and doing the activities that led to consumption of culturally significant and healthy foods, in modern society, the valuable teachings and concepts of our origins with, and connections to, food are not being passed on to and maintained by many young people. Some knowledge holders feel that the stories they share are not understood. Mainstream information and advertisements related to food increasingly drive decisions about what foods Diné people consume and how we consume them. Elders observe that, in the modern diet, priority is often placed on convenience and expedience of food options. The disconnect from the participation in cultivating our own foods has led to a disconnect from the very values and life teachings that have helped Diné people since time immemorial to experience positive individual and community development and to grow to be resilient and self-sufficient members of the Navajo Nation.
In relation to physical health, Diné elders note that, when Diné people grew and prepared food from scratch, nutritionally related diseases were scarce among the people and physical fitness was much more common. It is observed that today we buy food at stores and freeze it for long periods of time, especially ready-made meals. As Diné food consumers, we have experienced a dramatic change in lifestyle related to food. As a result of the shift in our ways, we have entered into an era of combating adverse health effects, the likes of which would shock our ancestors.
Diné knowledge is rich with lessons for a healthy, balanced, productive, and happy life. These lessons were learned in the ancient system of lifeway that was lived by Diné of generations past. This lifeway guided the Diné people through countless hardships and adversities to become a strong, resilient, and grounded people. However, the lifeway that provided the guidelines to Diné resilience was rooted in a food system that stressed the importance of a multitude of elements promoting wellness that are not seen in modern mainstream American society’s food consumption.
Health and the state of the Navajo nation food system today
The legacy of colonization and American policies has led to the decline of traditional Diné foods, traditional food knowledge, and a self-sufficient food system, but also has left the Navajo Nation and the Diné people with a nutritionally insufficient diet and very low access to healthy foods within their communities. This has resulted in epidemic levels of nutritionally related illness, as well as a poorly functioning food economy that does little to uplift the Navajo Nation.
Nutritionally related illness on the Navajo Nation
Currently, the Navajo Nation faces a health crisis due to extremely high rates of nutritionally related illness, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and cancers. Regarding diabetes, in particular, the Navajo Health and Nutrition Survey conducted in 1990 found that 22.9 percent of the Navajo population had diabetes. Since then, diabetes rates have continued to increase, particularly among the younger population. The Indian Health Service (IHS) now estimates that 1 in 3 Navajos either is diagnosed with type 2 diabetes or is prediabetic. This equates to nearly 100,000 Navajos or approximately 33 percent of the Navajo population. As the incidence of diabetes is more heavily concentrated within the boundaries of Navajo Nation, the rate of diabetes may be closer to 50 percent for the population on the Navajo Nation; IHS health care workers have anecdotally stated that they are diagnosing diabetes for 1 in 2 patients in some regions. Diné people also face rates of diabetes much higher than in the general American population, as the diabetes rate for the United States is estimated at 8.3 percent as of 2011. The rise of these nutritionally related illnesses, however, is a historically recent phenomenon for the Diné people. In 1937, a survey of 6,000 hospitalizations in Ganado, AZ, found only one case of diabetes.
Understanding the underlying causes of nutritionally related illness is complex, and researchers have identified a multitude of factors that increase a person’s likelihood of facing health issues linked to diet. In previous decades, researchers looked predominately at biological factors when studying obesity and diabetes among Native populations, without contextualizing the history of colonization, food access, and socioeconomic conditions that directly correlate with the onset of nutritionally related illness. As obesity and diabetes rates have risen in recent years for the general American population, studies focusing solely on biological factors have declined, and more researchers have started to analyze how environmental, economic, and social factors are the strongest indicators for nutritionally related illness.
Implications of the Diné Food Sovereignty initiative research
A historical analysis of the Diné diet and food system, in conjunction with interviews from a Community Food Assessment, grower focus groups, and the Advisory Circle of Diné knowledge holders, revealed that the indigenous and self-sufficient Diné food system began to break down after American encroachment. Gradually, as the production and consumption of indigenous foods declined on the Navajo Nation, consumption of unhealthy and highly processed foods increased and Diné people became dependent on food assistance programs. This transition in the Diné diet and food system was fostered by practices and policies of the American colonization of Diné people and lands. The decline of traditional food and a self-sufficient food system also coincided with the decline of Diné lifeways, relationship with the land, families, language, and culture as the Navajo Nation transitioned to a wage-based economy.
In developing strategies to increase access to healthy foods and address economic issues with the current food system, traditional foods and food knowledge need to be at the forefront. DPI’s research strongly suggests that a return to indigenous foods will not only significantly improve the health of Diné people, but will also create pathways to a more self-sufficient food system and economy for the Navajo Nation. From DPI’s research, it is clear that there is a very strong interest in revitalizing traditional foods and traditional food knowledge among Diné food consumers, farmers, elders, and knowledge holders.
Diné Food Sovereignty
Asserting Diné Food Sovereignty is fundamental to rebuilding a healthy and self-sufficient food system for the Diné people. Diné Food Sovereignty is the right of Diné people to define their own policies and strategies for sustainable production, distribution, and consumption of food, with respect to Diné culture, philosophy, and values, and is considered to be a precondition for food security on the Navajo Nation. Diné Food Sovereignty ensures the ability to establish our own culturally appropriate and sustainable systems of managing natural resources including lands, territories, waters, seeds, livestock, and biodiversity. Diné Food Sovereignty empowers Diné people by putting the Diné people, cooks, farmers, ranchers, hunters, and wild food collectors at the center of decision-making on policies, strategies, and natural resource management.
Our indigenous foods are a gift from the Diyin Dine’é, and these foods provided the sustenance and well-being of Diné people within Diné Bikéyah (Navajo homeland). In this respect, the right to food is sacred, and cannot be constrained by colonial laws, policies, institutions, and economic systems. Diné Food Sovereignty works to restore hózhó and promote Diné self-sufficiency and is fundamentally achieved by upholding our sacred responsibility to nurture healthy interdependent relationships with the land, plants, and animals that provide us with our food.
Excerpted with permission from Diné Food Sovereignty: A Report on the Navajo Nation Food System and the Case to Rebuild a Self-Sufficient Food System for the Diné People, published by Diné Policy Institute (DPI) in 2014. DPI is housed at Diné College in Tsaile, AZ. For more information about DPI or to download the full report, visit www.dinecollege.edu/about_dc/dine-policy-institute-dpi.
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- N.N.C. §205, Diné Bi Beenahaz’áanii (1 N.N.C. §§ 201-206). Available at: http://www.navajocourts.org/dine.htm.
- Johnson Dennison, “Diné Knowledge of Seeds.” (Presentation, Diné Policy Institute Seed Conference, Tsaile, AZ, April 5, 2013).
- Julie C. Will, et al. “Diabetes mellitus among Navajo Indians: findings from the Navajo Health and Nutrition Survey,” Journal of Nutrition 127, no. 10 (1997): 2108S.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Diabetes Fact Sheet, 2011.
- Will, “Diabetes mellitus among Navajo Indians,” 2106S.
Published in the Price-Pottenger Journal of Health and Healing
Winter 2018 – 2019 | Volume 42, Number 4
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