Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

October 14, 2014

Dine' Traditional Harvest Recipes

Reposting these popular traditional recipes, most of the Dine' recipes were collected while I was food editor of Navajo Times Today many years ago. There's also mesquite and nopalito (cactus pad) recipes from Tohono O'odham, and others from Sonora. Enjoy! Thanks for reading, Brenda
Article and photo by Brenda Norrell
Censored News
Foods for Health
As the corn is ripening in the fields, it is a good time to share these traditional Dine’ recipes. During the 1980s, Katherine Arviso, director of Navajo Foods and Nutrition, provided Navajos with a scientific study on traditional foods, revealing these are superior to modern foods of bleached flour, with too much sugar and salt. I’m happy to add that I had the honor of working with this program as a nutrition educator. Through the years, traditional Navajo foods and healing practices have been recognized by scientists, including the benefits of sweats and healing with herbs.

In the food study, juniper ash was among the traditional foods found to be packed with benefits. It was made by burning juniper branches and sifting out the ashes. It provided Navajos with a great source of calcium. Another of those traditional foods was dleesh, edible clay. 
Blue corn meal mush with juniper ash (Taa niil) has 802 mg of calcium in one cup, compared to 2.4 mg of the same amount without ash (Toshchiin.) Minerals were also found in Navajo edible white clay, grey clay, tumbleweed ash and Zuni Lake salt. The study showed that ash was superior to baking soda in boiled hominy corn. The ash added calcium and Vitamin A. However, the baking soda added sodium which can increase hypertension.
Navajos also used earth cellars to store dried foods for winter. Dried yellow squash and zucchini squash, often dried as spirals in the summer sun, along with stored whole melons, were good sources of vitamins and minerals. The study revealed high sources of protein and iron in mutton blood sausage, liver and heart.
Traditional Navajo “creamer” made from ground corn offered protein, fiber, calcium, magnesium and iron. Wild greens were very high in Vitamin A. One half cup of Navajo spinach “waa” (Cleome serulatum) contained four times the recommended daily allowance for Vitamin A. Chiilchin, sumac berries, were found high in Vitamin C. Roasted pinons offer protein, potassium, magnesium, iron and zinc.
Yucca bananas from the Yucca Bacata, wide bladed yucca, are nutritious, sweet and delicious. The pulp from the wild banana fruits was either scraped and baked on a hot rock or the fruits were baked in a bowl in hot coals. The baked fruit was sometimes made into a roll, with a hole pushed through the center to allow air to circulate. A piece of the dried roll could be cut and added to corn meal mush.
Here’s a few traditional Dine’ recipes for the harvest season.
Navajo Cake
Bring six cups of water to boil. Add four cups of pre-cooked blue cornmeal. Next, add three cups of pre-cooked yellow cornmeal. Add one-half cup of raisins. Then, add one-half cup of brown sugar. Blend well, dissolving all lumps. Pour into a baking pan and cover with foil. Bake at 250 F for four hours. Allow the caked to cool slowly.

Navajo Blue Corn Marbles
Mix one cup juniper ash, prepared from juniper branches, and one cup boiling water. Put three and one-half cups water in a pot and boil. Strain into the pot the ashes and stir. Add six cups blue corn meal. Knead the dough until soft and firm. Shape into thumb-sized pieces. Put three cups water in a big pot. Boil. Add dough pieces to boiling water. Serve hot.
Kneeldown Bread
Gather fresh corn in the field. One dozen feeds four people. Then build a fire in a pit, many inches deep. While the fire is burning in the pit, cut the kernels from the corn cobs. Place your grinding stone on a clean sheep or goat skin. Grind the corn until it is very smooth. Make the ground corn into cakes, about two inches by five inches long. Add salt if you like. Place the corn cakes between two husks in a way that they won’t fall apart.
Make as tamales. Take the hot ashes from the pit and lay them aside. Lay some husks over at the bottom and up the sides of the fire pit. Place the bread in and cover with more husks. Put the ashes from the fire on top. Build a little fire of twigs on top of it all. The fire shouldn’t be too big, or it will burn the bread. After an hour, remove all the ashes and husks off the bread. Eat.
Dleesh with Haasch’eedaa’ berries (Matrimony vine or box thorn)
Wash the ripe berries until they become a juicy pulp. Dleesh is added so that it dissolves in the juice. The pulp is left in the mixture. The dlessh thickens the juice and flattens the naturally sour berries.
Dleesh is also eaten when too many fatty foods have been eaten, by dissolving in water.
By Brenda Norrell
Photo: Nopalitos, cactus pads, health food for diabetics.
SERILAND, Sonora, Mexico — In the spring of the year 2000, Seri, O’odham and Yaqui walked from the Seri coast of Mexico, across the Sonora Desert, to Tucson, Ariz., in the Desert Walk for Health and Heritage.
In Ali Cukson, Ariz., on the Tohono O’odham Nation near the border, O’odham greeted them with the old songs sang for tired runners from their sacred Baboquivari Mountains.
Crossing the desert on foot with saguaro ribs for walking sticks, the walkers promoted indigenous foods in the fight against diabetes. Seri said they prepared for the journey by purifying themselves with tea brewed from the ironwood plant.
”Native foods and medicines protected Native people from diabetes for centuries,” said walker and ethnobotantist Gary Nabhan. ”Wherever indigenous people live, eating local indigenous food is better for their bodies, their communities, their economies, and the land itself.”
Nabhan said mesquite beans and acorns rank among the top 10 foods ever analyzed for effectively controlling blood sugar. Cactus foods like nopalitos also provide an abundance of fibers known as gums and mucilages that help break down carbohydrates for digestion and convert sugars slowly.
Cooking over open campfires, they baked mescal from the agave plant and prepared soups of snail and shark fins. There was also venison, and chia seed drink, stewed nopalitos (cactus pads) and cholla cactus buds. They ate chapalote, a Native ground popcorn at night, and greeted the mornings with mesquite and amaranth pancakes, topped with prickly pear syrup. Wild blossoms provided a punch of ocotillo flowers.
DIABETES NIGHTMARE: Donuts for breakfast, followed by colas and potato chips
Donuts and sugary foods for breakfast are common today, and the worst choice for diabetics. They cause the blood sugar to peak high, then crash. Soft drinks, canned colas, are among the most detrimental drinks, most have 12 teaspoons of sugar. Many children drink several colas or soft drinks a day, three colas usually equals 36 teaspoons of sugar.
Sugar-free, diet colas, contain chemicals harmful to health, including chemicals related to migraine headaches.
To break the soft drink habit, try iced herbal teas or water with lemon and lots of ice. When buying juices, make sure the label says “juice” or 100 percent juice, and not “drinks” which are packed with sugar or made with corn syrup. The challenge is to get safe drinking water in all communities, especially along the border. (Beware of leaving plastic bottles of water in the sun in the car, as the toxins released from the plastic can cause cancer. Also, the thin plastic bottles of water produce toxins when water is frozen and thawed for drinking.)
Try oatmeal or other cooked whole grains for breakfast, or whole wheat toast and eggs. Oatmeal helps lower cholesterol and levels out blood sugar as it digests slowly. Or try the mesquite muffins or amaranth pancakes below.
Diabetics need to eat often, three smaller meals with nutritous snacks in between. Cheese, meat, leftovers and vegetables can be used for snacks. For the best health, eat fresh salads at least a few times a week.
Greasy gravies, potato chips and similar high fat foods are detrimental to everyone’s health. Food swimming in grease or salt is especially damaging to the heart and increases chances of high blood pressure.
FOOD ITEMS: In southern Arizona, nopalitos, prickly pear cactus pads, are available in many grocery stores. When cooked, the thin-sliced nopalitos taste similar to green beans. In the markets, other items such as mesquite or amaranth flour, can be found at health food stores, health coops. San Xavier Cooperative Farm sells cholla buds and other Native foods. See Resources below.
1 lb nopalitos, nopales prickly pear cactus paddles that have been stripped of spines, cleaned, and chopped
     Olive oil
     2 large cloves garlic, minced
     1/2 red onion, roughly chopped
     1 jalapeño pepper, stem and seeds removed, chopped
     1 medium tomato, roughly chopped
     Salt and pepper
Heat a tablespoon of olive oil (enough to coat the bottom of the pan) in a large sauté pan on medium high heat. Add red onion, garlic, and jalapeño. Cook for a minute, stirring occasionally, then add the nopalitos. Cook for several more minutes. Then add the chopped tomato. Continue to cook until all vegetables are cooked through. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.
Serves 3 to 4.
Carrot-Mesquite Muffins
 2 C grated carrots
2 lg eggs
½ C vegetable oil
¼ C molasses and honey mixed
1/3 C sugar
½ tsp vanilla
¼ C rice, soy, or regular milk
1 2/3 C all purpose flour
1/3 C mesquite flour
¼ C oat bran
¼ C granola
1 tsp cinnamon
1 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
½ C raisins (optional)
½ C granola for garnish (optional)
Preheat over to 350 degrees. Oil muffin tins. Mix egg, carrot, oil, milk, sugar, and molasses in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl mix flour, mesquite meal, granola, bran, spice, baking powder, and salt. Mix dry ingredients into wet until just mixed. Add raisins and stir in, leaving batter slightly lumpy. Spoon batter into tins, filling about ½ full. Sprinkle with granola and bake for approximately 20-25 minutes or until knife comes out clean.
Mesquite Cornbread
¾ C each cornmeal and flour
½ C mesquite meal
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp each baking soda and salt
1 C buttermilk or yogurt
1 egg
3 T maple syrup or honey
3 T oil
Combine dry ingredients in medium-sized bowl. Combine the wet ingredients and stir into the dry ingredients just until combined. Spread into greased 8 x 8” pan. Bake 20-25 minutes at 350 de­grees. Optional: mix in with dry ingredients— 1 C fresh or frozen corn, ¾ C grated jack cheese, 3 T minced onion, 1 T chipotle flakes.
Amaranth Pancakes


  • 1 cup amaranth flour
  • 1/2 cup arrowroot powder, available at health food stores
  • 1/2 cup ground almonds or other ground nuts
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/4 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons honey


  1. In a large bowl, combine amaranth flour, arrowroot, almonds, baking soda and cinnamon. In a separate bowl, combine water, lemon juice, oil and honey; mix well. Stir liquids into flour mixture; mix well.
  2. Heat a lightly oiled griddle or frying pan over medium high heat. Drop the batter by spoonfuls onto the griddle, using approximately 2 tablespoons for each pancake. Brown on both sides and serve hot.
Read atbout TOCA at:
MARKET:  The San Xavier Co-operative Farm, south of Tucson on Tohono O’odham land, sells tepary beans, cholla buds, melons in season, and other traditional foods: San Xavier Cooperative Farm, 8100 S. Oidak Wog, Tucson. (520) 295-3774

Calabacitas: The bounty of squash, corn, chiles and cheese
 By Brenda Norrell
Top photo: Sonoma County farmer’s market. Bottom photo: yellow squash from the garden. Photos by Brenda Norrell.
SOUTH TUCSON — In Maria’s kitchen in south Tucson, the calabacitas were an artform, a delicious mixture of squash, corn, chiles and cheese. The calabacitas were always best when a mixture of squashes were used:  Mexican grey squash, zucchini and yellow squash. The sautéed squash, corn and chiles are topped with grated or crumbled fresh cheese.
The best way to begin is to sauté garlic and onion in olive oil and then add your favorite combination of sliced squashes, corn kernels cut fresh from the cob and green chiles. When the squash is tender, top it off with a generous handful of Mexican, Longhorn, white or cheddar cheese.
Calabacitas are a nutritious fast food to make at home. By adding cooked chicken, the calabacitas can be filled into a tortillas for quesadillas. Try these sprinkled with fresh white Mexican cheese or goat cheese.
Calabacitas are a specialty in restaurants in Tucson, including La Indita and Crossroads. Try calabacitas with the green corn tamales, tamales made with corn cut fresh from the cob and combined with green chiles, or try with chile rellenos.
Few people can part with the beauty of squash blossoms in their morning gardens. But the blossoms, as well as the squash, have long been a delicacy for Navajos and others in the Southwest.


Tucson community supported agriculture

1 tablespoon oil
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 large summer squash
2 ears of corn, kernels scraped off
1 tomato, quartered
2 chiles
1/2 cup cilantro or Mexican oregano, chopped
1 pinch salt
1/2 cup cheddar cheese or queso fresco
In a skillet, sauté onions in oil until tender.
Add garlic, squash, and tomato; cook for another 5 minutes.
Mix in chopped chilies, corn. Add cheese.
Cover and simmer for 10-15 minutes (or bake 20 minutes at 350)
Add cilantro before serving.
Calabacitas II
  • 1 tablespoon(s) extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 poblano, or Anaheim chile pepper, seeded and diced
  • 2 cup(s) diced zucchini or Mexican grey squash
  • 2 cup(s) diced summer squash
  • Sprinkle salt and black pepper optional
  • 2 tablespoon(s) chopped fresh cilantro (optional)
  • Grated white or yellow cheese for topping

  1. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add onion and chile; cook, stirring, until soft, about 4 minutes. Add zucchini, summer squash and salt; cover and cook, stirring once or twice, until tender, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in cilantro (if using).

Fried Squash Blossoms

(Heidi DeCosmo, TCSA)
1 large egg
½ cup ice water
Pinch of sea salt
½ cup all-purpose flour
Vegetable oil for frying
6 squash blossoms
Sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, and fresh lemon juice
In a mixing bowl, lightly beat the egg and pour in the ice water; mix to combine. Add the salt and flour, and continue to mix until the batter is the consistency of heavy cream.
While the batter is resting, carefully clean the fragile blossoms. Remove the yellow stamens as gently as possible so as not to tear the blossoms. Remove any green leaves near the stem, and clip the stem, if necessary. Gently wash the blossoms, shake them, and lay them on a paper towel to dry.
Heat 2 inches of vegetable oil over medium-high heat to 375 degrees. Dip 2 blossoms at a time in the batter and coat them completely, letting the excess drip off. You may want to fry one flower first to test the oil. The blossom should be light-brown when fried and crisp. Fry the flowers in the hot oil for 2 minutes until crisp and golden brown.
By Brenda Norrell
Foods for Health
Tohono O’odham say the Milky Way is composed of tepary beans sprinkled across the sky.
On the Tohono O’odham Nation, delicious tepary beans are the bedrock of new cooperative farming projects, a new café, and an award-winning O’odham student recipe. The ancient O’odham desert beans, both white and brown teparies, help fight diabetes by keeping blood sugar levels stable.
At the Desert Rain Cafe in Sells, Arizona, tepary beans, which have the good taste of the earth, are on the menu in stews, atop salads and in tamales. White tepary beans are served in savory stew with chicken and green chiles. The brown tepary beans are also served with Ojibwe wild rice and quinoa over mixed salad greens. The hearty beans are served alongside cholla buds at the cafe in the Tohono O’odham capitol.
 “Traditional foods are healthy foods. They help regulate blood sugar levels and control diabetes. We use syrup from the agave as our sweetener, mesquite flour in our baked goods and olive oil for cooking,” says Desert Rain Café, a project of Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA).
Prickly pear, mesquite or chia seed smoothies are on the menu, along with other favorites like green corn tamales, fresh ground corn tamales:
Tohono O’odham Community Action Club students recently created an award-winning recipe and claimed top honors in the National Healthy School Campaign with tepary beans. The students were Ross R. Miguel, Yvette Ventura and Zade Arnold. The menu was: tepary bean quesadillas, baby spinach and pear salad with carrot vinaigrette, and yogurt peanut butter fruit dip.
“The quesadilla is something we have at school but we wanted to make a better, healthier one. We love spinach and carrots so the salad idea just popped into our heads. When we saw peanut butter and yogurt on the list, we thought it would be good together,” the students said.
“Tepary beans, approved as a substitute for red beans, is the most significant traditional food of the Tohono O’odham people and is locally sourced from Papago Farms in Pisinemo, Arizona — our farmer there is Noland Johnson. We got our carrots and spinach from the Student Learning Farm at Tohono O’odham Community College in Sells, Arizona — there our farmers are Paul Buseck and Clifford Pablo,” the students said.
Read more atbout TOCA at:
MARKET:  The San Xavier Co-operative Farm, south of Tucson on Tohono O’odham land, sells tepary beans, cholla buds, melons in season, and other traditional foods: San Xavier Cooperative Farm, 8100 S. Oidak Wog, Tucson. 

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