Dineh Wild Foods -- Voices from Tse Ho Tso Censored News series on real life solutions to climate change, living on the land, growing food and walking
By Brenda Norrell
TSE HO TSO -- Navajo elder Howard McKinley, who lived to be nearly 100 years old, recalled how corn pollen was used in ceremonies and corn silk was used for healing teas. Navajo women sang corn grinding songs as they ground corn on grinding stones. Parched corn was ground together with pinons for nut butter similar to peanut butter.
McKinley remembered picking wild yucca bananas and wild potatoes. He remembered how blocks of frozen water from Blue Canyon were stored as chunks of ice for summer months in cut-rock houses near his home in Tse Ho Tso (Meadow between the rocks) known as Fort Defiance, Arizona.
“People wouldn’t be getting cancer today if they were still eating the wild foods,” McKinley said. He served as a tribal councilman most of his life and traveled with Annie Wauneka, who became a legend, encouraging Navajos to adopt safer health practices in the fight against tuberculosis.
When McKinley saw Navajo elderly being served corn dogs on a napkin, he helped revolutionize Navajo food programs in the mid-20th century.
It was called “the corn dog harvest” in Washington.
McKinley, a storyteller, received a master’s degree and always walked long distances. If he needed to go to Albuquerque, about 175 miles away, he would just start out walking, sleeping in trees to avoid coyotes. While sharing stories on the front porch of his home, he credited his long life to walking and laughter.
Katherine Arviso, Navajo, led a scientific study of traditional foods, which revealed the secrets of ancient Navajo foods. Among those, the ash made from burning juniper needles, cooked in blue corn meal mush, is an amazing source of calcium and minerals.
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, while the baking soda added sodium which can increase hypertension.
Dried foods, stored for winter, were analyzed including dried yellow squash and zucchini squash and watermelon, 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.
The yucca bananas from the Yucca Bacata, wide bladed yucca, are nutritious, sweet and delicious.The ripe fruit was eaten fresh or prepared for winter. 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.
Yucca was used in many ways. The center blades were used to make “gazoo” cheese by mixing the blades with goat’s milk. The blades were used for making brushes or as a combination needle and thread. The roots were prized as natural soap and shampoo.
Food clay or dleesh to Navajos, was mixed with wild potato or tomatillo berry to counteract the tart and astringent taste. Mixed with the box thorn, it became a remedy for upset stomachs.
Before the days of mutton, brought by the Spaniards, and fry bread, ingredients brought by the cavalry and traders, Navajo traditional foods were wild plants and game. During times of hunger, wild grass seeds were gathered and ponies were eaten.
Arviso points out Navajos grew strong and healthy on the wild foods and game. Long before the days of fast foods, canned foods, and frozen foods Navajos gathered and hunted their foods.
After the turn of the century, trading posts sold the first canned and processed foods and soft drinks.
“Navajo traditional foods are not the white flour and greasy foods that traders brought to the reservation.” New in this series at Censored News: Dineh Farmer Kris Barney at Rough Rock, Growing Food, Connecting to our Ancestors and Ourselves