Arizona Public Radio | Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Navajo and Hopi farmers keep the culture of food alive

Squash and blooming sunflowers grow in rows, with a farmhouse on the left and a hogan in the distance, under a blue sky with wispy clouds.
Melissa Sevigny
Coffee Pot Farms

The Navajo and Hopi nations in northeastern Arizona are known as “food deserts,” with little access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Tribal members lost land, languages, and farming practices when white settlers colonized the West. But local farmers are working to keep the culture of food alive for the next generation of Indigenous farmers, gardeners, and chefs. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports, they’re blending traditional knowledge with nontraditional farming techniques.

Cherilyn Yazzie, a Navajo farmer, stands in a field of tall green plants with a white dog, and a black water tank in the distance
Melissa Sevigny
Cherilyn Yazzie on Coffee Pot Farms

At Coffee Pot Farms on the Navajo Nation, Cherilyn Yazzie starts the day with prayer. “Just pray and ask for a good day,” she says, “for more rain if possible, but just for things to be healthy.”

She grew up here, beneath the coffee-pot-shaped butte that gave the farm its name. Walking into a hoop house, she shows off the peppers growing in rows. “They’re so happy,” she says. “They’re not getting trashed around outside in the wind.

Ceremony and seed-collecting are part of the seasonal rhythms of the off-grid farm. But Yazzie also uses what she calls “nontraditional” techniques, like hoop houses and a walk-behind tractor. She grows enough produce to feed thirty or forty families, including herself. “It feels good,” she says. “The other thing is when you see plants grow, it’s just something, you’re like, wow—it’s magical every time you see a little seed come up: ‘oooh, how you doing little plant?’”

A cluster of small red and green tomatoes hang from a vine
Melissa Sevigny
Tomatoes grow in the hoop house at Coffee Pot Farms

Farming wasn’t her plan. She studied to be a social worker. But Yazzie realized she couldn’t convince people to eat healthy food if they didn’t have access to it. The vast Navajo Nation, home to nearly two hundred thousand people, has only 13 grocery stores. Many people shop at gas stations. Yazzie says, “One of the things that I thought was: okay, well, if our ancestors were given from our Holy People seeds, that says, 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?”

There are many reasons why food sovereignty is a struggle: colonialism, poverty, restrictive policies, and more recently, drought and climate change. But some people are fighting to keep Native food traditions alive, including Hopi chef Somana Tootsie. She holds up a corn husk, speaking to a group of Navajo and Hopi students who attend school in Flagstaff and have internships at a local community garden.

“How many of you know the different ways you can use this?” she asks.

“Tamales!” one of the students offers.

Cherilyn Yazzie, a Hopi chef, holds three ears of corn in an outdoor classroom, with one student examining another corn cob
Nick Rabe
Somana Tootsie teaches a class to Hopi and Navajo students at the Colton Community Garden

Tootsie demonstrates how to turn the corn husk into a spoon or a brush, and then shows the students how to brush salt onto corn cobs from a communal pot. She says many traditional techniques for growing and cooking food aren’t accessible anymore. “Boarding schools played a lot into it, just having to be transplanted, not everybody has that privilege of being able to be that connected with their culture.”

Tootsie emphasizes that cultures change, adopting new ideas and different technologies. Today the students roast sweet potatoes in a cob oven and boil corn tea in an aluminum pot. “To showcase what new technology can do with traditional knowledge is really amazing,” she says. “I wanted the kids to be able to appreciate that and be able to understand: it’s not a stagnant culture.”

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. Lauren Tohey shows off her blend: “I just decided on sage and grounded sweet corn.” Lexii Jacob says she put in sage and cranberry, and Trinity Begay says, “This one’s a black tea and I’m going to put a few cranberries in it.”

Cherilyn Yazzie, standing, holds a piece of corn husk while speaking to a circle of students, with blue mountains in the distance
Nick Rabe
Somana Tootsie teaches a class at the Colton Community Garden

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. “Knowing that beans can actually help the corn grow, bringing the nutrients into the ground, and the corn can use that to grow, that’s one thing I brought back home.”

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. “There’s a spiritual aspect of it. You don’t waste things, you’re mindful about every part of what you’re using so that way there’s no waste, you don’t disrespect the earth, you don’t disrespect the plant.” She says everything has a purpose, and when you touch and taste the food, you’re touching history.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.