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Young Native Americans Innovate to Revive Food Traditions


In mid-winter, the Hopi landscape appears as a beautiful yet barren expanse of gold-brown bluffs and snow-topped mesas. It’s difficult to imagine fields of the resilient desert crops that have sustained the people here for centuries. Yet, in this isolated corner of present day Arizona, the fourth world – as the Hopi refer to their tribal lands – nothing is meant to grow in the winter. It’s the time of year, traditionally, for reflection.

“December is a really sacred time for us as Hopis, digging is not permitted at this time,” says Kyle Knox, a 25-year-old Hopi/Pima farmer and multimedia professional. “It is a time to look back on what has happened to us over the year. How did I do this year? Were my crops good? What can I do different? Not only in your field but in life.”

Knox is part of a budding movement of educated young people in the U.S. Southwest working to revitalize Native American agricultural traditions. They have watched diabetes, obesity and heart disease reach crisis proportions in their communities, while their traditional foods and farming methods – well adapted to the arid climate of the desert southwest – have declined. For young Native people like Knox and Samantha Honani, a Hopi/Tewa member of the Tobacco Clan who received her bachelor’s degree in public health education, connecting Native youth with the agricultural knowledge of their ancestors is one of the best ways to address critical health, economic and environmental issues.

As program director of the Natwani Coalition, Samantha Honani is currently driving the Hopi Natwani for Youth Project, which was founded to “strengthen the ties to traditional farming between youth and elders,” she says. Natwani, which loosely translates into a potent mixture of the Hopi words for produce, life, farming and fertility, is central to Hopi existence. It is both physical and spiritual sustenance. With the help of Kyle Knox, the Natwani Coalition is creating a 12-part, video-based farming curriculum to document and disseminate Hopi agricultural knowledge. Earlier in 2011, Natwani executed the Food and Farming Community Grant program, which gave grants from $200 to 2,500 to any Hopi interested in starting or improving an ag-related project. The response from applicants was overwhelming, says Honani, pointing to the photomontages of the winning projects in Natwani’s office in Kykotsmovi Village, Arizona. The pictures depict a flowering resurgence of Hopi dry-farming traditions.

While Natwani’s successful small grants program revealed a hunger for traditional farming on the Hopi reservation, it only scratched the surface. According to the recent Hopi Community Food Assessment, “three out of four Hopi youth said they were interested in Hopi food traditions and that they want elders to teach them.” The Assessment, spearheaded by Natwani, also found that three out of four Hopi are now overweight or obese, and that less than a third of Hopi say they still actively farm or garden.

“As a Hopi, I feel that farming is important for us,” says Kyle Knox, who grows beans, corn and squash on his family’s plot. “There are a lot of life lessons that you can learn from the act of planting, caring for the plants, the act of harvesting. You can utilize that in anything you do in life.”

On the neighboring Navajo reservation, some young people feel the same way.

Lena Clitso, a Navajo college student, is the Tuba City site coordinator for the nutrition program of the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health. She and her colleagues are bringing edible gardens to schools and creating community farms and farm-to-market systems to provide access to nutritious traditional foods on the reservation.

Recently, at the Eagles’ Nest Intermediate School in Tuba City, Arizona, twenty-one fourth graders broke into teams for a heated match of Gardening Jeopardy.

“Name three traditional foods,” says Clitso. Nearly twenty-one small hands shoot up in unison. Other questions in the game include: “What do worms do to the soil?” and “How do we prepare a garden for the winter?” It’s the last gardening class of the semester, and the children are as excited about growing food as they are about recess.

“I liked helping the garden,” says Troy, 10, when asked about his favorite part of the semester.

There are now gardening programs at several elementary and middle schools throughout the Navajo and Apache territories and Kewa Pueblo (Santo Domingo) in New Mexico. There are plans to expand to several more schools; to pair elders with youth to bring in a Native language component; and to identify and train on-staff school garden coordinators to ensure sustainability. According to the program’s staff, the expansion is a response to high demand for healthy foods in the food deserts on the reservations, areas where persistent poverty, food insecurity and elevated hunger rates are prevalent. And while the uptick in interest regarding Native agriculture may be driven in part by the twin epidemics of obesity and diabetes, for some young people farming is simply an important connection to land and culture, a timeless pursuit central to life itself.

“My uncle would always tell me,” says farming apprentice Kyle Knox, “if you can’t take care of a field then don’t even think of having babies.”

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