Workshop focuses on traditional Navajo food
CROWNPOINT — The click of the butcher knife used by Waterflow resident Ron Garnanez to separate the backbone from a sheep carcass echoed inside the shade house at Navajo Technical University.
Garnanez, who serves as president for Diné be' iiná Inc., was demonstrating traditional techniques for butchering sheep at a Sheep to Table workshop on Sept. 13.
This year the nonprofit organization, which promotes, preserves and protects the Navajo way of life, has been hosting workshops that focus on traditional Navajo food.
Aretta Begay, director for the organization, said while the workshops focus on a return to traditional food, attendees also learn about health benefits the food offers and to think about food sources and the reliance on processed food.
Begay said the group is using a $27,000 grant from First Nations Development Institute for the sessions and to develop a cookbook with traditional Navajo recipes, which they plan to have available on their website.
Each workshop is led by a traditional food chef who demonstrates how to prepare and cook foods that were once common to the Navajo diet.
Participants also learn about the importance of sheep in Navajo culture, traditional methods for sheep butchering and how to identify and use native plants in cooking.
"Our Navajo ancestors practiced traditional butchering and identifying plants and cooking with those plants," Begay said. "In that way, we are continuing to promote our traditional foods and we are reclaiming our food. In that sense, we call it food sovereignty."
Among the traditional dishes cooked were blue corn mush with wild onions and chiichin, a pudding from sumac berries.
Most of the plants used for the workshops were collected in the spring from areas in Shiprock and in Red Valley and Teec Nos Pos in Arizona.
Garnanez raised the Navajo-Churro sheep and blessed the animal with cedar before the cut to the neck was applied.
In the Navajo language, he explained the reason for positioning the sheep's body so the head faces north and where the first incisions are made after it has died.
"We consider our meat medicinal," Garnanez said.
As part of the cooking demonstration, he showed how to prepare blood sausage and 'ach'íí', which is made by wrapping the small intestines on a section of colon and fat.
Mutton was roasted on an open fire as well as mixed with corn and squash, both grown at a farm in Shiprock, for stew.
Several students visited the workshop before or after classes but among those who stayed for the entire event were Maris Roe and Ruby Frank.
Roe said she attended the event because it promotes a return to the Diné way of life by etiquette and talking about the medicinal benefit of Navajo food.
"I think it's beautiful. I mean, it's something that should have been here with us all these years but we've turned away from it," she said.
Her interest in traditional food is also changing how she selects meals for her family.
An average meal consists of meat with side dishes of pasta or rice, canned vegetables and tortillas, she said.
"All this is store bought. All I'm doing is preparing it. Everything that you look at on that plate comes from the store. Nothing on that is traditional, so I have to go back, revisit and say, what is traditional?" Roe said.
Although Frank was raised in a family that practices Navajo tradition, including growing beans, corn and squash and raising sheep in Ramah, she seeks to learn about the benefits of traditional food.
"I think traditional food is what is essential to our native people because I also say processed foods – like the gentleman said earlier, causes cancers and other diseases – so to eliminate that and come back to our basic foods, we can live a healthier life," Frank said.
Della Begay is a faculty member and teaches early childhood education at the university.
She brought 13 students from her morning class to the workshop because showing them the importance of Navajo culture will help them relate to the students they will meet while teaching in school districts on the reservation.
"They have to integrate language and culture and this is all part of that," Begay said adding as teachers, they will need to establish a reciprocal relationship with families and communities as well.
She said her students' interest in culture and language generates classroom discussion.
"They're curious and they want to learn, they want to know it. They want to immerse themselves. They want it to continue," Begay said.
Diné be' iiná Inc. is planning another workshop for the Monument Valley area in October.
Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.