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Traditional Foods and Medicine

Every time you walk among the Saguaros of the Sonoran Desert, stroll amid the mesquite trees and prickly pears of Arizona’s grasslands, or encounter the creatures living in the forests and canyons of the Colorado Plateau, you have access to a nutritious meal.

Cholla buds and flowers.

For centuries, American Indian tribes of the southwest have found subsistence, even abundance, by harvesting native plants and cultivating crops using seasonal flooding and rainfall. Over 1,000 years before conventional agriculture became Arizona’s second largest industry, groups such as the Hohokam were cultivating fields with sophisticated irrigation techniques. The conquistadors were offered feasts of prickly pear when they came north from present-day Mexico in the 1500s.

Because of their familiarity with the land’s plants and animals, American Indians of the Southwest are historically among the people best adapted to life in Arizona’s naturally arid conditions. The Hopi village of Oriabi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in all of North America. Their traditional dry farming techniques, which allow corn to be grown in the unforgiving climate using only a fraction of the water required by traditional agriculture, have changed little in hundreds of years. The saguaro fruit gathered by the Tohono O’odham Nation is a sustainable source of calcium and other nutrients.

Such knowledge is invaluable to tribal heritage and identity. Information on sustainable desert harvests and low water crops can also help Arizona’s newer settlers dramatically reduce water debt and carbon footprint. Sadly, this knowledge is disappearing. To preserve these important lifeways, some tribes have initiated programs to pass ethnobotanical knowledge to new generations and preserve the tradition of native foods. Explore the tabs at the top of the page for recipes, Navajo herbal medicines, desert foods, and stories of how centuries-old food traditions are being kept alive.

Ripe prickly pear fruit.

Desert Harvest of the Tohono O’odham Nation

Watch Angelo Joaquin reveal how the desert is a sustainable source of food, medicine, and spirituality for the O’odham people.

For generations, major sustenance for the members of the Tohono O’odham tribe was found in native plants of the southeastern Arizona desert. The Tohono O'odham Nation encompasses four non-contiguous land bases located south of Casa Grande on parts of Pinal, Pima and Maricopa Counties before continuing south into Mexico. A culture with strong ties to the land, the O’odham celebration of growth and harvest cycles is an enduring part of their identity.

However, tribal agriculture has been in steep decline throughout the twentieth century. As groups once sustained by agriculture lose their farming traditions, heritage is lost as well. Also at risk is independent access to food and the preservation of the traditional crops and culinary practices.

The past few decades have seen several initiatives aimed at reviving traditional food and farming. These programs are not only improving nutrition within the O’odham nation, but are renewing the cultural connection between life and land for many O’odham people.  

Native Seeds/SEARCH

Angelo Joaquin shares how the Native Seeds SEARCH seed bank helps protect not only important desert plants and foodstuffs but also Tohono O’odham heritage and culture.

Founded in 1983, Native Seeds/SEARCH (NS/S) is a leader in the heirloom seed movement. It began when co-founders Gary Nabhan and Mahina Drees presented broccoli and radish seeds to O’odham members during a Meals for Millions project. In response, the elders requested seeds of the crops their grandparents cultivated. Nabhan and Drees realized that heirloom crops of traditional foods adapted to local growing conditions were in danger of disappearing, so they started NS/S, a nonprofit seed conservation organization (seed bank) based in Tucson.

Today the bank preserves nearly 2,000 varieties of aridlands-adapted seeds, many of them rare or endangered. These seeds are distributed to communities and to gardeners worldwide, and about 500 varieties are available for the public to purchase online or at their Tucson location alongside native crafts and gifts. NS/S also teaches the history, science, and business of seed conservation in a seed school held around the country.

Tohono O’odham Community Action

Known as TOCA, this 15-year old nonprofit organization is dedicated to creating a healthy, culturally vital, and sustainable community based on the principles of respect for nature, universal human rights, and economic justice.

TOCA believes food and seed sustainability are vital components of those goals. The organization is a proponent of food sovereignty, the idea that people have a right to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound methods and the right to define their own food and agriculture systems.

The organization encourages native and non-native peoples to be actively engaged in the sustainable production and distribution of local harvests. For the past three years, members have been working to introduce traditional ingredients into the meals served in school cafeterias within the Tohono O’odham Nation. They have partnered with several organizations to teach youth how to farm and grow gardens. To promote native crops, TOCA shares recipes and makes ingredients available to the wider population through their website, cookbook, and the Native Foodways magazine. TOCA also promotes festivals, storytelling, and art.

Food and Recipes

Ciolim—Cholla Cactus Buds

Cholla buds and flowers.

One exceptionally healthy traditional ingredient is the bud of the cholla cactus. Traditionally, new growth buds are harvested in mid-April and dried for use year round. These buds have a rich green flavor reminiscent of spring and can be eaten by themselves in sautées or used in antipastos, salads, or salsas.

This ubiquitous food is exceptionally nutritious. Two tablespoons of dried buckthorn cholla offer more calcium than a glass of milk but only one quarter of the calories. The soluble pectins in cholla buds slow down digestion of sugars, helping to stabilize blood sugar levels.  

This native food is available through the Tohono O’Odham Community Action website, where you can find easy recipes and videos on how to prepare this and other traditional O’odham foods.

Other Traditional Foods
  • Bahidaj—Saguaro Cactus Fruit
  • Bawi—Tepary Beans (one of the most heat and drought resistant crops in the world)
  • Ha:l—O'odham Squash
  • Hu:ñ—O'odham 60-Day Corn
  • I:ibhai—Prickly Pear Fruit

Want to try these foods without preparing them yourself? The Desert Rain Café, located in Sells, prepares classic ingredients in both traditional and contemporary ways.

Stella Tucker carries on a Tohono O'odham tradition. From her camp west of Tucson, Tucker spends part of June and July harvesting fruit from the saguaro cactus to make syrup and jam. Produced by Mark Henle/The Arizona Republic

Watch more stories from the Arizona Storytellers.

Navajo Herbs

Navajo uses of plants are tied to land, culture, and beliefs. For instance, the yucca plant has many uses to the Navajo: its suds make good shampoo, its fibers can be used to make rope, shoes, and ceremonial items, and its edible fruit and flowers are a spring and summer treat. According to lore, this plant has so many uses because long, long ago it was a bear-monster that terrorized the Dine people until they resisted. They destroyed the bear, and yucca grew in the places where the bear fell, providing food, clothing, and soap to the Dine in retribution for past ills.

The 2012 book Nanise, A Navajo Herbal by Vernon O. Mayes and Barbara Bayless Lacy, published by Five Star Publications, Inc, puts some of the lore collected by the Navajo Ethnobotany Project into one volume. The book features 100 plants from the Navajo Nation with descriptions and usage. The medicinal knowledge contained in the material is purposefully brief, to withhold the sacred plant knowledge to members of the Navajo Tribe. However, the publication is available to anyone seeking an introduction to Navajo plants. The authors have generously agreed to feature some of this information here. This publication is available in the Arizona Experience Store.

Some Navajo Medicinal Plants

Alder

Navajo Name: K’ish

Uses: was used to make spears, and dyes for wool, leather, and basketry. Red, tan, and brown dyes are made from alder bark. The red, all vegetable, wool dye is made from juniper, mountain mahagony, alter, and an unidentified moss.

Brown Eyed Susan (cutleaf cornflower)

Navajo Name: K’aasdá beeyigą nitsaaígíí

Uses: used for heartburn, indigestion, relief from colds, and chest congestion.

Evening Primrose

Navajo Name: Tłéé íigahiis’óóz (white at night)

Uses: made into a lotion for boils, mixed with flax and nodding eriogonum to treat kidney disease. The whole plant is used as a poultice on spider bites, and the ground plant is used as a dusting powder on sores.

Four O’Clock

Navajo name: Tsédédééh (falling-on-rick)

Uses: ease sores in the mouth including canker sores, swollen gums, or decayed teeth, as well as for rheumatism and swellings. It is also used to treat broken bones in humans and animals.

Sagebrush

Navajo Name: Ts’ah (the sagebrush)

Use: a life medicine, this plant mixed with another type of sagebrush is said to cure headaches by odor alone. Boiled, the plant is said to be good for childbirth, indigestion, and constipation; a tea of the stems and leaves is said to cure colds and fevers. A tea drunk before long hikes or athletic events is said to purify the body. A poultice from pounded leaves is said to be good for colds, swellings, tuberculosis or as a liniment for corns. This medicine can also be used on animals.

Yarrow

Navajo Name: Hazéíyiltsee’í (chipmunk-like tail)

Uses: a primary “medicine twig,” or Navajo life medicine. The yarrow does not need to be fresh to be effective. Therefore, it can be stored and carried for emergencies. Yarrow is used alone for fever and headaches. Smoke from yarrow stalks added to a fire is used to relieve a headache caused by sore eyes. Yarrow can also heal sores on people and animals, especially saddle sores on horses.

The Navajo Ethnobotany Project

In 1972, the Navajo Tribal Council established the Navajo Health Authority to help preserve and use its traditional knowledge of plants. It slowly began the process of collecting all published ethnobotanical information and beginning to insert it into the health science curriculum of the Navajo Nation. While the body of this type of knowledge is vast, local access to this lore is limited, and much of the existing documentation is directed for a scientific audience. The Navajo Ethnobotany Project is returning this information to the schools and the Navajo people. Gathering the information took decades, and creating a context where plant lore is used and understood by the layperson is an ongoing challenge. However, new publications are increasing access to this important ethnobotanical tradition. Over 700 Hataalii (Medicine people/ herbalists) practice on the Navajo reservation today.

 

Hualapai Ethnobotany Project

The Hualapai Nation skirts a 108 mile stretch of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. This area, heavily forested with Ponderosa pine, is among Arizona's most biologically diverse landscapes. Just a few generations ago, tribe members lived entirely off the land. This chain of knowledge has been passed down through oral tradition. Yet such a teaching method is losing its effectiveness with some members of newer generations, adapted to computers and cell phones. Therefore, the tribe is finding new ways to gather and store information. The Hualapai Cultural Atlas Geographic Information Systems Geodatabase Project was started to become a major online resource for flora of the Grand Canyon area. The Hualapai ethnobotanical database will incorporate knowledge of historic uses of these plants into this resource.

The many varieties of yucca were used for food, soap, and fiber in numerous Arizona tribes.

In a hands-on approach, the Hualapai Ethnobotany Project preserves traditional knowledge of plants, medicines, and traditional crafts. Twice a month, elders of the Hualapai tribe travel with students of the program across the reservation identifying herbs and food plants. The younger generation learns more than just plants, however. They practice crafts such as making cradleboards and they hear oral histories and legends while harvesting traditional foods.

In 2007, the Project released a traditional foods cookbook and a deck of playing cards called “Ethnobotany: Recipes of the Hualapai Tribe.”

Quail, deer, elk, wild onions, and prickly pear are among foods once common among the Hualapai and other tribes of the region. Recipes using these ingredients and other traditional delicacies have been recorded and adapted to modern cooking methods. Recipes such as banana yucca (manad miyal miyu:l) muffins, Indian corn cakes, and skillet bread incorporate indigenous foodstuffs into popular dishes.

But adherence to tradition is also found. Hualapai food has been always roasted, baked or boiled. The book gives a refresher course in these methods, including instructions on how to make a roasting pit—an earth oven in which viyal (mescal agave), bird eggs, small seeds or breads are baked.

Skirting the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the Hualapai Nation boasts some of the most biologically diverse land in Arizona.

Hopi Corn Cultivation

Assisstant planting corn with digging stick. Shungopovi. April 1944. Photograph by Milton Snow.Belvera Nuvamsa and Mary Anna Nuvakaku, Puberty Ceremony, grinding corn, Shungopovi.

The Hopi tribe has been cultivating corn for hundreds of years. Terraced fields near the village of Paaqavi have been in use for at least 800 years. Corn has been the primary sustenance through years of abundance and famine alike. This is one reason why corn is central to Hopi culture and ceremonial life…but only one.

Peace and cooperation are core values of the Hopi ethos. Members of this ancient tribe have cared for each other with compassion and hosted strangers with generosity. Cooperation and respect extend to their relationship with the earth and all beings found on or within it. Seen through this lens, the acts of planting, growing, and harvesting a crop take on a sacred nature. The Hopi agricultural cycle begins when the Katsinas, supernatural beings who serve as divine messengers, descend from their homes in the San Francisco Peaks to help the people ask for rain and good weather in seasonal ceremonies.

These traditional farmers knew how to bring forth a harvest without accruing a water debt or practicing any significant irrigation methods. Their dry farming techniques rely on winter snows and monsoon rains to cultivate crops of beans, squash, melons and chilies. The cultivation cycle of corn (grown in much the same fashion), forms the basis of many of their customs. In fact, the Hopi see corn as a living connection to the Great Mystery and a conduit between generations. Almost all Hopi ceremonies use corn, either depicted in a drawing, as cornmeal, or as ripened ears.

Corn and melons. Sam Shingoitewas farm. 15 miles S.W. Toreva Day School. Sam Shing [Shingoitewa] working. October 1, 1944.

Sweet corn is planted in mid April; blue and white corn crops are planted in May. Multiple seeds are planted in holes dug approximately one foot deep with a greasewood stick, a method that allows access to moist soil and helps create a windbreak when the corn starts to grow. Some fields are located within riparian floodplains, which provide both fertile soil and some access to water. On a good year, the rainfall of the monsoon season ripens the corn throughout the summer.

Planting requires constant work, which is accomplished by the whole family. Today, most of the planting is aided by a tractor, but the cycle of growth and harvest is still a family affair. The crop is protected from weeds in summer and from birds in fall. The corn is often harvested by hand, with many people working long hours. Keeping this tradition alive is truly a labor of love. The fast-maturing sweet corn should be ready by late July; the other varieties are harvested in September or October.

However, the number of Hopi farmers is dwindling. It is estimated that about 80 families still plant large cornfields, about half of the number that grew corn 25 years ago.

About the photographer

Milton Snow was appointed as the official photographer by the Soil Conservation Service, in the 1930s, to record the images of dams, schools, roads, and hospitals that were being constructed across the Navajo and Hopi Reservations. Snow also became the staff photographer of the BIA and began to take pictures of the reservations. His photos reveal the various social, economic, and cultural activities of the Hopis living on the reservations. See more photographs from Milton Snow at the Cline Library Special Collection and Archives.