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Arizona Experience Store

Traditional Foods and Medicine: Navajo Herbs

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.