Navajo Lessons on Virginia Sustainability

40th Anniversary | Virginia Indians

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By Karenne Wood

On the Navajo reservation in Arizona and New Mexico, medicine men still sing to young corn plants so that they can grow. Without the singing, the plants will understand that we humans have forgotten our connections, and they will return to the earth. Naadąʼąʼ (corn) is the most sacred and important of Navajo foods. It creates a relationship between the land and the people who come from it. The people have songs for planting, harvesting, and grinding the corn, each of which is essential to maintaining earth’s balance and keeping the farmers in respectful relation to forces around them.

Left to right: Tanya Denkla-Cobb (U.Va. Institute for Environmental Negotiation), Rose Williams, Cecil Cobb, Jamescita Peshlakai, David Bearinger (VFH), Annie Hess (World Healing Institute).
Left to right: Tanya Denkla-Cobb (U.Va. Institute for Environmental Negotiation), Rose Williams, Cecil Cobb, Jamescita Peshlakai, David Bearinger (VFH), Annie Hess (World Healing Institute).

In March of 2010, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH) and the Virginia Indian Heritage Program, in partnership with the University of Virginia’s Institute for Environmental Negotiation (IEN), Virginia Tech, and the World Healing Institute, presented programs entitled “The Land is Our Teacher: Reclaiming Traditional Knowledge” and “Sustainability and Renewal: Native American Wisdom in Agriculture.” Rose Marie Williams and Jamescita Peshalaki, both Navajo, spoke to large audiences at Virginia Tech through the Virginia Indian Nations’ Summit on Higher Education (VINSHE) and at the World Healing Institute on the Eastern Shore about traditional agricultural practices and how tribal values and beliefs inform practical decisions about the growing and harvesting of corn.

“Their stories offered a tapestry of practical and spiritual Navajo knowledge woven together in a way that both moved and inspired,” said Tanya Denckla Cobb, Associate Director of IEN. “Participants were grateful for this opportunity to learn from the Navajo, and also were eager to explore how both the practical and spiritual might apply to their own relationships with food and land.”

Participants were grateful for this opportunity to learn from the Navajo, and also were eager to explore how both the practical and spiritual might apply to their own relationships with food and land. – Tanya Denckla Cobb

Williams is a farmer and rancher of the Towering House Clan (“of” indicates her mother’s clan), born for the Many Goats Clan (“for” indicates her father’s). Since 2010 she has served on the Western Navajo Nation Food Policy Council (WNNFPC), bringing awareness of healthy food choices to Navajo communities. From her family she learned traditions associated with dry farming, dry irrigation and natural spring water farming. She spoke about heirloom Navajo corn and how it is necessary to plant the seeds twelve inches deep, so that stalks will be sufficiently rooted when the winds come later in the season. Heirloom corn produces impressive yields with little irrigation in a desert climate, whereas the corn the Native farmers bought from a commercial supply store drooped and withered the first season they planted it. Heirloom varieties are also vastly more nutritious.

Jamescita Peshlakai interprets in English after her grandmother Dorothy Walker talks about corn in the Navajo culture in Tuba City, AZ in 2009.

Peshlakai is of the Tangle People Clan, born for the Redhouse Clan. She grew up in the western region of the Navajo reservation and is a U.S. Army combat veteran of the Persian Gulf War. She served as Lead Coordinator of the Navajo Nation’s Traditional Agricultural Outreach program. She worked with Williams through an organization called Diné, Inc.—Diné is the Navajo people’s name for themselves—to develop new markets for traditionally grown Navajo food products. In 2013 she was elected a member of the Arizona House of Representatives from the seventh district.

For more than two decades, VFH has worked closely with Virginia’s eleven state-recognized tribes, understanding that the communities themselves are the experts on their stories and that they have authoritative perspectives, on their own histories and on the broader, shared history of Virginia. We broadened our conception of what it means to be a “humanities scholar”; within this framework, indigenous knowledge and academic scholarship are treated as equally valuable.

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According to Navajo tradition, First Man called the people together. He brought forth the white corn which had been formed with him. First Woman brought the yellow corn. They laid the perfect ears side by side; then they asked one person from among the many to come and help them. The Turkey stepped forward. They asked him where he had come from, and he said that he had come from the Gray Mountain. He danced back and forth four times, then he shook his feather coat and there dropped from his clothing four kernels of corn, one gray, one blue, one black, and one red. Another person was asked to help in the plan of the planting. The big snake came forward. He likewise brought forth four seeds, the pumpkin, the watermelon, the cantaloupe, and the muskmelon. His plants all crawl on the ground.

Native traditions, embedded within tribal societies and practiced for hundreds or thousands of years, have much to teach us about treating the earth and other beings with respect. Through stories and songs passed down through generations, we become aware of intricate connections between the land and ourselves, and ways in which we can work toward sustainability and balance.

About the Author

Karenne Wood (Monacan) directs Virginia Indian Programs at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. She is a founding member of VINSHE and has been leading its meetings for 14 years.

VFH - 40 Years, 40 Stories

About VFH

Since its founding in 1974, VFH has produced more than 40,000 humanities programs serving communities large and small throughout Virginia, the nation, and the world.

These stories celebrate our 40th anniversary by sharing a few of the ways VFH has helped connect people and ideas to explore the human experience and inspire cultural engagement across the Commonwealth.