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Western Museum Laboratories
Navaho Life of Yesterday and Today
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Chapter VIII:

MODERN DIET Just as domestic animals have largely displaced wild game in the diet of the Navaho flour and canned goods from the trader have almost eliminated the use of wild plants and other native foods. Corn and garden products have always been of importance, and still are when drought or frost do not ruin them.

The standard diet, established in tribal habits at Bosque Redondo (which was in effect a military boarding school for the "Americanization" of the Navaho), consists of mutton, fried bread, vast quantities of coffee with sugar and goat milk. The Navaho tell many amusing anecdotes of their adjustment to the food of white people at Bosque Redondo. Those who came from the Navaho backwoods, beyond the forts, had never seen coffee. At first they tried frying the coffee beans, which did not improve the flavor; next they made porridge of them. The Navaho of today claim that their dislike of pork and bacon dates from Bosque Redondo days when so many people fell ill from eating poorly cooked pork. This is a rationalization for their abhorrence, however, because as early as 1855 Davis observed that they loathed hogs.

The Navaho are very fond of goat meat. Reichard (1936:7) quotes a Navaho as philosophising: "It seems like you're getting more to eat if it's tough." The Navaho children drink some of the goat milk, but the tribe did not take over the European fondness for dairy products along with domesticated animals. Malnourishment of children is one of the gravest health problems of the Navaho; hospitals and boarding schools, in an effort to correct the condition have tried to educate the children to drink milk, but without much success. The only reference I have encountered to the use of cheese among the Navaho is Letherman's statement that they ate a curd of soured cow's milk.

The Ethnologic Dictionary, which was published in 1910, states that at the time the Navaho did not have chickens and cared very little for eggs. Now a few chickens are kept, but chickens and pigs do not fit easily into the life of semi-nomads, who must transport their possessions on horseback and move at least twice a year. Water fowl are tabooed as food among the Navaho, and Stephen (1893) reports that wild turkey also was on the forbidden list.

WILD PLANTS Wild plants which were gathered for food in early times included greens from beeweed; seed from the hedge mustard, pigweed and mountain grass; tubers of wild onions and wild potato; fruit like yucca, prickly pear, grapes; wild berries such as currants, chokecherries, sumac, rose, and raspberries. Parties of women went into the mountains each year to gather acorns, pinyon nuts, and walnuts. In olden times, when a drought ruined crops, the pinyon nuts were the major food of some of the Indians. The nuts are now an important source of income to the mountain people. The gathering begins in the fall after the family has moved to the foothills for the winter, and in March, when the weather is better, the women gather more of the nuts. They do most of the seed gathering in June and July, while the men stay at home to hoe the gardens.

Wild potatoes, no larger than hickory nuts, formerly grew in abundance in certain parts of the Navaho territory, especially around Fort Defiance. Early travelers commented frequently on the broad fields of wild potatoes in the southern part of the reservation. From April till June these tubers served the Navaho as fresh vegetables. The potato has a very bad taste, so clay is used as a seasoning for it.

Yucca or "Spanish bayonet" was important as a relish and for adding variety to a meal. It was dried and baked, ground, roasted, and dried again before being made into cakes and stored away. Before being eaten, the cakes were mixed with water to make a syrup.

CEREMONIAL FOODS Foods of the kind eaten in aboriginal and early historical times are rarely to be tasted now except at ceremonies. Like the rest of the world at holiday seasons, the Navaho prepare their traditional foods for gala occasions. At the chants, the important guests, as well as the shaman and his assistants, must be fed, and special cakes and porridges are required for many of the rites. Stevenson (1891:256) gives a long list of foods, mostly concocted of corn, which were eaten on the fourth day of a Yeibitcai ceremony he attended. The public at large is served with modern store foods, mutton, which is cooked in many ways, prairie dogs, and other available meats. A wealthy family, when giving a chant, naturally has a greater variety and abundance of food for the guests than a poor family. The Navaho do not have any native beverages of an intoxicating kind, but since historical times they have been making a corn liquor by a process learned from the Apache. They drink hard and soft drinks of American manufacture.

Three examples will illustrate the ritual use of foods as an integral part of ceremonies. At a wedding the marriage ties are formally bound by having the young couple eat cornmeal gruel together from a new basket, which is then passed around to the guests. Before the gruel is eaten, however, the bride's father places pollen on it. After orienting the basket so that its closed seams point eastward, he sprinkles white corn pollen, symbolizing the female, from east to west over the porridge, and then yellow pollen, symbolizing the male, from south to north.

On another important occasion, the concluding public ceremony for a young girl who had just entered womanhood, a corn cake baked overnight in a pit oven is shared with the guests. This custom of having a corn cake at the adolescence ceremony is not an old one, according to the Ethnologic Dictionary (p.446).

A third example of the ceremonial use of food is of a different order. Sometimes the chanter places gruel on the mouths of the masks which represent the gods; and special cakes are made as part of the sacrifices for a god. For instance, on the ninth day of the Night Chant, the Fire God is presented with four small perforated cakes strung on a yucca fiber. He swings these over his arm before he begins his long journey from sunrise to sunset.

COOKING AND EQUIPMENT The Navaho cook has very meager equipment, and she does not have a room set aside as a kitchen because the typical hogan has only a single room. She does not have a stove, chimney, or fireplace. (The Indians of America did not have such things before the white people came.) Navaho cooking is done over a fire of cedar, built on the hogan floor, under a hole in the roof through which the smoke is supposed to rise. Anyone who has put his head into a Navaho hogan must wonder if any of the smoke ever does leave the hut. When warm weather comes, the women cook out of doors over an open fire or in a pit oven.

Utensils, though simple, can be converted to many uses. The pots, bowls, and spoons are of poor earthenware or of scooped-out gourds. Now, of course, the cooks often have tin pans from the store. A flat, heated stone serves as a griddle for the fried breads and a thick slab of stone is used as a base for grinding corn, seeds, and coffee beans. The women kneel before this metate and grind the meal with a smaller, rounded stone. This is hard, tedious, and back-breaking work when there is a large family to be fed, as the corn is ground several times before it is ready to be used.

FOOD PREPARATION After the grain has been ground, it is mixed with boiling water or goat's milk, and cooked into mush. Mush forms the basis for an endless variety of recipes. It may be wrapped in corn husks--and there are many fancy ways of wrapping--and baked in ashes or in the pit oven. Fried mush, rolled out into bread and cakes, dried mush, mush with wild potatoes and wild onions, mush with meat--these are some of the variations on cornmeal porridge or the mush of wild seed meal.

To make dough, the cook chews some of the meal and then adds it to the batter; her saliva furnishes the glucose. For flavoring corn bread, she mixes into the dough cedar ashes, which gives the bread a bluish color; but when no ashes are added to a dough of blue corn, red bread is produced. The Navaho eat some of their corn green because of their eagerness to have it fresh, and, most important, because of the danger of frost ??? biting the crop before it is ripe. Corn for the winter is husked, ripened, and dried in the sun, taken off the cob, and stored in bags. Pumpkins are buried in the ground till needed. Other garden products are put into sacks and stored in an empty hogan, a secluded niche in a cliff, or in a pit lined with the inner bark of cedar and roofed with cedar poles and earth.

GRACE As in every other part of Navaho life, there are religious observances connected with food preparation and eating. The ritual requires that the first thing a woman should do as she sets about her household duties in the morning is to take the ashes from the evening fire out of doors. Grace is said at the beginning of a meal and a small sacrifice is made to the gods. The Ethnologic Dictionary (p.220) states that the cleaned mush stirrer is held up and a blessing recited.

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