SHIPROCK, NEW MEXICO — From foraging sweet berries in slickrock canyons to harvesting corn and fresh veggies from manicured fields and gardens, Kayla Yazzie learned about land from her great-grandmothers. Her childhood memories span the eastern portion of the Navajo Nation, from Tocito and Shiprock in New Mexico with her mother’s family, to St. Michaels, near Window Rock in Arizona, where her father’s family is rooted.
“Their little lessons taught me a lot about the life skills of agriculture that I should know because it’s a part of every tribal nation,” says Kayla, a senior majoring in environmental science at Fort Lewis College in Durango. “I view agriculture as important as our language, and I want to help get more people involved to bring back those teachings because we use plants and food to survive, and for ceremonial purposes.”
This summer, Kayla joined three other Native American women from the University of Arizona and Fort Lewis for an internship program with Sixth World Solutions, a grassroots consulting firm on the Navajo Nation. The organization was founded in 2010 by Janene Yazzie (no relation to Kayla) and her husband, Kern Collymore, with a mission to identify and implement rights-based, regenerative solutions for communities across the reservation.
Kayla and the other interns, Alex Trahan, from the University of Arizona, and Fort Lewis students Jade Slavin and Kalyn Kervin, worked with Janene and Collymore for two months during the height of the planting season. While manual labor honed their skills and strengthened their muscles, other lessons blossomed from their work with regional farmers, listening to stories from Navajo elders, and piecing together the complicated fabric of the Indigenous foodscape.
Two of the paid internships were funded by the Native American Agriculture Fund, the result of a lawsuit settlement for Native American farmers who applied for loans and were discriminated against in the 1950s. The NAAF was founded out of the settlement to promote Native American students’ involvement in Indigenous community gardens, food distribution and agricultural systems.
“Yes, we’re getting degrees to students, but we’re also fulfilling a larger mission to recognize that learning happens through exposure to the wisdom and knowledge of people like Janene and Kern, and a ground-up organization that listens to what communities need,” says Becky Clausen, associate professor of sociology and human services at Fort Lewis and the school’s NAAF coordinator.
Sixth World Solutions is based out of Lupton, Arizona, overlooking the Painted Cliffs, a sweeping wall of sherbet and rose-colored sandstone bluffs known by the Navajo people, or Diné, as Tesesi’ani’ (Setting Rock) and Tsedijooli (Round Rock).
Clouds swirling above the bluffs rarely deliver rain, Collymore says, so the upkeep of Kingsley Gardens, their small plot of plants and vegetables, provides a great space to learn about small-scale agriculture in the desert. The interns spent much of their time managing the irrigation of the grounds, where they paused between digging and watering to discuss their motivations for choosing the program.
Trahan, a graduate student at the University of Arizona, also studies the more technically focused environmental sciences. The Louisiana native first came to the reservation to learn about water rights, weaving through the Navajo Nation’s intricate web of dirt roads with Darlene Arviso, a Diné woman famous for driving a 3,500-gallon tank to deliver water to remote homes. Trahan says she left the experience forever changed.
“I said, ‘Oh Darlene, what can I do?’” Trahan recalls. “I realized I needed to listen and learn more about the real histories and realities of our country and relearn the paradigms I look through by being mentored by wonderful minds, like Kern and Janene.”
Slavin and Kervin are pursuing degrees in environmental studies, which Slavin says is more about social issues tied to environmental issues. Her career goal is to create a program that would provide free meals to tribal communities using food grown in the nations’ gardens. Kervin, a member of the Lakota nation on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, also chose the SWS program to learn more about restoring Native American food systems. She plans to one day return to her home and help combat health issues plaguing her community due to a lack of access to healthy foods.
“We see a rise in diabetes, heart problems, high blood sugar, etc., and when people are not well physically, it becomes a lot harder for them to prosper spiritually and mentally,” Kervin says.
Throughout her internship, Kervin also produced content for SWS’ social media, which the interns see as a powerful storytelling tool for helping Indigenous peoples and outsiders alike to understand the challenges facing tribal nations.
“This internship is a great opportunity for my future career because I want to show communities that tribal nations are capable of providing for themselves,” Kayla says.
The fight for self-reliance goes beyond politics
Like these young women, Janene and Collymore are also focused on strengthening self-reliance for the Navajo Nation, which spans 27,000 square miles across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. While the Navajo Nation has technically been an independent nation within the borders of the United States since 1868, the Tribe struggles to govern itself as a state, strapped by U.S. government and surrounding state processes and regulations. The timeless toil of acquiring land, mineral and water rights in their own backyards makes their journey to true sovereignty a neverending story.
“These endless problems weren’t created by the Diné people,” Collymore says. “Food security deals with land restoration and jobs, and everything ties together. We’re not here because people aren’t educated. There’s just all this red tape that makes it hard to do anything.”
With so many challenges and only so many days, there’s no linear sense to how SWS chooses which quandary to confront first, so Collymore and Janene focus on community-led projects.
They write grants and business plans. They host workshops on sustainable housing alternatives and how to be an engaged parent. They work with farmers, nonprofits, schools, youth and a network of Indigenous peoples around the globe. The SWS difference, and why students like Kayla, Kervin, Slavin and Trahan want to learn from their work, is that their decisions are guided by Indigenous wisdom and traditional knowledge.
“The United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples was developed to recognize that Indigenous Peoples have the right to inherent self-determination and inherent collective rights, regardless of whether the states recognize them or not,” explains Janene. “It’s based on human rights, but they also created a new level of collective rights that really holds the unique worldviews, cultures, practices, protocols, sciences and languages that Indigenous Peoples have in connection to their land base.”
Since graduating from Columbia University with a degree in international politics more than a decade ago, Janene has become a radical voice for the Diné, and Indigenous people around the world. Regional organizations seek her expertise on infrastructure policy, while her experience in equitable food systems is considered in the United Nations’ High-Level Political Forum on the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. In 2010, after the UN released its Economic & Social Council report assessing the impacts of climate change on Indigenous people, Janene and Collymore decided to move from New York, where they met and married, back to Lupton on the southern end of the Navajo Nation.
While bountiful in all its desert glory, this land is viewed as inhospitable to many. As a desert, it’s also already parched, without the challenges of a changing climate. The UN’s assessment holds that Indigenous communities, like those on the Navajo Nation, often are in places that are vulnerable to the worst effects of a warming planet, from drought to heat waves. The UN also maintains that international law and policy makers should listen to the wisdom of these Indigenous people, who hold knowledge for mitigation and adaptation measures that can combat climate change
“There is an emergence of connections among people with experiences of colonization,” Janene says. “No one is obsessing over revenge, but instead there is profound love. We’re focusing on how to create a world for future generations that isn’t so disconnected. It’s a beautiful and interesting time to be alive. But time is of the essence; we had to move back.”
As they investigated housing options, the couple, then in their 20s, immediately ran into roadblocks accessing basic utilities like clean water, a resource that nearly 40% of Navajo Nation residents must haul over rough roads or wait for delivery by trucks, like Darlene Arviso’s, to to their homes. So, they immersed themselves in the politics of local water rights and were struck by the numerous, but siloed, efforts to confront the monumental crisis.
“Coming home and looking at the landscape we’re working in, we figured everyone would be working on these things,” Janene says. “But no one was talking about climate change. Part of the reality we face is that so many of us measure success by personal success and making good money. But this kind of individualist thinking makes movements weak. So, we jumped in feet first and tried to see where we could be the most help. That quickly grew into having to do a little bit of everything.”
Gardens, rainwater catchments, earthships
And SWS has done a little bit of everything over the last 11 years. They’ve constructed rainwater catchments and, in collaboration with the University of Arizona, worked with Diné solar technicians to design and build solar filtration systems. In 2019, Collymore gave up waiting for a home from the Navajo Housing Authority and kickstarted the Sustainable Housing Initiative. He hired an architect and started building an earthship — an energy-efficient shelter constructed with recycled and natural materials.
The Sustainable Housing Initiative tackles two problems at once by providing employment and turning trash into treasured homes. Within 15 miles of the building site near Kingsley Gardens, Collymore and a crew of locals also interested in learning how to build their own houses have collected more than 500 old tires and countless bottles and cans that are being integrated into the earthship structure. While it might take a few years to complete, Collymore’s house will serve as a blueprint for more efficient and accessible housing alternatives for other families on the Nation.
“Too often, fancy organizations and initiatives come in and give the community things only to leave without anyone knowing how to work it or fix it,” he says. “We understand the importance of opening up these technical spaces for local people. It’s one thing being a good idea on paper but how does it work in the real world? If the people can’t access it, then it’s not helpful. If it’s not accessible to the people, then it’s not revolutionary.”
SWS also launched the Little Colorado River Watershed Chapters Association, a people-powered watershed planning organization focused on citizen science, land restoration techniques, water harvesting, and the renewal and protection of traditional food systems.
“These projects around water and land help erase borders and show that what really matters is where the water is going,” Collymore says.
“You can’t have food security if you don’t have water,” says Janene.
If food security begins with water, then it’s little wonder that many Diné instead look to packaged, processed goods instead of their own gardens for sustenance. Geographically the largest Indian reservation in the U.S., this desert expanse has fed Indigenous people for millennia. But the art of cultivating wild plants and traditional foods is in danger of being lost among the aisles of the 13 grocery stores serving the reservation, and in the diners touting dishes such as fry bread and Navajo tacos as “traditional foods.”
Outsiders designate the Navajo Nation a food desert, meaning a low-income community with limited access to healthy and affordable food. But food-justice leaders, like Collymore and Janene, argue that the term desert implies a natural occurrence, rather than something imposed on the Diné. They offer “food apartheid” as an alternative label that shifts the focus to the systemic barriers that keep the Diné from accessing land, water, employment, housing and health care.
“I would love to be a part of the movement to decolonize how we have been conditioned into viewing food in America,” Kervin reflected in her application for the internship with SWS. “Food sovereignty is one of the best ways to do this because it provides Native people the right to decide what food they consume. To do so, we need to provide Native people with the knowledge of how to grow healthy foods by teaching it in education systems, then on local, state and national levels, pushing elected officials to provide the land and resources needed to start farming sustainably.”
“That’s an important lesson we learn from our elders, who continue to live off the land in this way and do this work with such integrity,” says Janene, as she drives the interns to the breadbasket of the Navajo Nation in Shiprock on an unseasonably cool day in June.
She wants them to meet Duane “Chili” Yazzie (no relation to Janene or Kayla), former president of the Navajo Nation’s Shiprock chapter. Like Janene, Chili envisions a future where Diné people eat Diné-grown foods, instead of produce from California or Mexico. As coordinator of the Shiprock Traditional Farmers’ Cooperative, which formed in July 2020, Chili sees protecting and strengthening Indigenous seed systems as one way forward. This work, he says, starts on his own 110-acre property in northwest Shiprock, where Janene parks next to a tractor in front of Chili’s house.
A 73-year-old activist with “an ego the size of the sky,” according to his wife, Betsy, Chili is a prolific writer and a bridge between Navajo elders and the next generation. He’s also a founding member of XIT, a 1970s Native American rock band. Smeared sunglasses sit atop his peppered hair pulled back in a low ponytail tucked beneath a faded headband. Instructed by Chili, the interns move weathered plastic chairs into a circle in a dirt lot, warned to keep two chairs stacked together for sturdiness. Chili adjusts a frayed camp chair for himself and sinks in, waiting for the group to settle. And then he speaks.
“Yáʼátʼééh is our greeting,” he begins. “I say that it means everything is good under the universe, and that you understand your part in it.”
There is no agenda for this circle meeting, so the interns relax into Chili’s stream of consciousness that drifts from Navajo creation stories to physics and the sacred knowingness of his dog, Ginger, who is nosing around in the dust. Infused by the spirit of the Creator, who is everywhere and in everything, the earth lives in a reciprocal relationship with all beings, Chili says, something believed by all Indigenous peoples.
Chili speaks sympathetically to the interns, two who are phenotypically light skinned but are in fact Native American. He says their white ancestors — no one corrects him — came from across the Big Pond, leaving them forever unattached to the land. For this reason, he says, they’ll never understand what it’s like to be Indigenous. He pauses. And then he extends an invitation for them to see the land as he does, to learn how to understand the land as Native Peoples understand it.
It’s time to work, he says, introducing Betsy, his wife of 42 years, as the leader of the farm and fellow director of the Shiprock Traditional Farmers’ Cooperative. Betsy, who graduated from Fort Lewis College in 1985 with a degree in sociology and later earned her master’s in social work and educational psychology, guides the interns over to the garden plot that serves her family and neighbors. Four additional rows grow produce for local schools as part of a community effort launched in the last year to promote the return of traditional foods to lunch programs. The interns place tomatoes, Big Jim chilies, and a few wild melons between green sprouts that Betsy’s been tending to throughout the planting season in preparation for harvest in September.
Lunch follows, with squash and bean stew prepared by Betsy’s son, another round of stories from Chili (including how he lost his arm to a gunshot wound inflicted by a hitchhiker he picked up 32 years ago), and a corncake treat leftover from a recent Kinaaldá, a four-day puberty ceremony held for one of Betsy’s granddaughters.
As heavy raindrops plop on the windshield, the van rolls to another female-run farm down the road from Chili and Betsy’s. Despite the swelling mud, the interns help the farmer, Lula, connect irrigation pipes across her property that overlooks Tse Bitai, Shiprock’s namesake and iconic volcanic formation marking the horizon.
From Lula’s, the van splashes through puddles down another dirt road to Beverly Maxwell’s property. Maxwell, also a director in the Shiprock Traditional Farmers’ Cooperative, typically runs the farm by herself and is grateful to have the interns’ help. She presents a laundry list of tasks, from mending fences to transplanting tomatoes. Like Betsy, Maxwell is a graduate of Fort Lewis College with a degree in environmental biology. She’s currently working on a master’s thesis project with Harvard University developing a database of ant species present in the Four Corners region.
The rain subsides to a sprinkle as Janene moves between the interns’ planting in the field and clipping a strand of barbed wire tangled in a goat’s dreadlocks. Booger, a blonde mutt tied to a cottonwood tree overlooking the property, barks wildly at the constant activity on these Shiprock farms that are slowly trying to grow enough food to feed a Nation.
“People want healthy food, but no one can find focus or the magic formula for trying to crack the access,” Janene says. “Small food systems will feed the world, but we can’t get married to just one strategy. We can’t come up with solutions to the problems we’re facing within the same way of thinking that created them. There are different pathways for everything. But we agree that putting seeds in the ground is our greatest act of resistance, and that we need to keep protecting those seeds and the languages and knowledge that come with them. That’s where we’ll build our power going forward.”
With students like Kayla, Trahan, Slavin and Kervin leading the next generation of resource management, the future looks promising. The three Fort Lewis students are currently in their first semester of courses for a regenerative food systems certificate that will further solidify their expertise and confidence to step in where their elders left off.
“We have all this land and we’re not using it,” Kayla says. “I want to help spread that awareness, but my family wants me to go explore first, and then bring the knowledge back here.”
CORRECTION: This story was updated Sept. 17, 2020, at 9:56 a.m. to correct the spelling of Alex Trahan’s last name.