YÁ’ÁT’ÉÉH–Everything Here Is Sacred

16 May 2023 YÁ’ÁT’ÉÉH–Everything Here Is Sacred

Image credit: Ari Epstein

An exploration of ways in which seemingly everyday places and activities, such as a cornfield, or the meeting place of two rivers, or the process of planting and tending crops, are imbued with sacredness in Diné (Navajo) tradition. Music from Blue Dot Sessions.

First Aired: May 15, 2023


 Yá’át’ééh—Everything Here is Sacred

Tony: Yá’át’ééh. Yá’át’ééh. Yá’át’ééh. Yá’át’ééh. Yá’át’ééh. Yá’át’ééh. Thank you for coming. Thank you for being here.

Jacqueline Prawira: That was Tony Goldtooth welcoming us in the Navajo language when we joined his family for an outdoor Navajo-style lunch. Why were we joining Tony? We were a group of first-year students from MIT, and we traveled to the Navajo Nation to initially learn about agriculture, but what we learned was so much more than that. We met truly amazing and inspiring Navajo people, or Diné, who showed us that agriculture was much more than just the job. It’s a central tenet of their culture and identity as a people.

One person we met was Brandon Francis, a research technician at New Mexico State University (NMSU). He showed us around the NMSU Agricultural Experiment Station, where we got to see things like gardens of native plants, experimental vineyards, and the equipment he uses to conduct his research.

[music fades in]

At one point, Brandon stopped us to take in the landscape. Looking down the path of tan, soft soil under our feet, an artificial grove of poplar trees–now brown and bare–walled off the landscape to our left, while paler brown but equally bare fields waiting for growing season stretched off to our right. Perfectly framed between the two, seeming to mark the end of our dirt path at the horizon, was the blue-ish silhouette of a far-off monolith named Shiprock. This geologic structure, a remnant of an ancient volcano, is deeply intertwined with the traditional stories of the Diné, and it is considered a sacred place. Obscuring the bottom half of Shiprock’s profile was the chimney of a power plant puffing short-lived white clouds.

[music fades out]

[walking ambi]

Brandon: This is what I call the perfect image of the reservation. You have a coal-fired power plant. The picture of agriculture. Then you have the Shiprock in the background. That’s the, what I like to say is, the res. in a piñon shell. Agriculture, coal-fired power plant, Shiprock, that’s the res. in one picture right there.

[music fades back in]

Jacqueline: Brandon also took us to the confluence of the Animas and San Juan Rivers near Farmington, New Mexico. When we arrived, the winds chilled us to the bone, the spring sunshine in late March not yet warm enough to offer any relief. The San Juan River’s surface was a shimmering reflection of the sky, while the Animas River was a murky brown mirroring the bare overhanging cottonwood branches. When the rivers merged at the confluence, the water of the two rivers would flow in parallel lanes of color, only beginning to mix at their border where the water encountered mini islands of beige sand and rocks.

[music cuts out]

[background wind and birds ambi]

Brandon: This is our temple, you know. We, we view this part – this land, this water – as sacred, you know, providing life…and we pray right here. We pray for things. Because we always believe that water takes our prayers to the big water, down to the Colorado, it goes into the ocean, and eventually comes back to us. So, it carries our prayers for us. So every time we pray, we pray to the water. Not only do we view river as part of our family, but a part of our way of life.

[music fades in over ambi]

When we grow things, and when we grow plants, we view them as our children, as our relatives. When we’re watering them, or when we’re tending to them, we always talk to them and [speaking Navajo (3:31)] “Grow my little one.” You know? And we treat them as family.

Jacqueline: But what if the water is contaminated? We learned about the Gold King Mine Spill that happened in 2015, when a mine in Colorado spilled toxic waste water into the Animas River, where it spread to the confluence, and much of the San Juan River downstream, turning the waters caution tape yellow. Farmers relying on the San Juan River for water were forced to shut down their irrigation lines.

Brandon: So when the Gold King Mine Spill happened and they shut off the water, for a lot of Navajo people, for a lot of Diné people, it was like watching their relatives die out in the fields, and die of thirst, you know. Wither and die.

[music plays through transition]

[music cuts out]

Xiner Luo: After our stroll with Brandon along the river, we headed to the Lane Family Farm, owned by Gloria and Harry Lane. Through the farm, Gloria and Harry aim to teach Diné culture and traditional farming. The farm consists of a one-story house, painted a light tan that almost camouflaged with the surrounding soft khaki-colored soil. The house overlooks the San Juan river and a plot of farmland, which was clear of weeds when we visited, as the family prepared for the upcoming planting season. There, standing next to the field, we met Kevin Belin, Director of the Diné Bizaad (Bih-zahd) Institute at the Navajo Preparatory School, who extended the ideas of sacredness Brandon mentioned earlier.

Kevin: You hear that from native people. Oh, everything is sacred. Look at the ground ground you touch, it’s sacred. That river there, is sacred. Those trees, the birds that feel the sun’s rays, it’s sacred.…it is! It truly, truly, is.

Xiner: For Kevin, one particularly sacred plant is corn.

[music fades in]

Kevin: We were told our bodies are made of corn. When we were created, we were told this is what our bodies were made of. This is how we are going to interact with the world around us. When you’re creating a corn field, you’re creating life. When you plant that seed, sperm, right, egg. When you’re creating that field, you create your home.

[music cuts out]

Xiner: To Brandon and Kevin, agriculture is not just a means to an end, a way to deliver food to the grocery store for the convenience of modern society. Even though there are challenges—waking up before the blazing sun rises and removing weeds in the blistering heat—Practicing agriculture is a fundamental part of who they are as Diné people.

Kevin: For us as Diné people, you have to have a passion for growing corn. You have to have the will.  You have to have the motivation to come over here, look at this piece of dirt, and think it’s gonna be productive. You have to have that mindset that this land here, I’m gonna have to work it to ensure we have food.

Jacqueline: And while some of us were listening to Kevin, others were talking with Gabrielle Henderson, also known as Gabby, a New Mexico State University undergraduate student who also volunteers her time at the Lane Family Farm. So why does she put in the time and effort to help with farming?

It all started with Gloria and Harry’s daughter, Nonabah Lane, who unfortunately passed away 6 months prior to the time we met the Lane family. But in her lifetime, Nonanah was an educator and environmental sustainability specialist who also became a role model for Gabby.

[voices talking in background over Gabby’s clips]

Gabby Henderson: So how I personally got into this was through Nonabah. She’s kinda been there for me since childhood, making cookies, and she would, she’s just a really, really outgoing person. She’d travel everywhere, she’d tell me everything about it, and that was when I was a little kid. And then, when I got into high school, I became more mature, I guess. Not really, but a little bit, and I got to know the way of like, kinda like the farm. But then when Nonaban would tell me about these opportunities, and this stuff about the farm, I wouldn’t be intrigued by it. I’d think about it, but then I’d just be like…mmm I don’t have time for it, when really I did. But now, when she passed, it’s this like, it really affected me. I needed to be more involved, and I wanted to do something more with my life, I guess.

Narration: So Gabby got her start in the place where we met her – the Lane family Farm, currently managed by Nonabah’s parents, Gloria and Harry Lane, and her brother Bruce Lane. And, although we never got to meet Nonabah ourselves, she has continued to have an impact on those around her.

Gabby: I was just like, yeah, I can do this for her. And I also noticed that the farm needed help because Gloria is getting old and Harry is getting old, and I was like, I just need to help them so I first started here, and I would just come here for maybe 3 days a week for maybe a couple hours, but then Gloria got me connected with Dr. Lombard from NMSU. He works at the Agriculture Center and I got an internship over there too so I just started there in, I think, December, and I’m learning new stuff.

Narration: And while the Lane farm continues operating, both as a farm and the center of the Navajo Ethno-Agriculture program co-founded by Nonabah, Gabby is slowly but steadily making progress with her own projects in agriculture.

Gabby: I’m learning pruning, and I’m learning seed planting with different, like, experimental seeds, I guess.

[transition music]

[transition music fades out]

Xiner: While Gabby is working on growing food, others are working on how to get the food from the farm to the table.

Danielle Goldtooth: We are very happy that you all came out to visit us, today, here at our new little farm area, where we’re gonna be putting together some, some new and exciting things, hopefully.

Xiner: Danielle Goldtooth and her partner Alan Moore became involved in food sovereignty and traditional Navajo cuisine because of one particular food – hamburgers. 

Danielle: He likes telling this story but I’ll tell it this time. We were cruising through Pheonix and we were stopping off at a burger joint to get a hamburger. And it’s a local place, maybe about a year ago or so. And we go in and they’re like, well, we don’t have any beef. And, they’re like, we have supply chain issues. And we’re coming from working as a slaughterwoman and a butcher, so we’re very befuddled. We’re like, we just came out from where these people can’t even sell all of their cows right now. What’s going on here? How am I not having beef 50 miles away from where I’m also processing this? Something here is not right. Why is this not closer to home? Why are we not having beef where we should be having it?

Xiner: But it wasn’t just a supply chain issue, Danielle and Alan also noticed that the farmers in their area were getting older.

[water running in background]

Danielle: A lot of our elderly are still farming but our middle aged people and our younger people are not. And, so, it is our hope by coming back to this space, that we’re able to help revitalize, but also help demonstrate, that the Diné way of life and the way that we have had our communities put together with a basis of agriculture is a way that we can continue to move forward in this newer world, using technologies that are going to be helpful, not just for ourselves, but for the Earth. So that’s kind of our, in essence, our mission. Allen and I have our own food company called DiiINA Food Start to Finish.

Xiner: Their business produces traditional Navajo food starting at their own farm and finishing at the table. They hosted us for lunch near where their farm is located. And we arrived just in time to watch the final preparations for the food.

[cooking ambi under following narration]

Xiner: Racks of mutton hissed and spat on a grill over a fire, outsides charring to form a dark brown-black crust. Bags of vegetables tumbled into woks, sizzling on contact with the hot metal. Ears of corn and foil-wrapped potatoes were buried all around smoldering embers dusted with ashes.

[cooking ambi fades out]

Interestingly, all of this cooking was executed on the ground. Pits had been dug out and structured into a cooking area using stone blocks which pots, pans, and metal grill grates were set over. And as we waited, we learned that these particular stones actually held special value for Danielle and her family.

[background noise of people moving around and wind over Danielle’s clips]

Danielle: What we were doing this week in preparation for you all to be here. The first thing that we actually did was we took down an old little oven, and all of these little rocks that are here, and the big rocks that are here, were actually quarried by our forefathers. This specific one was probably from our great great great great grandfathers’ Hogan, and they hand-quarried these stones themselves. And this used to be a part of a Hogan, a traditional Navajo home, out near the Shiprock rock area. As the years have gone by, we’ve reused these stones over and over for fire pits or for our cooking adobes and such.

Xiner: As the intense winds blew wood smoke and the mouth watering aromas of grilling meat, stir-fried vegetables, and roasted corn towards us, Danielle introduced the menu for the day, consisting of traditional Navajo recipes made using farm fresh ingredients.

Danielle: This is what we would love to offer you. We have a three-sisters soup for our vegetarian folks. We have a, I believe it’s going to be, Anasazi beans with split pea, yellow pea, pinto beans, and a few other beans that you would’ve found in this area that were traditionally brought here by and cultivated by the Anasazi themselves. For those of you who are meat-eats, the other thing that’s special about these ribs is my grandmother went and she picked out Chiiłchin, which is a redberry, sumac.

Xiner: And the food was delicious! Before we left, we asked Danielle about the significance of her work.

Danielle: I imagine that our impact is going to be very small, but that’s okay, as long as we’re doing this for our community and we have our hearts in it, that’s what matters to us.

[transition music]

Jacqueline: It seems that it is not just the surrounding land that is sacred for the Diné people we met; they also place purpose in their actions and how they pursue their goals. So what seems immediately ordinary and everyday, such as farming, could hold deeper and richer meaning.

Reflecting back on the trip, this idea was definitely something that resonated with each of us. We couldn’t help thinking about our own lives: Why do we do the things that we do, and what, if any, is the greater meaning in our everyday actions?

[transition music fades out]

[new transition music]

Jacqueline: This show was produced by the Spring 2023 MIT Terrascope Radio Class: Xiner Luo (low), Jacqueline Prawira (Prah-weir-ah), Nevena Stojkovic (Stoi-co-vich), and Elisa Xia (SHA). The Terrascope Radio Class is a part of MIT Terrascope, a learning community for first-year undergraduate students focused on solving complex environmental problems. The class was developed in collaboration with MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program.

We would like to thank the members of the MIT Terrascope community: director David McGee, community coordinator Michelle Contos, and associate director and lecturer Ari Epstein (Ep-stine (like mine)). Ari Epstein is also our instructor for Terrascope Radio along with the Undergraduate Teaching Fellows, Richard Chen and Athena Wang, who gave much support and feedback throughout the class.

We would also like to thank everyone who made the Terrascope spring break trip possible: Joel Grimm, Libby Hsu (shoe), Ben Tiger, and Vippy Yee as well as the people who talked to us throughout our trip: Steve Semken, Danielle Goldtooth and Alan Moore, Tony and Cora Goldtooth, Lula Sandoval, Brandon Francis and Karyn Denny, Kevin Lombard, Adriano Tsinigine (Sin-i-giny), Gabrielle Henderson, Gloria, Harry, and Bruce Lane, Bree Lameman, Dean Demsey, Cindy Howe, and Darell Jones.

Without these amazing and wonderful people, this program would have truly been impossible.

Music from Blue Dot Sessions.

Thank you for listening!

[new transition music fades out]