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Long Lives as modeled by our Ancestors - Hozhoogo Nizaadgoo Iina - We can live past 100 years again

Updated: Jan 7, 2022

By Tony Skrelunas and Kaitlyn Benally

TribeAwaken is honored to join forces with the Northern Arizona University (NAU) Department of Health Sciences to work on improving the health and well-being of our Native peoples. We are working with professors to create a project that showcases the benefits of a primarily plant based diet and simple lifestyle changes. The project will be based in a focused work place in Northern Arizona where we will intervene and provide an exciting array of programming using students at NAU along with traditional cooks and chefs and those knowledgeable of the utilization of plants, stories, and ceremonies. The three year project will also partner with existing on the ground programming such as the Navajo Special Diabetes Project along with utilizing Native American chefs and culinary experts who understand the benefits of plant based and traditional cooking methodology.

Navajo Chiilchin - Sumac Berries

One of the themes that keeps coming up is the original longevity taught in Navajo history. The term was recently brought up in a meeting with the Navajo Special Diabetes Project of “Sa’agh’ Naa’gai Bi’ke’ Ho’zho,” which incorporates the blessing and goal of long life and living to be over one hundred years old. In the Navajo way, when someone lives to be that old, their life is a celebration no matter what happens because they have seen their community change and they have made their mark. They have raised wise families and have seen their great great grandchildren.

Some of the themes touting that kind of life were more prevalent even 50 years ago. One such instance is found in the simple, highly rewarding lifestyle of sheepherders. A sheep herder typically walks over 6 miles a day to herd the flock, is up at the crack of dawn, and usually consumes a minimal amount of food which originally was primarily plant based according to Navajo elders. Their diet included corn, squash, beans, wild spinach, melons, pinions, sumac, and very lean meats. When the Navajo people were blessed with sheep over 600 years ago, they also perfected a very healthy product. They


followed traditions of plant knowledge knowing where to graze the sheep to gain intended flavors or medicines at different times of year. They knew where certain medicine grew and knew how to flavor or tenderize the meat using certain types of plants. For instance, the plant diwoozhii is a meat tenderizer and is good for winter time grazing, ts’a gives the meat a salty flavor, and awe ts’aal results in a good flavor meat. Therefore, they would graze the sheep in different areas during different seasons. As a result, you had a very healing sheep. Along with that, the sheepherders understood breeding. They primarily bred Navajo churro sheep, a breed that is very hardy needing water every few days and being able to eat different varieties of vegetation. This breed has become unique to the Navajo. When properly herded, using rotational grazing areas and using proper sheep grazing technique, the sheep have been found to contain high levels of omega-3 and leanness which is very beneficial to a healthy diet.

The author's grandpa who was a centenarian and lifelong shepherd

In combination with the plant based diet, activities of constant physical work were important. Most sheep herders had many other duties such as tending a cornfield and cooking at home because they were self-sufficient. To this day, a sheepherder cannot easily leave to go on vacation. The luxury they have is to visit family or go to town once a month for supplies. They have to find a substitute sheepherder in order to travel. So, a sheepherder’s life is dedicated to the herd and for that reason their diet is more controlled. Thus, you had many of these elders live very healthy and long lives.

Another part of sheep herding was traditional knowledge. You had to understand the medicines to heal the sheep and take care of the sheep. There was constant work. Navajos have certain songs, prayers, and offerings to ensure the flock is strong. They also have family help when needed. To live in such an environment, in some cases in solitude, takes mental strength. So, Navajo have many teachings and ceremonies to ensure that people have strong minds that can withstand herding for days at a time and living a disciplined life. Just from that one example, you can discern why there was such a prevalence of those centennials (a person who lives past 100 years of age).

Another point to consider is the Western experience with plant based diet: It has been shown that when people who have type 2 diabetes adopt a plant based diet, they can reverse their diabetes symptoms within 18 days in a controlled setting. It has also been shown depressive symptoms can be reversed within a few months from a plant based diet and lifestyle changes. The film “Game Changer”, shows that top tier athletes who follow a plant based diet have shown increased athletic performance and have decreased their training times by a significant amount.

In the Navajo way, plant based diet includes kneel down bread, blue corn mush, blue corn bread, squash and hominy or steam corn stew, popcorn, sumac berries, and other foods. Juniper ash is mixed in with ground blue corn to add calcium and iron to the dish. Red sumac berries can be made into a flavorful type of lemonade, or a pudding made with medium ground white corn and topped with pine nuts. It can also be dried and ground into a spice to flavor food. There are also

Navajo blue bread and ineeshbizhii with locally raised lamb ribs

wild plants that can be harvested such as onions, carrots, prickly pear cactus, pinions, and so much more. The herb green thread (also known as Native tea) can also be cut, washed, dried, and then brewed to make a tea with an earthy mild flavor. Beyond that, it is important to harvest these plants respectfully and properly to ensure that they keep growing for future generations to utilize. There are a lot of plant based protein options such as legumes, beans, tofu, chickpeas, plant based bullion cubes, lentils, almonds, and other nuts. Traditional wild rice, quinoa, even hemp that can be made in a tasty burger. Many Navajos are lactose intolerant but a lot of the younger generation are finding relief from almond milk, hemp milk, oat milk, and soy milk. There are also plant based sausages that taste like conventional meat. For example, BBQ jackfruit has a flavor similar to pulled pork.

Navajo tea

It is through the project with NAU that we hope to reignite some of this knowledge and teachings in addition to motivating many people to adopt a more plant based oriented lifestyle. We are creating a website to showcase lifestyle coaching, food making demonstrations, traditional food recipes and demonstrations, and so forth. NAU students will research and share lifestyle coaching to strengthen the project,

We will also explore how to incorporate minimal and traditionally raised lamb into the diet. Tribeawaken will be working with NAU to create a website that will share recipes and give more information about the plant based diet. Through our partnership, we will also create health fairs and workshops within the next two years.

Tribeawaken will provide an update article once the website is up and the project commences.

Ahxehee (Thank you)

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