“The life of the Earth is our life”

A conversation with farmer, grandfather, and Earth Defender Chili Yazzie about efforts in Navajo Nation to return to traditional farming practices. This conversation was recorded on August 19, 2022.

By Maximillian Alvarez

 

Chili Yazzie, a Navajo elder with grey hair pulled back, stands in front of his cornfield, planted in regular rows.
Chili Yazzie stands in front of his cornfield in Shiprock, New Mexico.

 

Duane “Chili” Yazzie is an incredible human being. After spending decades of his life serving his community through different elected and appointed positions in the Diné (Navajo) Government, after becoming a prominent activist in the struggle for Indigenous liberation from a young age, and after touring with the Native American rock band XIT, this is how Chili humbly lists his credentials today: “I’m a farmer, I’m a grandpa, and I’m an Earth Defender.”

When Chili and I spoke over the phone in August, he was getting ready to tend to the family farm at his home in Shiprock, New Mexico. “Our harvest is beginning to come in, so we’re extremely busy with work on our farm,” he told me. Harvest season is already an intense and laborious time for any farmer, but for Chili and the other Navajo farmers he is cooperating with, there is an added sense of urgency and purpose animating their daily efforts.

When COVID-19 reached the United States, Indigenous communities that have suffered centuries of colonial destruction and economic disadvantagement were especially vulnerable to the havoc it unleashed. In the early months of 2020, and then again during the Omicron wave of 2021, many around the country watched in horror as citizens of Navajo Nation were pummeled by the virus. “COVID was really devastating for our people,” Chili told me. “Some statistics I saw [said] that about 60,000 of us contracted COVID. And, you know… our total population is about 300,000.”

It was in the midst of this public health crisis that Chili and other Diné farmers became more convinced than ever that their cooperative efforts to collectivize agricultural production and distribution, and to return to their traditional, pre-industrial farming practices, were necessary in more ways than one: “When COVID got serious there, like in the Spring of 2020, we began to see an influx of relief efforts—local efforts, regional efforts—to provide food to the people… But one thing that we saw, also, is that some of the food that was being brought in for the people was not good quality… There were, you know, commodity-type foods that were being provided… We know that our produce, our fresh produce, has great health benefits. And so, our produce became in demand to provide additional food to what was being distributed [by the relief agencies].”

There were, as Chili described it, two unavoidable truths that became anxiously apparent as he and other community leaders watched emergency aid trucked in by relief agencies: (1) that the quality and nutritional value of the food being brought in paled in comparison to what could be produced locally; (2) that, unless local production could be scaled to meet those needs, citizens of the Navajo Nation were going to remain precariously dependent on an external supply chain—and if that supply chain was broken or disrupted in the future, Diné people would face an immediate crisis. But that’s not all. Of course, being in the American Southwest, it is all but impossible to avoid the ominous signs that such disruptions to the supply chain, and to life as such, are increasing with terrifying speed and regularity. “With the unpredictability of the economy, with the advent of the climate crisis, the dwindling water supply, we know that the future does not bode well with those factors,” Chili told me. “Food sovereignty is survival.”

As the climate crisis intensifies, attaining self-sustaining food production within the Navajo Nation is essential for basic survival, but it is also an essential component in the struggle for Indigenous sovereignty. As Chili has famously argued elsewhere, “We cannot claim sovereignty unless we feed ourselves.” That is why he and other local farmers decided to band together and form the Shiprock Traditional Farmers Cooperative (now named ToohBAA), a collective composed of farming families cooperating and coordinating their respective operations for the benefit of all. And the benefits of this type of collectivism are numerous: together, farmers can extend the reach of their produce—the staples being corn, squashes, chillies, and melons, but newer crops include tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, and carrots—in the regional marketplace, farm-to-school programs, etc.; they can combine harvests, especially the yields of a certain local strain of corn, to increase their output of value-added products with longer shelf lives; they can work together to develop widespread, non-destructive solutions for dealing with invasive species and pests; collectivizing their efforts also means they can secure more financial resources, which, in turn, can enable them to revitalize thousands of usable but currently fallow acres of available farmland.

 

Five children, ranging in age from toddlers to teens, stand behind and beside a tractor which tows a trailer full of corn cobs.
Chili Yazzie’s grandkids pose for a picture on the family farm in Shiprock, New Mexico, during the annual corn harvest.

 

“Before,” Chili said, “we, as individual farming families…, grew our produce for our own customers and to market individually, but we began coming together to talk about different farming concerns we have, and we began to get formally organized… to aggregate, to consolidate our farming activity, to bring our produce together, and to have a coordinated process of selling and marketing, which really works to the benefit of all of the farmers… [and it means] we have a greater supply of food for our people. And finally, I would say that one of the purposes that we came together as a group is to begin the process of working toward a food resilient, food secure future.”

Another crucial feature of this cooperative effort is the shared commitment to forms of regenerative agriculture (or “regen ag”), permaculture, and organic farming techniques, which comport more with traditional Navajo farming practices than the use of industrial farming techniques, equipment, and chemicals that became commonplace with the introduction of what Chili refers to as “colonialized farming.” “Here in the 1940s and ‘50s, when modern agriculture first came to our area with tractors and the heavy equipment and the chemical use—that generation of farmers really was indoctrinated into what I call colonialized farming. And only now we are realizing the negatives of that type of farming, with the heavy plowing, turning over the soil annually, and really debilitating the natural rejuvenation processes of the Earth, of the soil—and also, we see the ultimate negatives of using fertilizers and herbicides and so on… Here on our farm, we’re really seeing the difference between how we used to farm, say, three years ago (with the plowing, the chemicals, etc.) to the way we’re doing things now, with the transition that we’re making to regen ag. We really see the difference in how the soil is responding, and it’s just really great.”

Regenerative, ecologically responsible agriculture and cooperative systems of food production, distribution, and sharing are, Chili argues, fundamentally intertwined with the sacred charge of Indigenous peoples—and, really, all of us—to restore, maintain, and protect ecological balance. “It’s a new-old kind of situation for us,” Chili told me. “And the way that I look at it is it goes farther back than just agriculture. It goes back to our roots… to maintain our original relationship with the Earth… We know that the Earth is alive, has spirit, and it certainly takes care of every need that we have as human beings, as well as all other life on the planet. Our life comes from the Earth. The life of the Earth is our life. So [what we’re doing here goes] beyond just the physical process of farming—it’s a recognition and an honoring of the life of the Earth. The Earth was created with these ecosystems that secured its health. With the advent of modern agriculture… [came] deliberate destruction of certain ecosystems and biological processes that the Earth was created with. And so, in our Indigenous view, all things are connected—all of the life systems, all of the ecosystems, certainly are intertwined with the spirituality of life itself. There’s a oneness in the whole process of life. You can’t separate out any part of that and expect for it to work the way that it’s supposed to. So we view regenerative ag as a return to that original design—and, in that way, we are very definitely protecting the life of the Earth. We’re assuring the self-sustaining ability that the earth has; we look at it as our responsibility… We’re living our responsibility. It’s absolutely necessary and critical that we do this.”

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