New food and community-building programs are unlocking barriers across the Navajo Nation. | Cover Story

“The work we are doing isn't just for the benefit of the Indigenous community.  It is for the benefit of all.”  —Bleu Adams - BLEU ADAMS

  • Bleu Adams
  • “The work we are doing isn’t just for the benefit of the Indigenous community. It is for the benefit of all.” —Bleu Adams

If Bleu Adams’ name sounds familiar, it’s probably for a good reason. She and her late brother, chef Mark Daniel Mason (of Blue Poblano) served as fearless advocates for their community on the Navajo Nation—especially younger generations—and the Indigenous community at large in Utah.

Their voices reverberate throughout various tribal communities as advocates for change and the betterment of all humanity. And, after losing Mason to COVID in 2021, Adams has continued to carry the water with the help of her family, volunteers and many others who understand the importance of creating sustainable change—and how it begins with nutrition.

The Navajo Nation has long struggled with a lack of access to healthy food. Located in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, the reservation spans over 27,000 square miles—roughly the size of Virginia—and is home to more than 170,000 people. But with a total of only 13 grocery stores available to residents, many have to drive more than an hour to purchase fresh food.

The food scarcity on the Navajo reservation is not just a matter of convenience, but a health crisis. The lack of access to healthy food has contributed to high rates of diabetes, heart disease and other conditions. Due to the reservation’s vast and sparsely populated areas, many families rely on convenience stores and gas stations for meals.

“When I opened my first restaurant, [Black Sheep], I was really troubled because I was providing beautiful food and dishes, but less than 5% of our clientele was Indigenous,” Adams said. “I was already in the space of ‘What can I do for the community?’ because that is how we are raised—we don’t succeed without each other.”

Adams said that despite the success of her restaurant, she didn’t feel successful due to a lack of community connections. That led her to consider the different barriers that people face—which extends to internet connectivity and financial resources—and inspired her to launch the nonprofit IndigeHub.

“I came across a [social media] post from a childhood friend who said it had taken him two days to complete a [job] application and get it printed and turned in,” Adams said. “This is due to lack of access.”

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“Many of our community members lack resources—electricity, access to public utilities, etc.—yet they are asked to compete with the rest of the United States.”—Bleu Adams - BLEU ADAMS

  • Bleu Adams
  • “Many of our community members lack resources—electricity, access to public utilities, etc.—yet they are asked to compete with the rest of the United States.”—Bleu Adams

Creating a sustainable food supply is no easy feat, especially when you consider the challenges of the Navajo Nation, where land is leased to the people by the US government. But despite the obstacles, there are many who work tirelessly towards the goal of achieving food sovereignty and ending food scarcity in their communities.

Many, like Adams, look at the challenges as an opportunity to find “green” ways to achieve access. From farmers to activists, educators to volunteers, there is a diverse group of individuals who understand the importance of creating a sustainable and resilient food system. Their efforts may not always make the headlines, but they are still vital to creating a better future for the Navajo people, offering hope that some of the most pressing issues can be solved through collective efforts towards a common purpose.

Planting Seeds
Some Native Americans still live without running water or electricity. In addition, many families in the Navajo Nation live below the poverty level and do not have a physical address, therefore having little access to capital or a way to secure a loan.

Adams and other members of the community have acted to address these overlapping crises. With IndigeHub, she is on a mission “to empower Indigenous communities through culturally informed, sustainable solutions that prioritize self-sufficiency and long-term success.”

IndigeHub offers three programs: the CoWork Hub, Food Hub and Blackbird Shared Kitchen, which is scheduled to reopen in the spring of 2024. Through these various programs, Native Americans have access to the internet, business tools, education and support for local food producers and aspiring chefs.

“Many of our community members lack resources—electricity, access to public utilities, etc.—yet they are asked to compete with the rest of the United States,” Adams added. “I wanted to understand why, and it really boils down to a directive to disconnect us from our land in order to extract natural resources. And that is just the truth.”

She also emphasized that solutions to food insecurity and health care disparities aren’t limited to tribal communities, but can inform strategies for a better overall quality of life. “The work we are doing isn’t just for the benefit of the Indigenous community,” Adams said. “It is for the benefit of all.”

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  • Bleu Adams
  • “Now our monsoon seasons are delayed until the end of July, and they also come more aggressively.”—Jaiden Willeto

Jaiden Willeto lives on the reservation near Window Rock, Arizona, and is the food sovereignty coordinator for DragonFly Farms on the Navajo reservation. She grows food using ancient Indigenous practices, utilizing dry-land farming and the monsoon season.

Food grown on the farm is given to people on the reservation at no charge to assist in better health practices and sustainability. Dragonfly Farms is part of the IndigeHub project, and the hope in the near future is to establish a solar-powered storage container that can serve as a “food hub,” with a washing station and a refrigerator.

Willeto started Dragonfly a year ago, and although she does most of the work herself, some community members volunteer to help by caring for seed starts, performing routine farm tasks and building compost bins to make their own soil assist in this mutual-aid farm growing nutrient-dense foods for the community.

“People can donate if they want to, but we don’t sell it,” Willeto said. “All of the food that we harvested from last year was given out at farmers’ markets, harvest markets and flea markets. I care about the food people eat—it can be poison or medicine. And I just care about my people, and I want them to be able to feed themselves culturally relevant and spiritually-, mentally-, emotionally- and physically-fulfilling foods and have access to that food without an economic barrier.”

The farm currently sits on 2 acres of land. Willeto practices drip-line irrigation, which requires her to run a hose more than 150 feet from a water spigot, as well as dry-land farming practices. This season, she is planting a corn field that will fully grow through dryland farming depending on rainfall.

It is a technique that has been practiced for centuries, although it is increasingly difficult under persistent megadrought. In addition, she plans to grow Indigenous heirloom crops, as those seeds have adapted to the climate because they have been grown on the reservation for generations.

“We are seeing our monsoon seasons change due to climate change,” Willeto said. “Now our monsoon season is delayed until the end of July, and they also come more aggressively, so we are getting more intense monsoon events where it will flash flood.”

During times of flooding, fields can be completely washed out, while dry periods between storms can stretch for weeks at a time. She said the goal of the farm is to evolve and adapt to current climate conditions through water efficiency and drought tolerance.

“Last year, we had 100 days without rain,” she said.

Living Off the Land
Twila Cassadore has a genuine fire for life—a true inspiration, overcoming many obstacles from abuse to addiction. Yet, despite the difficult challenges, she harnessed her resilience and passion for her culture to triumph and became a highly regarded teacher. Now, she’s passing down the ancient practice of harvesting food on the reservation with great pride and expertise.

But it’s not just about food for her. It’s a spiritual practice—a way to connect with the land and community.

For the past 25 years, Cassadore has been working closely with the San Carlos Apache, White Mountain Apache and Yavapai peoples to explore ways to regain food sovereignty. Through interviews with elders, she has brought back valuable information to address health and social problems within these communities.

With a particular focus on the Traditional Western Apache Diet Project, Cassadore has documented the historical importance of the traditional diet of Apaches, such as grass and acorn seeds. Cassadore takes a group of people out onto the land three times a week and teaches them first-hand what and how to forage.

“People ask how they can help. For me, I started within my community,” Cassadore said. “We need to have those discussions. You don’t see these discussions in high school, and that needs to change; through the education system, we can bring attention to this topic. Being part of the conversation is the first step to finding solutions .”

Through community collaboration and partnerships, there’s hope that the scarcity of food on the Navajo reservation will one day become a thing of the past.

It’s important to note that food sovereignty is not just about access to food. It’s also about the right to control one’s own food system. The Navajo people have a long and rich history of farming and ranching, and they have a right to continue these traditions.

Adams says it would take an act of Congress to create real change, which she does not believe will happen in her lifetime. The question then becomes one of what can be done, she said. Do the people of the Navajo Nation submit to the situation that has been created, or learn to empower themselves?

Adams believes that focusing on grassroots and mutual aid is how people survive. They turn to their communities; they find creative solutions; they try to provide whatever is lacking and find a way to create it.

“Each of us has the ability to take this message to our network. That is how we initiate change—it has a ripple effect,” Adams added. “This has been happening in our communities for centuries, but now, we are seeing this happening on a global scale.”