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Fry Bread Nation: Navajo Secret To A Long Life

NAU graduate student Daniel Begay poses in a lab in this undated picture.
Laurel Morales/KJZZ
NAU graduate student Daniel Begay poses in a lab in this undated picture.

Navajo women are less likely to break their hips than white women, according to a study conducted on the reservation. Northern Arizona University graduate student Daniel Begay found this surprising because most American Indians are lactose intolerant.

“They aren’t getting that same source of calcium from dairy products,” Begay said.

Begay, who is Navajo, had always been told growing up that traditional foods were good for him. Turns out it was a traditional cooking method that was the key to his bone health. The Navajo burn juniper branches, collect the ash and stir it into traditional dishes. The most popular — blue corn mush.

“The traditional foods they had been eating for so long, this is a really good source of calcium, especially for a Navajo person’s diet where they don’t get the same source of calcium other people would get,” Begay said.

Begay tested this theory by analyzing the amount of calcium in 27 samples of juniper from all over the reservation. But first he had to ash the juniper outside his apartment in Flagstaff. Not quite the same as the rural reservation.

“I let my landlord know beforehand, said, ‘Hey, I’m going to be building a fire in our yard just so you know,’” Begay said. “I burned up a picnic table a little bit.”

His analytical chemistry professor Jani Ingram said he did most of the work in the lab.

“You have to get it to the point where you can dissolve it in acid and then dilute it down and then do the analysis that way,” Ingram said.

It was there Begay found the calcium level was fairly high.

“For every gram of ash that I was able to sample, I was getting roughly 280-300 milligrams of calcium,” Begay said.

That’s about the same as a glass of milk. But he said the body seems to absorb the calcium from the juniper ash easier.

I decided to see for myself. So I drove to the tiny community of Jeddito in the middle of the Navajo Nation to Lillie Pete’s home. Pete teaches classes on how to cook traditional Navajo food.

First she showed me where she picks the juniper from behind her house.

“Some of them will be all brown, you can see it has brown spots on it,” Pete said, holding a juniper branch.

It was too windy to burn the ash on this day. Fortunately, Pete had a large jar of juniper ash ready to go. So we got to making blue corn mush in her kitchen.

Pete said she already knew juniper ash was good for her along with many other traditional Navajo foods.

“We knew that was really good stuff you know,” Pete said. “And of course we were warned when the Anglo people came out with the trading posts, ‘Stick with your own food.’ Our body wasn’t built to consume the kind of food that came with the Anglo. And now we have so many health problems with our people.”

Pete teaches young and old how to cook traditional food. She said many Navajos tell her they forgot the traditional ways when they were forced to go away to government-run boarding schools. Now with the known health benefits, there’s even more incentive to learn.

Pete boiled water. Then she poured it onto the ash. Then she measured the cornmeal and stirred with several long sticks tied together. She said she always stirs in a clockwise direction to keep her mind calm.

After several minutes the corn mush produced thick volcanic bubbles, which told us it’s ready. Pete gave thanks to mother earth for the corn as she cleaned each stick.

Then we sat down to a hot bowl of delicious blue corn mush.

“The traditional foods they had been eating for so long, this is a really good source of calcium, especially for a Navajo person’s diet where they don’t get the same source of calcium other people would get,” Begay said.

Begay tested this theory by analyzing the amount of calcium in 27 samples of juniper from all over the reservation. But first he had to ash the juniper outside his apartment in Flagstaff. Not quite the same as the rural reservation.

“I let my landlord know beforehand, said, ‘Hey, I’m going to be building a fire in our yard just so you know,’” Begay said. “I burned up a picnic table a little bit.”

His analytical chemistry professor Jani Ingram said he did most of the work in the lab.

“You have to get it to the point where you can dissolve it in acid and then dilute it down and then do the analysis that way,” Ingram said.

Cooking Blue Corn Mush

It was there Begay found the calcium level was fairly high.

“For every gram of ash that I was able to sample, I was getting roughly 280-300 milligrams of calcium,” Begay said.

That’s about the same as a glass of milk. But he said the body seems to absorb the calcium from the juniper ash easier.

I decided to see for myself. So I drove to the tiny community of Jeddito in the middle of the Navajo Nation to Lillie Pete’s home. Pete teaches classes on how to cook traditional Navajo food.

First she showed me where she picks the juniper from behind her house.

“Some of them will be all brown, you can see it has brown spots on it,” Pete said, holding a juniper branch.

It was too windy to burn the ash on this day. Fortunately, Pete had a large jar of juniper ash ready to go. So we got to making blue corn mush in her kitchen.

Pete said she already knew juniper ash was good for her along with many other traditional Navajo foods.

“We knew that was really good stuff you know,” Pete said. “And of course we were warned when the Anglo people came out with the trading posts, ‘Stick with your own food.’ Our body wasn’t built to consume the kind of food that came with the Anglo. And now we have so many health problems with our people.”

Lillie Pete sifts the juniper ash before adding it to her blue corn mush in this undated photo.
Laurel Morales/KJZZ
Lillie Pete sifts the juniper ash before adding it to her blue corn mush in this undated photo.

Pete teaches young and old how to cook traditional food. She said many Navajos tell her they forgot the traditional ways when they were forced to go away to government-run boarding schools. Now with the known health benefits, there’s even more incentive to learn.

Pete boiled water. Then she poured it onto the ash. Then she measured the cornmeal and stirred with several long sticks tied together. She said she always stirs in a clockwise direction to keep her mind calm.

After several minutes the corn mush produced thick volcanic bubbles, which told us it’s ready. Pete gave thanks to mother earth for the corn as she cleaned each stick.

Then we sat down to a hot bowl of delicious blue corn mush.