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Navajo food taboos and food safety


As a consumer, I’ve purchased food without ever considering whether it is contaminated with pathogens. I’ve made the assumption that the food is safe. If the label included a small emblem noting that it is “certified,” “inspected” or “organic,” I felt reassured. But after a course on food safety litigation, I am more reluctant to believe that our food is completely safe, especially since there is pushback from the industry and hesitation from regulating authorities. As a result, I’ve recently turned to Navajo teachings and begun analyzing traditional stories for their messages about food safety. I’ve come to the conclusion that Navajo food taboos are stricter than current food laws, thereby offering better protection against pathogens on certain foods. However, like the current laws in place, they are not a guarantee against all types of food adulterants.

NMSU tribal extension cooking class. (Courtesy Photo) FEB15

Navajo youth in 4-H learn to make traditional blue corn mush. (Photo by Leah Platero)

Traditional teachings influence my daily thought process about safe and edible foods. Toward the end of the food safety course, I began to think more deeply about the messages from the various stories among my people. I am Diné, or Navajo Indian, from the southwest region of the United States. Navajos have many rules governing their lifestyle. Lately, however, certain rules are dismissed as irrelevant in the modern era, notably the rules relating to food. Traditional Navajo teachings promote a mostly vegetarian diet. Small game animals were common meals when I was a child. But as globalization continues to connect a variety of cultures into one conglomerate society, Navajo foods are being replaced with foreign foods. In addition to the displacement of indigenous ingredients is a shift in attitude about food taboos. Many Navajos disregard the rules and choose to eat whatever and however they want.

In the Navajo language, yiiyah, bahadzid, or dóójiiyaada are phrases often used when speaking about foods that should be avoided. Each of these words carries an underlying message that invokes fear. Yiiyah, or its shorter version, yii, translates as “scary.” Bahadzid refers to something that is “dangerous,” and doojiiyaada simply means “don’t eat it.” If an elder knows of another person eating a tabooed food, a lecture will ensue, followed by a story to reinforce the reasoning for its prohibition.

According to our traditional teachings, there are foods in this world that we, as Navajo people, are not supposed to consume. If a Navajo consumes a tabooed food, then the resulting consequence is illness. The illness, it is said, may not take immediate effect but would rather impact the individual at a later time. As my elders explained to me, “Certain foods weren’t meant for us to eat it. It might be OK for other Natives or other people to eat, but for us Navajo it wasn’t given to us.” One of the best examples to illustrate the concept of a foreign food to the Navajo diet is portrayed in an oral story about a gambler.

The Gambler’s story speaks of a powerful and manipulative person who challenged many people throughout the land. Each challenger bet their life and lost. The Gambler enslaved the losers and forced them to build a great city, known today as Chaco Canyon. Toward the end of the story, a hero emerges and challenges the Gambler. The Gambler loses everything and those once enslaved were freed. The Gambler was exiled; he was shot into the sky with a large bow and arrow. The Gambler landed at the home of the Moon-Bearer, poor and helpless. The Moon-Bearer felt sorry for the Gambler and gifted him with domesticated animals, which included cattle, pigs, and chickens. It was foretold that the Gambler would return with these animals and would attempt to regain power and control over others. For this reason, we were warned not to consume these animals.

The restriction against eating domesticated animals is merely the beginning. As a Navajo, I must also avoid various types of exotic meats and a variety of plants. For example, consuming reptiles is absolutely forbidden. Through experience I’ve discovered that avoiding the prohibited food itself is more complex than it seems. One evening I was invited to dinner as a work function. The management thought a fun dinner at an old Western town would provide a unique experience, particularly because the menu offered deep-fried rattlesnake. Upon informing the server that I had a cultural allergy to the “bites,” he instructed that I not consume anything that was fried because it shared the same frying oil. It was from that dining experience that I realized I needed to avoid not just the meats themselves, but also all the other items in a kitchen which may have cross-contaminated with the product. I find this analogous to pathogens in contaminated meats which cross-contaminate with other foods.

While reptiles are rarely offered as food and can be easily avoided, there are other foods that are not easily avoidable because of their wide acceptance from the general public. Those examples include any form of seafood, okra, and blue agave syrup. The list of foods to avoid goes on and on. Aside from specific restrictions on food, there are also taboos related to how to eat food. For example, I’m not allowed to stab food with a knife, or use a knife like a fork. A knife should be used only to cut. Perhaps the greatest food taboo that specifically relates to food safety is not to consume meat that is raw or undercooked because eating the blood causes illness. However, transforming blood into a sausage is acceptable. In fact, sheep’s blood sausage is a delicacy. As long as the food is thoroughly cooked, it is accepted.

While these food taboos apply only to Navajos, I think they offer a cultural law that is stricter than current food laws. In many respects, these taboos offer a consumer better protection from certain pathogens. Consider the Gambler’s story, where the underlying message is to avoid eating beef, pork, and chicken. I’ve consistently examined the story’s reasons to avoid those meats, other than the fear of a monopoly or capitalism, and determined that the Gambler’s message also correlates to food safety and health. In theory, if one adheres to the Gambler’s strict lessons and does not consume domesticated animal meat products, then that individual avoids E. coli and Salmonella outbreaks related to those meats altogether. This theory, however, has two immediate drawbacks. First, simply avoiding contaminated meats does not entirely shield one from other types of contamination found in vegetables or fruit. Second, the exclusion of meats from an accustomed eating pattern is not practical for many and is extremely dogmatic.

Admitting that these drawbacks are difficult to overcome, I still believe that, in the aggregate, certain contaminants could be avoided. Imagine if domesticated livestock were dramatically reduced because the rate of meat consumption paralleled the reduction. The resulting outcome is less livestock raised near fields that grow other types of foods, and the risk of animal fecal matter contaminating vegetables or fruits is greatly reduced. Following a second food taboo, which prohibits eating rare meats, offers a compromise to the second drawback. The alternative of eating meat well-prepared is a safe guideline already in existence and currently promoted under food safety policies.

I am not advocating that everyone, or even Navajos themselves, should follow Navajo food beliefs. Rather I find that the traditional knowledge embedded in these stories becomes more real for me and provides a sense of strength and understanding that’s deeper than statutes or regulations.

Following food taboos is not a bright-line rule to end all food-related sicknesses, but it’s a reliable foundation to build upon. Food taboos emerged within a society for a reason, and that reason is to avoid illnesses. While it is difficult for me to adhere to many of the Navajo rules that govern eating patterns, it’s important that I remember that these rules were adopted with the intention to keeping me safe, healthy, and in harmony with the universe. The food rules that come from origin stories or by an ancestor’s trial and error were developed over time and should continue to evolve within our society. Therefore, I believe that food taboos shouldn’t be easily dismissed and that is the reason why I’ve strongly reconsidered them relevant in my diet in this modern era.

Editor’s note on author: Dave Nezzie is a candidate in the LL.M. Program in Agriculture & Food Law at the University of Arkansas School of Law. He received a J.D. from the University of New Mexico School of Law with program certificates in Federal Indian Law and Natural Resources & Environmental Law. Nezzie attended Arizona State University as an undergraduate, earning concurrent degrees in Anthropology and American Indian Studies. Nezzie is a tribal member from the Navajo Nation and resides near Albuquerque, New Mexico, with his wife and three children.

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