Drawing on Diné knowledge for Sustainable Food Systems

HEAL Platform For Real Food Toolkit Series – Member Dispatch: Nihikeya

Plank 9 – Promote Sustainable Farming, Fishing and Ranching

We spoke with Roberto Nutlouis, founder and Executive Director of HEAL member Nihikeya, which builds a regenerative ecological footprint through restorative farming practices and Indigenous Diné knowledge systems. Roberto is Diné (Navajo) and is of the Todichinii (Bitter Water) clan, born for To’ Tsoni (Big Water) clan. 

He shared his experience drawing on Diné knowledge to develop agroecological farming systems and build community.

Watch a clip of our interview with Roberto

Roberto: I’m not trying to make capitalism work. Of course it’s not going to work. It continues to do what it does, what it’s supposed to do, what it was built to do. 

My work isn’t trying to solve the world’s problems. Everybody has a responsibility to solve their world. Creator put me here in the community among Diné, so the work I do is more specific to my community and the knowledge that we have. The solutions we come up with may not necessarily solve the world’s problems, but this is what allowed our people to survive and thrive in ever-changing landscapes throughout eons. 

For me, it’s about building what works for us, especially as Indigenous people, as Diné, coming from a community that’s still rooted in these lifeways and time-tested ancestral wisdom. We’re very fortunate and blessed to have narratives of our evolution as Diné people on this land. Our ancestors have gone through social and ecological calamities since time immemorial, and we still have those in our narratives. 

My success and the work that I’ve done is tapping back into that knowledge and looking at our own ways of relating to the life forces that we coexist with and that enable us to live on these landscapes.

And is there a particular teaching or historical moment among the Diné that you draw inspiration from in the work you do?

Roberto: The late Dr. Herbert Benally identified a model called Hózhóogo liná, based on the relationship between the earth and the cosmos and how it manifests itself on a daily 24-hour cycle of dawn, blue twilight, yellow twilight, and darkness. Dawn represents the cultural teachings and spiritual values of our people. Blue twilight represents self-sufficiency, because our physical body is the instrument we are gifted to sustain ourselves. Yellow twilight embodies kinship and our important roles in the wellbeing of our community. And darkness reminds us to have reverence for our ecology, our sacred homeland, that is also our home — not just the physical home that we come to, but the overall larger place we call Diné Bikéyah. 

Using these four pillars of Diné knowledge in our work, we try to get a sense of how this connects to climate change, social justice, and food sovereignty. I work with a team of people on community engagement around land stewardship, and we incorporate our cultural knowledge and traditional practices to facilitate dialogue with our communities. This is appreciated by our elders, because now they understand and can give feedback, instead of us just coming in all scientific and economic. 

Read more about the four pillars of knowledge, as laid out by Dr. Herbert Benally…

You were previously with Black Mesa Water Coalition. How did you get from that work to Nihikeya?

Roberto: I helped co-found Black Mesa Water Coalition back in 2001. It was a student organization around environmental justice work, because of the use of our sole source of drinking water in the Navajo aquifer for mining purposes and transportation.

Right before the pandemic, the organization succeeded in its main goal – to put an end to the mining and the use of the groundwater. The board decided to decommission the organization, since it had done what it was created to do. We had already started restorative economy work under the model of just transition, and that work continued. But when the pandemic happened, everything halted. After the pandemic, we reorganized and launched Nihikeya to continue that work.

Nihikeya is a Diné word, which means our ecological footprint, where we call home. We chose the word Nihikeya because we want to rebuild a regenerative, ecological footprint on our landscapes so that future generations can call it home, and we want to rebuild a lot of our food systems that have been destroyed over time.

We have the capacity, our people have done it. The Indigenous people of the Western hemisphere have been managing ecologies on continental scales and made them very abundant. Now is the time to use our ancestral wisdom to rebuild systems that are resilient to these incoming changes that we’re already experiencing.

With Nihikeya, you’ve been working to establish an agroecological community farm that incorporates rainwater harvesting and edible landscapes. Can you tell us how the community farm project came into being?

Roberto: I was always fascinated with farming, because both sides of my family farmed. When I went to college, my main focus was on traditional ecological knowledge and traditional dryland farming. 

I also did research around the different farming methods on the Navajo Nation, as our ecology is very varied, from low-lying river valleys all the way to high alpine mountain country. I looked at different farming strategies of Diné people in the different ecologies. And that’s where I came across alluvial farming. This is a very common farming practice and technique, not only by the Diné people, but also by other pueblos in the region. They set up their farmland strategically around the alluvial fan where the annual flood and all of the organic debris get to water and re-fertilize these fields. I wanted to replicate that system.

Sliding Rock Farm has become a community space to organize and host workshops.  We call it Sliding Rock Farm, because there’s a rock outcrop right next to the farm that we call Tse Adahnidilwoo’í, sliding rock. Kids have played there for generations, sliding down the rock (you can see the grooves still in the rock). This area was farmed by my grandmother’s father, so it goes a couple of generations back.

We do a lot of traditional food building, edible landscaping, and native plant identification, trying to look at the traditional Diné food systems and educate the community and bring in knowledge holders.

And it has inspired people to do their own thing in their own areas and their own landscapes. So it’s achieving what it was intended to do, to inspire our communities to take action and to be self-sufficient and self-directed.

Workshop organized by Nihikeya

You’ve spoken before about combining ancestral knowledge with contemporary innovations to address the ways that climate change and legacies of extractivism have modified the landscape. Could you tell us about a time when you’ve encountered a need for both of these forms of knowledge to coexist?

Roberto: Our farm is a really good example. We developed a rainwater catchment that comes down from the surrounding landscapes. The rainwater catchment restores the watershed and slows the floodwater as it comes into our fields. 

As we rehabilitated certain areas, we incorporated different types of water catchment systems. We learned these techniques from folks in a community called Big Mountain that have been working on these conservation practices since the ’80s. Their community resisted the Peabody Coal Mine when it first started. And they resisted relocation during the so-called Navajo-Hopi land dispute. They really pushed for the importance of self-determination and food sovereignty, even before it was a thing. We brought some of those young people over to our area and they showed us different techniques of how you put the rocks together and use some wires and fencing or whatever you find around to wrap what’s called a rock apron. We also cement the rocks together to make a rock retaining wall. 

Last year we experienced a 50 or 100 year flood. Our system withstood it pretty well, but the main dirt roads got washed out. Climate change and extreme weather impact our homeland, and the infrastructures we build now have to be able to withstand some of these extreme effects. 

We’re ready to be able to export some of these techniques to other communities that want some assistance. And we’re always open to other techniques people are using or developing.

Read more about how US policies created and exacerbated the Navajo-Hopi land dispute… 

And how do you employ agroecology on your farm?

Roberto: I like the term agroecology because the work isn’t just the farm itself; it’s tied into the larger ecology. In a lot of peasant farms in the Third World majority, they have systems that are built in sync with local ecological processes, and all of the seeds they grow are designed to fit into that ecology. 

In the social movement space around agroecology, they uplift farmers and land users who have a wealth of knowledge but don’t necessarily have diplomas or scholarly status. A lot of our work is around uplifting local knowledge that’s often overlooked. Especially in this country, it’s been demonized. Part of our work is to heal ourselves and believe in ourselves again. 

Our communities have been put into this impoverished state intentionally. Poverty is not who we are. It’s not part of our culture. But this system has put us and keeps us in poverty. We were forced to forfeit billions –  if not trillions – of dollars that could have been invested in social development for our community, so that these towns and cities could have cheap electricity and cheap energy. That’s how we still find ourselves in poverty, even though they’ve been mining our lands. That’s what capitalism is. But it’s our responsibility to build a new system, and that’s our work.

And it’s through agroecology that we are going to find a solution to create landscapes in these changing ecologies and make the landscape lush and thriving again. We have the ability. If you go to our cornfield, you see that we’re reversing the impact of climate change. We’ve captured moisture and put it back into the soil. The land is so lush. Imagine doing that through the whole watershed. We could reverse the aridification that’s happening.

We have the capacity, our people have done it. The Indigenous people of the Western hemisphere have been managing ecologies on continental scales and made them very abundant. Now is the time to use our ancestral wisdom to rebuild systems that are resilient to these incoming changes that we’re already experiencing.

In your view, why are land access and Land Back important for climate justice?

Roberto: In our community and our region, we’ve been impacted by how the United States government asserted control over our homelands. We were deemed incompetent in the early years of this country, and that made its way into policy. All of those policies still have a strong say over what can and cannot happen on these landscapes. 

Right now, you have to have a permit from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to produce agricultural products. In our region, all the agricultural permits were invalidated because of the so-called Navajo-Hopi land dispute in the ‘70s. To this day, nobody has permits in our region. I don’t have a permit, but I got permission from my clan mothers. Our activities are probably deemed illegal under federal laws. And that’s what continues to hinder a lot of our people from accessing resources and  entering into working with the land. 

So part of our Land Back, at least in our own way, is beginning to bring the clan mothers back into this conversation, because we’re a matriarchal society. Land Back is really important for us to use our own knowledge on the landscape. Those of us that still have the knowledge and still practice cultural lifeways have the responsibility to do what we need to do. So we’re not trying to push BIA to recognize or give us the approval – we’re going to go and do it. 

The government has fragmented land status across the Navajo Nation, so it makes it very difficult to do food system restoration at the Navajo Nation-wide level because of the different land statuses. We also live in three different states – Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico – that each have their own level of hatred against us. I’ve learned that our traditional food system does not even qualify as a farm under USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) guidelines, which are created by the state. Those were intentionally created so that corporate and industrial farmland could get all of the benefits down south in Arizona. 

Land Back really means giving us the ability to heal the land that we currently live on. We’re going to assert our right to use our land and our knowledge and do what we feel fulfills our obligation to take care of the land. It’s both decolonizing work and re-indigenizing work simultaneously.

And it is expensive. It’s expensive to have livestock. Even though we may be losing money to maintain it, there are deeper values behind our agricultural practices, beyond monetary gain. It’s about our community, it’s about ourselves, it’s about our own healing. It’s about the healing of land and our connection to the life forces.

Additional readings and resources:

Theory and Practice: The Case of the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute

Black Mesa Water Coalition Green Economy Project, Piñon AZ 

Millions lack access to running water. Is the solution hiding in plain sight? (features a quote from Roberto and brief description of Nihikeya’s work) 

An Edible Landscape: Hungry for Food Sovereignty (feature on Roberto)

Diné Roberto Nutlouis — Water, Corn and a Just Transition for Sacred Beings

It’s time to center climate justice and real climate solutions in the Farm Bill! – HEAL Food Alliance (featuring Roberto and Nihikeya)