Arizona’s original residents learned to live off the land and survive in challenging environments.
Long before the Chinese Dynasty and the extinction of saber-toothed cats and the mammoth Native Indians inhabited large swaths of Arizona. Today the state is home to 22 sovereign communities including the Hualapai.
Many people believe the desert is a harsh forsaken place, but for the Hualapai Tribe it is home, a place where every plant has a name, a purpose and a story.
Carrie Cannon, an ethnobotanist for the tribe’s Department of Cultural Resources recently spoke at Mohave Community College about the creation 12 years ago of the Hualapai Ethnobotany Youth Project, a program that brings together tribal elders and youth to share knowledge about the plants that sustained their people for millennia.
“If you ask an elder instructor for the youth project where you can find the cure to diabetes, the elder may tell you to ask the prickly pear or the mesquite bean pod,” Cannon said. “Through the program we take about 20 tribal youth and half a dozen elders and go out on the landscape to learn the plants, what they are called in the tribal language and how they are prepared or used.”
After harvesting plants such as mescal agave, banana yucca and sumac they are brought back into the community at Peach Springs and transformed into a variety of foods and utilitarian items like reusable diapers, baskets, wikiups and cradle boards.
The ethnobotanical story of the Hualapai Tribe, Cannon said, begins with the plant knowledge people inherited from their great-grandparents who lived entirely off the land. The great-grandchildren, she added, now live in a completely different world.
“A world of cell phones, text messages and iPods,” Cannon said.
Passing along knowledge of edible plants is the primary goal of the youth project.
“People don’t necessarily realize it because they are familiar with the old world grains like wheat and barley, but in the Americas there are many native grass species that produce edible seed heads which the Hualapai subsisted off of,” Cannon said.
One seed Cannon focused on was the nutritional value of chia.
Chia contains twice the potassium of bananas, twice the fiber of oats, triple the iron of lentils, five times more calcium than milk and three times the antioxidants of beans. Arizona chia also is a good source omega-3 and has more protein than a majority of vegetables.
“If chia seeds are so magical what about the other plants that haven’t been studied as much,” Cannon said. “A lot of our native traditional diet from this region is loaded with nutrition. The native people in the old days living off the land were healthy, resilient people and now we are plagued with obesity and diseases like diabetes.”