The Fascinating Plant-based History of the Diné People

Often called Navajo, the Diné people were best known for herding sheep. Yet this Indigenous tribe originally ate a plant-rich diet of crops like beans, corn and squash.

plant-based history of the Dine people

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The Diné are an Indigenous tribe located in what is now the southwest United States. Commonly referred to as Navajo, this population extends to the four corners region of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. As the most populated tribe in the U.S., we are perhaps best known for herding sheep and weaving wool. Yet it turns out this legacy was greatly influenced by European colonizers. The Diné people were not always sheep herders — we have a lesser-known history that predates this colonial-era, a history very much rooted in a plant-based way of life. 

Corn, Beans and Squash Before Sheep

The Navajo Churro sheep have been a central facet of Diné culture and life since the arrival of the European settlers in the 1500s. These animals provided food and clothing, including mutton soup and wool blankets. 

Yet prior to colonization, there were very few known instances of domesticated animals for consumption among Indigenous people.

The Diné — which means “the people” in our language — were mainly semi-nomadic, relying on hunting and gathering for hundreds of years for sustenance, while migrating southwards across the plains in as early as the 1300s. We soon settled in northern New Mexico surrounded by mesas, canyons and rivers, where they named this great land Dinétah (among the people). Here we encountered the Pueblo, a group of Indigenous people with strong plant-based agricultural ties that live along the Rio Grande river. 

Some scientists believed the Pueblos were the ones who taught us how to farm, although others speculate the Diné already knew how to farm at this point. Nevertheless, the Diné culture shifted towards a farming and agriculture lifestyle thanks to its interactions with the Pueblos, and trading between the two groups.

Like many Indigenous tribes, the Diné learned to plant and harvest the “Three Sisters” crops of corn, beans and squash, and discovered ways to cook them. We used corn for a variety of dishes, such as steamed corn, stews, corn mush, corn cakes and many more. We also used corn pollen to bless homes, farmland and family. Though the Diné continued to hunt animals and forage when necessary for survival, we increasingly came to rely on farming plants, which provided families with enough food to get them through dry summers and to be able to survive harsh winters. Soon, all throughout Dinétah, cultivated plant crops filled the land. By the 1600s we were masters of our own agricultural practices.

“As more and more Navajo Bands began farming, their population increased,” says Lawrence D. Sundberg, author of ‘Dinétah: An Early History of the Navajo People.’ “The Farms provided more food,” he writes, boosting health and food security. As a result of this cultivation, “more young children and older band members survived the hard winters.”

Evidence of the Diné’s plant-based lifestyle also emerges from the oral stories passed down through generations. In Diné Bahane’ (Navajo creation story) the evolution of life is told through a sequence of worlds, the first being the beginning of time all the way through the fifth world being the present. In the fifth world, the Diyin Dine’é (holy people) gifted corn, beans, squash, and tobacco to the Diné people. We believe that by consuming these foods, a person will live a long life and achieve the “ultimate goal of sacred existence in old age.” 

Straying from these spiritual foods also has consequences, we believe, a higher chance of suffering poor health. By eating corn, beans and squash, our bodies and organs function as they should and we are gifted with healthy skin.

Healthy Indigenous Diets Replaced By Rancid Pork

The Diné witnessed a big cultural shift in the late 1500s after the arrival of Francisco Coronado, a Spanish colonizer in what is now regarded as the American Southwest. He and his armed forces brought with them horses, goats, cattle, and sheep, which were traded among our people soon after acquiring the Churro sheep. This interaction started the domestication of animals within our tribe, eventually leading us to integrate Churro sheep into our diet and culture for the following centuries. 

Our food system was even further disrupted in 1864, when our people were displaced from their original homeland by the U.S. Army. American soldiers burned our farmlands, slaughtered the herds and forced us on a 300 mile walk, known as “The Long Walk,” to Fort Sumner, New Mexico for internment at Hwéeldi (Bosque Redondo). 

It was there that our people had a hard time adjusting to the white man’s food. The land there was unsuitable for growing our staples, and the Diné had to rely on government food rations of pork, cattle, flour, coffee, sugar and goats milk. But these foods were nutritionally inadequate and, in some cases, cooked improperly. After falling ill eating rancid meat of pork and bacon, many Diné developed an abhorrence to pork that exists in our culture to this day. Dairy products, such as goat milk, were forced upon us. In hospitals and boarding schools, children were fed dairy products despite expressing a strong dislike for these foods — perhaps because nearly 75 percent of Indigenous people are lactose intolerant. 

My tribe is not the only one with strong plant-based ties. Records show that throughout Turtle Island, most Indigenous people were in fact predominantly plant-based agriculturists. According to Choctaw tribal member Rita Laws, Choctaw Indians based in Mississippi and Oklahoma were excellent farmers who grew and ate corn, pumpkins and beans — eating very little to no meat. Their homes were made from wood, bark and cane — even their clothing was plant-based and made from cotton. 

The Mayan, Aztec and Zapotec people had twice the lifespan as most Spanish people, eating a nutrient-dense vegetarian diet since birth. And almost half of the world’s crops were originally cultivated by Indigenous people of North and South America, including four of the top ten: corn, cassava, potatoes and sweet potatoes.

Many Indigenous tribes have creation stories that point to vegetarianism. In the Choctaw creation story, corn was given to them by Hashtali (the Great Spirit) which is considered divine. In Cherokee legends, animals, plants and humans lived in harmony with one another until the humans became aggressive and ate the animals. The animals created diseases in response, to keep human population in check. Even among the Mi’Kmaq people, legends are told with multiple references to veganism, including regret at animal death and a kinship relationship between humans and animals.

Historically, animal agriculture was used as a tool for colonization by the European settlers to disrupt our food systems and leave us food insecure on reservations. For example, meat and dairy were fed to Indigenous children in boarding schools as an effort to “civilize” us and disconnect us from our agricultural history. Antonio De Mendoza, first Viceroy of New Spain, to the Spanish king in the 1530s boasted of plans to take our land: “May your Lordship realize that if cattle is allowed, the Indians will be destroyed.” 

Today, I am vegan as a Diné person, and as an act of protest and opposition to the oppressive systems that exploit humans, animals and the natural world. By recognizing our animal siblings as one of our own, we reject the colonial idea of anthropocentrism and live in a more harmonious existence with the world around us.

Sentient Media’s Indigenous Voices for Saving Animals and Earth is a collection of essays illuminating important perspectives from Indigenous peoples, including traditional knowledge from the past and proposed solutions for the future. Edited by Jessica Scott-Reid, this project tackles land and water sovereignty, factory farming, food systems, veganism, colonialism, reconciliation and more, through a variety of Indigenous lenses.

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