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A Navajo seedkeeper shares his ancestors’ food with the world

Clark Adomaitis/KSUT/KSJD
Graham Biyáál harvests blue corn on his four acre farm on a rainy day in Shiprock, NM.

Editor's note: KSUT’s reporting on Graham Biyaal’s seed-keeping activities included comments from Elizabeth Hoover, an academic expert currently on faculty at the University of California/Berkeley. Hoover previously identified herself as coming from “Mohawk/Mi'kmaq descent." She recently admitted that she has stopped making such claims.

At the time of our reporting, KSUT was unaware of any concerns about Elizabeth Hoover‘s Indigenous identity or academic credibility. Hoover‘s scholarly work has not been challenged as of this writing, but the news that she does not have Indigenous ancestry has opened questions about the authenticity of her work. KSUT will continue to monitor the situation and revise this story as necessary.

On a rainy day in Shiprock, New Mexico, with slippery clay earth caking our boots, Graham Biyáál takes me on a tour of his four acre corn field where he lives and works.

The iconic, mile-tall Shiprock formation is obscured by clouds, but Biyáál’s blue corn stalks are impressive, standing twelve feet high. Under a tarp protecting him from the rain, he gazes out at his corn field. Jars of colorful seeds sit on the table in front of him. The seeds were given to him by elders and mentors from his Navajo community.

Clark Adomaitis/KSUT/KSJD
Graham Biyáál’s jars of corn kernels, watermelon seeds, oats, and sugar cane seeds were given to him by elders and community members.

The corn stalks Biyáál is growing have a legacy in the Navajo tradition. Biyáál works everyday to preserve his ancestors’ legacy by growing and sharing the crops. He remembers when his grandfather first showed him the legacy of corn.

“I remember we were walking around with one of my grandpas, and we went into the cornfield. He picked a corn and he said, ‘you can grow a whole field from this. This is like thousands of years in this corn, and now it's yours."

Clark Adomaitis/KSUT/KSJD
Graham Biyáál harvests blue corn on his four acre farm on a rainy day in Shiprock, NM.

During the pandemic, Biyáál started selling his blue corn kernels online with a modest sales goal of selling 12 jars. “The response from that was phenomenal. Within minutes, all of them were sold. There's a market there,” Biyáál remembers.

That was three years ago. Now, he’s selling more products online and connects with a bigger audience through his over 13,000 Twitter followers. His posts often go viral when he shares Native recipes.

Biyáál is part of a growing community of indigenous social media influencers. Dr. Elizabeth Hoover, a professor of Native American environmental health at UC Berkeley, says social media is an important connector for Native seedkeepers.

“Being able to see that there's people all over the country who are also growing these beautiful seeds has been encouraging for people. Many of these seeds are incredibly beautiful. These platforms lend themselves to kind of showcasing how beautiful these seeds are,” Hoover said.

According to Hoover, cultural ancestry and community health go hand in hand with seedkeeping.

If you want to eat healthy, you could just plant a bunch of kale or something that maybe you don't necessarily have a cultural connection to. But people also want to promote cultural health and spiritual health through having access to these foods.”

Clark Adomaitis/KSUT/KSJD
Graham Biyáál built his home, including this outdoor kitchen.

According to the CDC, Native Americans have a greater chance of having type 2 diabetes than any other U.S. racial group. Biyáál says that the COVID-19 pandemic revealed some alarming health trends in Native communities.

“The pandemic exposed a lot of deficiencies. We, as Native Americans struggle a lot. We fundamentally had a relationship with fresh fruits, the healthy foods, the seed that we carried. We've kind of detached ourselves from that.”

But Biyáál has reconnected with these foods. He’s excited to continue sharing his crops through harvest season and hopes to reach an even wider audience in his fourth year of seedkeeping.

Clark Adomaitis is a Durango transplant from New York City. He is a recent graduate of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, where he focused on reporting and producing for radio and podcasts. He reported sound-rich stories on the state of recycling and compost in NYC.
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