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The Navajo rug, creating a tradition November 1st, 2020 by

Anthropologists shy away from the word “traditional,” because even traditions that seem ancient may be creatively evolving. In the southwestern USA, nothing says “traditional” louder than a Navajo rug, woven from handspun wool on a hand-made loom.

The Navajo people arrived in the Southwest from the north, sometime between the 1200s and 1400s AD. They probably learned to weave from long-established peoples like the Hopis, and Zuñis. In the 1600s, Spanish colonists brought sheep to New Mexico. Native people soon began herding them and weaving their wool, warmer and more abundant than some of the previous fibers (like human hair, and strips of rabbit fur).

In 1863 the US Army cajoled and bullied much of Navajo Nation to move to Bosque Redondo or Fort Sumner, in New Mexico. The Navajos packed their horse-drawn wagons and herded their sheep to the fort, about 300 miles (480 km) from the heart of Navajo country. The Navajos were given land, but crops failed due to drought, floods and armyworms in the hot, unfamiliar climate. The Navajos ate almost all of their sheep to survive. But while confined, the Navajos also acquired a taste for certain foreign goods, like wool Pendleton blankets, velveteen shirts, metal axes and cooking pots, not to mention coffee, sugar and flour.

When the Navajos were finally allowed to go home in 1868, the army gave two sheep to each man, woman and child. The Navajos were practiced pastoralists, and within a few years they once again had large herds.

White traders began moving onto the reservation, living in isolated “trading posts,” small general stores that sold cloth, tools and groceries with a long shelf life. They also bought wool and crafts from the Navajos. An autobiographical account by one of these traders, Franc Newcomb, explains how in the 1910s and 20s, one of the main trade goods was a wool blanket, known in the Southwest as a “Navajo rug”. Over the years, the traders who bought these rugs gave the Navajos advice on how to make the rugs more attractive for the tourist market. It was in the traders’ enlightened self-interest if their Navajo customers had more money to spend. The rugs gradually became bigger, more carefully woven, with more interesting patterns. http://www.aritearu.com/pic/HosteenKlah1.jpg

Franc Newcomb, and her husband, Arthur, were befriended by their neighbor, Klah, a renowned medicine man and weaver. Klah allowed Franc to attend his healing ceremonies, an art form as complex as the opera. A ceremony takes three or four years to learn. It lasts for as many as nine days and nights and is accompanied by myths, chants and intricate illustrations of divine figures, made by carefully pouring colored sand between one’s fingers.

Most visual arts are made to last a while. Not the sand painting. The patient enters the one-room log house (called a hogan) and sits on the sand painting, destroying it, while absorbing its healing power. Franc would sit up night after night at the ceremonies, and she loved the sand paintings. Franc thought the sand paintings deserved to be recorded. She had a nearly photographic memory, but she gave Klah colored pencils and paper, and he sketched the sand paintings, to make sure every detail was accurate. Franc, a former school teacher, painted Klah’s drawings onto large sheets of heavy-duty wrapping paper from her store.

Eventually Franc suggested that Klah weave the sand painting designs into rugs. He hesitated to weave such a sacred image, but eventually he built several 12-foot by 12-foot (4-meter) looms, using logs he cut in the mountains. He began weaving large rugs of the Yeibichai (spiritual beings). His mother, sister and two-nieces also joined him.

Klah decided that such special rugs had to be made from a soft, tan wool from the belly of the sheep, and Franc’s husband, Arthur, drove Klah to trading posts all over the reservation to buy the rare wool.

Klah and his family couldn’t keep up with the demand for Yeibichai rugs, and soon other weavers were copying the idea. I inherited a small, almost miniature Yeibichai rug from my grandfather, who probably bought it at a trading post. The winter of 1978-79, I lived at a Navajo trading post in Lukachukai, Arizona, and always thought of the Navajo rug as a traditional artform, although I was aware of some changes. Bright colors from chemical dyes were introduced mid-century, only to be replaced again by softer, plant dyes in the 1960s and 70s, when nature became cool. But there was much more innovation than that, especially the creation of large, tapestry-style weavings, illustrating the sand paintings with their spiritual figures. Like much creative change, the Navajo rug has evolved in response to market demand, and thanks to collaboration between people with vastly different experiences.

When Klah was a boy his horse slipped and fell off a canyon wall, kicking Klah a few times on the way down. As Klah’s great-aunt slowly nursed him back to health, she saw that Klah was a hermaphrodite. Instead of subjecting Klah to ridicule or surgery, the Navajos thought he was special and powerful and they encouraged him to do men’s things, and women’s things. The openminded acceptance of his community helped Klah to become a creative artist, as he blended a male artform (sand paintings) with a female one (weaving). When Klah died in 1937, at age 70, he was one of the most respected people in the Navajo Nation.

Some Navajo terms

Hogan. An eight-sided or round house of logs or occasionally stone. From the Navajo hooghan.

Klah. The old Navajo names were sacred, and only the closest family knew a person’s real name. People were known by nicknames, which could change as they aged. Klah (Tł’a, or “left-handed”) was known by this nickname in middle age and beyond. I assume that his real name died with him.

“Navajo” and “Navaho” are both correct spellings. Academics prefer “Navaho”, but folks from the Southwest write “Navajo”, following the Spanish spelling.  The Navajos call themselves “the people” (diné).

Yeibichai. From yé’ii bicheii, maternal grandfather of giant, dreaded spirit people.

Spellings checked against:

Young, Robert W. and William Morgan 1980 The Navajo Language: A Grammar and Colloquial Dictionary. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 1,069 pp.

Further reading

Newcomb: Franc Johnson 1964 Hosteen Klah: Navaho Medicine Man and Sand Painter. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.  227 pp.

Photos

The photo of Klah was taken before 1923 by an unknown photographer. Source: http://www.aritearu.com/pic/HosteenKlah1.jpg

The mall Yeibichai rug, made with synthetic red dye, was ollected about 1950 by LeRoy Bentley. Photo by Jeff Bentley

Eating bricks June 14th, 2020 by

In Belgium we have an expression: “all Belgians are born with a brick in their stomach”, meaning that all citizens aspire to build their own house someday. But when bricks are literally eaten, something has gone seriously wrong.

Some 25 years ago, during one of my first projects in Sri Lanka, news came out that chilli powder was mixed with ground up bricks. Some crooks were trying to make a dishonest profit. Ground chilli and powdered bricks are of a similar colour and consistency. Few buyers taste the chilli powder when they buy it, and as chilli is typically added to sauces, never eaten straight, a cheating dealer supplying to regional or international markets for customers he would never see again at times could get away with such a scam.  

Fortunately, in Europe we have a long history of food safety standards, regulations and government institutes safeguarding the quality of the food that enters the market and ends up on our plates. But such systems are absent, dysfunctional or just getting started in many developing countries.

Yet many developing countries have an advantage when it comes to food safety: short food chains. Control measures on food safety are less important when one relies on short food chains. In Sri Lanka, for instance, I used to patronize spice gardens where urban people would stock up on black pepper, chilli or cardamom. Over the years the customers would establish a relationship based on trust with the family running the spice garden. Even in the markets, most vendors know their regular customers, and would never risk selling them a fake product. Suppliers are motivated to sell high-quality products to their valuable, steady customers.

I had forgotten about this incidence of adulterated chilli until recently. While reading the book The True History of Chocolate, I was struck by one particular paragraph on food adulteration. Cacao had spread from Latin America to Portuguese, Spanish, English and French colonies across Africa and Asia in the 19th century.

In 1828, the Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten took out a patent on a process to make powdered chocolate with a very low fat content. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing and entrepreneurs in England and America established their first companies to make chocolate for the masses. For centuries, chocolate had only been known as a foamy drink, consumed mainly by the royalty, aristocracy and clergy.

Already in 1850, the British medical journal The Lancet mentioned the creation of a health commission for the analysis of foods. According to the journal suspicions about the quality of the mass-produced chocolate proved correct: in 39 out 70 samples, chocolate had been adulterated with red brick powder. Similar results were obtained from samples of chocolate seized in France. The investigations led to the establishment of the British Food and Drug Act of 1860 and the Adulteration of Food Act of 1872.

A similar trend took place in the milk industry.

In Belgium, starting in 1900, machines were deployed to scale up butter production. Just two years later, the Belgian farmers’ organisation, the Boerenbond (Farmers’ League) decided to employ food consultants to check the administration, hygiene and quality of the dairies. In 1908, the Boerenbond established a food laboratory which it deemed necessary to help curb the increase in butter adulteration.

Now, more than a century later, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed once more the vulnerability of a globalised food system with long supply chains. Slightly more than 50% of all food produced in Belgium is exported, including milk. As the demand from China dropped, this left farmers unable to sell dairy, meat and potatoes. Belgian dairy cooperatives also struggled to have sufficient packaging material, as this relied on imports of certain materials.

Such troubles are triggering people to rethink how to make our food system more sustainable. For a long time, food safety regulations were assumed to be the main pillar of a safe food system, but the pandemic has revealed that the complexity of a global food system makes it prone to breaking down, leaving producers and consumers vulnerable. Over the years, overly rigid food safety standards in Belgium have discouraged farmers from adding value to their own produce and selling it on their farm. Triggered by the crisis, the Belgian Minister for Agriculture, Denis Ducarme, has just reduced the stringency on food safety control for farm-made cheese. More will hopefully be done in the near future to encourage farmers to process and sell food on their farm. In these short food chains, farmers will be motivated to make clean, healthy products.

The food in Europe is reasonably safe and healthy, but Covid-19 has shown us how modern food systems are fragile. Burdensome regulations oppress smallholders until they are not even able to make a cheese for their neighbours. By investing in shorter food chains, we can make our food systems more resilient, and bring back the distinctive flavours of local foods.  Shorter, more adaptable food chains will build trust, while leaving the bricks to those who are building houses.

Further reading

Belgische Boerenbond. 1990. 100 Jaar Boerenbond in Beeld. 1890-1990. Dir. Eco-BB – S. Minten, Leuven, 199 pp.

Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe. 1996. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, 280 pp.

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Spineless cactus February 2nd, 2020 by

I wrote in last week’s blog, Her mother’s laugh, that famed plant breeder (and showman), Luther Burbank, bred the spineless cactus. But there is more to the story.

The prickly pear cactus is native to Mexico and spread to the Caribbean and possibly to the Andes in pre-Colombian times. Columbus took the plant, with its delicious fruit, back to Europe on his first voyage. The hardy cactus was soon grown around the Mediterranean, and quickly found its way to arid lands from South Africa to India.

While ancient Mexicans domesticated this cactus, farmers in India selected varieties without thorns.

By 1907, Luther Burbank was promoting his spineless cactus, a hybrid of Mexican and Indian varieties. In his catalogues he wrote that the cactus which would grow with no irrigation, little care, and it would make ideal cattle fodder for the arid western USA.

In the USA, Burbank’s spineless cactus never quite lived up to its hype. While it lacked the large, needle-like thorns, it still grew small, hair-like thorns, which are brittle and can be painful when they lodge into a person’s hands or an animal’s mouth. Burbank’s spineless cactus required some irrigation and more management than other varieties, and under stress, the cactus tended to grow its spines. The thorn-free cactus also had to be fenced to protect it from hungry livestock and wildlife.

Burbank’s American cactus bubble burst by the 1920s, when ranchers grew disappointed with prickly pear. But there was already a long tradition of growing spineless cactus in India, where smallholder farmers had perfected the art of growing the prickly pear for fruit, and to feed the leaves to their livestock. Now you can learn from them, in a new video that tells how to plant, and grow the cactus, and use it as animal fodder.

Watch the video

Spineless cactus for fodder

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Read more

Ewbank, Anne 2019 The Thorny Tale of America’s Favorite Botanist and His Spineless Cacti https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/spineless-cactus

Griffith, M. P. 2004 The origins of an important cactus crop, Opuntia ficus‐indica (Cactaceae): new molecular evidence. American Journal of Botany91(11), 1915-1921.

Eating an old friend December 15th, 2019 by

Last year in Bangladesh, in the village of Begati Chikerbath, I visited Shamsur Naheris, an energetic extensionist in a bright orange sari. She had organized an exchange visit so that local women can tell their stories about making money and changing their lives by the simple means of raising chickens.

A year and a half earlier, the village had hosted an FFS (farmer field school) on poultry, where the women learned to vaccinate their chickens and ducks with eye drops and to keep the hens in small coops. When the hen has a clutch of eggs, she sits on them in a nest, called a hazol, which the villagers make themselves, a technique they learned in the FFS. The hazol is a kind of earthen bowl with two small cups on one side for feed and water. Because the hazol is big and heavy, the hens are less likely to upset and spill their food. The hen sits on straw in the hazol and broods her eggs with water and food handy. The hazol and the hen are placed inside a small chicken coop.

More chicks live to maturity with this system, and when they are six weeks old, they can be let loose to find their own food, which lowers costs and saves space in the chicken coop. Then the hen can start another brood. This way she gets five or six broods in a year, over a useful life of some five years, until she ends up in the family cooking pot.

“How can you stand to eat your old friend?” one visitor asked, concerned that the women might have become too attached to the hens to eat them.

“It’s easy, we just soften the meat first with green papaya,” one of the chicken farmers explains.

While there may be little sentimentality attached to the birds, the women are all keen to raise them. Every house has a small chicken coop in the back yard and all of the little structures are filled with healthy birds.

In a meeting with visitors from other villages, five local women told how raising chickens has improved not just their income, but also their self-esteem. The audience was clearly moved. The visitors were farmers and their husbands, 25 couples from six local community-based, water management groups. Having the husbands attend was a touch of inspiration. It would ensure that the men would be convinced and would support their wives as they started small-scale commercial poultry.

Even a simple technical innovation, such as a chicken coop and an improved nest, may require some training and clever community organizing.

Acknowledgements

The extensionists mentioned in this paper were Community development facilitators (CDF) for the Blue Gold Project, which is financed by the government of the Netherlands to improve water management in Bangladesh.

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The wolf comes calling December 8th, 2019 by

After moving to a Flemish farm village two years ago, we settled three sheep into the small pasture by our house to keep the grass short under our newly planted fruit and nut trees. The sheep weren’t pets, but they would come to meet us when we took them the kitchen waste or gave them a handful of acorns. So imagine my shock when I found one killed by a wolf last week.

In the thin blueish winter light, I saw our sheep in a pool of blood, its belly opened, intestines oozing out and half of its ribs eaten. Around the sheep I could see a circle of around 3 meters diameter where the frozen morning dew had disappeared. A little overwhelmed by emotions I woke up Marcella. We had heard a wolf had been spotted some 10 kilometres away, but there are so many fields with sheep, that I found it hard to believe it had come all the way to our house, just to kill our sheep. Perhaps it was a renegade dog, I wondered. But whatever had killed the sheep must have been really strong, I thought, as it has dragged the poor animal around while finishing it off.

Marcella quickly found out on the internet what to do when one believes one has been the victim of a wolf. This top predator had arrived in Flanders just a few years ago, and as a protected species, government had quickly established various services, including an information platform. In less than two hours, two government officials from the Nature and Forestry Agency arrived. As with crop pests, when one can only see the damage and the causal agent is no longer present, one needs to rely on knowledge and diagnostic tools.

The two men looked at the bite in the neck of the dead sheep, and took DNA samples to confirm that it was killed by a wolf. We have a solid fence 1.30 meters high around the pasture. One of the men went around and quickly found 4 places where the animal had tried to dig an entry under the fence. Obviously with the night frost the soil was hard, but the wolf had managed to dig at least one place to get in. “We need to confirm with a DNA test,” one of the men said, but in all our cases we have never seen a wolf jump over a fence. If it had managed to make a bigger entry, it would have bitten the spine of the sheep in half, and taken the hind part to a quiet place in the forest, to eat it without the risk of being disturbed.”

As the men shared their knowledge of the wolf’s behaviour, my first emotions of unbelief and sadness over the loss of our favourite of the 3 sheep, gradually mixed with a certain level of admiration for this clever top predator. Wild pigs are a main problem for farmers and hunters fail to keep their population down. “Wolves prey on wildlife, but to catch wild pigs wolves need to be in a pack. As there is now just one wolf in Flanders, sheep are an easy prey,” the official continued.

Wolves were exterminated from most of Europe in early modern times, but they have recently been making a comeback. When visiting a wolf exhibition in a nearby nature centre, we learned that in Europe (mainly Eastern Europe, including Poland) there are currently an estimated 12,000 wolves. Some are starting to make their way back to the more populated part of Western Europe.

In tropical countries, farmers who live near wildlife refuges sometimes complain about elephants eating their banana plants, and similar problems. Such conflicts now start to play out in Western Europe as well.

This wolf issue is highly controversial. Conservationists point out that humans have driven wild animals to the edge of extinction, and it is only right to provide habitat for them. On the other hand, farmers say that wild predators are a risk to livestock.

I don’t pretend to have a solution to this potential conflict, but since this is Belgium, our government has quickly come up with a range of measures. Farmers and even people like us who have just a few sheep, can get 80% subsidies to make their fences wolf-proof. Also, a financial compensation scheme for sheep killed has been put in place.

At the same time, nature conservation organisations are trying their best to change public opinion in favour of the wolf through exhibitions, radio and TV talks, and so on.

The wolf stirs up such powerful emotions that it was recalled in European popular culture for generations after most people had lost all personal contact with the animal.

In European folklore the bear is a strong, kindly character, like the three bears that frightened Goldilocks, but did not harm her. In contrast, the wolf is not only cruel, but devious, like the one that ate Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. And even now we guard against metaphorical “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

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