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These Native chefs see a future for tribal agritourism in Arizona, brimming with untapped potential

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

Whistling from a wooden flute sets the scene at the Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West for an evening filled with Native traditions of old and new: even food. Eight chefs and foodway demonstrators near and far, from Mesa to Yuma, traveled to Old Town last month to showcase their uniquely Native flavors at the Arizona Indigenous Edible Experience.

It’s an annual gathering organized by the nonprofit Arizona American Indian Tourism Association (AAITA). It spotlights some of the state's gifted Indigenous foodies through an intertribal celebration of culinary prowess.

“What we’re doing is actually sharing with the world Native foods along with Native ways,” says AAITA President Rory Majenty of the Hualapai Tribe. “And I think that’s the beauty of getting into the food industry.”

Food is economy and even a form of tourism, and Arizona tribes are trying to tap into the potential of agritourism to reshape their communities financially.

Bleu Adams, who has Mandan, Hidatsa and Diné ancestry is the founder of IndigeHub. She was hired to curate the event’s culinary line-up.

Adams focused on all facets of foodways from foraging by inviting Twila Cassadore of the San Carlos Apache Tribe to retail with Tudor Montague of the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe, founder and head roaster of the Spirit Mountain Roasting Company.

The mantra of “food as medicine” was another message tourists were meant to take away. She sought to “create an event that encompassed everybody from the farmers and growers to the producers all the way to the chefs.”

“One of our popular dishes is the bison Navajo taco,” says Renetto-Mario Etsitty, who is one of them. This Navajo chef owns The Rez an Urban Eatery. It’s a Phoenix-based pop-up restaurant that specializes in elevating simple Indigenous ingredients to sophisticated Native dishes.

Tonight he’s preparing a bison black bean chili. It’s served on a gluten-free blue corn crepe with an arugula-roasted corn salsa and it’s topped with a piñon nut creme. He’s sharing that special meal with hungry guests, while teaching the Navajo word for buffalo amid plating dozens of tacos at his table: “In our language, we say ayání.”

Etsitty, who grew up near the town of Kinlichee, says Buffalo Pass, a saddle near the Navajo village of Lukachukai in Apache County, is where these beasts would be hunted by his ancestors for their meat. It’s leaner than beef and has a higher protein density.

“It takes me about three days to shop for an event just to happen,” says Denella Belin of Nella’s Innovative Kreations, who offers catering, food demos and cooking services, both in and out of the Valley.

She spent that much time prepping three different hot and cold dishes: A Sonora wheat berry blue corn mush parfait with berry compote, maple winter squash with prickly pear syrup topped with sahuaro seeds, and cholla bud bruschetta with fig goat cheese creme.

Originally from Tuba City, Belin recently left a comfortable sous chef position to open her own business in March upon completing Project DreamCatcher, a business development program for Native American women entrepreneurs at Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Global Management.

She credits that opportunity with giving her the courage to “walk away and take that risk in becoming a business owner,” adding that “I’m investing into the survival of my home and my lifestyle first, before the business can take off, but it's working so far.”

Belin attended the Arizona Indigenous Culinary Experience last year. She came back this time around, and insists: “I'm actually representing myself more and my business. It made me very proud.”

Jaren Bates is another accomplished Diné chef. A forager, pitmaster, storyteller and co-owner of WILD Arizona Cuisine, he helped launch — The Table — at the Junipine Resort north of Sedona.

Born and raised in the Four Corners, he was even named a semifinalist for this year’s James Beard Foundation Award’s category for best chef in the Southwest. “Before I started doing hyperlocal cuisine here in Arizona, I did it to see if I could test myself.”

Bates left the world of fine-dining behind. Now, he purchases the traditional products of Native purveyors, like tepary beans from Ramona Farms on the Gila River Indian Reservation. Those are used as the base for a maple frosting to glaze atop his signature honey and pinole cake.

“Not only does it help your body, but it helps your soul and mind, to kind of like get those nutrients that as Natives we lost with colonization,” says Bates. “So, I think when we get back to eating where you’re from, you’re eating all those nutrients that have been left out for so many years.”

Indigenous dishes — both ancestral and contemporary — are uniquely different from Southwest, Tex-Mex and other competing regional cuisines, according to Bates. This venue centering on Native cooking helps get that lesson across for culinary aficionados. Not too long ago, Bates harbored apprehension for certain ingredients, but later began tasting and appreciating these flavors after “living off the rez.”

“Even though I didn’t eat a lot of it growing up as a kid, I come back and reminisce, like, ‘Oh, so, I could’ve been eating this the whole time, but I was just an ignorant little kid,” says Bates. “I never ate blue corn mush growing up, wasn’t appetizing to me. But then, just a few years ago, I tried it. I gotta get past that mindset.”

Now he regrets not eating it sooner, but chefs like Bates, Belin, and Etsitty, see a future for tribal agritourism in Arizona brimming with untapped potential.

More than 19,000 Native farmers and ranchers tend to nearly 80% of all farmlands in Arizona. They outnumber any other demographic. And even account for almost a fourth of all Native producers nationwide.

The Navajo Nation is most poised to reap the possible profits in Arizona. Almost 16 million acres of farmland is managed by more than 16,000 Navajo owned and operated farms. They generate about $67 million in agricultural products sold annually.

Those vested interests are undeniable, so much so that Tony Skrelunas, director of the Navajo Nation’s Division of Economic Development, traveled all the way from Window Rock to show support for this occasion.

“I really am so inspired by what’s going on,” says Skrelunas, remarking on how this evening allowed him and his fellow Native attendees to “relive and inspire” from their shared past of agricultural traditions that have been passed down for generations.

That “ancient farming knowledge” he candidly talks about, can benefit his Nation, not only with raising revenue through tourists visiting reservation farms, but also by energizing the trading of agricultural products amongst their Indigenous neighbors. “That trade happened, and I know a lot of our tribes do miss that.”

But as Belin searches to source for Native foods, there are still hurdles that producers face from finding space to collecting capital that create challenges for chefs like herself.

“I'm still learning, I'm still trying to find them, I'm still trying to see if their product is available to me more,” says Belin. “And by then, I truly believe that we're going to have more farms to rely on. We're going to have more Indigenous-represented businesses to work with.”

Until then, Adams says: “We have to have the voices of these Indigenous farmers, food producers and chefs there front and center.”

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Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.