To Get Calcium, Navajos Burn Juniper Branches To Eat The Ash : The Salt Most American Indians are lactose intolerant, which means they need to find nutrients outside of dairy sources. It turns out that a return to traditional cooking methods can be key to good health.
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To Get Calcium, Navajos Burn Juniper Branches To Eat The Ash

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To Get Calcium, Navajos Burn Juniper Branches To Eat The Ash

To Get Calcium, Navajos Burn Juniper Branches To Eat The Ash

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So getting calcium in your diet is essential to keeping your bones strong. Well, what do you do if you can't do dairy? A Navajo graduate student at Northern Arizona University got really interested in that question when he came across an old study suggesting that Navajo women are less likely to break their hips than women of European heritage. He found this surprising because most American Indians are lactose intolerant. And so he set out to find where the Navajo get their calcium. Laurel Morales of member station KJZZ reports from Flagstaff.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: From the time he was a child, Daniel Begay was told that traditional Navajo foods were good for him.

DANIEL BEGAY: A lot of these practices are just done because they're just passed down. When I asked my wife and also my grandma this, a lot of them say, you know, that's just something we - you were just told to do it.

MORALES: But Begay wanted proof. And he eventually found it. It turns out a small study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association says one ingredient in traditional Navajo food, juniper ash, is a great source of calcium. The Navajo burn juniper branches, collect the ash and stir it into various dishes. It started out as part of a ceremony, and now it's added to many traditional foods.

Begay wanted to do a more comprehensive study. So he analyzed the amount of calcium in 27 samples of juniper from all over the Navajo Nation, an area the size of West Virginia. First, he decided to burn juniper outside his apartment in Flagstaff.

BEGAY: I let my landlord know beforehand - say, hey, I'm going to be building a fire outside in our yard just so you know. I burned a picnic table a little bit.

MORALES: Begay discovered that one gram of ash has the same amount of calcium as a glass of milk. And that is good for Navajo bones. Lillie Pete teaches young people about the benefits of traditional Navajo food. I recently visited her home on the Navajo Nation in the tiny town of Jeddito to learn how to make one of the most popular foods that includes juniper ash, blue corn mush.

(SOUNDBITE OF POURING WATER)

LILLIE PETE: OK. There's the five cups of water. And we're going to let that heat up until it's boiling.

MORALES: Pete says, before the white man came, the Navajo subsisted on beans, corn, squash and mutton.

PETE: Our body wasn't built to, you know, consume the kind of food that came with the Anglo. And now we have so many health problems with our people, you know?

MORALES: One in three Navajo people suffers from diabetes, according to the Indian Health Service. And obesity rates are three times the national average. Pete says many Navajo forgot the traditional ways when they were forced to go to government-run boarding schools.

PETE: OK. What I usually do is take some of this hot, boiling water. And I'll pour it onto the ash.

(SOUNDBITE OF POURING WATER)

MORALES: Then she mixes in the corn meal and stirs. Finally, the corn mash produces thick, volcanic bubbles, telling us it's ready.

PETE: (Foreign language spoken).

MORALES: Pete gives thanks to Mother Earth for the corn.

PETE: (Foreign language spoken).

MORALES: She suggests adding either salt or sugar. Then we eat.

That's good. It reminds me of cream of wheat. Really good. Do you think you can taste the ash? Do you notice it? I don't.

PETE: I don't even taste it at all.

MORALES: For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Jeddito on the Navajo Nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE FALL'S "OLD COUNTY")

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