Navajo cake takes teamwork to make and eat

By Larissa L. Jimmy
Navajo Times

WHEATFIELDS, Ariz., July 25, 2013

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(Times photo – Larissa L. Jimmy)

TOP: The top layer of the alkaan, or Navajo cake, is the cornhusks, which is used to keep out dirt. After this process the parchment paper is then folded on top, which completes this process.

SECOND FROM TOP: There are different ways to make a Navajo cake and each cake is made for different reasons, according to presenters at the 4th annual Life Preservation Summit, held July 18-20 at Wheatfields Lake.

W ood burned inside a three-foot-wide pit, crackling like a bowl of Rice Krispies. The treat to be baked inside: alkaan (Navajo cake).

According to the apron-wearing ladies who huddled beneath the tent a few feet away from the fire pit, alkaan is typically made during a kinaaldá - the morphing ceremony when a young Diné girl crosses over to womanhood - and is made a certain way followed by songs and prayers. Both the cake and ceremony represent Changing Woman, who was the first to have her kinaaldá.

However, there are different ways to make a Navajo cake, and different reasons.

Darlene Teller, from Chilchinbito, Ariz., demonstrated one way that the Diné treat can be made during the 4th annual Life Preservation Summit, held July 18-20 at Wheatfields Lake.

Teller, who works at Chilchinbito Community School as a language and culture teacher, said that the fire pit must be started at least the night before and if done in the wintertime the fire may need to burn for a couple of nights. But due to unexpected rain that poured through the area the fire took longer than expected to heat up the pit.

Like Giada De Laurentiis' cooking show "Everyday Italian," Teller's show could be called "Everyday Diné." Only this show was live and everyone could participate.

Teller described each tool, material and ingredient that would be utilized in the processes of making alkaan. The tools included an Idistsiin (stirring stick), which is made from seven greasewood branches bound together by a string, large mixing bowls, parchment paper, a large pot for boiling water, corn husks, aluminum foil, Tse daa shjee' (bottom part of the grinding stone) and Tse Daa shch'ini (Top part of the grinding stone), which are used to grind the corn kernels to make the corn meal.

The basic ingredients for Teller's version of alkaan included: 50 pounds of already ground white corn meal, germinated wheat, six pounds of brown sugar, raisins, and boiling water.

According to Teller and the ladies who seemed to have perfected the skill of making alkaan, the common way to make the traditional cake for a kinaaldá is without the brown sugar, raisins and germinated wheat, which are all replaced with human saliva during the ceremony.

But if you use the three ingredients, here's how to do it.

The water is poured into a large bowl. The corn meal is then added.

As the mix is stirred - always clockwise according to Navajo belief - germinated wheat is then added, followed by raisins that have been sitting in a pot of brown sugar. This whole process is known as taa'niil (mixing).

"You have to do this while (the water is) still hot," said Teller, otherwise you might get lumps.

After the hot ashes have been completely removed from the pit (in this case by the guys who stood by for the next process), the parchment paper, which has been drenched in water, is placed on the bottom and the sides like a lining.

Next come the corn husks, which are placed on top of the lining. Each corn husk, according to Teller, should be placed downward, so that the inside of the corn husk is facing the earth and the outer layer is facing the sky.

The cake batter, which for this cake had been thoroughly mixed by most of the girls in attendance, is then poured on top of the corn husks, almost filling up to the top of the lining and then covered by the parchment paper and aluminum foil.

Two sheets of steel are then placed on top of the cake and then insulated with dirt. The hot coals still been burning off to the side after being removed from the pit are then placed on top of the corrugated steel. The alkaan sat inside the pit overnight.

Loretta Cowboy, from Wheatfields, said the reason she came to Teller's demonstration was so that she could "learn more about making Navajo cake" because she was makes her differently.

However, the only difference between Cowboy's and Teller's recipes is that Cowboy doesn't use brown sugar.

Margie R. S. Begay, of Wheatfields, who looked on from the side, said she thinks there is a lesson that can be learned from something as simple as Navajo cake making.

The socialization that forms during the whole cake process creates a bond between the individual and those who assist. Therefore, Begay said, a person will never be alone.

Life preservation summit a lifeboat for lakeside community

By Larissa L. Jimmy
Navajo Times

WHEATFIELDS, Ariz. - The first Life Preservation Summit was a community's response to a crisis.

"One year there was so many deaths," said Margie R. S. Begay, treasurer/secretary for the Tsaile-Wheatfields Chapter.

The year that Begay is referring to is 2010, when the community experienced a large number of suicides in August. This concern led to the beginning of the Life Preservation Summit.

The first summit was that same year on Oct. 21, and was only a one-day event. The theme was "We Have One Life To Live, There Is Hope."

Since then each theme for the summit has been based on a topic that the community feels is an issue.

However, death wasn't an easy topic to address. In a Tsaile-Wheatfields Chapter meeting in 2010 when several community members brought up their concerns about the ongoing suicides, some of the elders were reluctant to talk about it.

In Diné culture, death is "yíiyaa," according to Zane James, chapter president.

James, along with other chapter officials and community members, found a different angle to address the issue.

They came at it from the positive: the idea of preserving a life rather than preventing a death. A committee was developed and began coordinating the summit.

"As leaders of the community, we regrouped," James explained. "We couldn't sit back and do nothing. So we got together with a few local experts in the field of behavioral health and IHS and sources like that. We brought them together and got their take on it. Initially, they wanted to put up a conference and within two months we put a committee together. We met weekly."

One person who volunteered for the committee was James's mother, Sara James. She said that her son found the issue devastating and wondered why people did not want to talk about it.

"He was very concerned about it," said the elder James.

Added Begay, "We asked how we assist people and family who went through this. If we can reach one person or five, we can be just as strong to help the youth."

"I live here and these are my community members," continued Begay, who attended Day 2 of what has become a three-day event. "So, that is why my heart goes out to each family of those who lost a loved one to suicide."

Not all the four untimely deaths to occur in the chapter this year were suicides.

This year's theme, "Celebrating Life Through Land and Water," was a response to a tragic accident on Wheatfields Lake.

According to locals, a boat seating about four people tipped over, resulting in two drownings. Alcohol may have been involved, according to police reports.

Therefore, a lot of activities surrounded water, like water rescue led by the New Mexico Dive Team, boating safety taught by the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation along with the Navajo Nation Police Department's Chinle District, and the sacredness of land and water presented by traditional practitioner Avery Denny from Diné College, to name a few.

The event has been held in different areas. For the first two years it was held at Diné College. The third year the summit was held at the Wheatfields chapter house. This year it was held at Wheatfields Lake.

"The reason that we brought it here to the lake is because of the incident that happened last year when the two individuals from the community drowned in the lake. So now, that is one of the educations that we want to provide: boat safety and water safety," said Chapter Coordinator Paula Begay.

According to some of the chapter officials and community members, the Life Preservation Summit has always had a successful turnout. Despite the on-and-off rain that came last week, the fourth annual event was still successful in spreading the word that life is precious.

"This event is to come together to enjoy one another, help one another, support one another. That is our main message," added the chapter coordinator, who has been helping coordinate the summit since it began.

Prior themes were "Healing Through the Spirit of The Horse" and "Connecting Lives In Our Journey To Hozho."

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