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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


March 20, 2004 - Issue 109


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Desert Smorgasbord: Class Focuses on Native-American Dishes

by Valerie Phillips
Deseret Morning News
credits: Michael Christensen

Virgil JohnsonIf you drive west from Salt Lake City toward Wendover on I-80 and then head south to Skull Valley, you'll pass through some harsh, barren-looking country. For hundreds of years, this area has been home to the Goshute Indians, some of whom still live on the Skull Valley Indian Reservation.

"To them, it wasn't a desert, it was a smorgasbord," said Virgil Johnson, a Granger High School history teacher and member of the Goshute tribe. "The Native American people lived off the land. They used what was available to survive. The Creator took care of them, and because of that, many of the Native Americans are hooked to the earth and to nature."

But the casual observer may not notice this smorgasbord — pine nuts, elder berries, choke cherries, watercress, wild onions and asparagus, as well as deer and rabbit.

At a recent community class at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center, Johnson helped acquaint students with some of the foods he was raised on while growing up on the reservation.

Some of Johnson's childhood memories are of the annual pine-nut camps in the fall. He said pine-nut collecting still goes on in the fall, although it's not as common today. "It was a mainstay of an indigenous people here in the Mountain West," he said. "That's what they lived on during the winter months."

For about two weeks, Johnson's family went out in the wilderness near the Utah-Nevada border to harvest pine nuts from the pinyon trees. Johnson's uncles would place canvas under the tree, then use a long stick to shake the pine cones onto the canvas.

Meanwhile, others would dig a big pit, throw in some rocks and build a fire in it. Then they would put the fire out and place the pine cones to roast on the hot rocks in the pit.

"The pit was covered with canvas and soil," Johnson said. "Then the next day we would take them out, the cones would pop open and the nuts would be already cooked."

Johnson's grandmother, Bessie Pikayvit, had a wide, shallow woven basket called a winnowing tray. She would put some of the nuts on the tray, stand in the wind and flip the nuts in the air. All the empty shells would blow away, and the good nuts would fall back onto the tray.

Shelling pine nuts by hand is time consuming, but Johnson's grandmother had her own technology — large grinding stone, called a metate (ma-TA-tay). You put the nuts on the stone and then press a smaller stone (called a mano) back and forth over the shells to crack them. The nuts would go back on the winnowing tray and be flipped.

Pine-nut Gravy and mashed potatoesOne of Johnson's favorite dishes was pine-nut gravy, which is made by grinding the nuts into a fine powder on the metate and then mixing with water. He shared some of the rich, nutty-flavored gravy with the students over mashed potatoes.

"It was so good, I would eat it like candy. I would dip the bread in it or have it with rabbit or deer meat to go along with our dinner," Johnson said.

The metate could also be used to pound deer jerky into a fine powder and mix it with berries or make gravy with the powder. "Jerky was another mainstay during the winter," Johnson said.

Fry bread is another Native American food, and the basis for what some call "Indian tacos." They're also known as "Navajo fry bread" and "Navajo tacos," but it's common to many other Native American groups besides the Navajos, Johnson said. (The Native American Technology & Art Web site,, lists fry bread and Indian taco recipes submitted by members of numerous tribes, including Cherokee, Lenape, Nez Perce, Cree, Mohawk and Ojibwe.)

"When I go there (Navajo Hogan), I always have beans and chili on my fry bread, because that's what I grew up with, I didn't grow up with tomatoes and all that other stuff on it," Johnson said.

Making FrybreadFor those who want to cook it at home, the Navajo Hogan sells packages of fry bread mix. Johnson's cousin, Tomi Bear, and her daughter, Candace Bear, used the mix that contains blue corn when they helped class members make fry bread.

"Blue corn is for special occasions, like weddings and for ceremonial purposes," said Tomi Bear, who lives on the Skull Valley Reservation.

Marcie Espinosa, co-owner of the Navajo Hogan, said Navajo tacos aren't deep-fried scones — "They're totally different."

Candace Bear said this summer she'll begin learning how to make her own winnowing basket and other baskets used for gathering berries and seeds. During the school year, the 13-year-old goes to school in Dugway. During the summer, she attends powwows and other tribal activities. (Her father is Leon Bear, the Goshute tribal chairman.)

"I want to marry somebody who is Goshute, and I want my children to grow up as Goshute and to live on the reservation, because I have a good life there," she said.

Candace Bear said her cousin, who grew up in Tooele, tells her the reservation is boring with no movie theaters and shops.

"But even he says there's a peaceful feeling out there," she added.
Tomi Bear showed the Utah Cultural Celebration Center group Indian tea, also known as "Mormon tea" or

"Brigham tea." "When the pioneers came, they drank it and called it Brigham tea, but we were drinking it long before the Mormons," she said.

The tea comes from a short, light-green shrub called joint fir that's a member of the ephedra family. The tea is brewed from the plant's twigs.

Tomi Bear said the Goshutes and Piutes were considered poor tribes because the Spanish didn't introduce them to horses.

"So they were pretty much stuck on foot. So, you'd go around water sources and find rabbit and birds and ducks, and an occasional deer. When you got lost, you didn't run around. You sat and listened for the frogs, because they will take you to water. You watch the birds, and they will take you to water, because they have to drink. The people were quite intelligent, that they could survive in such a barren climate."

Skull Valley Indian Reservation, UT Map

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