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Cropping Up: Repatriating the Four Corners potato

“Hi, I'm Alistair Bitsóí. I’m Diné from the Navajo Nation. Specifically, I am from a small community called Naschitti Navajo Nation. I'm a writer, storyteller, a young farmer, young rancher, and narrative strategist and I try to help however I can whether it's through writing, reclaiming histories, reclaiming the right stories from our perspective as native indigenous people. I've grown the four corners potato for the last four years.

“I'm reporting from my family's ranch lands, grazing lands in the Navajo Nation. I go home for the growing season and grow crops and I guess you would say the Four Corners potato is a specialty crop,” said Alistair Bitsóí.

Specialty crops are typically locally grown and not processed. Crops such as fruits and vegetables, nuts and things like flowers, medicinal herbs and honey. And the quarter-sized four corners potato, rich in nutrients and indigenous history has been making a comeback.

“I am doing my best to resurrect it, not just to show them, but to teach them that we cannot rely on big box stores for our food, we have to go back to what our people and our ancestors have always done. And one way I'm doing that is through this potato that I have connections to now, and how that potato is so nutritious, nutrient dense, that that's what our bodies need,” said Bitsóí.

The Four Corners potato is tiny; a dozen of them can fit in the palm of your hand. But it packs a lot of nutrition for its size, with twice the protein, zinc and manganese, and three times the calcium and iron of the common potato, that one potato that most of us have ever known. The tremendous nutritional benefits in part come from the fact that you can't really peel off that nutritious skin. And it grows in the desert so it's a drought resilient food.

“And so I'm a dryland farmer. I don't have access or the privilege to an irrigation system. I am just below the Chooshgai Mountains and so farmers historically have relied on snow melt when it does snow or the monsoon. So I do plant during the monsoon season and rely on that for the plants that I grow,” said Bitsóí.

“From our studies in Utah, dealing with this unique native species, the four corners potato, we see an interaction between humans and this species that can be read on the landscape today,” said Bruce Pavlik.

“I'm director of conservation at Red Rock Garden, and I'm a plant biologist, mostly an ecologist, said Pavlik.

He is the author of the book California Deserts and Ecological Discovery. He describes it as a homage to the original inhabitants of the West desert and by talking to Native people, he says it became really clear that everything in the desert is a resource.

“And you know, what looks to us to be a barren landscape is in fact, to them filled with food filled with utility, filled with ceremony,” said Pavlik.

Bruce works closely with Lisbeth Louderback, curator of archaeology at the Natural History Museum of Utah.

“And I'm an archaeologist, more specifically an Archeobotanist,” said Louderback.

Meaning she is interested in what plant remains from archaeological sites tell us about the past, people’s diets for one. Lizbeth was out looking at plant remains in ancient desert fire pits and on old grinding stones known as manas and metates. She and colleagues were able to identify a number of potato starch granules on the stone tools from a site in southern Utah located at North Creek in Escalante Valley.

“So Escalade, Escalon Valley used to be called potato Valley. Most people didn't know that, even though that was kind of their recent history. Likewise, a lot of the indigenous folks we spoke with a lot of the younger generations had no idea about the Four Corners potato, the elders did, some of that knowledge does not get passed on, for one reason or another,” said Louderback.

Finding that ancient potato starch on the stone tools started with scientific curiosity but has burgeoned into a revival of an important crop tied to a heritage that had been for the most part forgotten.

And then it turned out just about 150 meters away from the site, Bruce found a population of the potatoes still growing, and the owners of the property had no idea this nutritious ancient crop was there, alive and well.

Now Bruce and Lisbeth are working with 30 indigenous farmers, mostly Navajo or Hopi, providing them with four corner potato tubers to grow. One of those farmers is Alastair, the young farmer you met earlier who is mainly growing the Bears Ears tuber variety on his grandma’s land near Bears Ears National Monument, where Alastair is continuing a long family tradition of working the land.

“This summer I planted 11 plots, 8 from Grand Staircase, 3 from Bears Ears. I planted them, like in a line. They bloomed, they flowered. It's kind of frustrating that we had to relearn the I mean, it's a beautiful frustration, I guess, like we had to learn, we had to regroup at our reconnect with that through the scientists,” said Bitsóí.

Still, Alistair says he is pretty sure he’s always been connected to the potato through centuries of ancestral knowledge and memory. And that its reintroduction was a gift. Alistair says the potato is helping him understand why ancestral knowledge will help people heal.

“And, and when we say heal, it's talking about healing, physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, like, all the way to the nervous system. And that's what I do. Like I'm working on my nervous system, I'm working through my traumas, and growing food, like the potato, knowing that it's always existed, and it's overcome so many challenges and maybe traumas in itself as reflective of my journey. And I guess that's why it kind of grows the way it does. I just put it in the ground and it grows. And I don't know if it's because it missed the land that it used to grow in,” Bitsóí.

Alastair adds that he tries to grow food that’s non-GMO, that is heirloom and is specific to their nutrient needs.

“And I'm just beginning. So like, I'm no expert, I have a long ways to go. I know there's ways to really work the garden and the land and get it to where it should go. And it's going to be a lifelong project, but also queering the farm because I am queer, and I guess, to spirit Diné queer farmer. And so navigating, that is another challenge. But I know what I'm doing is correct or not correct, but it just naturally makes sense to do it.

It's a challenge. Like when I'm here, I'm thinking of the city. But when I'm in the city, I'm thinking of here, I'm kind of nomadic, generally, it can be done. But I know at some point, I'm going to have to choose and I will choose the potato,” said Bitsóí.

One of the reasons he says he’s choosing the potato is because we cannot depend on the current economics driven system for our food.

“We have to go back to our lands and it's like my grandmother, she's like, I, I've been saying this to you guys for years, like you guys don't listen. And you know, like now to see her and I bonding over these cultural stories and foods and knowledge system. It's beautiful to me. And when it comes to the potato, I grow it for the good of my heart, I'm learning that the food source is culturally significant and meaningful in some of our ceremonies. And so I would love to grow it more for those purposes, but also just to eat it,” said Alastair Bitsoi of the Diné Bikéyah community of the Navajo Nation.

Sheri's career in radio began at 7 years old in Los Angeles, California with a secret little radio tucked under her bed that she'd fall asleep with, while listening to The Dr. Demento Radio Show. She went on to produce the first science radio show in Utah in 1999 and has been reporting local, national and international stories ever since. After a stint as news director at KZYX on northern California's Lost Coast, she landed back at UPR in 2021.