Posted on August 11, 2010 - by

Whatever you give a woman, she will make greater.

“Women Nourish Us” is FRESH’s femme-focused blog series. Every week, we turn to a leading woman in the good food movement for ideas and inspiration. Be sure to check us out every Wednesday for a new write-in. Then pass the post!

Jeannie Benally is from Nenahnezad on the Navajo Nation in Fruitland, New Mexico.  She is an extension agent under the USDA for the “Federally Recognized Tribal Extension Program,” based out of the University of Arizona.  Jeannie works exclusively for the Navajo Nation, located in the northeastern portion of the reservation spanning across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Her work projects include agricultural education and research.  She hosts two conferences per year – Shiprock Agriculture Days and Fall Agriculture Seminar.  Recently, she received funding for a research project titled, “Model Farmer Dissemination Project,” of which 120 farmers were recruited and trained in pesticide management.  Last year, Jeannie hosted the 1st annual Native American Women in Agriculture Conference.  Just a few months ago, she hosted the 2nd one.  Jeannie received special funding to implement “Annie’s Project,” targeting 20 native women farmers to receive 6 weeks of intense training in the risk management areas of finances, human resources, legal, marketing and production.  She also works with her region’s 4-H youth, ages 9-19.  Jeannie is single mom with three sons and one granddaughter.

Did you Know? “Whatever you give a woman, she will make greater. If you give her a house, she’ll give you a home. She multiplies and enlarges what is given to her.” This statement is so true on the Navajo Nation reservation where our native women are the backbone to the family structure.  It is a matrilineal kinship structure within the family where the mother is in charge – wow!    I remember during my childhood years how my mother stayed home and kept the family together.  Every time we came home from school, she would have something cooking on the stove.  It wasn’t anything like fast foods, but native traditional foods.  It was a welcome sight, and to smell the food was even better.

On the Navajo Nation today, a majority of women are in the workforce.  The children and youth are left to fend for themselves.  The farmlands are idle and the range lands lack vegetation as well as livestock.  What went wrong?  My analysis of the situation is that there is an “imbalance of nature.”   The Navajo term, hozho meaning harmony, went out the window. Who’s to blame?  Who knows?  Many factors may have caused this turn of events in the family structure:  unemployment, indebtedness, poverty and alcoholism or more have ravished the Dine Bikeyah, our Navajolands.

Despite all of this, as an extension agent with University of Arizona, I feel it is partly my responsibility to keep the tradition of farming and ranching alive.  How?  By implementing projects to help women farm and ranch again and taking their rightful places in the home. Decades ago, our ancestors lived off the land and livestock.  Today, it is called sustainable agriculture.

The movement has begun:  a call to nurture women in agriculture is developing through projects such as the annual Native American Women in Agriculture conferences:  a place where agricultural education outreach can be sought as a resource for many women.  Workshops in topics relating to food safety issues, drip irrigation methods, and the like are conducted.  Another project, the Shiprock Annie’s Project: six weeks of intense training in the risk management areas of finances, human resources, legal, marketing and production targeting 20 native women farmers was completed.  We have taken action to revitalize and improve the farming operations along the San Juan River.  According to the 2007 agriculture census statistics, the number of women who were principal operators of a farm or ranch increased by almost 30% from 2002.  Principal operators meaning are the ones farming and making daily decisions pertaining to for the farm/ranch operations.

Navajo women will once again bear the brunt of preserving and conserving the traditions of the Navajo Nation.  Native traditional foods preparation will be taught to the younger generation; seed cleaning/saving will be emphasized for future food supply; and a cherished legacy will be left behind for generations to come.

The equilibrium will be normal again.

To get in touch with Jeannie or learn more about her projects, visit her Shiprock Agency site here.

*If you believe in the power of women’s words and our growing sustainable food movement, please spread the word about our Women Nourish Us blog series via email, Facebook & Twitter (http://fdl.me/d1nqNe). If you would like to host a screening of FRESH for your friends or organization, please – be in touch!

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    August 11, 2010

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    Carrie Oliver said:

    Jeannie,

    Your post is fascinating and inspiring as I’ve definitely noticed an increasing number of women playing a leadership role in pastured and Artisan beef, lamb, pork, and poultry. For a while I wondered if we found each other because we WERE female, but after 5 years, the pattern is pretty clear, we’re finding each other because we are working toward the same goals, though sometimes through different avenues.

    Let’s talk further via email or phone!



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    August 11, 2010

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    Jacqueline Church said:

    Greetings from Boston (home to the first Navajo in the MLB – Jacoby Ellsbury – love him!)

    I was very interested to learn about the Navajo Churro Sheep and how central it was to the Diné (Navajo) people. So important was it, the US Govt tried to eradicate these sheep to subjugate the people. Just as the Spaniards did with Quinoa which supported Andean indigenous peoples.

    Congratulations on the success you’ve had, I hope that the women in your programs will be able to bring back the important practices that have traditionally supported the Diné.

    Thank you for sharing your story!



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    August 12, 2010

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    Shannon Denetchiley said:

    Jeannie’s role as an Extension Agent in solving community needs, concerns, and issues surrounding revitalization of agriculture empowers many Navajo families. She is a great individual who strives to work though processes and helps to create change with Navajo communities. The conferences and trainings she has hosted are illustrative of her dedication of effort, time and energy; without those elements, change wouldn’t happen. Jeannie is truly empowered with the knowledge to re-cultivate a way of life that is digressing on the Navajo Nation. She is part of building successful communities, by providing meaningful outlets for citizen participation – outlets which involve a broad range of community perspectives and vest citizens with the real power to influence their own lives.

    She has provided knowledge, and an ethic of giving and sharing as a way of life which adds value back to the Navajo culture.