About 50 people who attended a hog-butchering workshop on the Navajo Nation last week are used to processing sheep. But for most, handling a 300-pound hog was something new.
The day began at 8 a.m. on a January 5 at North Leupp Family Farms, a 100-acre agricultural co-op on the southwestern edge of the Navajo Nation. At that time, participants were bundled against single-digit temperatures while they built cooking fires and began to boil water in 55-gallon drums.
Two people were invited to help lead the workshop: Adrienne Ruby, a traveling veterinarian on the western Navajo Nation, and Dan Gray, a red-bearded “in-law” from Kentucky and Mississippi who’s been married to a Navajo woman for nearly 40 years.
Also contributing his knowledge was James Peshlakai, a traditional Navajo and founder of the Cameron, Arizona-based Peshlakai Cultural Foundation who says hogs were first introduced to his tribe by the Spanish nearly five centuries ago.
“Before that, we did have some javelinas in this area that were not part of the diets,” Peshlakai explained. “They have scent glands right in the middle of their back. That’s why the Navajos avoid javelinas.”
Peshlakai said by now, hogs and other once-foreign livestock are part of the culture just like tumbleweed and some Spanish words: domingo for Sunday, quince for fifteen and beso, a kiss.
A novelty in his own right, Gray brags that he and his wife have created a family of Navajo hillbillies. His country accent has remained seemingly untouched by his time in the west; so have his clear memories of growing up on a farm. In a pre-butchering dispute about the best way to remove the animal’s hair, for example, he was resolute:
“With a spoon,” he said. “You know, one of them big eatin’ spoons. And you can’t fiddle-fart with it. You got to get up and get it done.”
Peshlakai had his own advice before the day’s task began.
“You don’t want to chase the animal and wear it out,” he told participants in Navajo and English, while the unsuspecting hog still rested in its pen. “Adrenaline makes the meat spoil faster.”
Indeed, the arguably cute beast enjoyed its last moment snacking on a bowl of corn; it was shot in the head from behind. Immediately, the leaning walls of the temporary pen came down, and knowledgeable men were atop the hog before its legs stopped quivering—bleeding it quickly by slicing the arteries in its neck and hind legs.
Just as fast, the men dragged the hog on top of pallets, where men and women alike scraped off the hair with spoons after soaking the hide through burlap with the boiling water from the 55-gallon drums. Soon afterwards, the men hoisted the animal and tied it upside down by its hind legs, to be methodically disassembled. The head got skinned, encased in foil, and baked in a Dutch oven. Many other cuts went to hang in a newly constructed smokehouse. Some were thrown into salt water, then rolled in a mixture of brown sugar and salt to be cured. Smaller portions went into a stew, at the end of the workshop in the late afternoon.
Morris Maloney, a Navajo from Tuba City, drove the two hours to Leupp to support the workshop because he thinks it’s important for people to have a hand in the production of their own food.
“This is all natural,” he said. “You know what you did to it.”
Maloney attended with the 15-year-old grandson he’s raising, Maurice Walker. Walker said he appreciated the opportunity to learn how to butcher a hog correctly, “instead of ruining it.” He said he got the most practical, hands-on experience when he helped take the hide off the animal’s head.
North Leupp Family Farms, besides hosting vegetable plots for 30 families, puts on a variety of programs to help connect people with their food. In the past they’ve conducted workshops on composting and greenhouse gardening, and eating for diabetes prevention. The year 2012 was exciting, said farm co-manager Tyrone Thompson, partly because a new greenhouse has allowed the farm to produce year-round for the first time in its 30-plus-year history. They also kicked off a farm-to-school program with the Star School, a charter school just south of Leupp.
Stacey Jensen, Thompson’s co-manager and chairman of the North Leupp Family Farms board, said the hog butchering workshop was the first to involve a live animal. Most feedback was positive, but a few locals were offended enough to give him pause about another one. They worried it wasn’t humane to slaughter an animal in such a public way. Still, he feels it was educational—and important.
“Currently, our communities are dependent on foods that have unknown origins and processing, often leading to illnesses,” he said. “It proved that we don't need to depend on the outside and far-away places to feed ourselves. It fit right in with our mission to re-engage the community, young and old, about the importance of sustainability. Food security is an important part of survival for the people.”
The farm is planning future workshops in seed saving, canning and storing of food, rainwater harvesting, and sheep and wool production. This spring, the staff is hoping to flip the switch on a new solar pump for an existing well—courtesy of Engineers Without Borders and the Flagstaff-based Grand Canyon Trust, a conservation group. The solar pump will replace a generator-run one that’s proved unreliable. Following that, the next big project will be a newly designed irrigation system, with the support of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. But first, Thompson, Jensen and the farm’s board of directors want to figure out an irrigation master plan, which may include an expansion into livestock.