The Power of ‘Ch’ishie’: Farmer Tyrone Thompson Wants the Rez to Feed Itself
FoodCorps alum Tyrone Thompson is something of a food historian, traveling far and wide on the reservation to remind Native Americans of their roots the best way he knows how — through their stomachs.
By FoodCorps — September 18, 2019
Sam McManis for the Arizona Daily Sun
Goopy clay oozes between Tyrone Thompson’s toes, making sort of a rhythmic squishy sound with each step. His wife, Felicia, adds more water to the mix, then shovels in a bit more soil for him to knead and form into a sticky, muddy plaster with his bare feet. Thompson nods; it’s the right density now.
When the mud finally thickens, Thompson reaches down and scoops up two handfuls. Then he slaps the clay onto the partially eroded side of a traditional outdoor oven at the STAR School, just outside the Navajo reservation and 20 miles from Thompson’s farm in Leupp. He shapes and rounds off the muddy molding, adds deep thumbprints throughout to make sure it adheres, just as his mentors and elders had taught him.
Satisfied, Thompson plops down on a nearby bench hewn from harvested pine. He presents quite a sight: dried mud caking his arms almost to the elbow and from toes to mid-calf, too. It’s a contrast to the man sitting next to him, STAR School CEO Mark Sorensen, in a spotless button-down shirt and pressed pants. …
“Ch’ishie,” he says, smiling broadly. “This is what I’m talking about. Ch’ishie. Dirty. Humble. That’s what we’re about.”
It’s one of Thompson’s favorite Navajo words, and it’s why he used the name Ch’ishie Farms for his farm and start-up business to build hoop houses (akin to greenhouses) and advise schools and communities about cooking with fresh vegetables. Last month, Thompson was one of 11 Native American entrepreneurs selected to participate in the Change Labs Business Incubator, which makes him eligible for up to $10,000 in micro loans.
“Change Labs really helps Native businesses,” he said. “I was honored to be selected.”
That’s just the latest accolade for Thompson. The STAR School, off-the-grid and with its own elaborate gardens and greenhouses, recently received a grant from Indian Health Services to, as Sorensen put it, “employ Ty to help set up gardens for families in the community.”
Along with tending his own patch of land, on which he grows corn, beans and all types of leafy greens, Thompson spends considerable time on the road promoting sustainable farming on and off the reservation.
He routinely gives lectures and demonstrations at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, educates on farming at the Little Singer Community School in Winslow, was an ambassador to FoodCorps, a nonprofit promoting healthy foods in schools, and gives seminars for Tonali Lake Enterprises, a nonprofit Native American community development corporation. He also was featured in the influential 2015 book, “The Color of Food: Stories of Race, Resilience and Farming,” by Natasha Bowens.
And, sometimes, Thompson is something of a food historian, traveling far and wide on the reservation to remind Native Americans of their roots the best way he knows how — through their stomachs. Just recently, he and his family (Felicia, and three young children) traveled to a senior center in Monument Valley, where he cooked earth-roasted corn and sheep for the elders.
“They had tears in their eyes,” he said. “We brought back all the traditional ways that are forgotten.”
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