Daniel Begay, who is Navajo, had always been told growing up that traditional American Indian foods were good for him.
But because most American Indians are lactose intolerant, "they aren't getting that same source of calcium from dairy products," Begay says.
Turns out that it's a traditional cooking method that is key to his bone health. The Navajo burn juniper branches, collect the ash and stir it into traditional dishes. The most popular: blue corn mush.
Begay, a graduate student at Northern Arizona University, analyzed the amount of calcium in 27 samples of juniper from all over the reservation. But first he had to ash the juniper outside his apartment in Flagstaff. Not quite the same as the rural reservation.
"I let my landlord know beforehand. I said, 'Hey, I'm going to be building a fire in our yard, just so you know,'" Begay says. "I burned up a picnic table a little bit."
His analytical chemistry professor, Jani Ingram, oversaw much of the work Begay did in the lab.
"You have to get it to the point where you can dissolve it in acid and then dilute it down and then do the analysis that way," says Ingram.
It was there that Begay found that the calcium level was fairly high.
"For every gram of ash that I was able to sample, I was getting roughly 280-300 milligrams of calcium," Begay says.
He says that's about the same as a glass of milk. But he says the body seems to absorb the calcium from the juniper ash easier.
To see how the Navajo cook with ash, I drive to the tiny Navajo Nation community of Jeddito to Lillie Pete's home. Pete teaches classes on how to cook traditional Navajo food.
She shows me where she picks the juniper from behind her house.
"Some of them will be all brown, you can see it has brown spots on it," Pete says, holding a juniper branch. She says the spots tell her it's time to trim the branches to burn and make the ash.
However, this day is too windy to burn the ash. Fortunately, Pete has a large jar of juniper ash ready to go. We begin making blue corn mush in her kitchen.
Pete says she already knew juniper ash was good for her, along with many other traditional Navajo foods.
"We were warned when the Anglo people came out with the trading posts, 'Stick with your own food,' " Pete says. "Our body wasn't built to consume the kind of food that came with the Anglo. And now we have so many health problems with our people."
Pete says many Navajos tell her they forgot traditional ways when they were forced to go to government-run boarding schools. But now, with the known health benefits, there's an incentive to learn.
Pete boils water and pours it onto the ash. Then she measures the cornmeal and stirs the mixture with several long sticks tied together. She says she always stirs in a clockwise direction to keep her mind calm.
After several minutes, the corn mush produces thick volcanic bubbles, which tells us it's ready. Pete gives thanks to mother earth for the corn as she cleans each stick.
Then we sit down to a hot bowl of delicious blue corn mush. It reminds me a bit of cream of wheat.
As for Begay, he says he wants to get the word out to the Navajo people that juniper ash is a good source of calcium. "Every chance I get when someone asks about my research I say, 'you gotta eat more blue corn mush.'"
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
So getting calcium in your diet is essential to keeping your bones strong. Well, what do you do if you can't do dairy? A Navajo graduate student at Northern Arizona University got really interested in that question when he came across an old study suggesting that Navajo women are less likely to break their hips than women of European heritage. He found this surprising because most American Indians are lactose intolerant. And so he set out to find where the Navajo get their calcium. Laurel Morales of member station KJZZ reports from Flagstaff.
LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: From the time he was a child, Daniel Begay was told that traditional Navajo foods were good for him.
DANIEL BEGAY: A lot of these practices are just done because they're just passed down. When I asked my wife and also my grandma this, a lot of them say, you know, that's just something we - you were just told to do it.
MORALES: But Begay wanted proof. And he eventually found it. It turns out a small study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association says one ingredient in traditional Navajo food, juniper ash, is a great source of calcium. The Navajo burn juniper branches, collect the ash and stir it into various dishes. It started out as part of a ceremony, and now it's added to many traditional foods.
Begay wanted to do a more comprehensive study. So he analyzed the amount of calcium in 27 samples of juniper from all over the Navajo Nation, an area the size of West Virginia. First, he decided to burn juniper outside his apartment in Flagstaff.
BEGAY: I let my landlord know beforehand - say, hey, I'm going to be building a fire outside in our yard just so you know. I burned a picnic table a little bit.
MORALES: Begay discovered that one gram of ash has the same amount of calcium as a glass of milk. And that is good for Navajo bones. Lillie Pete teaches young people about the benefits of traditional Navajo food. I recently visited her home on the Navajo Nation in the tiny town of Jeddito to learn how to make one of the most popular foods that includes juniper ash, blue corn mush.
(SOUNDBITE OF POURING WATER)
LILLIE PETE: OK. There's the five cups of water. And we're going to let that heat up until it's boiling.
MORALES: Pete says, before the white man came, the Navajo subsisted on beans, corn, squash and mutton.
PETE: Our body wasn't built to, you know, consume the kind of food that came with the Anglo. And now we have so many health problems with our people, you know?
MORALES: One in three Navajo people suffers from diabetes, according to the Indian Health Service. And obesity rates are three times the national average. Pete says many Navajo forgot the traditional ways when they were forced to go to government-run boarding schools.
PETE: OK. What I usually do is take some of this hot, boiling water. And I'll pour it onto the ash.
(SOUNDBITE OF POURING WATER)
MORALES: Then she mixes in the corn meal and stirs. Finally, the corn mash produces thick, volcanic bubbles, telling us it's ready.
PETE: (Foreign language spoken).
MORALES: Pete gives thanks to Mother Earth for the corn.
PETE: (Foreign language spoken).
MORALES: She suggests adding either salt or sugar. Then we eat.
That's good. It reminds me of cream of wheat. Really good. Do you think you can taste the ash? Do you notice it? I don't.
PETE: I don't even taste it at all.
MORALES: For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Jeddito on the Navajo Nation.
(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE FALL'S "OLD COUNTY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.