Monday, July 5, 2010

Navajo Tea

While visiting friends on the Navajo Nation a few years back, Elise and I were given a gift of some Navajo tea. When we got home, I stashed it in the back of my tea cupboard where it would stay preserved in the cool and dark. Which also meant that I would forget about it for a couple of years.

Though this video shows one bundle making one cup of tea, we were told that it would yield about fifteen cups, and so we had to wait an additional few months after rediscovering the tea for a time when we had enough guests to drink it. That turned out to be Elise's birthday. Though techniques vary, we tried pouring a pot of boiling water over the single bundle in a large, ceramic mixing bowl and letting it steep for about ten minutes.

The tea was wonderful. I know it might seem fairly obvious to describe a tea that is essentially dried grass as "grassy," but it was. There was a faintly sweet flavor and an aroma like pungent hay. The liquor was thicker than with most true teas, the color a rich gold.

It is difficult to discuss this tea without hyper-romanticizing the West. So permit me the following: the tea was an expression of the land it had grown out of, and in it you could taste the bare rock, sand and sun-baked wood and herbs that struggle to lay claim to a spartan landscape. Talk about terroir.

To me, this tea is about as sacred as food can be. It was a gift, it is a traditional and culturally relevant food, it has medicinal qualities, and, being a wild crop, the tea was foraged and not cultivated, which means this species has been relatively uninfluenced by our presence on the planet. Compare that to something you might find at the supermarket. Orange juice with fish in it, for instance.

The funny thing is that when we were given the tea we were drinking instant Folger's from a big, red plastic tub. I don't want to give the illusion that most Navajo are out foraging for their food. Like any rural, low-income community, most of their food is store bought and highly processed. But when the conversation turned to traditional crops, our friend went into his pantry and brought out a Ziploc bag bearing three hand-tied bundles of the wild tea.

It was inspiring to see such a traditional food still earning a place on the shelf next to products that are engineered to be addictive and are marketed with millions of dollars. But the best part is that I still have two more bundles.

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Margaret said...

So how do I get friends like that?

Aaron Kagan said...

Well, seeing how you're such a faithful reader, send me your address and I'll send you a bundle.

Anonymous said...

I am having a cup of Navajo Tea right now. Hand picked from my front yard here on the Navajo Reservation. Navajo Tea is pretty good when you boil it for about 5 to 10 mins. They grow wildly here on the reservation even alongside highways. But... rememeber drink too much and you're teeth will turn yellow but will go away when you brush them.

darren said...

my little sister and i are selling navajo tea buy for bunle for 1 dollar inside a sandmich bag!! And we made like 55 dollars the 1st day at Window Rock Arizona Fair ( September ) Sooo much fun i had and tomorow our last day for selling our last 25 bags ..

darren said...

email me at or soo if you are interested in buying some navajo team or i should Say SouthWest navajo tea. And Last i do not pick up my navajo tea alongside of the highway Because Many people from around here urine on the highway instead My SouthWest Navajo Tea is coming from Open Grazing Land about 2 ares behind my house it grows wildly

Daphena said...

Does Navajo tea have caffiene in it? I'm thinking naturally.

Aaron Kagan said...


Nope! Totally herbal. Let me know if you try some.

Anonymous said...

I first discovered Navajo tea when I came to work at a shelter for survivors of domestic violence right outside the reservation.

It is a great "comfort food" for our residents. We boil a bundle in about 4 quarts of water for 5-10 minutes, or put it in a sun tea jar. Makes a very refreshing iced tea, too.

Follow the advice not to pick it alongside the road, although it grows plentifully there. Too much exhaust, oil, dirt, etc.

Kevin Jackson said...

Yeah most people from the eat coast are surprised that we have almost the same life style as them. and there are some occasion where we do go out and hunt for food such as elk, bear, turkey, white tail, rabbit, and sheep.

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~ang~ said...

I'm am waiting for my very first cup of this tea at this very moment! I can't wait!

~ang~ said...

I'm am waiting for my very first cup of this tea at this very moment! I can't wait!

Anonymous said...

So u come into our community and take whts sacred to us and distribute to the world for a buck or two....

Anonymous said...

"There was a faintly sweet flavor and an aroma like pungent hay"... You did something wrong. The tea should never smell like pungent hay. The picture you have posted shows it very light... It should be much darker. One fresh (but dry) tea bundle is enough for an entire large pot of water. After boiling, immediately turn off the heat and let steep. The water should be dark amber. You can boil it over 5 minutes but that's unnecessary.
- Yellowhair

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