Searching for the
precious trees has become Reagan Wytsalucys calling.
These small peaches once
flourished widely over the Southwest. (courtesy of Reagan
REAGAN WYTSALUCY GREW UP IN Gallup, New Mexico, just outside the
Navajo Nation reservation. Despite her Native heritage, she grew
up very absorbed into westernized culture, she says.
Her father owned several McDonalds franchises on the reservation,
and she never learned to speak the language. It wasnt until
she started to study plant sciences in college that her father told
her about the peaches that once thrived on the reservation where
he grew up.
Centuries ago, the Navajo people tended flourishing peach orchards
across the Four Corners area, where the states of Utah, Colorado,
New Mexico, and Colorado meet. But in 1863, the U.S. government
ordered the Navajo in Four Corners to leave their homelands.
When the Navajo refused to leave, General James H. Carleton ordered
Colonel Christopher Kit Carson to slaughter their livestock,
massacre any resistors, and burn their crops, notably their thousands
of peach trees. One American troop, under the command of Captain
John Thompson, claimed to have destroyed more than 3,000 peach trees.
Thompson himself reported how his men, in a single day, cut down
what he called 500 of the best peach trees I have ever seen
in the country, every one of them bearing fruit.
Peaches have grown in
the Four Corners area for generations. (courtesy of Reagan
The destruction nearly spelled the end of centuries of cultivation.
In fact, Native Americans across the Southwest once grew vast peach
orchards, some stretching all the way into the Grand Canyon. Scholars
believe that the Pueblo communities in the Southwest were the first
to receive peach seeds from the Spanish in the Rio Grande Valley.
Appreciation for the fruit was widespread, and the plants passed
from tribe to tribe, in many cases far in advance of any contact
with European settlers.
Faced with the destruction of their orchards and starvation on
the horizon, many Navajo surrendered during the winter of 1863 and
were forced to march in the Long Walk. This trek, of
nearly 400 miles through the harsh desert in frigid winter weather,
ended at Bosque Redondo, an internment camp on a bleak, wind-swept
prairie in eastern* New Mexico. There they were meant to live and
eventually assimilate into American culture. But due to poor water,
rampant disease, and insufficient agricultural conditions, Bosque
Redondo was deemed a failure by the U.S. Government in 1868. Thus,
many Navajo made the brutal trek back home.
Not all Navajos went on the Long Walk. One particular holdout,
Chief Hoskininni, secreted himself and others in one of the most
remote corners of the Southwest. Not only did he successfully evade
capture, he also played a pivotal role in helping re-establish the
local Navajo community. According to Wytsalucy, Hoskininni gave
farmland and animals to each family when they returned so they could
rebuild their lives. Wytsalucy herself is a descendant of Hoskininni.
According to family lore, part of the reason he was able to survive
was because of the fruit trees hidden deep within the canyons.
Wytsalucys journey to discover what was left of these orchards
began in college. When she told her father about how she didnt
know what to study, he encouraged her to research local, fast-disappearing
traditional foods, which for the Navajo include their precious peaches.
A Navajo woman in the
1930s supervises a vast flat of drying peaches in Canyon del
Muerto, Arizona. (H. ARMSTRONG ROBERTS/GETTY IMAGES)
As a graduate student in 2016, Wytsalucy set out into the Navajo
reservation with her father and two Utah State University horticulture
professors. The goal was to track down, record, and collect seeds
from the ancestral peach trees in the area, based on her fathers
memories of where he saw them growing as a child.
The most common peaches grown by Native Americans in the Southwest
were white-fleshed, free-stone, and notable for their small size.
Unlike traditional orchards, trees were not pruned and irrigation
practices were limited. One Hopi elder told her that pruning the
trees was traditionally frowned upon. Those seeds, just like
the corn plant, are revered as our children, she recalls them
saying. In the old days, peaches were eaten fresh or boiled, and
when harvests were bountiful, they were dried in the sun and stored
in masonry bins or stone cavities.
It took three years for Wytsalucy to receive her first peach seeds,
handed to her by an 85-year-old woman in Canyon de Chelly, a lush
collection of gorges in northeastern Arizona in the Navajo Nation.
Encouraged by that first success, Wytsalucy kept knocking on doors
all over the Four Corners area. Eventually, she tracked down eight
Most of the trees Wytsalucy
has found grow small peaches, about the size of an apricot.
Genetic analyses show that these peaches are significantly different
from modern cultivars. According to Wytsalucy, that persisted despite
the U.S. governments efforts to provide new peach trees to
Native people in the late 19th century. Instead, many of the elders
kept the seeds from the government and the traditional peaches separate
from each otherthey didnt want them to mix.
Many of the peaches Wytaslucy tracked down in the Four Corners
area are currently growing wild, without any human interference.
Theyre smaller than modern cultivars, about the size of a
large apricot. The skins are mostly green with a slight red tint.
As for how they taste, says Wytsalucy, they have a tart peel
and are very sweet inside, and a muskmelon flavor.
Nutritional analyses show that they are higher in calories and have
more calcium, fiber, carbohydrates, and total fat than standard
Wytsalucys work with the peaches has gone well beyond just
preserving seeds and planting trees at research sites across Utah.
Shes also working to record stories and traditions of peach-growing
from elders across the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni tribes. Much of this
knowledge is in danger of being lost as elderly members of these
communities pass away.
So far, Wytsalucy has
located nearly 10 orchards on the Navajo Nation reservation.
(courtesy of Reagan Wytsalucy)
Many elders told her that the old orchards were managed with little
supplemental irrigation. Only young trees were watered. Farmers
planted their orchards on mesa shelves and in canyons, where the
runoff from mesa tops would flood and irrigate them during summer
monsoons. Climate change has added a new urgency to Wystalucys
project. Nowadays, extreme drought in the Southwest will likely
hasten the loss of these trees, although preliminary research has
shown the Navajo peach trees are more drought tolerant than commercial
Wytsalucys father is also using his childhood memories to
help restore Native foodways. Like many Navajo children of the 1960s
and 1970s, Wytsalucys father, Roy Talker, was taken away from
home by the Indian Student Placement Program. Only eight years old,
Talker was placed with a family in Snowflake, Arizona. Wytsalucy
believes that the enduring trauma her father experienced from being
caught between two cultures is one of the reasons why she herself
was never taught how to speak the Navajo language.
He did well for himself and for his family by becoming a businessman,
but Wystalucy says her father has some regrets about bringing fast
food to the reservation. Today, Native Americans have some of the
highest rates of diabetes in the county, and fresh produce is often
more expensive and harder to come by in rural communities.
Wytsalucy also says that her research has had the unintended side
effect of bringing her closer to her father, especially as he shares
his memories about growing up on the reservation. Its
been a really great experience for our family, she says, and
it helped tie me back into who I am as Navajo.
Capitol Reef National
Park in Utah has one of the largest orchards in the national
park system. (4NITSIRK/CC BY-SA 2.0)
After graduating with her Masters Degree in Plant Science
in 2019, Wytsalucy took an Assistant Professor position with the
Utah State University Extension in southeastern Utah ?and got right
to work on restoring old peach varieties. Currently, Wystalucy is
working with community gardens throughout the Four Corners region
to produce peach seeds for Native communities and provide resources
for individuals wanting to grow them. Shes also collaborating
with Canyon de Chelly National Monument and Capitol Reef National
Park to preserve Native peaches, as a way to honor the parks
rich Indigenous histories.
Shes also researching their unique genetic traits with her
advisor, Utah State University professor and Extension fruit specialist
Brent Black. Black is especially interested in whether or not they
could be used as a rootstock and grafted with modern cultivars.
That way, they could potentially provide drought-tolerant
characteristics in more conventional peach production systems in
arid climates, says Black.
For Wystalucy, though, the project remains a deeply personal testament
to how, despite the U.S. governments efforts to eradicate
both the Navajo people and their peaches from the Four Corners area,
both remain deeply rooted in the region today. Now, all thats
left is for those roots to spread. My hope is that these trees
will be able to be returned to the homeland in an abundant form,
says Wytsalucy. And that they will become a bountiful food
resource in our communities again.
* Correction: This story originally stated that Bosque Redondo
was in western New Mexico. It was in eastern New Mexico.