An initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Community Story

On the Navajo Nation, One Farm Works to Heal the Land and the People

Food systems


November 15th, 2022


At the heart of Indigenous wisdom is resilience and adaptation. This wisdom supported the survival of Native peoples in the face of colonization and attempts to annihilate culture, connection to the land, and countless other aspects of health and well-being. Indigenous wisdom holds lessons for all—especially now, as we confront the climate crisis, degraded lands and foods, and deep disparities in health.

Challenged by broken food systems all around them, James and Joyce Skeet heeded the call to reconnect to Indigenous wisdom in starting Spirit Farm on the Navajo Nation—an experiential farm that recovers and reclaims traditional farming and spiritual practices through Indigenous regenerative agriculture.

Beyond themselves, James and Joyce saw how the impacts of colonization and poor physical, mental and spiritual health outcomes were inextricable—and how their community suffered from a commoditized and monocropped food system. These food systems set out to address hunger, but create problems of their own—decreasing nutrition and plant diversity. “The obesity rate is so high … It’s really difficult to get nutrient-dense foods here. So we continue to eat empty carbs, empty cardboard,” James reflects.

James (L) and Joyce (R) stand together overlooking Spirit Farm.

And it was out of heightened concern for elevated rates of childhood obesity that the Navajo Nation passed the Healthy Diné Nation Act in 2014, enforcing sales taxes on all unhealthy or “minimal-to-no-nutritional-value” foods and eliminating those for water, fresh fruit and vegetables, and nuts. To date, the Navajo Nation is the first and only location in the United States with a tax on unhealthy foods—although an increasing number of U.S. municipalities have a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

The couple jokes that Spirit Farm began with “selfish intent,” but it’s clear that the farm is anything but selfish—formed out of a commitment to heal the land and its people. Before the farm, James and Joyce worked as health insurance brokers and both felt deeply unwell. Their work had them traveling nonstop; they struggled with hypertension, high blood pressure, arthritis, type 2 diabetes. As James describes, they were “colonized” and lacked spiritual connectivity to the land.

“Our Native people have not been honored on the land. They've been dishonored on all levels. Our Indigenous economy has suffered against a dependency economy of handouts and governmental support just enough to survive, not to succeed. Establishing local economies to regenerate local communities with an entrepreneurial spirit is crucial for our own existence and progression."

James Skeet, Executive Director, Spirit Farm

Spirit Farm was James’ and Joyce’s bid to reconcile with the land and teach others to grow food as medicine.

At first, the farmland was degraded, exploited, and overgrazed. That, coupled with extreme heat and drought exacerbated by climate change, undermined the land’s resilience. This affected how nutritious the foods grown on the land could be, and in turn, how healthy the communities that consumed them could be. It was all connected. So James and Joyce started with the soil. They composted and built bioreactors. They grazed Navajo-Churro sheep and used cover crops to improve the soil microbiome.

James stands next to the Navajo-Churro sheep that are an important element of healing the soil at Spirit Farm.

Critically, at the core of their work is the transmission of knowledge. James and Joyce hold “compost pow wows” and teach workshops on everything from nutrition, to the microbiome and the gut, to starting your own garden. From their vantage, the direct route to food justice is for Native people to grow their own healthy food again. And young people in their community understand this, especially as they see the impact of our current food system and climate change. “There’s something that they sense in their heart is not right,” James notes. So they gravitate to the farm to learn their regenerative practices.

In this way, James and Joyce are shepherding a seven-generation approach, one that is rooted in sustaining health for seven generations to come. “Spirit Farm is not driven by finances or capital gain or monies,” James asserts. “We are actually driven by a currency of elders, and that elder currency is if we can check off the seventh generation, check off things from our elders moving forward—then we’ve accomplished our tasks here on earth.”

So the work began—and continues. Every day, James and Joyce get to work on the farm—undesigning the systems that are not serving their community and returning to the ones that are most connected to the land, to Indigenous wisdom, and to adaptation. The counter to commodity is culture and community.

“I'm sure if our bodies bounce back to good health, it'll happen with the soil, with the land, with the earth. We need to move toward healing, and once we're healed, then we can heal our community.”

James Skeet, Executive Director, Spirit Farm

Related Content

See All