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Santana Nez, on honoring Navajo culture and agricultural progress


Santana Nez holds many titles in addition to eighth-generation Arizona rancher: She’s an indigenous Navajo woman, daughter, granddaughter, veterinary student, social media influencer, and agriculturalist, just to name a few.

She has dedicated the past decade of her life to improving on the invaluable and hard-won skills and knowledge she garnered as a rancher and farmer’s daughter on the Navajo reservation near Winslow, Arizona. Her confidence, poise, and tenacious drive to accomplish her goals illustrates one of the greatest benefits of an agricultural upbringing.

Her stories, authentic silver and turquoise jewelry (often made by her grandfather), and social media presence represent a respect for Navajo history and a love for her people. For the Navajos, agriculture is a way of life in a culture where land stewardship and agriculture are as old as time. No exception to tradition, Nez honors her people, embodying the same strength, adaptability, and resilience that has carried generations of other Navajo women through their challenges and successes.

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Who are the Navajo people?

The Navajos are believed to have arrived in the Southwest about 1,000 years ago. They adopted farming processes upon arriving in the Four Corners area, domesticating livestock after contact with the Spanish. When the United States gained control of the southwestern and Californian territories, U.S. Army Col. Kit Carson instituted a policy that left Navajo fields and homes burnt and livestock stolen.

Eventually, the tribe was starved into submission and walked hundreds of miles to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. The people, Nez explained, were forced to sign a treaty that allowed them to return to designated lands near the Four Corners area. The Navajo Reservation today occupies about 25,000 square miles — it is the largest Indian reservation in the United States. 

“The people were here first. They were pushed aside and left to starve by burning their gardens, orchards, killing livestock, and forced to live in areas that anyone else thought was unsustainable for people,” she said. “But despite those hardships and genocidal tactics, indigenous people are still here. Not as many, but still here.” 

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Navajos and generational agriculture

Being raised on the Navajo reservation, Nez learned many of the same values and lessons as others in the agriculture industry. Her father was the ranch manager, and that meant she, along with her siblings, were volunteered to help. She gained skills, knowledge, and a sense of pride in the agricultural way of life. 

“I’m going to start saying that I’m an eighth-generation rancher and farmer. When I hear people say that they’re a third-generation farmer, I ask myself, ‘Where do I lie?’ Because ranching has always been in my family, since the beginning of time” Nez said. “Ever since we first arrived in Arizona, or what it was before it became Arizona or the United States, we’ve been farming and ranching and hunting on the land. I began saying that I’m an eighth-generation farmer-rancher because that’s as far back as I could get some history.”

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Some things, however, were a little bit different than many farms and ranches. Water, for example, continues to be located a sizable distance from the ranch house. Language barriers between younger generations and elders can make communication and the propositioning of new ideas more complex process, though respect for livestock and generational knowledge remain strongly instilled values. 

Nez said, “I was raised in a way of life filled with driving 5 to 30 miles a few times a week to fetch water for the animals and for our use to wash dishes, and for plumbing, showers, etc. It’s a little different to some but normal where I’m from. We don’t have a central waterline that takes water to your house.

“But don’t think of me as unfortunate. It’s taught me conservation before it was cool and being aware of everything around you constantly. You make sure your animals have water before you do; make sure they are comfortable. We are here to take care of things to take care of us.”

She has done a lot to facilitate programs that encourage interest from a younger generation, saying, “We are born to be agriculturalists; we just need more interest in it. Because, as anyone else would know in agriculture, there’s a disconnect between what people think ranching is, and getting people involved, especially our youth.”

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Ag businesses on the reservation 

When it comes to tribal decisions, elders are traditionally cornerstone decision-makers and revered for their deeply-entrenched knowledge and understanding of the land.

Prior to COVID-19 shutdowns, Nez managed a consulting business. In that capacity, Nez assisted tribal entities and individuals with securing and meeting requirements for federal grants.

“When making recommendations, we are always trying not to overrule the traditional, ecological knowledge of our elders. They know the land and they’ve grown up here all their lives,” she said. “My Navajo culture emphasized care for others and the land. It is engraved in our livelihood to treasure our elders, they are our knowledge keepers and reminders of how resilient we are.” 

U.S. Department of Agriculture loans have long provided agriculturalists with an opportunity to improve upon their operations and develop agricultural land. Despite opportunities to apply for these same government loans and grants, tribal entities and individuals were often denied. The loan process requires collateral — often provided in the form of land ownership. Reservation land, however, is owned by the federal government, not the individuals who live on, work, and manage it. Nez said, “Tribal entities ended up filing suit against the U.S. government for discrimination. Now, grants are available to tribal members and associations to implement developments and create more agricultural interest in the communities.”

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When it comes to ag, women run the wheelhouse

Unlike traditional European cultures, the Navajos are a matrilineal dominant society. The women have always been — and still are — the leaders of each family; they’re the knowledge keepers, and they are revered for holding the family’s bloodline.

Nez said, “When you introduce yourself, you start with your mother, ‘This is who I am born from,’ and then when you describe your fathers, you say, ‘This is who I’m born for.’ ” The Navajo tribe holds one of the only USDA-recorded demographics where women represent over half of the primary ownership of agricultural operations. 

“I think women in my culture are very strong, confident individuals, and they raise other women to be just so,” she said. “When it comes to cattle and owning cattle, it’s the women who are the keepers. Although, if you look at historical treaties, men signed the treaties because in European society, women were not legally able to sign.”

Pictured below is Nez’s grandmother, who has never known her real birthday. Her parents told her she was born after the harvest and before Christmas. Nez writes, “She picked a month and a day and lied to the government, saying she was a year older so she could qualify for a job she applied to.”

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Ranching is a family affair, but so is education

Aside from the lessons learned on the ranch, formal education has always been a priority for the Nez family. Each sibling received money annually from their personal cattle that was invested in a bank certificate of deposit. These funds helped Nez and her siblings pursue higher educational options after high school.

“Growing up in a ranching family, our work ethic and how well we take care of our animals is our economy,” Nez explained. “It was cattle-raising that helped the generation before me reach their education goals followed by my generation. Contrary to popular belief, not all federally recognized tribes receive full financial aid or ‘get paid to go to college.’ Personal financial supplement was required and still is. The cattle industry, beef consumers, and our skill as caretakers helped get my family where they wanted and needed to be, to follow their passion, and to master their craft.”

Nez received her bachelor’s degree in animal science from the University of Arizona, later securing a master’s degree. Now she has returned to the University of Arizona’s newly opened veterinary school.

Nez says her family embodies a strong tradition of educational pursuits, with many in her lineage boasting advanced degrees.

“My grandma once told me, ‘l always want all my kids to have an education, and it may just be a paper but knowledge is the only thing that no one can take away from you. Nobody,’ ” she said.

While Nez’s professional and educational pursuits have often led her away from the family ranch and reservation, she plans to practice as a large animal veterinarian in rural Northern Arizona after completing the veterinary program.

Undoubtedly, her family’s history, tenacity, and self-reliance will continue to guide her steps as she continues to attain goals and share traditions. 

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Heidi Crnkovic, is the Associate Editor for AGDAILY. She is a New Mexico native with deep-seated roots in the Southwest and a passion for all things agriculture.

This article was published in partnership with American Farmland Trust.

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Any views or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of AGDAILY. Comments on this article reflect the sole opinions of their writers.