Words by ALASTAIR LEE BITSÓÍ
Photograph by Jim Mangan
The Frontline dives into the history of Indigenous people harvesting salt from the drying Great Salt Lake.
As a child, I first learned the value of harvesting or trading for áshįįh (mineral salt) from my parents who learned from their parents. Now as an adult, I’ve not only learned more about the value of salt—but also of my Diné culture more generally. I’ve been healing historical traumas through ceremony and through my writing and farming. While on my journey, I had the special opportunity to learn some of these teachings from shínálí asdzáá (my paternal grandmother). Digging inside the cabinets of her home last summer, I came across a jug of áshįįh. After tasting the salt, I thought of how my people—the Diné who live on Dinétah, or the Four Corners region where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona meet—have been eating this salt since time immemorial. I wonder how manufactured iodized salt came to replace what my people harvest.
My nálí keeps the salt stored away for special occasions: celebratory meals, coming-of-age ceremonies, and even a baby’s first laugh. My relatives say that giving a baby salt will ensure their continued generosity with their laughter. I realize more and more as I grow older, especially during these climate-changing times, that I need to learn these ancient cultural practices and pass them on to my own nieces and nephews. Nourishing them with Mother Earth’s gifts allows them to build a reciprocal relationship with her, Father Sky, and every other living creature in between.
“We celebrate birth, and we celebrate that first laugh because it is a very unique experience,” said Wally Brown, a Diné storyteller. “It is something that has to be learned.”
Salty water is life, too.
My nálí’s jug of salt came from the Zuni Salt Lake, a high desert saline lake approximately 125 miles south of Naschitti, Navajo Nation, New Mexico, where I call home. Diné connections to nature, or Hózhó, run steep and deep, including to associated sacred saline lakes like the Zuni Salt Lake or the Great Salt Lake in Utah, where Southwestern tribes still harvest salt as part of their cultural practices.
This Indigenous reverence for salt, along with various plants, birds, and microorganisms, has been largely absent from conversations on how to prevent the ecological collapse of the Great Salt Lake, which scientists predict may run out of water by 2028. Community organizers, media outlets, and politicians must respect and value Indigenous worldviews if they want to save the lake. Our cultural knowledge is critical to helping rebalance its life cycle.
Formed through an ionic bond between sodium and chloride (hence its formal name), natural mineral salt has many uses among Indigenous people. The Shoshone peoples of the Intermountain West (including parts of California, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming) use salt to preserve dry meat during the cold winter months, said Darren Parry, a Shoshone elder and former chairman of the Northwest Band of the Shoshone Nation. For the Zuni of New Mexico, Zuni Salt Lake is home to Salt Woman, a deity in their ceremonial life. For the Hopi of Arizona, harvesting salt on the Hopi Salt Trail from mines down in the Grand Canyon once served as a rite of passage for young men.
Salty water is life, too.
While salt harvesting remains integral to Indigenous cultures of the Southwest, I am still learning how to harvest it through the proper cultural processes that require initiation or clearance. My nálí’s salt came through bartering from a relative who lives close to the Zuni Salt Lake and has Zuni connections. Harvesting salt is different from mining for it because we, Indigenous peoples, thank the intellectual designer for the salt. We don’t dig the Earth for profit. Companies like Morton Salt Company have mined the mineral since the late 1800s, transforming it into products like bleach, road salt plastics, vinyl, and food seasonings. On the contrary, Indigenous people harvest salt to sustain themselves while sustaining the watersheds of the lakes they visit, too.
Just off the shores of the Great Salt Lake is a growing metropolis with water pressures that could potentially impact where salt is gathered. Salt Lake City—which is named after the Great Salt Lake—is the seventh fastest-growing city in the U.S. From living here, I have learned about this reality—and how a drying salt lake can create horrible dust. Some scientists have referred to this possibility as the Great Toxic Dust Bowl. The city already deals with poor air quality.
Dr. Bonnie Baxter, a biologist who directs the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College, studies the lake’s smallest organisms that feed the food chain—brine shrimp, brine flies, larvae, and pupae—and sees how the drying Great Salt Lake is becoming too salty to sustain life.
“Indigenous people were here during the Ice Age when it was Lake Bonneville and, then, would have moved down as that lake shrunk into the modern Great Salt Lake levels, so humans have been around this lake for a long time,” Baxter said. “Probably, catching waterfowl for food is something that has happened since humans lived here, so that is where humans fit into that food chain.”
Parry has been one of few tribal voices sharing these histories and how his people remain connected to the lake despite the genocide and land theft of the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s not just salt—the Shoshone also rely on duck eggs and other insects for sustenance.
“We honor the land. We honor the water.”
“The one thing that people don’t understand is, I was raised by a grandmother who spoke about water, land, plants, animals, as kinfolk,” Parry said. “[She] told me that I needed to treat that relationship just like I would a person, and so we honor the land. We honor the water.”
Parry has spoken out about the lack of tribal voices and meaningful consultation on the Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Trust’s advisory council. Created last spring through a law signed by Gov. Spencer Cox, the trust is a $40 million fund to restore the lake’s ecosystem and bring the lake back to healthier levels after being at an all-time low for two consecutive years. So far, the fund has involved local stakeholders, including the National Audubon Society, farmers, and miners. Again, no voices from any of Utah’s eight sovereign tribal nations.
Sharing that salt is a tribal cultural resource ensures we remain visible. That connection to the land runs through me as a Diné person. I am Diné first, and being Diné first means to do your best to be in balance with the natural world, including standing in alliance with Divine Nature against any exploitations of her natural and cultural resources.
Nate Housley, an independent historian and founding member of the local coalition Save Our Great Salt Lake, said that his Mormon ancestors are, in part, to blame for the lake’s eco-crisis. Mormons are a huge political force in Utah: they make up a majority of the state legislature—they also make up the majority of the state’s population. While Housley is working through reconciling with his ancestors, he wants to see the trust fund add more accountability measures. He believes water users (mostly agricultural farmers growing alfalfa) must give up their water rights to restore the lake’s water levels. Agriculture consumes most of the water from the lake’s watershed.
Agriculture is inextricably tied to how Euromericans—especially Mormons—settled the West in 1847, Housley said. As a historian, he worries about the past because it is the framework that feeds the crises of today.
“That’s the fundamental problem that we’re trying to remedy: how do we get people to stop using every drop of fresh water in the basin?” Housley said. “We need an emergency response.”
Until there’s dust on people’s cars or in their lungs, Parry doesn’t think things will change. Indigenous peoples will suffer until leaders take action to save the lake even though the greediness of others runs it dry. Our stories of salt migrations are only one Indigenous narrative related to the Great Salt Lake that settlers have forgotten. We shouldn’t save the lake solely for economic reasons—there’s a history here, too.
Each time I go to the lake, I think of that history—of ancestral connections and memory. Through salt, these connections allow me to nurture kinship with this body of water. My own Diné ancestors once came to the lake to harvest áshįįh and still do. I know it will continue to sustain the Indigenous futures of my nieces and nephews to care for Mother Earth, Father Sky, and every other creature in between, including the brine shrimp and brine flies and the millions of birds that flock to the lake through their own ancestral connections. Somehow, it must.