For southern Arizona’s Tohono O’odham tribe, the desire to return to the past is more than nostalgia: it’s a matter of life and death. “Fifty years ago, when we ate native foods rather than white bread and McDonald’s, we weren’t obese and didn’t have diabetes, but now they’re rampant,” says Terrol Dew Johnson, a member of the tribe, who was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes 12 years ago. Because many Native Americans are genetically predisposed to developing diabetes, the current American diet, rich in processed food, has created a health crisis among the Tohono O’odham nation.
In 1996, Johnson co-founded Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA) in an effort to reacquaint members of the impoverished tribe with disappearing native foods—such as squash and tepary beans. In the heart of the Sonoran Desert, 60 miles west of Tucson, he successfully re-established two working farms to grow and sell traditional native foods in the community and also teach O’odham members how to harvest and prepare them.
But habits are hard to break and Johnson worries: “We’re on a time schedule. The elders are dying. We’re working hard to get as much information from them about their traditional culture as we can.” For details on all of TOCA’s programs, go to tocaonline.org.
By Edie Jarolim