Founding Of Tohono O'odham Community Action
In 2003 you’d probably get to eat tepary beans only if you had a grandmother on the reservation who cooked when you visited, using produce from her garden. How times have changed! In 1930 the tribe produced 1,6 million pounds of tepary beans according to Tristan Reader, a white community activist and co-founder of TOCA – Tohono O’odham Community Action.
The original Papago Farms was started in the 1950’s, but
1,200 acres gave laid fallow in recent years except for small crops of cotton. With funding from the U.S. department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, TOCA leased 18 acres of irrigated land last year that Reader believes the harvest will yield more than 25,000 pounds of produce.
Although it is a long way from food-self sufficiency it’s a start. Reader hopes to double next year’s production and sell the fruit and vegetables to the Indian Health Services school food program and perhaps even at Basha’s, the local supermarket in Sells, capitol of the Tohono O’odham Nation.
In addition, TOCA has helped about 100 families start small vegetable and fruit gardens, but it is currently not known if the families kept up the plots. The Papago Farms project is the biggest to date.
The O’odham initiative is part of a wider movement advocating a return to native foods. In Wisconsin, the Oneida nation is trying to revive bison herds. In Illinois, a Seneca leader is attempting to reintroduce Iroquois white corn, once a diet staple. Last November, the First Nations Development Institute, a 20 year old Native American non-profit based in Fredericksburg, VA, held its first Native Food Summit in Albuquerque to discuss ways to boost local food production.
This is an approach that’s traditionally bound to cultural pride and identity. Besides chronic health problems, many Native communities suffer high levels of poverty, unemployment and violent crime. Food is one way of reviving community activities such as almost-extinct rain-making ceremonies, harvest festivals and family meals.
Traditional food advocates take the native foods hypothesis further. The draw from the work of Gary Paul Nabhan, a Lebanese-American botanist and director of the Northern Arizona University Center for Sustainable Environments in Flagstaff.
In the mid 1990’s, Nabhan collaborated with nutritionists in Australia to publish several scientific papers stating that traditional desert foods such as tepary beans, acorns and mesquite pods contain dietary fiber that reduces blood sugar levels or slows sugar absorption into the blood. Nabhan asserted the mucilage or gummy substance that evolved to retain water in desert plants such as cholla cactus buds and prickly per fruits and pads (nopales), also serves to slow digestion and absorption of sugary foods.
This story was edited from an article in The Arizona Republic bylined Chen May Yee. Part 3 – Tohono O’odham Foods.