FARMS, Tohono O'odham Reservation - A gray-haired woman stood
by a trailer piled high with watermelon, squash and cantaloupe
and sang harvest songs from her childhood. About 60 people savored
traditional dishes of roasted corn gruel, sautéed cholla
buds and beef stewed with tepary beans. They drank mesquite juice
and lemonade flavored with prickly pear fruit.
this sliver of the 28,000-strong Tohono O'odham community, the first
October harvest from this 18-acre farm 120 miles west of Tucson
was more than a nostalgic return to a farming tradition that died
out in the 1950s. It was a serious attempt to fight a modern scourge:
group is part of a small but growing movement that believes traditional
crops and desert plants contain substances that help regulate blood
sugar and once protected them from diabetes. When the O'odham, formerly
known as Papago, stopped eating these foods, members conclude, that
protection was lost. The theory is far from accepted by the scientific
and medical community, but it does reflect local frustration at
conventional medicine in fighting the disease.
we're ever going to win this diabetes, this sickness upon us, it's
got to come from the heart, the faith that we have and our ancestors
had," Christine Johnson said after she finished singing.
way to do that, said the rotund 63-year-old, was by "uniting
with each other and going back to the foods that were helping before
Bashas' opened up."
doesn't have anything against the supermarket chain per se. Her
complaint is more with federal government food and work policies
after World War II that moved the tribe out of its farms and into
cotton fields, ultimately fostering a dependence on government-supplied
commodities, such as flour, sugar, lard and canned goods.
we go to Bashas' and get a hot dog. It's easier to do that than
sweat and plant," said Johnson, who moves slowly and uses a
walking stick. "I'm a diabetic, and this is what it has done
more than 50 percent of Tohono O'odham adults have Type 2 diabetes,
among the highest incidence in the world. People with diabetes can't
produce enough insulin to properly regulate glucose, a basic fuel
for cells. The glucose builds up in the blood and can damage the
eyes, kidneys and heart. The chronic disease is linked to obesity,
and scientists attribute the Native American diabetes epidemic to
a modern diet high in fat and calories, a sedentary lifestyle and
food advocates take the native foods hypothesis further. They draw
mainly from the work of Gary Paul Nabhan, a Lebanese-American botanist
and director of Northern Arizona University's Center for Sustainable
Environments in Flagstaff. Nabhan was a recipient of a MacArthur
Fellowship in 1990 and founded Native Seeds/SEARCH. The Tucson-based
organization works to preserve native plants in the Southwest and
northwestern Mexico, and provides seeds to various small agricultural
groups, including Papago Farms.
the mid-1990s, 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 a
dietary fiber that reduces blood sugar levels or slows sugar absorption
into the blood. What's more, he asserted, the mucilage, or gummy
substance, that evolved to retain water in desert plants, such as
cholla cactus buds and prickly pear fruit and pads, also serves
to slow digestion and absorption of sugary foods.
of the American Diabetes Association in Tucson and Phoenix say they
are not familiar with the research and are unable to comment.
Tohono 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, while 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.
also an approach that's bound to notions of 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
rainmaking ceremonies, harvest festivals and family meals.
got to quit trying to live like other people," said Danny Lopez,
66, who teaches the Tohono O'odham language in the local community
college and for years was a lone voice calling for cultural preservation.
Arizona, you can't walk into a grocery store and buy bawi, the O'odham
name for tepary beans, or ha:l, the O'odham squash. They are grown
only in a few small home plots. Nor do many young people know when
or how to pick cholla buds or saguaro fruit in the desert.
1930, said Tristan Reader, a community activist, the tribe produced
1.6 million pounds of tepary beans. 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 own garden.
1996, Reader, who is White, and O'odham basket-weaver Terrol Dew
Johnson founded Tohono O'odham Community Action to preserve O'odham
culture and to revive traditional foods. So far, TOCA has helped
about 100 families start small vegetable and fruit gardens, though
it's unclear if the families have kept up the plots. The Papago
Farms project is its biggest to date.
Dew Johnson, a relative of Christine Johnson, has seen diabetes
ravage his family. His maternal grandparents were both diagnosed
in their 80s, and his grandfather died of complications from diabetes
two years ago. His parents, who ate more of a "meat, potatoes
and white bread" diet, were diagnosed with the disease in their
50s, he said. Johnson himself is 30 and was diagnosed with diabetes
five years ago. He's 6 feet 2 and weighs 283 pounds. His doctor
said he should weigh between 240 and 250 pounds.
the lifestyle I live now, it's impossible" to eat traditional
foods, he said over lunch of greasy fry bread topped with chili
and washed down with Diet Pepsi. "Well, not impossible, but
inconvenient, I guess."
traditional foods movement stems partly from impatience with modern
science in tackling the epidemic.
40 years, the National Institutes of Health has studied the neighboring
Gila River Indian Community, whose diabetes rates are on a par with
those of the Tohono O'odham. That path-breaking research linked
diabetes with Chromosome 1Q, a linkage that has since been replicated
in other groups, including the French, English, Amish, Japanese
what the NIH research has yet to produce is a cure. This month,
an international consortium will send DNA samples to the Sanger
Institute in London to be sequenced to try to identify the specific
gene linked to diabetes. It's a potentially pivotal moment in diabetes
research. Even if they succeed, "there's no guarantee that
what we learn will ever change anything or lead to therapies,"
said principal investigator Nancy Cox of the University of Chicago.
Bogardus, chief of NIH's Phoenix research branch, said he understands
the local frustration.
see a lot of people dying, hundreds of people on (kidney) dialysis,"
is skeptical that native foods contain substances that can prevent
diabetes. "Anything is possible," he said, but called
it "highly unlikely."
is very likely is that if you had to live off this environment and
food of the desert, you would be pretty skinny and wouldn't have
scientific divide leaves Arizona tribes to figure out who and what
to believe. Even as the Tohono O'odham are trying to restart community
agriculture, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community pledged
$5 million in June to Phoenix-based Translational Genomics Research
Institute, specifically for research into diabetes.
Gila River Indian Community, which has been the subject of decades
of NIH study, is building a diabetes medical center and emphasizing
exercise programs in schools. NIH research has helped to secure
federal funding for diabetes prevention and education programs,
said the tribe's lieutenant governor, Mary Thomas.
what she thinks of the traditional diet advocates, she answered
with a question: Given a choice between a "plate of Indian
beans and a Big Mac staring at you, which one would you choose?"