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Finding Hope for the Future by Reclaiming the Past

“Health Is Culture” - Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA)

Until the mid-1900s, the Tohono O’odham Indians of southern Arizona use d traditional agriculture practices they had developed over a thousand years. But a series of government policies seriously undermined their ability to continue these practices. Federal food programs introduced processed foods, replacing traditional nutrition. Nearby development and governmental flood control projects made water scarce. On top of these devastating changes, large numbers of children were forcibly sent to boarding schools, where they were severely punished for speaking their language and participating in their culture. All of these factors resulted in a break in the transfer of knowledge and traditions, and wreaked havoc on O’odham agriculture.

Founded in 1996 by Terrol Johnson and Tristan Reader, TOCA is an innovative grass-roots organization working to improve the health of residents and reduce diabetes by encouraging cultural traditions. TOCA’s four interconnected project areas are: basket weaving, community arts and culture, a youth/elder outreach program, and a community food program.

TOCA grew out of a concern for what was being lost. Many ceremonies, such as the rain ceremony, are closely linked to planting and harvesting but were no longer being performed because few people were still farming. Younger people were not learning basket weaving or the language, and traditional athletic competitions hadn’t been done as a community in 30 years. Traditional foods such as tepary beans, squash and buds from the cholla cactus were nearly impossible to find.

While TOCA developed in reaction to a loss of cultural traditions, it also grew out of a vision for what could be gained. Many of the foods once commonly grown by the O’odham are low on the glycemic index and are thought to help regulate blood sugar and reduce the effects of diabetes. Johnson explains, “These tepary beans aren’t just nutritious, they represent our whole culture. That bean holds our language, our songs, our history.” Chuckling, he adds, “We don’t have any traditional songs about broccoli.”

TOCA has specific visions for the future, which include a research project to track the impact of dietary changes, a cookbook and expanding their farm operation into a large-scale traditional food system. By growing foods and crops closely tied to O’odham cultural identity, Johnson and Reader hope to encourage healthier eating, create a sustainable market for traditional products and help people feel pride and a deep connection to their O’odham roots.

 - Excerpted from “Closing the Gap: Solutions to Race-Based Health Disparities,” a report by the Applied Research Center and Northwest Federation of Community Organizations, June 2005.

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Tohono O'odham Community Action (TOCA) is a grass-roots organization working to reduce diabetes and improve the health of residents by encouraging ties to traditional culture.

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