Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA) is one of the few non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in “Indian Country.” As an independent 501(c)(3) non-profit, TOCA has been able to respond to Tohono O’odham community members’ interests — be they traditional basket-weavers, desert harvesters, or teens — more “nimbly” than federal, tribal, educational, and medical bureaucracies.
Sometimes TOCA is able to partner with local coalitions or pan- native initiatives, but TOCA’s guiding question is always, “How does this work empower Tohono O’odham individuals and families to determine their own future?”
Revitalizing a local food system economy and Tohono O’odham farming traditions are approaches to this question dating back to TOCA’s first garden in 1995. The answers below, from TOCA staff, focus on TOCA’s farmer/gardener training initiative, “A New Generation of O’odham Farmers.”
For more information about TOCA, visit www.TOCAonline. org or find TOCA- Tohono O’odham Community Action on Facebook.
What are the events and/or programs that led to the creation of the “New Generation of O’odham Farmers” program at Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA)?
It has taken 15 years of TOCA’s community work to create the conditions necessary for the success of the “New Generation of O’odham Farmers” program. TOCA’s first farm apprentices just graduated, but this is only the first step toward creating a local sustainable agricultural economy and a healthy native foods system on the reservation.
TOCA was growing traditional Tohono O’odham plants in our first community garden in 1995. We also organized seasonal harvesting trips for wild foods growing in the Sonoran Desert, including cholla buds, prickly pear, and saguaro fruit. Elders taught us how to eat from the desert and how to prepare traditional foods. We also grew plants in our gardens to be used as materials for basket-weaving.
TOCA has been farming traditional crops since 2001. That year, the family members of co-founder Terrol Dew Johnson said they wanted to invite TOCA to replant the land of his grandfather’s farm. It had not been planted for decades. To try to re-start traditional Tohono O’odham ak chin (monsoon floodwater) farming was an exciting, if somewhat daunting, opportunity. We began to sell produce at cost, under the label “Tohono O’odham Trading Co.”
In 2003, we were able to harvest 2,500 pounds of tepary beans. At the time, that was a 10-fold increase over the previous year’s yield. Today TOCA produces 230,000 pounds of healthy, Tohono O’odham foods. Dry packaged goods are sold to the public through our Desert Rain Gallery. In 2009, we opened Desert Rain Cafe, where healthy, affordable dishes are prepared using traditional ingredients. Lately, we’ve been able to expand in the local school cafeterias to include an “O’odham meal option,” so that kids from Head Start to high school are able to eat the foods of their ancestors. We pair this with culturally-based garden and nutrition classes at the schools, led by our young adult leaders. Young O’odham United Through Health (Y.O.U.T.H.) and Project Oidag (“oidag” means field or garden) have been enthusiastically teaching kids about Tohono O’odham foods and how to plant them.
With the “New Generation” program, we are able to really focus on training native farmers. It was a natural next step to expand farmer training once TOCA had created the conditions of farm production and local demand. Based upon our success revitalizing Tohono O’odham agriculture, we got a three-year Beginning Farmers grant from the USDA. As TOCA’s Nina Altshul says, “It takes a village to raise a farmer.” We cannot merely train farmers, because we also need to create markets for their produce. We need to help Tohono O’odham families, who have been raised on commodity foods and fast foods, to learn to cook (and to want to eat) locally-farmed foods. Right now, TOCA is working with every age, from pre-schoolers to elders, to increase the growing, harvesting, cooking, and eating of Tohono O’odham foods. The “New Generation of O’odham Farmers” is at the heart of all our food system revitalization work, because this training program prepares young O’odham farmers to become the local food producers of both today and tomorrow.
Is traditional medicines incorporated into the “New Generation of O’odham Farmers” program?
We say that “Traditional Food is Medicine.” It regulates blood sugar, has lots of organic nutrients, and the work it takes to forage or farm improves your body and your spirit. Our ancestors were healthy. We want that back. We don’t want to have the diabetes and childhood obesity and an average lifespan of 55 years old. We want the next generation of elders to be able to get really old.
Is foraging of traditional foods incorporated into the “New Generation of O’odham Farmers” program? If so, in what ways?
Foraging – or harvesting wild foods from the Sonoran Desert – has been part of TOCA’s seasonal activities since 1995. The centerpiece of the year is Bahidaj Camp, the saguaro fruit harvest, but we also have seasonal harvesting throughout the year for things like cholla buds. All the farmer trainees — apprentices and summer youth alike — participate in our wild foodharvest field trips and Bahaidaj Camp. We also have begun hunting rabbits!
How has the “New Generation” program and Project Oidag involved elders and their knowledge base in these programs?
A good indication of how intensively elders have been involved in food system revitalization here is the book TOCA published in 2010, which is available at our gallery and (also online at Blurb.com). It is called From I’itoi’s Garden: Tohono O’odham Food Traditions. It is a part cook book, part how-to harvest, and it also contain many planting songs and traditional stories involving Tohono O’odham foods. Over 30 elders contributed to the book and it remains our “bible” for guidance in our garden projects, school meals, and culturally-based nutrition training. One hard thing is that a number of our founding elders — Danny Lopez, Frances Manuel, and Terrol’s grandmother, have passed on. The “New Generation” program is really building upon the years and years of teaching they and other elders have provided. Now it’s up to us to take it forward. One of our staff members, Michael Enis, spent much of his youth learning the traditional songs from elders and continues
to learn. He teaches all of us the seasonal planting songs so that every season is blessed traditionally. In the winter, we also have storytelling nights in a community garden or at the farm.
What is the extent of community knowledge of and participation in this program?
Community support has been incredible. Even in our first year of the “New Generation” program, we had too many applicants for summer and full-time apprenticeship programs, so we had to conduct interviews and create waiting lists. Part of this comes from the credibility TOCA has built up over the years. While lots of agencies and programs talk about doing things, TOCA ‘s name includes the word “action,” and we have let our actions speak our words. Fifteen years ago, this meant people would hang back and see whether we were serious, whether we were staying around. Fifteen years later, people know we do what we say and we don’t say things we won’t do.
All this has led to amazing participation by community members. For example, in 2012 we had over 100 people camp out in the summer heat for a weekend of saguaro fruit harvesting, and for Halloween, about 150 — some 50 young families, many in costume– walked or ran the mile and a half “Tour de Oidag” between three of our gardens in Sells. There is a real sense of celebration around health, Tohono O’odham culture, and growing traditional foods.
From Food for Thought, Issue 5. Published April 2014.