Native Recipes for Health

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On the Tohono O’odham Nation Indian reservation, tucked along the U.S.-Mexico border, diabetes is ravaging a people. “The concept here is not if I get diabetes, but when I get it,” a former tribal Department of Health and Human Services director tells Yes! (Fall 2009). More than half the women over 35 are diabetic, and men have only slightly lower rates.

Now hope is growing in this stretch of the Sonoran Desert, in the form of rows of tepary beans, 60-day corn, squash, and melons—traditional desert foods that can help regulate blood-sugar levels and slow sugar absorption rates. The farm is part of the nonprofit Tohono O’odham Community Action group’s visionary operation, which also includes the Desert Rain Café, a basketweaving cooperative, and youth and culture programs.

Cofounders Terrol Dew Johnson and Tristan Reader refuse to chalk diabetes up to genetics: It creates disempowerment and ignores relatively recent, substantial changes in lifestyle and diet. “We meet with kids and ask them about traditional O’odham foods,” Johnson tells Yes!, “and they start talking about things like fry bread,” a lard-and-flour concoction that dates back to the introduction of government commodities. “We have to reeducate people and tell them that fry bread isn’t an O’odham tradition. We need to go back even further.”