Prickly pear-glazed chicken, pico de gallo with cholla buds, hummus made with white tepary beans—these were some of the foods the Desert Rain Café served in the restaurant located in Sells, on the Tohono O’odham Nation. That is, until they closed on April 28.
“We closed the café because there was an opportunity to open in Tucson, rent was too high for us to afford, and it was not feasible anymore,” said Terrol Johnson, the president and CEO of Tohono O’odham Community Action, or TOCA, the organization that owned and ran the café.
TOCA opened the café in 2009 as a way to get healthy, traditional O’odham food into the community and to help ameliorate diseases like Type 2 diabetes, which affects 50 percent of tribal members.
Johnson said he was upset and sad that he had to close the café. “Eighty percent of our business was coming from the community,” Johnson said. “The other 20 percent was from visitors from around the world.”
The café was the only restaurant offering healthy food for those working or living in the Sells area. “When we closed, we heard a lot of feedback from community members,” Johnson said. “This was a place for O’odham to bring visitors and come eat.” Now, there are few options for people to eat a traditional and healthy O’odham meal in Sells unless they cook it at home. Without cooking knowledge, options for lunch and dinner are a deep-fried meal from the Bashas’ deli or an Indian Taco from a local food vendor.
The Tohono O’odham (desert people) have planted, grown, and harvested crops such as squash (ha:l), corn (hun), and tepary beans (bawi) in the Sonoran Desert for thousands of years. Traditional O’odham homelands extend south to Sonora, Mexico, north to Central Arizona, west to the Gulf of California, and east to the San Pedro River, an area named Papagueria by Spanish settlers.
Today, the Tohono O’odham Nation (TON) is the second-largest reservation in the United States. At 2.8 million acres, it is roughly the size of the state of Connecticut. The reservation includes 75 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, and the Nation has 34,000 tribal members and 11 districts.
Despite the size of the Nation and the Tohono O’odham’s agricultural heritage, today many people do not have access to fresh, healthy food. And some tribal members think that the younger generations are not as interested in traditional foods as they should be. However, organizations like TOCA and the San Xavier Cooperative Farm are working to make sure traditional ecological knowledge is passed on, and to increase access to traditional healthy food.
Clifford Pablo grew up helping his grandfather and grandmother farm in the San Xavier District. He would help take care of livestock, plow the fields, and plant traditional foods. “I would go over to my grandparents’, whose land was divided by the freeway, and help do whatever needed to be done in the fields,” Pablo said. “I remember my grandfather made a ditch or canal so when it would rain the water would run into the fields.”
Pablo took what his grandfather taught him and made a career in modern and traditional agriculture. He is one of the founders of the San Xavier Cooperative Farm and worked for the Tohono O’odham Farming Authority. Since 2008, Pablo has been working with the Tohono O’odham Community College’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Department. “I try to get young people interested in farming,” Pablo said.
Pablo runs an internship program for students from Tohono O’odham Community College (TOCC) to learn about modern farming and traditional knowledge at the college’s one-acre lot. The farm is located at their campus just west of Sells, on the TON.
“It is great to have someone like Clifford who’s so knowledgeable to learn from,” said Duran Andrews, who has been an intern for four years. “The internship has kept me motivated to learn about the land, plants, and how we can utilize all of it.” Andrews is in his last semester at TOCC studying life sciences with a focus on agriculture. He plans to earn his bachelor’s degree in either ecology or botany.
In 2017, students planted squash, sunflowers, white tepary beans, black and white beans, honeydew melon, pomegranates, and 60-day corn. At the main TOCC campus, east of Sells, students also planted watermelon. During the winter, Pablo and his interns will plant vegetables and wheat.
Pablo’s interns are in their 20s, but still, he worries about the younger generations not learning the O’odham knowledge of farming, including how to plant, when to harvest and how to cook the traditional foods. “We are trying to educate young people to go out and [farm],” Pablo said. “I worry about the young people, especially the young men.”
TOCA’s Johnson can relate. “Through my experiences with the younger generations, I think there are a lot of people interested [in farming] but I think we have to take the time to teach them,” Johnson said. He said that young people expect instant gratification, and that TOCA teaches youth that when working in a field or garden, one needs to have patience and understand it takes time to learn—and to grow.
TOCA is a nonprofit organization that was formed in 1996 by Johnson and Tristan Reader with the goal of “creating a healthy, culturally vital, and sustainable community on the Tohono O’odham Nation.” TOCA started as an intern program with 20 interns. “It was planting, weeding, plowing, cleaning. The first harvest the younger ones were surprised and proud of what they did,” Johnson said. “All their hard work had paid off and it helped them on so many different levels.”
Today, Johnson sees many of the youth he worked with in 1996, using what they learned from TOCA in their lives, careers, and with their families. “I think over the 20 years we’ve been doing this, it has gotten a little better,” he said. “When you learn about traditional foods you are learning about the words, songs, and legends about them.”
TOCA has also worked with the schools on the TON to create gardens. TOCA goes to Indian Oasis Middle School and High School, located on the TON, once a week “to work on the garden and do cooking demos,” Johnson said.
“We tell [youth] that you cannot get traditional [O’odham] food in the stores. You have to go out in the desert and get it,” Johnson said. “Having access to those foods that is something we are still trying to do since a lot of tribal members are on food stamps and you can only get certain foods.”
In Sells, there is only one grocery store, Bashas’. Some people say their prices are too high. The predicament many tribal members face is paying the prices at Bashas’ or driving more than an hour one-way to a grocery store with more affordable prices. “When you are on a budget, are you going to pick a $3 head of lettuce or 10 ramen packages? That is the reality that people are dealing with to this day,” Johnson said.
Diabetes is also still prevalent on the TON. According to TOCA’s website, in the 1960s, diabetes was virtually unknown among the Tohono O’odham. Today, more than 50 percent of tribal members develop the disease, among the highest rates in the world.
Phyllis Valenzuela, the events coordinator at the San Xavier Cooperative Farm, believes that if O’odham ate more traditional foods, diseases such as diabetes would be less prevalent. “There was never [diabetes] a long time ago, until the government came in and handing out surpluses,” she said. “We try to educate the kids about eating healthy, especially the traditional foods. That way they can get a taste of it and like it.”
When Valenzuela is not giving tours or presentations at the co-op farm, she enjoys cooking and baking. She uses what’s grown on the farm to come up with dishes. All the dishes are vegetarian. She bakes with mesquite flour, as it has a natural sweetener. She’s used traditional O’odham squash in pancakes, waffles, and even enchiladas. “You can do a lot with food. You just need to know how to cook it and prepare it,” she said. “Today, a lot of people do not know how to do that.”
Valenzuela said that there are a couple of generations of O’odham who did not learn about traditional foods. However, like TOCA, the farm is trying to help change that. “We teach the kids hands on, how to pick it, clean it the traditional and contemporary way,” she said. “We also take people into the kitchen and prepare dishes for lunch.”
Valenzuela said, “I tell them, all this is growing in your back yard. You will never go hungry. You just need to learn how to grow it, pick it, and cook it.” She would like to see more tribal members get involved and come to classes, and share what they learn with their families.
“I always tell people my door is always open to talk food—or bring me food,” Valenzuela said.
In the meantime, TOCA will reopen Desert Rain Café in Tucson in the spring of 2018. “I think moving to Tucson will be a lot easier, in a business sense,” said Johnson. “It will allow us to continue our programs on the reservation and helping O’odham farmers and growers. We will need to look for more traditional foods harvested that we can buy from community members. We have always bought from community members, whether it was cilom (cholla buds), sitol (syrup), mesquite beans, or from our own farm, beans, squash, and corn.”
Because the Tucson location will, they hope, increase traffic to the restaurant, “We will need more food supplies,” says Johnson. “I hope it will benefit the Nation again.” ✜
San Xavier Co-op Farm. 8100 Oidak Wog. 520.295.3774. SanXavierCoop.org.
Jacelle Ramon-Sauberan is a Tohono O’odham journalist and scholar from the San Xavier District. She is a second-year doctoral student in American Indian studies at the University of Arizona.