Room to Grow

O'odham organization plants the seeds to cure diabetes, with the help of Native Seeds/Search, but needs new office space.

Finding land was never much of a problem for TOCA, the nonprofit Tohono O'odham Community Action organization. But office space--that's another issue. TOCA had its newly acquired 55-acre community farm blessed, but lacks the resources to get out of a three-room office.

"On the reservation the lack of building space is hard," said co-founder and co-director Terrol Dew Johnson. "The main district that we're in has the highest population ... in a major area like that, that's so occupied, it's really hard to find free space."

TOCA now needs more room to grow. Johnson and co-founder/co-director Tristan Reader are in the process of starting a fund-raising campaign so they can move their staff of five, along with TOCA's Basketweavers Organization, Community Food System Program, Community Arts and Culture Program and Youth/Elder Outreach Program. One of the rooms quadruples as a shop, classroom, meeting and storage facility.

"At one point we had two meetings going on, we had classes outside, and we had a group of youth meetings in the back of the building. That's how our situation is all the time now," said Johnson.

TOCA was started in the summer of 1996 when Johnson was teaching a weaving class out of his house and Reader was starting a nearby community garden. One of the students mentioned to me, "There's this white guy in the community teaching gardening," said Johnson, who then went to investigate and was impressed with what he saw.

Reader invited the tribal elders to his garden to talk about how the Tohono O'odham used to garden. He arranged a traditional Tohono O'odham blessing ceremony before planting native seeds. Traditional songs were sung while gardening to make the plants grow.

Johnson incorporated the gardening classes that Reader taught into his basket-weaving classes because "basket weavers grow some of their material, so the garden was a perfect place."

In this collaboration the seed to TOCA was sown.

Johnson's house could no longer accommodate his weaving classes. But since Reader and his wife, minister Karen Wyndham, were working for a church on the reservation, they were able to arrange for Johnson to have access to space at the church to teach summer classes.

Once they had the space, Reader and Johnson knew they needed capital to grow. They began writing grants and inviting local Native American artists to come teach their art to the community. "For a whole summer," said Johnson, "we had artists come in that did photography, pottery, jewelry making, beading and cooking."

"During the summer," said Johnson, "the school system is mostly shut down. Tohono O'odham kids are limited to their activities during the summertime." Activities geared towards children are important when one considers that the number of Tohono O'odham juveniles charged with serious crimes has tripled in the past three years and the homicide rate is almost three times the national average.

But when Wyndham left the church, TOCA was forced to leave the church. "We lost our buildings, we lost our offices, we lost our community garden. This was at a time when TOCA was just starting to get established in the community, said Johnson."

So Reader and Johnson sat down with hospital administrators and asked for their support. The hospital donated land on its grounds to be used as a community garden.

"And from that community garden came the farm," said Johnson, whose grandfather had come from a farming village. When he died last year, Johnson's family and grandmother decided to donate the land to TOCA.

"We're just in the process of clearing out overgrown mesquite trees because the land hasn't been farmed for more than 30 years. We've got a lot of overgrowth," Johnson said. He foresees this clearing and preparing of the land will continue until May on the 55-acre farm. TOCA will limit this first year's cultivation to four acres of land, which will be dedicated to generating more seed for future sowing.

"All of this stuff I'm just learning," admits Johnson. "None of us really worked a farm before. But that's when the elders come in."

TOCA then plans to clear out more space next year and begin growing food for harvest such as tepary beans, which, along with mesquite beans, cholla buds and chia seeds, make up some of the traditional foods the Tohono O'odham people have neglected to their detriment. These foods have been shown to help regulate blood sugar.

"The problem is compounded by that fact that Tohono O'odham have gone to more modern, convenient food," says Johnson, "and our bodies aren't used to that intake of starchy food and saturated fats."

Consequently, the Tohono O'odham and Pima now have the highest rate of adult-onset diabetes in the world, a disease unknown to the Tohono O'odham until 1960. But as Reader points out, "You can't call it adult-onset diabetes anymore because 6- and 7-year-old kids are getting it.

Because of the convenience of supermarkets, fast food and a need of mothers to bring home cash while Tohono O'odham men were fighting in World War II, many O'odham stopped working their farms, said Johnson. The land was neglected.

The tepary beans would have been lost if it weren't for Native Seeds/SEARCH. "They actually have seed in their seed bank from the original farming site where TOCA's farm is currently located," said Johnson. Someone had the foresight to gather seed and store it.

"Our tribe has farms all over the reservation. Huge farms. Acres and acres of farms. But they're not growing tepary beans," said Johnson. "They want to grow cash crops like cotton, broccoli, asparagus. Those you can sell."

Johnson and Reader believe that tepary beans and other traditional foods can improve the Tohono O'odham people's health and serve as a cash crop. But TOCA's priority is to first reintroduce traditional food to the Tohono O'odham to increase their health and well being.

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