Terrol Johnson, Tristan Reader, Co-founders of Tohono O'odham Community Action


Chap. 3: Impacts on Health

The most immediate and devastating effect of the loss of the traditional Tohono O’odham food system has been upon the physical health of the people.   For centuries, traditional desert foods – and the physical effort it took to produce them – kept the Tohono O’odham healthy. The introduction of processed foods, however, changed all of that, leading to unprecedented rates of adult-onset diabetes.  As the majority of Tohono O’odham moved away from traditional foods and adopted a more mainstream diet, diabetes began to be diagnosed at an extremely high rates. Diabetes is a chronic, degenerative disease and causes many subsequent health problems, including kidney failure, loss of eyesight, circulatory problems, and severe organ damage.


Chapter 4:Traditional Foods & HealthAs recently as the early 1960’s, diabetes was virtually unknown among the Tohono O’odham.  Today, more than 50% of the population develops the disease, the highest rate in the world. In the 1990's, the crisis intensified, with the childhood onset of type -II diabetes becoming common. Adult-onset diabetes has even begun to appear in children as young as six years-old.


Childhood obesity and adult obesity are part of the diabetes crisis, creating a vicious cycle of weight gain and insulin intolerance. The death rate due to type-II diabetes among Arizona's native populations is 3 times that of the state average. (“Differences in Health Status among Race/Ethic Groups,” AZ Bureau of Public Health Services, 2007.)  Currently 76% of Tohono O'odham 6th- 8th graders are overweight or obese (±85 %ile). If today's trends continue, predictors indicate that 75% of Tohono O'odham children born after 2002 will develop type-II diabetes (Sells Hospital, Indian Health Service.) The potential health crisis looms large, particularly because most Tohono O'odham are young: 52.9% of the population is under 25 years old (as compared with 35.3% nationally).


Today, with initiatives like those of First Lady Michelle Obama, the childhood-age onset of type-II diabetes and preadolescent weight gain are being acknowledged as widespread health problems. Documentaries such as Unnatural Causes and Food, Inc. present facts about the content and effects of a diet steeped in non-local, overly processed foods. For forty years though, Tohono O’odham and other native communities have endured what is now understood as a social, economic, food system problem. Yet generations of native peoples have been blamed and even would blame themselves for being fat, for serious diabetic complications, and for the burden chronic disease puts on the whole family.


Only in the past few years has it become clear that exerting willpower and getting exercise are only parts of the problem. Food -- particularly fast food and highly processed food -- is creating health problems. Reliance upon purchased foods and commodity foods limits choices:  If the only food available is highly processed and lacks nutritional value, being able to eat cannot promote health. If there are fresh vegetables, but they are too expensive to purchase, it becomes difficult to feed yourself well or achieve real wellness.


As Jamie Stang, Chair of the Public Health Nutrition Program at the University of Minnesota, writes, "Even the most culturally competent, evidence-based programs cannot improve eating behaviors among individuals or populations who live and work in an environment that does not support or provide healthy food choices." (“Improving Health Among American Indians through Environmentally-focused Nutrition Interventions," Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Volume 109 Issue 9: September 2009.)


TOCA is dedicated to supporting the heritage of health passed down through the Tohono O’odham Himdag, a fully dimensional way of life that includes sharing traditions, including desert foods, native sports, and cultural arts.  Through our coalitions with local health, education, business, and wellness institutions, we work to expand the range of healthy choices available in our community. This is how we show our respect for the wisdom of our elders.




Chapter 4: O'odham Foods and  Diabetes


Chapter 5: Native Food Sovereignty