Chap. 2: Loss of the Traditional

Food System

Until the second half of the 20th century, the Tohono O'odham were almost entirely food self-sufficient. In the Sonoran desert, they had used agricultural practices for over one thousand years.  As late as the 1920’s, the community utilized traditional methods to cultivate over 20,000 acres in the floodplain of the Sonoran lowlands.  By 1949, that number had declined to 2,500 acres.  Today that number is certainly less than 200.  In 1930, the Tohono O’odham produced 1.4 million pounds of tepary beans – an important staple.  By 2001, fewer than 100 pounds were produced.  At the same time, the once common practice of collecting and storing wild foods declined dramatically.  Over the course of a few short decades, the Tohono O’odham community went from being almost entirely food self-sufficient to being almost entirely food dependent. The causes for this loss of food sovereignty are complex, multi-faceted, and include the following factors:


• The Bureau of Indian Affairs & The “Pima Cotton” Industry – In order to register as enrolled members of their newly-recognized tribe, the Tohono O’odham had to concurrently complete work permits to become wage laborers. This formal process took place before native peoples were allowed to register to vote in the state of Arizona. In this way, the Papago  -- as they were then called --were recruited into federal work projects as migrant labor in the large, irrigated cotton fields surrounding the Tohono O’odham homelands.  Entire families would leave their communities for six to eight months each year. It became impossible for many families to plant, tend, and maintain their fields, or to collect wild foods.


• Boarding Schools, Termination & Relocation Programs – Early in the 20th century, large numbers of Tohono O’odham children were forcibly placed in boarding schools. There they were prohibited from speaking their language and practicing their culture.  As a result, they did not learn the skills necessary to farm in the desert or how to collect, process and cook wild foods. In the mid-20th century, the American Indian relocation program, which moved native people off of reservations and into urban areas, had a devastating effect upon the Tohono O’odham.


• Wars Abroad – During the Second World War, most young O’odham men – those responsible for most of the farming and many parts of ceremonial life – were in the military for years at a time, leaving many fields empty of crops and ceremonies unperformed. The native veterans of World War II were not citizens of the United States when they were drafted to fight overseas. Many, like Pima Ira Hayes, who was photographed raising the flag at Iwo Jima, returned home to find their service to their country earned them no respect and no role. The Korean War and Vietnam War had similar effects.


• Surplus Commodity Food Programs –  In order to keep market prices high, surplus commodity programs and price supports became federal policy. For reasons ranging from ignorance to charity, commodity foods were imported to native communities. Most of these foods were processed. In fact, the prevalence of commodity lard and white flour across American Indian reservation resulted in the pan-Indian “food” known as fry bread. The introduction of and easy access to processed foods led many people to alter their diets and decrease the amount of traditional foods consumed.


• Dependency Became Acceptable to Both Non-Native and Native Governments – Federal, state, and even tribal programs – although well intentioned – often created dependency relationships where self-sufficiency had previously existed. Moreover, native peoples and tribal governments too often participated in creating the very bureaucratic systems that would “manage” their people and their people’s problems. In the name of progress, key skills and agri-cultural knowledge were undermined.


• Pumps and Water Rights Disputes – As early as the 1870’s, diversion of water from the Colorado River and the Gila River had a tremendous impact on Pima agriculture. The O’odham in Gila Bend and Sax Xavier also lost water. Further south, the impact did not take place until the 20th century. The BIA’s priority of the cattle industry that changed how water was allocated in Tohono O’odham lands. In 1934, the BIA built seventeen pumping plants for cattle. Santa Cruz River diversions for Tucson led to the tribe filing a lawsuit in the 1970‘s to retain its water rights. The tribe won. The resulting 1983 Southern Arizona Water Rights Settlement Act restored water rights to the Tohono O’odham and promised compensation, but by then family farming had literally dried up. The tribal government allocates Santa Cruz water for the Tucson-area: San Xavier Co-op Farm and the tribe’s alfalfa and cotton crops.


Despite these declines in the traditional food system, there are still elders who remember when the O'odham were food self-sufficient.  The early 21st century will be a critical time for ensuring that the traditional skills and knowledge necessary for increasing food self-sufficiency within the Tohono O'odham community can be rejuvenated.


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