Tohono O’odham Nation

O’odham Ha’icu Ha-Hugic Duakog

Danny and Isabella. Photo courtesy of TOCA.

Since 1996, Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA) has worked to create a healthy, sustainable and culturally-vital community on the Tohono O’odham Nation in Southern Arizona. TOCA began as a backyard community garden and a basketweaving class, and has grown to have 2 farms, a native foods café, and an art gallery. TOCA has brought back Tohono O’odham foods, ceremonies, and sports.

In 2010, TOCA published From I’itoi’s Garden: Tohono O’odham Food Traditions, available on at TOCA and online at Half oral history, half cookbook, and full of color photographs, the book reflects years of work with over 35 elders. It has become a resource for Tohono O’odham seeking to recapture the health that they had when they ate traditional foods, before processed foods and other forms of “progress” brought type-2 diabetes to over 50% of their people. Young people are particularly effected, with childhood obesity rates tripling in the past 40 years.

In a community-based effort to combat type-2 diabetes and childhood obesity, TOCA’s most recent work has been in collaboration with the local Baboquivari Unified School District. The goal has been to integrate traditional, locally-grown Tohono O’odham foods into the school lunch menu. Over the past two years, the meals have increased from monthly to weekly to 3 times a week.

The collaboration got a “jump start” in 2009, when TOCA’s high school interns formed a cooking club in order to enter the national “Cooking Up Change” competition from Healthy Schools Campaign and the USDA’s Farm to School program. They won the contest, and their tepary bean quesadilla has since become a regular dish at the local school cafeterias. Education in culturally-based nutritional eating has continued to grow. TOCA’s Young O’odham United Through Health (Y.O.U.T.H.) created cartoon characters to popularize Tohono O’odham foods, and Y.O.U.T.H. members formed Project Oidag in 2011, creating new community and school gardens. TOCA’s Michael Enis teaches traditional Tohono O’odham planting and harvesting songs to school children, and the high school’s FFA works with Project Oidag to sell O’odham squash from farm stands.   Alongside local partnerships, TOCA has exchanged information with 17 other projects through CDC’s Native Wellness Traditional Foods program.

In 2011, TOCA was one of 10 organizations across the globe to receive the “Imagine There’s No Hunger” Award from Hard Rock Café/Why Hunger. In 2012, TOCA was recognized with the National Outstanding Achievement Award by the Indian Health Service Direct Service Tribes (DST) for community-based health and wellness.

In the conversation below, TOCA staff discuss their efforts to revitalize Tohono O’odham traditions and Tohono O’odham traditional foods:

What’s your favorite thing about being involved in your traditional foods project?      

“When it comes to traditional foods, for me it’s something more than just food, it’s my heritage.  I grew up on the Tohono O’odham Nation but I didn’t have too much experience with traditional foods so now it’s great to experience things first hand and to see how hard it is to grow our traditional foods, and to make the connections between food and health and to help my community.  I love bringing the message of health through traditional foods to kids by making it fun for them to learn about and eat these delicious foods through games, traditional food cartoon characters hands on workshops and food sampling. I really love to work with people who have very little knowledge of traditional foods (like me) and to see them just a few weeks or a year later and see what they’ve learned and how empowered they’ve become, good food is power.” – Cissimarie Juan, TOCA Food & Fitness Coordinator

Saguaro harvesting. Photo courtesy of TOCA.

What traditional foods and physical activities do you have going on this summer?

Summer is an exciting and busy time for us. Many of our wild desert plants become available for gathering and it is our primary farming season.

Wild foods that are gathered, starting in late March and April and continuing through October include cholla buds, mesquite beans, saguaro fruit, prickly pear fruit, wild spinach (amaranth), and acorns. One of the most important of these foods is saguaro fruit. The fruit ripens in late June at the hottest time of the summer, lasts for only about a month, and precedes the start of our summer rains. The ripening fruit represents our new year, and is important for nutritional, social, and ceremonial purposes.

Our primary summer event is our Saguaro/Bahidaj harvest camp – there are numerous physical activities that take place at this event including making our traditional harvesting sticks (kuipa) which require gathering dead saguaro ribs from the desert, sanding them and twisting wires around them to hold them together.  The gathering of the fruit itself is a very physical activity which requires lots of walking, carrying the up to 15 foot harvesting sticks, balancing the stick, and holding it up to use it to nudge the fruit off the cactus, and carrying the heavy buckets of fruit.

Traditional crops that are planted in the summer include white and brown tepary beans, O’odham squash, yellow-meated watermelon, devil’s claw (used for basket weaving), cow pea, and O’odham corn. We have two farms that are managed by TOCA staff, including six full time agricultural apprentices. The farm work is helped out by summer high school interns and community members. There are also several community and school gardens where we work.

Harvesting wild foods requires a lot of physical activity; dozens of hours are required to harvest quantities of wild foods, and

Noland in Tepary Small. Photo courtesy of TOCA.

harvesting containers can get quite heavy. Processing these foods also takes a lot of physical effort. Farming is an inherently physical activity, and it takes a lot of work to successfully raise our summer crops.

We host a large number of events during our harvesting and planting seasons throughout the year that incorporate physical activities above and beyond the activity required to plant and gather our foods. These include youth rodeos and traditional games like kick ball (songiwa), a field hockey like game (ko’omai) and various fun walks.

Which local traditional foods did you choose to cultivate, hunt, gather or plant for your program?   

Each wild gathered food (cholla buds, saguaro fruit, prickly pear fruit, mesquite beans) uses its own technique and tools. Everything requires that you know about where plants are, when they produce fruit, and when they are ripe for picking. We rely on elders to teach us and other community members about how to pick and process the foods, as well as the foods’ cultural importance, nutritional qualities, and other important information.

Cissimarie Juan samples traditional foods at school. Photo courtesy of TOCA.

We have two main farms where we farm our summer crops of traditional corn (huñ), tepary beans (bawǐ) and squash (hal) . One is a more production-oriented farm that we irrigate using pumped groundwater. The other is a traditional “ak-chin” farm that is irrigated only with rainwater. For the ak-chin farm, we divert water from the washes that only run after heavy rainstorms. This water either goes directly into our field, or is captured in a pond that can be pumped out as needed into the field. Everything is grown organically, although we are not certified organic.  We typically plant these foods during summer and harvest them in the fall.

This summer we have hunted jackrabbit, which was served to everybody who participated in the three day saguaro fruit harvesting camp TOCA coordinated in late June/early July.

How has this project impacted your community?  

Since we started this work over a decade ago, we have seen lots of positive changes in our community. Tepary beans had essentially stopped being grown by O’odham farmers, and the beans were rarely seen during community feasts and celebrations. Now, TOCA grows thousands of pounds of beans annually, and other local farmers also grow the beans for sale locally and nationally. Tepary beans are now commonly eaten at community gatherings and as an everyday food. Traditional foods in general are much more commonly seen at events, and more and more people are getting interested in learning about how to grow, gather, and prepare traditional foods. In 2010, the public school district that serves the Tohono O’odham Nation began to serve a “traditional food option”, and is now served every day in the schools. With over 1,000 students enrolled in the district, it has impacted every student K – 12 enrolled in the district. With education and awareness activities organized by TOCA and in collaboration with dozens of local families and tribal organizations, knowledge about the importance of traditional foods is much more commonplace. Perhaps one of the most important impacts of traditional foods projects is that now we are seeing many more youth ages 0 – 24 interested in all aspects of traditional foods; gathering, picking, planting, harvesting, processing, cooking, eating, stories, songs, language, ceremony, nutrition, and community building.

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What are your plans to sustain this project?  

We plan to continue collaborating with as many local organizations and community members as possible. For this work to continue, it is essential that as many tribal organizations, schools, and community members do work with traditional foods on their own terms as possible. The more people know about and enjoy eating traditional foods, the more likely these foods will remain an important part of daily O’odham life. We also plan to continue to focus on working with youth. The more youth are involved in traditional foods projects, the more likely these foods will become a part of their daily and seasonal lives. The chain of knowledge and use of traditional foods was broken for several generations due to all the damaging social changes experienced by Tohono O’odham over the past century, to the point that many adults and their children had never seen, much less tasted, many traditional foods. The youth that we work with show a deep interest in sharing what they learn with their families, and will be much more likely to also share their knowledge with their kids when they get older.

Recipes & Book

Be sure to check out the TOCA recipes for Traditional White Tepary Bean Stew and a contemporary recipe using cholla cactus buds on our Traditional Foods Recipe page.  In addition, the TOCA team has published a foodways book, From I’itoi’s Garden: Tohono O’odham Food Traditions, with detailed instructions about planting, harvesting and preparing desert foods along with stories, songs, recipes and reflections from Elders and community members.

Special thanks to the TOCA team,  particularly Mary Pagnelli, Cissimarie Juan, Karen Wyndham, the late Frances Manuel, and the TOCA Desert Rain Cafe, for sharing their time, recipes, and stories. For more information on the TOCA project, contact


2 responses to “Tohono O’odham Nation

  1. TOCA is publishing Native Foodways Magazine! The magazine celebrates native food producers, indigenous harvesting on land and water, and the amazing native chef movement. Go to for more information.

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