News & Views

Growing Native Foods with Rainwater Reinvents Life in the Desert

For members of southern Arizona’s Tohono O’odham tribe, the native desert foods of their ancestors offer a pathway to the future. Not only does the community’s health depend on reviving the tribe’s ancient foodways, but cultivating the crops adapted to the climate of the Sonoran Desert—and using the desert’s scarce water wisely to grow them—promises a more resilient way of life from which other desert communities can learn.

“Fifty years ago, when we ate native foods rather than white bread and McDonald’s, we weren’t obese and didn’t have diabetes, but now they’re rampant,” Terrol Dew Johnson, a member of the tribe who has had type-2 diabetes for 12 years, told Eating Well. Indeed, the Tohono O’odham face a severe health crisis; while diabetes was virtually absent in the community until the 1960’s, it now afflicts more than half of the population, the highest rate in the world.

In 1996, Johnson set out to bring native foods like tepary beans, squash, and cholla buds back into the tribe’s diet. He co-founded Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), and revived two desert farms dedicated to growing native foods using rain and groundwater irrigation. The farmers also teach tribe members how to harvest and cook the now-unfamiliar foods.

The Tohono O’odham traditionally designed fields to channel rainwater into areas readied for planting, a method known as ak-chin. The techniques involved include directing rainwater down hillsides into irrigation channels and cisterns for storage, channeling surface runoff into the root zone of trees and other plants, growing crops on alluvial flats, and using weirs to spread floodwaters. Although Sonoran desert crops are highly adapted to aridity, the twenty-year drought has forced many farmers to abandon rain fed agriculture. Using a combination of groundwater irrigation, cisterns and flood irrigation however, TOCA is bringing back traditional agriculture “with a modern twist”, says co-founder Tristen Reader. Through their youth and elders and beginning farmers program, TOCA aims to foster a new generation of farmers.

TOCA’s work is one example of the reinvestment in native foods and traditional methods of water management, which Brad Lancaster, an advocate for “rainwater harvesting” and desert foods, says are “resurging around the world.”

Lancaster founded an all-volunteer nonprofit called Desert Harvesters aimed at helping the people of Tucson, Arizona, learn about, grow, and eat native dryland foods. He had noticed the region’s twice-yearly rains would eventually sink away unused into the bone-dry sands. But research told him it wasn’t always that way; he learned that desert people everywhere—including in his own back yard—have long traditions of using the rain wisely to cultivate what grows best in the desert.

Many of these traditional practices, once so vital to survival, faded with the introduction of piped-in water. “In every part of the world where there’s a dry season, there’s a rich culture of water harvesting, but almost all over the world that tradition largely started to get forgotten when piped-in water appeared,” said Lancaster while giving a tour of the rainwater-fed yard of his small bungalow in downtown Tucson, filled with native foods such as desert ironwood, suguaro, and prickly pear.

Lancaster has created his own desert food supply with advice from friends among the Tohono O’odham. He planted trees at the bottom of slanted channels, fed by rainwater cascading off the street through a dip in the curb. He set up enormous cisterns to collect rainwater from his roof to nourish his garden of non-desert plants throughout the year. He directed pipes for grey water from his kitchen to the roots of his citrus trees. Ten to 25 percent of Lancaster’s family’s diet now comes from their yard.

Desert Harvesters shares this special knowledge by planting mesquite trees in city neighborhoods and hosting annual mesquite-pancake breakfasts at which to grind people’s mesquite pods into flour and expose newbies to native foods. Interest in the project has exploded—the initial 10 mesquite-pancake-eaters became 2,000 in just six years.

Such increasing engagement in growing native foods with rainwater is reflected in a movement for food sovereignty among non-native and tribal groups, an effort to reclaim and reassert their agricultural and nutritional heritage.

The Declaration of Nyéléni, adopted at the 2007 Forum for Food Sovereignty in Mali by some 500 delegates from more than 80 countries, asserted the “right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” For a Southwestern Indigenous peoples’ perspective read TOCA’s Principals of Native Food Sovereignty.

For the Tohono O’odham, exercising the rights associated with food sovereignty is deeply rooted in their cultural traditions. This community is now fighting for its life due to a diet none of their ancestors would have recognized. With the restoration of traditional diets, they have a chance to start over. “I still see hope,” said TOCA co-founder Terrol Dew Johnson. “I don’t have to die of diabetes.”

Read more about the the health effects caused by the loss of Native foods.

Learn about the community context of the Tohono O’odham Nation.