Mikey Enis speaks in stories. He speaks them slowly, leaving pauses where details can sink in. He is a giant man with a soft voice, and he has become a vital link between his Tohono O’odham traditions and the Nation’s youth. The O’odham people have a sacred term. It’s called Himdag. And it represents the connectedness of all things. Mikey is like an heirloom seed of the himdag plant and he, along with a dedicated core of fellow youth and elders, are sewing it throughout the Tohono O’odham community in southern Arizona.
The Santa Cruz River used to flow a foot deep across the surface of the desert down here. It’s not a legend. The elders remember that time. Back when, as kids, they’d fill their pockets with seeds from the best mesquite trees and wander through their homeland pretending to hunt and chase and be adults. The river flowed and it passed over their parents and grandparents’ fields of squash, corn, sorghum, chiles, melons, and the drought-resistant tepary beans. The Tohono O’odham people farmed over 20,000 acres by the 1920s. The kids knew the seeds on the trees and no one knew diabetes.
Then Tucson grew, water management morphed from a handmade, hand-dug system into the industrial age. Crop needs no longer determined the flow. Politics dug the new irrigation channels, and most of it flowed to Tucson. By 1949 the Tohono O’odham farmland had shrunk to 2,500 acres. The Santa Cruz River, outside of the monsoon season, now looks like a four-wheeler course or a line drawn by a giant finger in a great basin of sand.
And the drying river quickly became a metaphor for the drying culture of the Tohono O’odham Nation. The first people to populate North America, their cultural geography spanned from present-day Phoenix to Sonora, Mexico, west to the Gulf of California, and east to the San Pedro River. Their demise followed the classic pattern of western Native Americans in the early to mid 20th Century. The men went to fight in the American wars, the kids (now grandparents) were shipped to reform schools to become more “American” (the boys taught to be mechanics and carpenters and tradesmen, the girls to be cooks and maids), and the women stayed behind.
The farms went dry. Down to less than 25 acres by the year 2000. No water to feed them, no people to work them. The agricultural knowledge dried up, too. Commodity food moved in, a deeply ironic “favor” from the US government. It still arrives, in the form of food stamps cashed in on processed foods or fried anything at the deli counter of the Basha’s grocery store in Sells, AZ. It was not an intentional assault on the native people’s health because the long-term effects of bad food were unknown back in the day, but the consequences of such a massive shift from traditional, whole foods to imported, processed foods has resulted in the 21st Century version of small-pox: diabetes.
The Tohono-O’odham Nation, with a population of 28,000 on a landmass the size of Connecticut, has the highest incidence of diabetes per capita in the country. Over 60% of the adult population has the disease, and it is expected that 75% of the children will contract it in their lifetimes. Science has proven a direct relationship between the high instance of diabetes and the tribe’s nutritional shift away from traditional Sonoran legumes and produce that their bodies had become accustomed to.
The original CFP grant in 2001 was the initial thrust to set in motion the train to recovering their traditional agriculture heritage and diet. It began small, with four acres of cropland (Ak Chin fields) on tribal land. That expanded to 78 acres for additional crops and with access to irrigation wells, a necessity in modern-day southern Arizona where droughts are becoming more frequent and prolonged.
Those original acres of farmland have not only yielded traditional foods (from 100 pounds of tepary beans in 2001 to over 60,000 in 2006), it has set in motion a movement toward an integration of traditional foods into the modern infrastructure of stores, schools, and hospitals. And Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), the organizing group behind the cultural shift that began in 1996 with a community garden, has been expanding the reach of positive community food and cultural heritage programs.
TOCA has a lively presence in Sells, AZ, the hub of Tohono O’odham Nation. It takes over an hour driving through the vast expanse of Sonoran Desert, past buttes, mountains, and the Kitt Peak National Observatory. Sells looks like what you’d imagine of an isolated town in the middle of one of the nation’s poorest native reservations. There are trailers and dusty modular houses with kids’ toys and junk cars in front. There is one grocery store, the Basha’s chain store, and its deli is one of the chain’s highest grossing delis in the state. It sells mostly fried foods – things like chicken, potato wedges, corndogs.
But now, a few doors down from Basha’s is Desert Rain Café, opened by TOCA in 2009. The clean, airy café adjoins the art and basket weaving gift shop, another part of TOCA. Desert Rain serves over 100,000 meals a year, using mostly local produce cooked in traditional ways. It has become a boon for local farmers and opened avenues for them to sell their food to schools and Head Start centers.
But it’s the activity at Desert Rain, moreso even than the food, that is the most telling for the comeback of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Young people gather here, some just to eat, others to organize. Farmers come through. TOCA has spawned a handful of programs that empower youth to become leaders in the charge to take back their traditional ways in the modern world. There’s Oidag, a youth-initiated community garden and school-mentoring program. They help schools establish and care for gardens. They work with youth to create healthy slogans to combat corporate junk food marketing and promote traditional food to children.
And each year many of the TOCA programs come together at the historic San Xavier Mission and its adjacent farm, just south of Tucson where the Santa Cruz River used to flow in mighty pulses. They gather on a Saturday – children, youth leaders, AmeriCorps volunteers, parents, farmers, elders, community members – and they share their skills from cooking demos to irrigation practices to seed storage to cartoon marketing workshops.
Few things resonate himdag like the voice of Mikey Enis singing a Tohono O’odham song, a lilting chant that seems to be one voluminous, ancient, and enduring exhalation that cannot be easily forgotten.