Community Attitudes Toward Traditional Tohono O'odham Foods

Year: 2003

Research Center: American Indian Studies Program, The University of Arizona

Investigator: Lopez, Daniel, Tristan Reader, and Mary Paganelli

Institution: Tohono O'odham Community College

Project Contact:
Daniel Lopez, Instructor
Tohono O'odham Community College
P.O. Box 3129
Sells, AZ 85634
Phone: 520-383-8401


The Tohono O'odham Nation resides in the heart of the Sonoran desert, 60 miles west of Tucson, AZ. Approximately 18,000 of the tribe's 28,000 members live on the main section of the Tohono O'odham reservation. The Tohono O'odham people have the highest rate of diabetes among Native American tribes. About 50 percent of the tribe's adults have adult-onset diabetes, compared with 4-6 percent of the overall U.S. population. A number of studies have shown that many traditional Tohono O'odham foods such as tepary beans, cholla cactus buds, and wild spinach, help regulate blood sugar and reduce the incidence and effects of diabetes. Previous work found that tribal members were interested in incorporating more traditional food into their diets and in learning how to grow, collect, and cook these foods.

In this study, the authors gathered information about the practical and cultural knowledge needed for educational programs to effectively encourage healthy eating habits, including the consumption of healthy, traditional Tohono O'odham foods. The authors collected ethnographic data from approximately 20 tribal elders. The ethnographic data include information about the production, processing, and preparation of traditional Tohono O'odham foods that help regulate blood sugar levels. The ethnographic data also contain cultural information, such as songs, legends, and ceremonial practices pertaining to Tohono O'odham foods. The authors also conducted a survey of the scientific and nutrition literature to gather information on the nutritional content of traditional Tohono O'odham foods.

The authors plan to use the practical, cultural, and nutritional information gathered in their study to develop a set of educational resources for use within the Tohono O'odham community. One example is an educational brochure that contains step-by-step descriptions of how the food is cultivated or harvested in the wild, processed or preserved, and prepared. The brochure and its recipes will provide descriptions of both traditional preparation techniques and modern preparation techniques that are often less time-consuming.

The authors propose that the brochure and other educational materials will strengthen cultural incentives to eat healthy Tohono O'odham foods, provide the practical information necessary for people to consume these foods, and improve health.