Tohono O’odam Nation- wisdom from our past, solutions for our future

For our last critical issues class of the semester we traveled about 60 miles southwest of Tucson to the Tohono O’odam Nation and had the privilege to meet with members of TOCA, Tohono O’odam Community Action in Sells, AZ. The Tohono O’odam, meaning “desert people” reside in areas of the Sonoran Desert in both southern Arizona and Sonora and are divided by the Mexico-US international border, drawn across their lands in 1853 by the Gadsden Purchase. The reservation is the second largest in the United States, is comparable the state of Connecticut and home to 70 miles of the international border.

Considering our previous study of the border in other contexts and geopolitical locations and having read a couple of articles about the Nation, it was clear before our visit that one could study interaction between native nations and the border alone for at least a semester.

As TOCA’s work does not center around issues of the border and with the brevity of our visit, we held in mind that a deeper understanding of the ways the border affects life on the reservation would have to wait.

We met with Anthony Francisco Jr. of TOCA at their office in the community/shopping center of Sells before heading out to TOCA’s farm, which employs traditional flood plain agricultural techniques. Ak chin farming, which utilizes rains of summer monsoon season is well adapted to the climate of the Sonoran desert. Traditional crops that the Cowlic learning center grows include tepary beans, O’odam squash, and native “60-day” corn. The farm works to reintroduce traditional crops and make them available to the community aiding with health and the preservation of existing traditional knowledge. One project of TOCA’s related to farming and native foods efforts is “A New Generation of Farmers” program which aims to train youth in traditional O’odam farming methods to promote a cultural, environmentally, economically viable way of life.

In speaking with Anthony about his work with the farm and youth of the nation, he emphasized the value of TOCA’s work being in large part helping young O’odam create strong connections to the land and their cultural heritage. He emphasized the importance of speaking to identity to inspire positive growth and its widespread success empowering youth, in contrast to efforts from outside organizations. I was reminded of the work of the Ethnic Studies Program once in place at Tucson High by its similar approach and success. Of the traditional language, song, and ceremony, Anthony highlighted the importance of the principle s-wa:gima, which celebrates an industrious lifestyle in which one’s strength is drawn from the sun.

After visiting the farm, we made a short visit to the Nation’s annual Diabetes Fair and were able to learn about many community organizations providing information and services from flu shots, to crafts including jewelry and baskets, to information about domestic abuse.

We concluded our visit at the Desert Rain Café where we were able to speak with Tristan Reeder, co-founder of TOCA, and Rhonda Wilson, a basketweaver who has been involved with TOCA for many years and works with TOCA’s Desert Rain Gallery. We were also accompanied by Julia Munson, former student of the Border Studies Program, and currently a Food Corps member with TOCA. The Desert Rain Café is another project of TOCA is dedicated to preparing traditional healthy O’odam foods such as tepary beans, saguaro fruit syrup, and cholla buds.

Tristan spoke of TOCA’s guiding focus as a community based organization, not affiliated with the tribal government, being on empowerment not service, working with not for. TOCA works to employ a systems change model for social change, which views policy change alone as ineffective. Their focus on working to improve local food systems stems from their belief that healthy and sustainable eating habits cannot be made out of “individual choice” as they are prevented by systems constraining choice. They are working to make traditional healthy foods more accessible and make growing these foods profitable on the Nation, while embracing the O’odham Himdag principle which they see to mean: wisdom from our past, solutions for our future.

I found TOCA’s work in many ways inspiring and seeking to effectively address issues affecting the nation, but I am left with many larger questions about the context for their work, the border, and the Tohono O’odam Nation in general:

Considering histories of colonization and identities of colonizers what does it mean for privileged white folks to work on the nation? In contexts where they serve in a teaching role, a role of knowledge or of preaching ‘the right way of doing things’?
How does the Arizona state and US federal government relate to the O’odam nation’s tribal governing body?
What does it mean for a ‘sovereign nation’ to exist within the continental united states?
How does a militarized international border crossing the nation affect felt senses of security?
How do effects of drug trafficking change relations to ‘security’ provided by the Border Patrol?
In reacting to high numbers of migrant deaths in the remote desert landscape how would the nation be able to both reject the presence of this issue that has been forced upon them while also saving lives?

It seemed from our short visit that the additional layer of complexity present when considering the O’odam nation’s stretch of border differed greatly from the particularities of the border we have considered in ambos Nogales, Douglas/Agua Prieta, El Paso/Juarez and in Big Bend National Park.

– submitted by Elizabeth Tipton

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