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  November/December 1996 Features:
Native Environmentalism
First People, Firsthand Knowledge
Return of the Sinkyone
Native Tongues
Saying the World Alive
Ways & Means
Food for Thought
Hearth & Home
Way to Go
Sierra Club Bulletin
Last Words

Sierra Magazine
Food for Thought: That Old Time Nutrition

by Jane Zastaury

Few people think of the Sonoran Desert as bountiful. The sun of southern Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico, is unrelenting, and apart from the odd summer monsoon and an inch or two of rain in midwinter, water is scarce. Yet the Sonoran has supplied Native peoples with sustenance for thousands of years.

Until the 1940s, the Tohono O'odham (formerly known as the Papago) and their cousins the Pima relied on foraged wild foods like mesquite pods, cactus fruit, and chiles for the bulk of their diet, with the rest coming from cultivated indigenous crops like corn, beans, and squash. Upon entering the American cash economy, however, the O'odham abandoned their agrarian heritage. Wild foods were replaced by processed junk, and the O'odham and Pima soon developed nutrition-related health problems--obesity, high blood pressure, and one of the highest rates of Type II diabetes in the world.

In the early 1980s, the Tucson branch of the nutrition program Meals for Millions set out to help the O'odham supplement their diet with homegrown vegetables like broccoli and tomatoes. While politely accepting the donated vegetables, the O'odham began asking for the seeds of foods they remembered from childhood: yellow-fleshed watermelon, striped sunflowers, fast-ripening corn, the fiery chiles called chiltepines--varieties that had all but died out after commercial foods became available.

The hunt for the heirloom varieties began. Word spread to other reservations in and around Arizona; seeds that had been lost in one area were found in another, and small pockets of cultivable wild plants, such as chiles, were rediscovered in hidden canyons and valleys. Native Seeds/SEARCH (Southwest Endangered Arid Lands Resources Clearinghouse) was born.

Once large numbers of O'odham began to return to a traditional diet, the health benefits afforded by indigenous crops became clear. Take the prickly pear, a common cactus. Its tender young paddles (nopalitos) are cooked with onions and chiles, while its fruit (tuna) is made into a sugary candy. Long a staple of indigenous peoples in Mexico, it had been largely relegated to ornamental status in the desert Southwest. But the O'odham found that prickly pear, filled with vitamins, minerals, and soluble fiber, is among the most healthful plants a diabetic can eat.

Fiber, the plant's way of absorbing and conserving water, is what makes desert plants a good choice. High-fiber foods slow the digestion and absorption of sugars in the body, and thus help to regulate blood glucose levels. Plant-based diets also help reduce cholesterol, a concern for non-insulin-dependent diabetics, who are generally overweight and at high risk for coronary heart disease. Among the O'odham, a diet high in desert plants has been found to radically slow and sometimes even reverse Type II diabetes, obesity, and high cholesterol.

The fiber in some desert plants is found in the form of mucilage, a seed coating that becomes gelatinous when combined with liquid. Some mucilaginous seeds, such as chia, were traditionally used to make a refreshing drink, while plantago (also known as psyllium seed) provides the active ingredient in the fiber supplement Metamucil. Tepary beans, another desert food, are higher in protein than soybeans. And mesquite meal is sweet and nutritious; when used in baking, it partially substitutes for wheat flour, while also reducing the amount of sugar needed.

Native Seeds/SEARCH is now extending to other indigenous communities along the U.S./Mexico border. Its efforts go beyond demonstrating the health benefits of native foods: it also hopes to show that a return to the foods of the ancestors can be a source of self-sufficiency and pride.

Jane Zastaury is non-native to Tucson, where she enjoys growing native plants almost as much as eating them.

Native desert seed packets are available from Native Seeds/SEARCH free to Native Americans and, for a nominal cost, to other interested gardeners. Flours, teas, herbs, and spices are also available. Send $1 for a catalog to Native Seeds/SEARCH at 2509 N. Campbell Ave., #325, Tucson, AZ 85719.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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