Can Reviving Traditional Foods Improve Native Americans’ Health?

“Arrived at Desert Rain Cafe,” announces my GPS as I pull into the parking lot of the only shopping center on the Tohono O’odham reservation in Sells, Ariz., about an hour west of Tucson. Inside, a gray-haired O’odham woman smiles at me as she takes a sip of her thick, pink drink. “Is it good?” I ask. She raises her eyebrows and nods. “It’s a prickly pear smoothie. I think they sweeten it with agave. The chia berry smoothie is good, too!”

The Tohono O’odham people have been farming and cultivating prickly pear (or I’ipai in O’odham), agave (A’ud), tepary beans (Bawi) and cholla cactus buds (Ciolim) in this dry Southern Arizona desert for centuries. The name of the tribe means “Desert People,” and bringing back local culture from farm to plate is one mission the Tohono O’odham Community Action organization has been working on since 1996. After reviving abandoned farmland to grow the foods that once nourished a Native American nation now battling obesity and type 2 diabetes (the disease afflicts more than half of all tribe members), TOCA opened Desert Rain Cafe four years ago.

Every menu item features at least one traditional food grown on (or near) the reservation. To some, these foods are familiar or nostalgic, reminding them of a grandmother’s cooking. For others, this is an introduction not only to their traditional foods, but also to the legends, songs and language of their ancestors. Bringing these foods into a modern day restaurant menu, a school lunch program and gardening classes, O’odham and other Native American tribes across the U.S. are working toward restoring healthy and sustainable communities.

Rich Foods from Dry Lands

Until the second half of the 20th century, Native Americans living in the Pima region of Southern Arizona were almost entirely food self-sufficient. Through traditional Ak Chin or dry land farming methods, thousands of acres were used to grow white and brown tepary beans, corn and zucchini-like squash. They also harvested and dried wild foods such as small, green cholla buds and mesquite bean pods. Growing nutritionally rich foods on parched land required hours of intense physical labor that, though grueling, was both spiritually and culturally meaningful.

Songs, legends and stories passed down through generations — like how the Milky Way was created out of white tepary beans scattered across the sky — infused the work with cultural significance.

TOCA co-founder Tristan Reader recalls working with tribal elder and former schoolteacher Danny Lopez, who taught O’odham children traditional songs about planting and rain. “It was great, but it didn’t have a lot of power until the first time he brought a group of kids to our garden,” says Reader. “He talked to them about planting and then sang a planting song. This time, it felt like [the song and story] had been put back where it belonged.

Between a primarily plant-based diet and high level of physical activity, the O’odham population remained lean and healthy. But by the 1950s, tribe members would move away for months at a time to work on federal projects in surrounding irrigated cotton fields. With no one to tend the land at home, local crops began to vanish. And with limited income and resources to prepare traditional foods, the community became dependent on commodity programs that supplied foods such as flour, lard, cheese and canned foods.

“What else do you do with white flour and lard? You make dough, fry it and make fry bread,” says Reader. “You work with what you have available to you.” Decades later, foods such as fry bread and processed cheese have been part of the American Indian diet for a long time. In the O’odham Nation, getting people to switch to traditional healthy food can be difficult.

Strength through Celebration and Spirit

“I feel there has been a loss of traditional foods in our culture and part of my job is to preserve that by encouraging even small changes in peoples’ diets,” says Jamie Shirleson, RD. Growing up on the Navajo reservation in Northern Arizona, Shirleson recalls eating her grandmother’s blue corn meal mush (taa niil). Considered a sacred plant in Navajo culture, blue corn is ground and cooked into mush (like oatmeal) and traditionally prepared with ash made from burning juniper needles. The calcium in the juniper wood ash boosts the calcium content of taa niil.

Shirleson says she often finds people adding butter and sugar, so encouraging smaller amounts of these added calories while really highlighting the nutritional benefits of indigenous foods is one technique she finds most effective. “It’s not easy to change people’s eating habits, but it’s exciting when I see them incorporating positive changes to their diet,” she says. Indeed whether the goal is embracing cultural heritages or adopting healthful lifestyles, focusing on the positive more than the negative can be key — and there is a lot to celebrate about the native desert foods unique to this part of the world.

The Desert Rain Cafe makes traditional foods accessible to the community through flavorful modern interpretations such as squash enchiladas and tepary bean hummus. The beans, corn and squash are high in fiber and plant-based protein that helps to control glucose and cholesterol levels. The cafe’s cholla bud pico de gallo is a mildly spicy versatile mixture of vegetables that can be eaten by itself or with chili. Wild foods such as cholla buds and prickly pear fruit contain mucilage, a natural thickener with blood sugar lowering benefits — and cholla buds are a source of calcium.

Preserving these indigenous foods grown on American Indian land, in addition to the legends, language and spirit that come with them, is what tribal community organizations like TOCA are working toward for generations to come.

Sonoran Desert “Hummus”

Contributed by Desert Rain Cafe

Tepary beans are indigenous to the Sonoran Desert and a staple food of the Tohono O’odham. These highly drought resistant beans love long, slow cooking in a crock pot with a touch of salt. Their slightly sweet flavor and creamy texture makes them perfect for this delicious dip — but if you can’t find tepary beans, you can substitute white navy beans.

2 cups cooked white tepary beans
1⁄3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1⁄3 cup lemon juice
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1⁄4 teaspoon ground cumin seeds
salt and black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons salt-cured capers, rinsed
Hot sauce to taste
Fresh cilantro for garnish
Lemon wedges for garnish


  1. Using a stick blender or hand-held food processor, puree the beans with the oil, lemon juice and garlic.
  2. Drizzle in additional olive oil as necessary to achieve desired consistency — dip should be thick but not dry.
  3. Mix in cumin, salt, pepper, capers and hot sauce to taste.
  4. Garnish with cilantro and lemon wedges.

Nutrition Info
Serves 16
Serving size: 2 tablespoons

Calories: 70
Total Fat: 4.5g; Saturated Fat: 0.5g;
Cholesterol: 0mg; Sodium: 30mg
Carbohydrates: 6g; Fiber: 1g; Sugars: 0g
Protein: 2g; Potassium: 133mg; Phosphorus: 26mg
*Nutrient analysis based on using white navy beans instead of tepary beans.)

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Christy Wilson
Christy Wilson, RD, is a health and nutrition writer, recipe developer and nutrition consultant. Based out of Tucson, AZ, she is a nutrition counselor at the University of Arizona and at a local HIV clinic where she also teaches a monthly cooking class. Read her blog and recipes at and connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.