Tohono O’odham culture is truly an agri/culture. In the very first sentence of her 1946 book Papago Indian Religion, anthropologist Ruth M. Underhill noted that the Tohono O’odham are “an agricultural people, thoroughly adapted to farming and food gathering in an arid country.” Songs, ceremonies and legends all have their roots in the food system. So too the roots of economic exchange, health and wellness, and social relations are deeply embedded in that food system. Tohono O’odham – the People of the Desert – have a profound understanding that “you are what you eat.” Food is health. Food is culture. Food is community. Food is the basis of a sacred economy of what you grow, what you harvest, and how you share.
Understanding the traditional Tohono O’odham food system is essential to understanding the O’odham Himdag – the Desert People’s Lifeways. Moreover, there is an inextricable link between the living practice of the Himdag and the physical, spiritual, social and economic well-being of the Tohono O’odham.
We begin with an exploration of the traditional Tohono O’odham food system. We then explore how Tohono O’odham culture and spirituality emerges from the people’s relationship with the food system. We describe the devastation to the traditional food system, and the resulting damage to the cultural, spiritual and physical wellbeing of the Tohono O’odham community. Ending on a hopeful note, we describe recent efforts to revitalize the Himdag and Tohono O’odham foodways.