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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Walk

Air Date: Week of

Producer Sandy Tolan joins Native Americans on a 250-mile march from Mexico’s Sea of Cortez to Tucson, Arizona, to call attention to the high rate of diabetes among Native Americans. Fast foods are said to contribute to diabetes and indigenous people say getting back to native foods may be a remedy.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For centuries, the Tohono O'odham people would journey south from their home in the Arizona desert down to the sea. There, at Mexico's Sea of Cortez, they would barter squash and watermelon for the fresh fish and sea turtle caught by the Seri Indians. This trade stopped generations ago. It was discouraged by a border that divided the indigenous peoples and a white man's economy that overran the traditional native food gathering. Processed food from modern stores replaced the traditional native diet. But the O'odham were not adapted to the large amounts of fats and sugars so prevalent in these foods. Eating foods with lots of fat and sugar is closely linked to diabetes, and many Indians in southern Arizona now suffer about the highest rates of diabetes in the world. Last month, a small band of O'odham and Seris got together again. They carried traditional foods 250 miles from the Sea of Cortez back to Arizona. Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan joined them for the beginning and end of their desert walk.

(Rattle sounds)

MAN: So let's get everyone in a circle. Mas adelante, uncirco.

(A woman speaks in native language)

TOLAN: A circle on the beach at the Sea of Cortez. This is where the journey begins. The land of the Seri Indians, who call themselves Conca’ac, a tribe that for millennia gathered the desert and fished from kayaks woven from reeds. We are 17 walkers and a few people who drive the vans and ferry packs, tents and supplies, and elders riding along. In all, 25 people, Anglo, Latino, and Seri and O'odham Indians, together again after generations.

LOPEZ: Tony and I are going to sing a couple of songs to the people and to the ocean.


TOLAN: Danny Lopez, a teacher and keeper of the O'odham songs, invokes the memory of the days his people made their annual pilgrimage to gather salt from this shore. He turns toward the sea.

(Lopez sings and rattles)

TOLAN: A Seri elder has told the group, "We're going to be in the hands of the Great Spirit. We'll be taken care of every step of the way.

TOLAN: And we start.

TOLAN: Mile one of our journey, from this place in northern Mexico where the desert joins the sea, to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson. Twelve days, 250 miles. We carry with us the local herbs and salves from a Seri healer, for the aches and blisters sure to visit us. On our way north, we will seek to eat only native foods, heal ourselves only with native herbs and medicines. Slowly we pilgrims inch our way north, snaking along a wash, through one of the lushest stands of cactus in the world.

JOHNSON: Well, they had their own fruit, these cactuses.

TOLAN: Terrol Johnson and I make up the caboose in the line of walkers. Soon, the rest of the group is out of sight. Gentle and round-faced, Terrol, a master basket weaver, is taking it slow. Six foot three and 300 pounds, he hasn't exercised in a long time.

JOHNSON: Yeah, the one thing that really concerned me was, I'm diabetic, and you know, people say you really have to watch for your feet and your health. So I was really scared to come, thinking that if I have to walk for an hour, I'll get blisters, and, you know, you're afraid that they won't get well and they'll have to amputate. I mean, those things just went through my head.


JOHNSON: And I've had several family members die on the operating table because they've had to have legs amputated and feet amputated.

TOLAN: Terrol's calves begin to cramp up. Every little while we stop, massage the knots out of them, and slowly move on.

JOHNSON: It's very serious. I mean, my people are dying, you know? And if we could wave our hand and say, you know, no more junk food, no more soda, you know, I'd do it in a heartbeat. But you know, we're dealing with people that grew up on that, you know? My whole family, to shut the baby up you fill the bottle with Coke, you give it to them and they drink it. It's really hard. It's really hard to say, well, I'm going to change and eat this.

TOLAN: Long ago, Terrol's people took their foods from nearly 300 Sonoran Desert plants: saguaro and organ pipe cactus pear, buckhorn cholla buds, mesquite pods, agave, wildflower seeds, the soft pads of the prickly pear cactus, and crops grown on floodplain farms that soaked in the monsoon rains: the teppary bean, drought-resistant corn, and melons and squashes and panic grass. Diabetes, Dr. Gary Nabhan tells me, was virtually unknown.

NABHAN: People had a very diverse, healthy diet, that had about four to five times the amount of soluble fiber, one of the key factors in controlling diabetes, than what health specialists now recommend that Americans on the average consume every day.

TOLAN: The grandson of Lebanese immigrants, Gary Nabhan is director of conservation and science at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and an organizer of the walk. His many books deeply evoke the life of the Sonoran Desert, its people, and its native foods and medicines. On a break, we sit in the shade of an ironwood tree.

NABHAN: They were completely protected from diabetes by that highly-seasonal diet. Some months an overabundance of cactus fruit, other months mesquite, other months whole wheat and lentils and peas. But gradually, they became wage workers in cotton fields as irrigation agriculture took off, abandoned their flood water fields that relied just on local rainfall, and became part of the global economy.

TOLAN: At the end of World War II, O'odhams suddenly could buy white man's food. This old life of gathering and hunting and relying on the rains was too risky, the government said. Get rid of those weedy plants. Assimilate. Fifty years on, the results are in. O'odham and nearby Pima people suffer diabetes at the highest rate in the world. Debates rage about the cause. Some scientists believe desert peoples around the world have genetically adapted to gain weight in times of abundance and survive on less in hard times. Gary Nabhan says the key to healing lies in diet.

NABHAN: Their metabolisms grew accustomed to these foods. They worked well with them. So there's sort of a gene/food co-evolution that's happened here. We really are made from the place, from the calories, from the earth of the place that we live in. So, I don't think we can have a solution to this problem until we integrate the traditional knowledge and traditional customs and food gathering back into the core of a culture. It's not asking folks to step back in time, but to integrate what was good from their legacy with all that we know today.

(Footfalls, voices)

TOLAN: This first day we walk for 23 miles. In late afternoon, everyone slows. For hours up a long asphalt road, we gaze at our destination: a big hill shading our camp site below.

(Singing and rattling)

TOLAN: In the evening, by a small fire, Seri elders sing. Nearby O'odham singers shake their rattles softly. Tea brewed from sage will relax our sore muscles and help us sleep. I sit on the ground near a van where Gary has just finished his daily journal. Gary's colleagues put the finishing touches on his text, and hook up his laptop to a satellite phone.

(Modem beeps)

TOLAN: From a camp site in a Mexican desert, the journal of the slow walk for native foods, of the reconnection between the Seri and Tohono O'odham peoples, is beamed into outer space, bounced off a satellite, and down to the Website of the Desert Museum in Tucson, desertmuseum.org.

MAN: And the instant that it hits the server, they're live.

(People mill about)

MAN 2: These mesquite tortillas are so good!

TOLAN: On the second day, breakfast is eggs with chili sauce and prickly pear cactus pads; pinole, a delicious gruel made from brown corn; tea and coffee -- mostly native foods, with a few concessions to exotic tastes.

(People move about)

TOLAN: Soon we're on the trail again, 17 miles this day, cutting through desert scrub land toward the twin stacks of a power plant on the cost of Puerto Libertad. From here the group will cut inland for the heart of the journey. The Seris will tell their stories of the old days when they traded with the O'odham by the sea. The O'odham will sing to the Seri, and the Seri will sing to the O'odham. And along the way they will learn to dance to each other's music. Terrol, the young basket weaver, will gather material for his journey basket: seaweed and pieces of fishing net, ocotillo skins, a 20-peso note, dried animal bones, photographs found by the roadside.

(People milling)

WOMAN: We made it.

TOLAN: Five days later, tired, muscled, sun-darkened, the group of pilgrims arrives in tiny Sasabe Bay, Mexico, steps from the U.S. border. The group walks in two lines into the United States.

MAN: U.S. residents, you've got U.S. citizens --

(Men speak in Spanish)

MAN: Where were you born?

MAN 2: Thank you. Welcome home.

TOLAN: Terrol, who was having such trouble on that first day, looks happy and strong. He says he's been walking 10, 11 miles a day.

JOHONSON: First day, second day, third day, now, you know, no pain at all.

(Ambient conversations; fade to footfalls)

LOPEZ: I remember people got together, you know, decided that they would work together.

TOLAN: Walking north on a dirt road with Danny Lopez. At 63, he is the eldest of the walkers. For many years he's been keeping alive the stories of the days of self-reliance, of gathering and laying seed.

LOPEZ: And everybody worked together, plowing and planting. And they'd go right to the next field because our fields were right adjacent to one another from east to west, where the water ran, the rainwater.

TOLAN: Most everyone on this walk understands how difficult it would be to return to the days of floodplain farming and wild gathering. The economy and the structure of life today are so different. Danny and Terrol's group, Tohono O'odham Community Action, is giving out native seeds for local gardens. And the money raised by the organizers for this walk, $50,000, will help hire O'odham and Seri youths to bring home the message of the health benefits of native foods. There are literally many thousands of acres still to hoe. But Danny says he wants people to understand: This is not some romantic exercise. It's life and death.

LOPEZ: People sit there and they nod their heads and they agree with you, but to actually go out and eat those foods, it's something else. It's a different story. And I'm hoping that an awareness will be created among my people. And so we don't lose any more legs and toes.

(Drumming and singing)

TOLAN: Three days later, near the journey's end at San Pedro on the O'odham reservation. Tomorrow the group arrives at the Desert Museum in Tucson. Tonight, a feast.

(Drumming and singing continue)

TOLAN: Warm breads, roasted corn with red chilies, cholla cactus buds, rabbit. The place is packed with walkers, their families, the community. Terrol stands before the group. He's walked for 10 days. He told me some people his age came up to him and said he was a role model. Looking out of the packed room, his face radiates emotion.

JOHNSON: It was hard. I didn't think I was going to make it. You know, the pain, you know, everybody went through to get here. You know, we all had personal reasons for coming. Me because I'm diabetic. I don't want to die of diabetes. You know, it's really hard to live with, and this trip really opened my eyes to a lot. It was really encouraging. It's nice to know that you come from a culture that's so rich.


TONY JOHNSON: I think I left here three shades lighter and now I'm back a little darker, but we made it back.


TOLAN: Tony Johnson is back home now, not just from Mexico but from a long time off the reservation. He'd been accepted at Harvard Divinity School, but he gave it up to study the language, the songs, the old ways of planting, of gathering, of living, of the O'odham people. He's an apprentice to Danny Lopez, the O'odham elder.

TONY JOHNSON: We started this walk ten days ago, down at the ocean. We walked all the way. It was because of the people that were with me. O'odham people. That's why I walked, because I believed that we’re not dead. People say that we're dead because we're diabetics. They say we're dead because we're alcoholics. But I haven't seen a dead O'odham yet walking from Mexico to here. They've all been alive. They may look dead, but they’re alive!

(Laughter and applause; fade to music and singing)

TOLAN: Next day, the group is 150 strong. Every day new walkers have joined the journey. On the twelfth day they hike up a dry river bed beneath the long arms of the saguaro cactus, and finally to the Desert Museum.

(Singing, drumming, rattling)

TOLAN: A crowd gathers to greet them. Confetti rains down on their shoulders. An O'odham man sprinkles them with water from a greasewood branch. On the long road, they have arrived.

(Singing, drumming, rattling)

TOLAN: For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan in Tucson, Arizona.



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