Looking to our Past for a Healthier Future

Today’s blog is written by Lisa Falk, lead curator for ASM’s new exhibit Through the Eyes of the Eagle: Illustrating Healthy Living.

Terrol Dew Johnson is an award-winning artist, community organizer, and a nationally recognized activist who lives with type 2 diabetes. He is also one of the co-curators of Arizona State Museum’s newest exhibit Through the Eyes of the Eagle: Illustrating Healthy Living, meant to raise awareness about type 2 diabetes prevention.

In 1996, Johnson co-founded (with Tristan Reader) Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA)Opens in a new window in his hometown of Sells, Arizona, the seat of the Tohono O’odham Nation. The nonprofit operates a basketry coop, a farm, a restaurant and encourages the cultivation of, and a return to the use of, native foods through classes, youth programs and through a popular cookbook titled From I’itoli’s GardenOpens in a new window. In the exhibit, visitors can browse a copy of the book.

“My people have one of the highest rates of adult-onset diabetes in the nation,” explained Johnson. “Children as young as 6 year old are being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and over 50% of the Nation has the disease, although 50 years ago hardly anyone did.” He says through TOCA’s work, “We encourage a return to the use of desert foods as one way of combating the disease. Our traditional diet was much healthier.” Traditional foods include tepary beansOpens in a new window, mesquiteOpens in a new window beans, chollaOpens in a new window buds, chiaOpens in a new window seeds, squashes, acorns, and saguaro fruit.

The theme of the TOCA section of the ASM exhibit illustrates TOCA’s motto of reconnecting to the O’odham Himdag—the Desert People’s lifeways. Johnson explains, “We use wisdom from our past to create solutions for our future.” Visitors view a visual timeline of TOCA’s efforts to increase wellness by revitalizing traditional ways. Through objects and photographs visitors journey from TOCA’s first farm to a community garden to traditional art classes and games to expansion of the farm and the involvement of the community, including training O’odham youth to be farmers and leaders and to invest in their community’s health.
Members of TOCA’s Young O’odham United Through Health (Y.O.U.T.H.)Opens in a new window program helped put together two object cases that compare traditional food ways and leisure activities with those popular among youth today.

Videos also enhance the exhibit experience. These include the PBS special on diabetes on the O’odham Nation called Bad Sugar (part of the Unnatural Causes series) and saguaro harvesting and cooking tradtions in a episode of NPTA’s Seasoned with Spirit series. Most striking perhaps, is a short video in which you watch a cooking class presented by Y.O.U.T.H. members and hear them talking about what health means to them, their families and community. Here’s a snippet to whet your appetite (transcript available):

For his efforts with TOCA, Johnson was named one of the top 10 community leaders in 1999 by the Do Something organization. The U.S. President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities gave TOCA the Coming Up Taller award in 2001. And in 2002, both Johnson and Reader won the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World award.

Terrol Dew Johnson is often heard proclaiming, “Farmers may be the doctors of the future.” This is the title of a free presentation he is giving at the College of Public Health on November 9th at 12:00 noon. TOCA will also be present at the November 12th A Healthy Celebration event at ASM. They will have a farm booth where visitors can purchase tepary beans and traditional squash and learn how the O’odham have been successful farmers in the desert for thousands of years. TOCA’s popular Desert Rain CaféOpens in a new window will also present a cooking demonstration at the fair.


13 thoughts on “Looking to our Past for a Healthier Future

  1. Leora Sanke

    I’ve heard that prickly pear cactus pads are very healthy and can help with diabetes and cholesterol problems. It’s wonderful that nature has provided the foods here in the desert for a healthy diet, if only people would listen to her!

  2. Carl Olson

    A lot of research about the benefits of vitamin d against diabetes have been presented lately.

    The best way to increase the level of vitamin D is through exposure of naked skin to sunlight.

    Vitamin D is, however, probably only one of the many other benefits humans are getting from sunlight.

    Already the old Indian scriptures Bhagavad Gita is mentioned not only one sun, but seven, one for each basic color of visible light (like in the rainbow). Those colors are also reflected in the body’s main energy centers, the chakras.

    Interestingly enough so is BG also mentioning an eight sun, named Aroga, which “is above the violet sun, and gives power to all others.” I suppose it is no doubt that this means the UVB-light that makes our bodies create vitamin D.

  3. mba - master universidades

    Diabetes is caused by a problem in how the body makes or uses insulin. Insulin is needed to move blood sugar (glucose) into cells, where it is stored and used later as energy source.

    When you have type 2 diabetes, fat, liver and muscle cells do not respond normally to insulin. This is called insulin resistance. As a result, blood sugar enters the cells to be stored for energy.

    When the sugar can not enter cells, accumulate abnormally high levels of oxygen in the blood, which is called hyperglycemia.

    In general, type 2 diabetes develops slowly over time. Most people with this disease are overweight at the time of diagnosis. Increased body fat makes it difficult to use insulin the right way.

  4. Calgary marketing

    hi Lisa,
    as a former fitness trainer for 25 years I have come across this type of situation hundreds of times and for me it’s comes down to a very simple formula.
    Exercise, at least three times a week for 30 to 60 min. using a combination of cardiovascular and weight training and don’t eat high-fat, high carbohydrate foods on a regular basis and also watch your calorie count.
    now I know this sounds very okay we all know this but it’s amazing how many people just don’t do it right.

  5. Lukas

    Great post. Thanks for sharing. We have published several books about health care. Unfortunately, it’s not in English but will be soon.

  6. Mani

    I just came across this post- how true that foods that peoples in our past lived on food that came from the earth. There was no processed foods then and as Leora said, these foods are not only nourishing and healthy but also medicinal and help prevent and fight many many diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, alzheimers and so on. …introduce people to variety of healthy foods that are also eco-friendly such as whole grains, spices, herbs, beans, fruits, nuts and veggies so that people can start eating healthier and transition to a healthier diet.

  7. deepak mishra

    its a real pleasure to read such post. i agree to this post and want to share that it will be very effective if we provide some extraordinary facilities in villages to for better health programs. The peoples in villages are in need and we must help them. Farmers should provided quality seeds for healthy crops which doesn’t contain any chemicals.

  8. karenmillens

    thx for the video.it really helps me a lot to realize how more people survive

  9. Subrata

    Diabetes is a worldwide problem now. We are eating calorie-dense food without taking enough exercise.
    I think, first step in combating the problem should be to adopt a healthy lifestyle.

  10. Lorna Griess

    I just spent a week in Flagstaff, AZ. Beautiful country. I visited the Grand Canyon again. Thirty years ago a group of us hiked to the bottom, stayed two days and hiked back up. This trip, I especially enjoyed the fresh air, the colorful desert scenery, and the Navaho folklore lectures.
    A comment about diabetes. Eating less and adopting a simpler, unprocessed diet with a lot of fresh vegetables and fruit will go a long way toward healing your body and getting rid of the type II diabetes. Processing food destroys the enzymes and vitamins you need to digest them.

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