Food for Thought: Stories from Sky’s Stomach

Nov 20, 2012 | Blog, Native American Heritage Month

“You are what you eat” is a food saying I have already used on my blog, but for this particular post I felt I should use it again to jump into the thought. November is Native American Heritage Month and I felt I should do the term some justice in this blog to show my pride. I am Tohono O’odham and I have a rich heritage.

Food is tied into my heritage, including the future, the past, and present. I can still taste the same variety of squash the ancestors planted centuries ago. The taste connects me, but there is something more to it than the taste that makes me feels nostalgic.

My first major writing work that got published was about traditional foods. I was attending Tohono O’odham Community College (TOCC) and I had a space to plant a small garden. I had never planted before and wanted to try to grow traditional crops. Since I was attending TOCC, I had the resources to help me expand an idea that became the article I wrote and published in the college’s newsletter.

Traditionally the Tohono O’odham were farmers, although agriculture is not as prevalent as it was back in the day. The history of food is still vital to discussing culture. It’s what feeds us.  There are specific seeds that grow well in the region, but there are stories behind those seeds that influence the culture. There are seeds that are indigenous to the land, but there are also seeds that were introduced to the Tohono O’odham through the contact of outside cultures. These particular seeds grow extremely well in the climate. Seeds like the tepary bean actually thrive on lack of irrigation. Planting was more than source of food for the Tohono O’odham. It was an obligation. It was survival.

Many Native American tribes have a creation or emergence story explaining how things came to be, some which include guidelines to maintain a balance. The state of well-being all entangled in responsibilities with the earth is the objective of these stories.

There are wild foods growing everywhere on the planet that can be harvested by anyone willing. What if it was the only food available? Humans need food and there is a nostalgic feeling to feeding yourself straight from the earth without paying a grocery attendant or a waiter at Chili’s. The concept of eating has changed in the past century. We’re not starving, but we’re not hungry, either. There is an experience lost when we pay money to feed ourselves. Maybe there is a difference between being fed and trying to survive. Knowing the history of our food might just be enough to fulfill that experience. In our stories there is usually a reference to the people needing to live off of the land and survive. Food is a part of who we are. All of us.

The seasons on earth change the plants and the availability of certain fruits and other food items that can be found outside the grocery store and force people to stay connected to “mother nature.” I remember as a kid taking the sap from the mesquite tree bark. It has a sweetness resembling a molasses flavor but with an earthy twist. In Tohono O’odham it’s call u:sp, but in popular terms it is the sap that trees produce to protect themselves. But as kids we would collect u:sp and I saw it as a treat, like it was candy from the desert. Our parents wouldn’t let us eat sweets, but they forgot about the candy that grew on the mesquite trees. It wasn’t an everyday activity and that’s the important thing to know about harvesting wild vegetation: location of the plant and knowing when is the best time to harvest.

Harvesting is a rite of passage because the person harvesting is connecting to the plant, but also with the past while sustaining the future. The knowledge is being passed down, not through any written forms, but by practicing the traditions of the ancestors while we maintain a close relationship to the earth.

The times are changing so fast I believe that some of these practices, such as planting a small garden or harvesting ciolim (cholla buds), is important to stay grounded in our ongoing relationship with the earth. “You are what you eat” applies to the situation perfectly because the food that is being harvested is the same food that kept the people from going hungry centuries ago. If this food didn’t exist would I exist? If I no longer harvest and eat it, do I exist?

Food is also the element that has been a way for people to connect and relate. The sharing of flavors and stories all poured out on the dinner table, creating closeness for the people. This Native American Heritage Month it is important to remember that we must share knowledge with the people. It helps us bond while simply eating a meal while enjoying the taste of home.

Agriculture in America has been commercialized over the centuries. The self-sufficient farms run by the community or a large family declined when men joined the military and left their fields to wither, or left their own fields because they got paid in dollars, or grew a commercial crop  like cotton. As America grew, business fell into lock-step with agriculture. Today the source of our produce is really unknown after it gets to a grocery store.

The commodities program implemented into the United States really shifted Native communities because there were new ingredients and unfamiliar commodities. The influence of American culture produced the famous Popover or Fry-bread. Lard, grease, flour, and salt are the ingredients. Fry-bread is the taste of making do with government commodities, but doing it deliciously.

Sky is a senior creative writing major at the University of Arizona. He has lived in Arizona his entire life, on and off the Tohono O’odham Rez. His started his academic career at the Tohono O’odham Community College in Sells, AZ.

“I feel it’s important to learn where you come from and to know your culture. However I also am just a poor college kid trying to be successful. My perspectives are all over the grid.” To read more of his thoughts on food and culture, visit his “Stories From My Stomach” WordPress Blog at

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