By Cheyanne Boehm
In my short time here with the Center for Rural Health, I had an incredible opportunity to travel with Agnes Attakai and visit the Tohono O’odham Nations to learn about the preventative health programs they have in place.
Being a Canadian pharmacy student, I was not very familiar with the vast geography or districts in Arizona prior to my arrival. Thus, I was quite mesmerized by the hills of Saguaro cactus and the Sonoran desert landscape as we drove down the one-lane highway leading to the reservation. Upon approaching the Baboquivari Mountains, I was surprised to learn that the Tohono O’odham reservation encompasses these mountains, and that it is the third largest reservation in America, spanning over 4,450 square miles of land. More surprising to me was hearing about the incredibly high rate of diabetes amongst the members of this reservation, with estimates suggesting over 50% of adults afflicted with the disease. I found it interesting how the community addressed the challenges of diabetes. One such example of this was the Desert Rain Café. The Desert Rain Café is a project of the Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), a non-profit organization dedicated to creating a healthy, culturally vital and sustainable community. The Desert Rain Café creates healthy dishes that are sensitive to the dietary needs of diabetics, and does this using the traditional foods that were once used to sustain the ancestors of the Tohono O’odham, or the “Desert People”. Since we were nearby, and I had yet to eat breakfast, Agnes and I stopped by the Desert Rain Café to try out these traditional dishes. With a Desert Rain scrambler of eggs and green chile, a mesquite cookie and prickly pear fruit smoothie we were soon off on our way to the Tohono O’odham Cancer Partnership meeting.
The vision of the Tohono O’odham Cancer Partnership is “Tohono O’odham living long, cancer-free, and fulfilling lives through cultural and healthy lifestyle practices.” The Prevention Committee meeting of the partnership specifically targeted the creation of programs to encourage smoking cessation, as well as the final planning stages of the 2nd Annual Cancer Health & Wellness Day. The Annual Cancer Health & Wellness Day is a community-focused event that is designed to provide individuals with the opportunity to ask health professionals questions about cancer, to learn about cancer preventative measures, as well as to hear from cancer survivors from the Tohono O’odham community. The Wellness Day also provides a forum for other tribal organizations to share their program successes, such as the Hopi Women’s Program, and allows the community members in attendance to make changes right then and there to better their health, for instance they can make an appointment for a pap screening. By incorporating tradition activities with the Wellness day, this method of health education seeks to address some underlying myths of cancer in some American Indian communities.
After a successful meeting, Agnes toured me around the reservation and the new health center offices, which were beautifully colored in desert hues. On our way past the hospital, we found a food stand serving traditional red chile with pop overs and enjoyed a quick bite to eat before heading back to Tucson. Overall this trip to the Tohono O’odham was not only an educational experience, but also a cultural one as I discovered traditional foods and the impact that belief systems have on health prevention programs.
Cheyanne Boehm, B.S.P. Candidate 2012