Tribe has highest rate of type 2 diabetes in world
Fifty years ago, diabetes was unheard of among the Tohono O'odham people.
Today, more than half of all Tohono O'odham adults suffer from type 2, or adult-onset diabetes, the highest rate in the world. The type 2 incidence among
the O'odham is eight times that of the general population in the United States. And children barely old enough to enter kindergarten are developing the
Among those living with type 2 diabetes is Terrol Dew Johnson, a 35-year-old O'odham community activist and artist, who recently embarked on what he's calling
"the walk home" or "a 3,000-mile journey to Native American wellness."
On June 16, Johnson and four of his young relatives began a walk across the United States - from Maine to Arizona - to get fit and to promote native foods
and culture. The group will visit native and non-native communities during their travels.
Johnson is co-founder and co-director of Tohono O'odham Community Action, a nonprofit group in Sells that advocates a return to a traditional Tohono O'odham
diet as a solution to the epidemic of type 2 diabetes.
TOCA operates a 100-acre farm on which it grows tepary beans, squash, corn and melons. Such crops, along with cholla buds and saguaro fruit, were once staples
of the Tohono O'odham diet.
"Every village on the reservation had their own farms, worked the land and grew their own foods," Johnson said. "There there wasn't much obesity."
During World War II, Tohono O'odham men left their farms to serve in the military, where they were introduced to processed foods, Johnson said. At the same
time, he said, the government encouraged women and children to work in the commercial cotton fields.
By the 1950s, the Tohono O'odham farming tradition was dying out. Lard, sugar and flour, courtesy of the government commodities program, became the new
staples of the Tohono O'odham diet.
Since founding TOCA in 1996 with Tristan Reader, Johnson has been working to revitalize the tribe, to reconnect the people to their culture, their language,
the environment and the native foods.
It's not easy. Poverty on the reservation makes it hard for people to make healthful eating decisions, Johnson said. If you're poor, are you going to spend
$1 for a head of lettuce or use that same dollar to buy 10 packages of Top Ramen? he asked. Are you going to spend $1 for two loaves of white bread or
$3 for one loaf of whole wheat bread?
Even as an advocate for healthful living, Johnson has found it hard to follow his own counsel, which is the reason for the 3,000-mile walk.
"I wasn't living the talk," he said. "I wasn't doing the stuff that I was talking about to the community."
"I live in Tucson and I'm single, chronically single, and I don't cook . . . On each corner of my neighborhood, there is a fast-food place," Johnson said.
Those places offer fast, cheap and tasty choices. But about four years ago, Johnson began cooking more frequently at home, mostly soups or stews that he
could freeze in portion-sized containers. And he started moving around more, getting some exercise.
"It was a lifestyle change and it is still a lifestyle change."
Joining Johnson on his journey are Desaray Reino, 16, Maray Johnson, 14, Shane Johnson, 16, and Judy Silas, 12. For those wondering about their schooling
during this walk, the youths will be home-schooled and complete lessons on laptop computers.
They didn't do any advance training, so they are building up their daily mileage. For now, the group is walking 12 to 15 miles a day and camping out at
night, Johnson said. A support staff of one sets up the camp and prepares the meals.
To date, the group has traveled 260 miles through Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts and hopes to soon cross into Connecticut.
"We're getting to see a lot of beautiful countryside,'' Johnson said. "It's amazing what all these kids haven't seen before All we were used to growing
up were cactus and rocks.''
Johnson has taken an 18-month sabbatical from TOCA and is dedicated to completing the walk, no matter how long it takes.
"I am a really slow walker," he said.
To learn more about "The Walk Home," or to help the group with its expenses, go to