Planting Seeds of Cultural Revitalization

Mesquite flour, tepary beans, squash, prickly pear fruit and 60-day corn, once the staple foods of Arizona’s Akimel O’Otham Gila River Community, are making a comeback.  

At the Vechij Himdag Alternative School for at-risk O’Otham youth in Sacaton, Ariz., the first fruits of the fall garden include a new crop of jalapeño peppers. But what’s growing even faster than the school’s garden is the cultural revitalization and traditional foods movement within the community. 

To support the effort, a Verizon Foundation grant to the charter school will blend technology and centuries-old farming practices. The grant will help the school design an O’Otham curriculum around traditional farming practices and use technology to document and share knowledge about native foods.

The grant is part of Verizon’s Ajohba Initiative in the Western U.S., named for the Diné word for humility and kindness. Ajohba (ah-JO-ba) is a community-centric approach to philanthropy on indigenous lands that prioritizes community needs and supports cultural revitalization and preservation.

Lyla Johnston, Verizon Wireless’ Native American cultural liaison, collaborated with school principal Kim Franklin and assistant principal Marland Toyekoyah on the grant presentation ceremony on Oct. 24, which included a potluck meal of traditional foods. “We are honored to provide a grant that weaves culture into curriculum, and to plant a seed that will grow into something beautiful and restore pride in who we are,” Johnston said. “In the spirit of Ajohba, we are happy to support your dreams as a school.”

Lieutenant Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community also addressed the tribe and its guests. “Technology, education and culture are all coming together at this special school. It’s an honor to gather together and share in traditional foods. There’s a movement in our community to grow our own fruits and vegetables and other organic foods. This is really the first step as we bring back the water to our community.”

Gila River Indian Community Councilwoman Monica Lynn Antone also shared a blessing saying that the grant from the Verizon Foundation “would help plant the seeds to build a foundation” and effect positive change not only at the school, but also within the community.