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Science from USDA, Building on Tribal Traditions

Recently, I visited Tohono O’odham Community College, in Sells, AZ, one of the tribal colleges that the Department of Agriculture supports around the country to level the playing field and open the doors of higher education to more young people. The Tohono O’odham or “Desert People” live in the Sonoran Desert on tribal lands in the southern part of the state, bordering Mexico. The terrain is flat, dry desert and presents numerous agricultural challenges that USDA helps students address through research and hands-on training, teaching traditional scientific disciplines – but through the lens of the tribe’s needs and culture.

The college is doing a lot of work to keep their tribal language alive, providing language classes for all students. But science professor Dr. Teresa Newberry has taken that to a whole new level by building a Web-based database of plants that is built in three languages: English, Latin and Tohono O’odham. It’s the kind of project that integrates the native culture into learning in a practical, living way.

They’re also looking for ways to guarantee they’ll always be able to grow their traditional foods even in the hotter and drier climate that may lie ahead. Faculty and staff are gathering over 30 different varieties of tepary bean and working with the NRCS plant material center, propagating these varieties so they can be planted out in the field. This is a real example of connecting traditional knowledge, science and providing options to adapt to a changing climate.

In another study funded by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, students from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell are working with Tohono O’odham students and local plumbers, electricians, and others from the reservation to build a house that is totally powered by solar energy. The house has been a great success, proving to be so energy-efficient that it’s feeding energy back to the grid.

Students at Tohono O’odham Community College are happy that they have an option to get an education in science, and in other professions that affect agriculture, right there at home and can take the skills they learn back to their community to help solve local problems.

My visit to Tohono O’odham Community College was a good reminder of how our work at USDA is really woven into the fabric of the communities we serve. It also showed me how valuable it is to enhance the culture that exists in every corner of the country we touch with the advanced education, training and research support that USDA offers every day.

USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics, Dr. Ann Bartuska, gets a tour of the solar-powered house that students from the Tohono O’odham Community College built with students and faculty from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell as part of a project funded by a USDA grant.

USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics, Dr. Ann Bartuska, gets a tour of the solar-powered house that students from the Tohono O’odham Community College built with students and faculty from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell as part of a project funded by a USDA grant.

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