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Native Seeds/SEARCH

By David Mendosa

Last Update: January 17, 2001

What relevance could an obscure organization set up to help Native Americans of the Sonoran Desert find seeds for growing traditional crops possibly have for people with diabetes? 

Teparies have a pleasantly earthy taste


The organization called Native Seeds/SEARCH, grew out of work that Ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan and Mahina Drees were doing in the early 1980s at Meals for Millions. That federally funded program aimed in part to make rural and semi-rural communities nutritionally self-sufficient. 

They discovered that many of the Native American desert communities had lost both their traditional farming methods and their stock of seeds. They kept hearing from the people on the Tohono O'Odham reservation that they would like to grow the crops of their grandparents, but couldn't find the seeds. 

The Tohono O'Odham, meaning people of the desert, were formerly known as the Papago, from the Spanish Papabotas or bean eaters. They are closely related to the Pima, who call themselves the Akimel O'Odham and who have the unenviable distinction of the highest rate of diabetes in the world—50 percent of all those over 35. Both O'Odham peoples are related to the third nation of the Arizona desert, the Yaqui, who call themselves the Yoeme.

 None of these tribal nations are very big. The 1990 census counted 16,876 Tohono O'Odham, 15,074 Pima, and 9,838 Yaqui. But because of the high rate of diabetes among all three nations, they have an importance far greater than their numbers would indicate. 

Each of these nations benefits from the work of Native Seeds/SEARCH. The acronym stands for Southwest Endangered Arid-Lands Resources Clearinghouse. Nabhan and Drees, together with their spouses, in 1983 founded this non-profit organization in Tucson. They sent staff members to remote corners of the desert, often on foot or muleback, to recover seeds. 

Since then, Native Seeds/SEARCH has become a major regional seed bank and a leader in the heirloom seed movement. Its seed bank includes 1,800 collections, many of them rare or endangered. More than 90 percent of these crop varieties are not being systematically preserved elsewhere. 

The organization's Desert Foods for Diabetes project promotes the production and consumption of traditional desert foods to combat diabetes. Videotapes and printed materials produced from a Native America perspective make individuals, teachers, and health professionals aware of how eating these foods may help them avoid diabetes—or if they already have it, help regulate blood glucose. 

Diabetes Project Coordinator Felipe Molina, who is himself a member of the Yaqui nation, says that they focus on promoting five slow release foods. Slowly digested and absorbed, these are foods that are low on the glycemic index. These foods are beans—particularly tepary beans—chia seeds, prickly pear pad or nopalitos, mesquite flour, and acorns. 

"Tepary beans are the most accepted by the people," Molina says. "They previously ate pinto beans, which are similar."

 But pinto beans have a higher glycemic index—55 on the scale where white bread equals 100. Teparies have a glycemic index of 41 to 44. Only two beans—soy and chana dal—have lower indexes. 

Teparies have a pleasantly earthy taste that I love. They need more time to cook than modern varieties and go beautifully with cumin, garlic, olive oil and pungent herbs such as sage, bay, oregano, or thyme—the seasonings indigenous to the Southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. A friend tells me that the combine well with meat and that you can make a robust soup by combining them with barley. 

Native Seeds/SEARCH sells seeds, beans, and crafts in its Tucson store, through its mail order catalog, and for the past two years through its Web site, says Distribution Manager Julie Kornmeyer. The tepary beans are what sell the most. 

"But we still have limited quantity," she says. Two contract growers in Colorado grow most of their teparies. And Native Seeds/SEARCH is by far the biggest producer of teparies, the only producer she knows of besides two local coop efforts. 

"The extent of my supply is 1,250 pounds of the white, 600 of the brown, and 300 each of the blue-speckled and Paiute," she says. That's just 41 bushels. 

That's far fewer than the 150,000 bushels that California alone produced in 1917, according to a 1926 article "The Digestibility of Tepary Beans." 

Tepary beans may be making a comeback in the diet of the peoples of the desert and become a staple of others with diabetes. If that happens, it will be because of the work of the dedicated people at Native Seeds/SEARCH. 

The American Diabetes Association originally published this article on its Web site as one of my “About the Internet” columns.

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