For many tribal college students on American Indian reservations, choosing an education at a tribal college is often about being close to their community. Tohono O’odham Community College (TOCC) student Sky walks a few meters between home and his classes to carry his knowledge to the O’odham people.
Sky started his freshman year of college in Tempe, Arizona, many miles from the rural reservation in Sells. Sky left after that first year, describing it as a tough transition, going to class with lots of strangers in an auditorium. He returned home to take a few classes at the tribal college where the student-professor ratio is much smaller; his fellow classmates are also neighbors and tribal members; and students enjoy personal relationships with their instructors.
After working at casinos and odd jobs, Sky realized that he could complete his higher education goals by literally walking next door to where he has lived for the past 10 years.
“I had a moment of clarity; then, I walked home. I’ll just finish my school here, and better my community. That’s all I wanted to do,” Sky says.
Based on his leadership and academic performance, Sky was named an American Indian College Fund student of the year in 2010. He completed his studies at the two-year college in May and is enrolled at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where he is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in education.
Sky says, “It’s more than just me finishing my education, it’s about me going back home and teaching people and giving them something that wasn’t there before. Showing opportunity, giving them initiative. It’s so much more than the funding (I get from the American Indian College Fund). It’s not just about helping me, it’s about helping my people.”
The Tohono O’odham traditions of hard work and patience propelled Sky to accept the role of learning about and teaching the community about the people’s traditional, sustainable foods. He stresses that food sources, awareness of the human relationship to nature, and working together were integral to Native peoples' survival. He adds that these practices can help fight the high rates of diabetes in the Native community today.
“The squash, corn, and beans are indigenous foods left by our Creator and have sustained us for years,” he said. “We were farmers with limited water that we collected from rain and the washes for irrigation. The O’odham, that connection with the land, the relationship with the trees and the desert and the fields is almost like working with a person, the universe; they are all in tune.”
Sky hosts workshops to delve deep into preservation and extended knowledge of the culture. He teaches life lessons by sharing the entire growing, harvesting and preservation process of making ga’iwsa, a roasted corn soup created from huñ, a smaller indigenous corn with a 60-day growing cycle that can be preserved year-long.
“Our youth want to know what’s out there and we need to teach them. That is what I plan to do and that’s what I’m doing now. I’m teaching. By teaching, I’m also learning,” Sky says. “I want to show how important growing your own food is, what traditional food is, and knowing how far it goes back. The corn is in our stories, it’s been with us the whole time, almost like a relative, but if we are not planting it, that relationship doesn’t exist. We’re losing it."
“This is all we ate, besides what is seasonal out in the desert. We still have the ability, the seeds, the soil, and the ability to be self-sufficient. We don’t need to depend on any grocery stores, commodities, or other food sources but ourselves.”—Sky