Tohono O’odham (Native Americans of the Southwest)

Tohono O’odham are also known as Papago or Desert People. The name Papago is derived from the Pima word Papahvio-Otam, meaning "bean people." They are also known as Two Villagers, owing to their traditional migration patterns (see "History" under "Historical Information"). They, along with the Pima (Akimel O’odham, or River People, also known as One Villagers because of their relatively settled lives), the Sand Papago (Hia-ced O’odham, also known as No Villagers, because of their more or less constant migrations in search of food), and the Ak-Chin ("mouth of the arroyo") O’odham, constitute the O’odham Indians.

Location The Tohono O’odham lived originally in the Sonoran Desert near the Gulf of California. (The Sand Papago lived in the western and most arid parts of the Sonoran Desert.) Today they live in four reservations in southern Arizona (see "Government/ Reservations" under "Contemporary Information").

Population Up to 50,000 Tohono O’odham probably lived in the region in 1500, although their numbers had shrunk to about 3,000 by 1700. In 1990, approximately 8,500 people lived on the main reservation. Another 400 lived at Ak Chin, almost 1,100 lived at San Xavier, about 500 lived at Gila Bend, and several thousand lived off-reservation. The enrolled membership in 1991 was 17,589.

Language The native language of the Tohono O’odham is Piman, a Uto-Aztecan language.

Historical Information

History The O’odham are probably descended from the ancient Hohokam Indians. Unlike the Hohokam or the Pima, the Tohono O’odham were seminomadic. They generally spent summers in their "field villages" in the desert, usually at the mouth of an arroyo, where flash floods would provided needed water. Winters were spent in "well villages," by mountain springs.

The Tohono O’odham may have first met non-natives in the 1500s. They experienced extensive contact with the Spanish in late 1600s when Father Eusebio Kino established numerous Catholic missions and introduced cattle, horses, and wheat (1684). The Spanish also established a series of presidios against the growing Apache threat. Although too isolated to have had to endure harsh forced labor and agricultural taxes as did the Pima, some Tohono O’odham, such as Luis Oacpicagigua and others, participated in the Pima revolt of 1751.

Apaches constituted the major threat from the eighteenth century through the mid-nineteenth century. During this time, the Sand Papago died off or became assimilated with the Spanish or surrounding tribes. From 1840 to 1843, the Papago fought and lost a war against Mexico in an attempt to stop the usurpation of their lands. With the Gadsden Purchase (1853), the Tohono O’odham lost the part of their territory that remained in Mexico, although they tended to ignore the international border for many years. Despite tighter border restrictions today, Tohono O’odham Indians living in Sonora and the United States remain in contact.

In the 1860s, the Papago fought with the Pima, Pee-Posh, and U.S. troops against the Apaches. Still, Anglos appropriated their water holes and grazing land, resulting in conflict and some violence. San Xavier Reservation was founded in 1874, with Gila Bend Reservation following in 1882. The Papago Reservation was established in 1916 and 1917, albeit without most of the Tohono O’odhams’ best lands.

The railroad came to Tucson in the 1880s, bringing an increase of cattlemen and miners into O’odham territory. The cattle lost by these people began important O’odham herds. By the end of the century, countless Papago (and other Indian) girls were working as domestics for whites through Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) programs at the Phoenix Indian School. About this time, and concurrent with the rise of many Christian schools, the O’odham culture declined markedly.

A field camp at Vecol Wash became the permanent settlement of the Ak Chin O’odham in the 1870s; Pimas and Maricopas lived there too. In the early wage economy, O’odham potters sold and traded water-cooling ollas; men cut firewood; basket makers sold baskets. Cotton picking became the most important economic activity through the 1950s. In the 1970s, a severe drought killed many cattle, reducing the Papago to near starvation.

Religion The Tohono O’odham worshiped Earth Maker (Tcuwut Makai) and Elder Brother (I’itoi, or Se’ehe), the heroes of their creation story, whose sacred home is Baboquivari Peak in southern Arizona. Ceremonies encouraged these spirits to bring the rain that made food possible. The people also made annual pilgrimages to salt flats near the Gulf of California, home of the rain spirits, to pray to them.

Their most sacred ceremony was Nawait, or the new year’s rain ceremony, which they celebrated with saguaro wine. Other important ceremonial occasions included puberty (especially for girls), funerals, the summer cactus wine feast, the "naming" (to honor and entertain other groups), purification following childbirth, sickness, the corn harvest, the deer hunt, the early winter harvest, purification for an eagle killing, warfare, and the annual salt expeditions.

Shamans, both men and older women, derived curing power from dreams. Although many Papagos became Catholic in the eighteenth century, having clustered around Spanish presidios and missions to escape the Apache, it was a Catholicism heavily mixed with traditional beliefs.

Government The Tohono O’odham were organized into autonomous villages. Although each village had a chief (there was no tribal chief), decisions were taken by consensus. Each village also had shamans, a headman who set the agenda for meetings and mediated conflict, and an all-male council. They also recognized a ceremonial leader, akin to the headman, called Keeper of the Smoke. Other officials included a village crier, war leader, hunt leader, game leader, and song leader.

Customs A universal O’odham concept of the way of life (Himdag) centers on family, community, generosity, and modesty. The Papago made annual visits to relatives on the Gila River or in the Sonora River Valleys. In times of famine, families often moved to Pima villages along the Gila River. Every four years the Papago and Pima together celebrated Viikita, a holiday dedicated to ensuring their continued fortune, with dancers and clowns dressed in masks and costumes.

Each Tohono O’odham village was divided into two clans, Buzzard and Coyote. Their year began when the cactus fruit ripened. Gifts and wagering were major forms of exchange. Games and races also held cultural importance. With the exception of warriors, who were cremated, the dead were dressed in their best clothing and buried with their personal property in caves, crevices, or stone houses.

Dwellings Like those of the Pimas, everyday Papago houses were circular and constructed of saguaro and ocotillo ribs and mesquite covered with mud and brush. Ceremonial houses were similar, but larger.

Wall-less ramadas provided shelter for most outdoor activities in good weather. Sand Papagos used small rings of stone as temporary windbreaks.

Diet The key to survival in the desert was diversification. The goal of the Papago was security rather than surpluses. Men grew corn, beans, and squash. Later the Spanish introduced cowpeas, melons, and wheat. Winter wheat especially provided an edge against starvation. The people also hunted, primarily in the winter. Wild foods such as mescal, mesquite beans, ironwood and paloverde seeds, cactus fruits, amaranth and other greens, wild chilies, acorns, and sand root provided about three-quarters of their diet. Saguaro wine was used on ceremonial occasions. During hard times the Papago "hired out" to Pima Indians, exchanging labor for food. The Sand Papago ate shellfish from the Gulf of California, reptiles, insects, and small mammals. A staple was the parasitic plant sand root.

Key Technology The Desert People baked in pit ovens. They used long poles called kuibits to knock down saguaro fruit. The use of calendar sticks, with carved dots and circles to record important ceremonies, began in the early 1830s. Notches referred to secular events, such as earthquakes or Apache attacks. Other equipment included carrying nets, frame backpacks, and cradle boards. In characteristic ak chin farming, men built dams to channel water runoff into one major arroyo. When the flash floods arrived, they would water the fields by erecting brush spreader dams across the arroyo. After contact with the Spanish, the Desert People adopted picks, shovels, and horse- and oxen-drawn plows and wagons.

Trade Trade occurred mostly in the fall and winter. The Tohono O’odham traded meat, baskets, pottery, salt, shells, mineral pigments, and macaws for corn and, later, wheat from Pimas and Quechans. The Sand Papago also traded with Yuman peoples on the Colorado River.

Notable Arts Specialized arts included coiled willow, devil’s claw, yucca, and bear grass baskets. Older people made a traditional red pottery.

Transportation Baskets were used for transporting goods.

Dress Men wore cotton or deerskin breechcloths. Women wore cloth, willow bark, or deerskin wraparound skirts. Both sexes used hide or fiber sandals and cotton and rabbit-skin blankets. They also grew their hair long, wore ear pendants of turquoise and other stones, and tattooed and painted their bodies.

War and Weapons Traditional enemies of the Papago included the Mojave and the Apache.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Tohono O’odham live on four reservations in southern Arizona, with a combined acreage of over 2.8 million: San Xavier (1874); Gila Bend (1882, although most of this reservation was lost by flooding caused by the Painted Rock Dam); Ak Chin (1912); and Papago, or Sells (1874). The people are in regular communication with O’odham living in Mexico.

In this roofless Papago kitchen a young girl scrapes corn; the woman inside is cooking tortillas (1895).

In this roofless Papago kitchen a young girl scrapes corn; the woman inside is cooking tortillas (1895).

A tribal constitution and by-laws were ratified in 1937, and an elected tribal council, from the Papago Reservation plus San Xavier and Gila Bend, runs tribal political affairs. Decision making is decentralized, with district tribal councils acting to preserve the interests of the community. A 1986 constitutional revision created a tripartite form of government. The BIA still maintains direct influence over the tribe.

Economy Important economic activities include mining (mostly copper) and chemical businesses;license fees paid by traders and hunters; farming; cattle, including both individual subsistence herds and large herds owned by wealthy families; bingo; and fire fighting. Wage work is also provided by the tribe, the BIA, the health service, and businesses in nearby cities and towns. Arts and crafts include world-famous baskets, pottery, wooden bowls, horsehair miniatures, and lariats. The San Xavier Reservation has recently opened an industrial park. Unemployment often remains above 30 percent.

Legal Status The Ak Chin Indian Community of Papago Indians and the Tohono O’odham Nation of Arizona (formerly the Papago Tribe of the Sells, Gila Bend, and San Xavier Reservations) are federally recognized tribal entities. The Sand Papago won recognition in 1980s but own no land to date.

Daily Life With the advent of drilled wells and a dependable water supply, the O’odham no longer migrate to mountain well villages; thus has their immemorial relationship with their environment and their world been changed forever. The Fiesta de Magdalena, a combination harvest, trade, and religious festival held every fall in Sonora, Mexico, remains the most powerful connection of the Arizona O’odham to Mexico. English has largely replaced Spanish as a second language.

Many O’odham still live in extended families, and they still strive for consensus decision making. More than three-quarters of O’odham Indians are at least nominally Catholic. Schools use local resources to teach native language and culture; the main reservation contains both schools and a hospital. In addition, the tribe works closely with the University of Arizona to develop and institute a wide variety of educational programs available to tribal members. A rodeo and fair are held at Sells in October; the Saguaro Festival is also celebrated. Many, perhaps a majority, of O’odham Indians live off-reservation.

At San Xavier, allotment policies in 1890 gave most of the land to individuals. With division by inheritance, 400-500 people may own an acre today, making individual land use almost impossible. These people practice cooperative farming. The Ak-chin O’odham speak a distinct dialect and consider themselves neither Tohono O’odham nor Pima.

Having abandoned subsistence farming in the 1930s, they now operate a cotton cooperative. Acculturation at Ak-chin is far advanced.

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