Tohono O'odham

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The Past

The Tohono O'odham are a Native American tribe formerly known as the Papago who reside primarily in the Sonoran Desert. "Tohono O'odham" means "People of the Desert." Each February, the Sells Rodeo and Parade is held in in the capital of the Nation. The rodeo has been an annual event for 80 years.

A sovereign nation residing on a small portion of its people's Sonoran desert lands, The Tohono O'odham Nation is organized into 11 districts. The main reservation is located between Tucson and Ajo, Arizona. A few of the districts are not contiguous with the main reservation: The San Xavier district, a square mile in southern Tucson, and Gila Bend (San Lucy) district, and the village of Florence.

Closely-related, the Phoenix-area "Akimel O'odham" (River People) share language and cultural roots. Debates surround tribal origins. Claims that the O'odham moved north as recently as 300 years ago compete with claims that the Hohokam, whose left the Casa Grande Ruins, are their true ancestors.

Actually, the Tohono O'odham live in both northern Mexico and southern Arizona. The Gadsden Purchase split the native lands in half. Tribal members often make the annual pilgrimage to Magdalena, Mexico, during St. Francis festivities.

San Xavier district is the location of a major tourist attraction in Tucson. Mission San Xavier del Bac, the "White Dove of the Desert," built in 1783 under the auspices of Padre Eusebio Kino. Founded in 1700 it is one of the many missions built in the southwest by the Spanish on their northern frontier. The mission is located in South Tucson.

The beauty of the mission often leads tourists to assume that the desert people embraced the catholicism of the Spanish conquistadores. In fact, Tohono O'odham villages have resisted change for hundreds of years. Two major rebellions, in the 1660's and in 1750's, rivaled in scale the 1680 Pueblo Rebellion. The armed resistence prevented increased Spanish incursions on the lands of "Pimeria Alta." The Spanish retreated to what they called "Pimeria Baja." As a result, much of the desert people's traditions remained largely intact for generations.

It was not until "yankees" began moving into Arizona territory that traditional ways were consistently under attack. Boarding schools, the cotton industry, and federal indian policy worked hand-in-glove to promote the "progress" of assimilation into the U.S. mainstream. The structure of the current tribal government, established in the 1930's, is a direct result of commercial, missionary, and federal collaboration. The goal was to make the indians into "real" Americans, yet the boarding schools offered only so much training as was considered necessary to work as migrant workers or housekeepers. "Assimilation" was the official politcy, but full participation was not the goal. Boarding school students were supposed to function within the United States' segregated society as economic laborers, not leaders.

Despite a hundered years of being told and made to change, the Tohono O'odham have entered the 21st century with pride in their traditions and their language still spoken. However, recent decades have brought increasing diffiiculties.

The Present

Now numbering over 30,000 people, the Tohono O'odham tribe gains most of its income from its two Desert Diamond casinos. This source of income is barely a decade old. It has paid for the tribe's first fire department, but the casinos cannot cover tribal members' numerous basic needs. Housing, emergency services, medical, and educational needs require expensive infrastructure, including transportation, personnel, and technology.

The U.S.-Mexico border incurs further costs to the tribal government. Many of the hundreds of people crossing the Sonoran desert, to work in U.S. agriculture or to smuggle controlled substances, seek emergency assistance from the Tohono O'odham police when they become dehydrated or get stranded. On the ground, Border Patrol emergency rescue and tribal EMT coordinate and communicate. However, the tribe pays a disproportionate amount of the bills for border-related law enforcement and emergency services. The govenor of Arizona, Janet Napolitano, and Tohono O'odham government leaders, have repeatedly requested that the Federal government repay the state and the tribe for the costs of border-related emergencies.

Reimbursement could significantly help tribal members. Since the 1960's, adult-onset diabetes has become commonplace among tribal members. Half to three-quarters of all adults are diagnosed with the disease, and a good third of the tribe's adults require regular medical treatment. Federal medical programs have failed to prevent or minimize the devastating effects of the disease.

Rather than await the "quick fix" diabetes cure, which medical authorities have promised to develop for thirty years, tribal members have turned to traditional foods and traditional games for inexpensive, effective, management of the disease. The cultural resources of the tribe are endangered -- particularly the language -- but stronger than many other tribes located in the United States.

Over the past fifteen years, a cultural revitalization of traditional basket weaving, the native language, desert foods, and traditional games, have gained momentum. The Elder Danny Lopez and the non-profit organization TOCA (Tohono O'odham Community Action) have been at the forefront of these movements.

At the National Museum for the the American Indian (NMAI), the Tohono O'odham were one of the few tribes represented in a founding exhibition. Mr. Lopez blessed the exhibit. In 2004, the Heard Museum awarded Danny Lopez its first heritage award, recognizing his life-long work sustaining the desert people's way of life.

Recently published sources

  • Desert Indian Woman by Frances Manuel and Deborah Neff (2001, University of Arizona Press)
  • "Weaving the Dream," by Terrol Dew Johnson and Tristan Reader (in Hold Everything! Masterworks of Basketry and Pottery from the Heard Museum, 2001, Heard Musuem publication)

External Links

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