This section covers the history of Native American groups occupying the area in the vicinity of Saguaro National Monument from European contact to the present. The discussion also provides a brief look at the specialized cultural adaptation of these groups to the unique and sometimes inhospitable environment of the Tucson Basin.
The first documented European contact with indigenous groups occurred in the late 1600s when Jesuits penetrated into what is now southern Arizona, establishing missions along the rivers. The Spanish called the native peoples in this area the "Pimas Altos," literally the Upper Pima Indians, "to distinguish them from their linguistic bretheren, the . . . Lower Pima . . . who lived far to the south in lower Sonora."  Apparently recognizing some cultural differences among these Upper Pima peoples, the Spanish coined names for local groups. Although the various terms were often used in an inconsistent manner, and terminology changed through time, the name "Papago" was generally reserved for farmers who lived away from the rivers. Groups living in the San Pedro and Santa Cruz River valleys came to be known as the "Sobaipuris," while the lands northwest of the study area, along the Salt and Gila Rivers, were occupied by the Pima.
When Padre Eusebio Kino and his fellow missionaries visited the Tucson Basin in 1694, the Santa Cruz River valley was controlled by the Sobaipuri. West of the Santa Cruz River, the desert lands were generally occupied by the Papago. Over the next century, these groups were heavily impacted by the newly-arrived Europeans. Spanish priests and soldiers established several presidios and more than two dozen missions and visitas in southern Arizona and northern Sonora, most concentrated in the irrigated river valleys. Following the 1736 silver strike near present-day Nogales, Sonora, Spanish prospectors ranged through the area. Along the eastern limits of Piman territory, various Apache groups continued to raid and harass the Sobaipuri and other Pima-speaking groups who for their own physical and economic survival became increasingly allied with the Spanish. Following three-quarters of a century of Spanish missionization and Apache depredations, the eastern Sobaipuri were resettled at Tucson.  About 1770, some of the Sobaipuri refugees left to join the Piman groups living along the Gila River; the rest were absorbed by local Papagos, and "after that time the Sobaipuris were no longer named as an ethnic enclave." 
The Sobaipuris had been the "most permanently fixed" of the various Piman groups.  Their villages were situated along streams where floral and faunal resources, including freshwater fish, were concentrated. The rich alluvial soils of the river floodplains were well suited to agriculture, and both canal irrigation and floodwater farming were far more reliable than dry farming. At Bac (near present-day Tucson), the Sobaipuri were practicing canal irrigation when the Spanish arrived. Adding wheat to their repertory of foodstuffs further expanded their dependence upon the riverine environment.
The Papago or Tohono O'odham (desert people) developed a different adaptation to life in the Sonoran Desert. When first encountered by the Spanish, the Tohono settlements were scattered over about 24,000 square miles. Tohono dwellings were round buildings with a dry earth roof and brush walls. Some of the habitation clusters were "hardly more than camps. Others were tiny villages occupied only seasonally, and still others [closer to a riverine environment] were large and permanent."  Siting was based primarily on the presence of water. Traditionally the Tohono O'odham had a "back and forth" or "two village" life style with a winter home in the hills near the springs, a summer home in the fields, and a mid-summer cactus camp, established in areas where the Saguaro cacti were concentrated.  This semi-annual shifting settlement pattern allowed the Tohono to "take advantage of ephemeral water supplies and of seasonally maturing wild plant foods." 
The mixed Tohono O'odham economy included agriculture as well as hunting and gathering. They gathered from the vast "cornucopia of wild plants."  A typical list of wild plant foods includes the following:
Protein was supplied by a wide variety of animal foods. The Tohono O'odham hunted
This area has an annual rainfall of about 10 to 11 inches which comes in the form of summer and winter storms. Often springs found in the hills provided the only source of a permanent water supply. Yet the farming skill of the Tohono O'odham was "very effective and was the envy of ordinary dry farmers."  As an example, they put brush dams at the "mouths of arroyos where these natural ditches emptied their harvests of mountainside rainfall. ..."  These water-harvesting techniques diverted the floodwaters onto the valley fields where the Tohono O'odham cultivated tepary beans (a native drought-resistent legume), and their fall harvest of corn, and squash.  They also planted crops in the washes, taking advantages of the moisture contained in these areas.
In addition to diversified exploitation of both wild and cultivated foods, the Tohonos regularly exchanged foodstuffs and/or labor with the Pima. The diversity between their two regions led to the exchange of Pima cultivated corn, beans, and squash for Papago wild foods. In particularly dry years, the Tohonos would exchange farm labor for food, earning a share of the crop for their efforts.
The Tohono material culture included fire-hardened digging sticks and other wooden tools and baskets for agriculture. They used the bow and arrow with stone projectile points. Net-and-pole packframes, called kihau or giho were used to bring wild food plants and firewood back to the village as well as to carry water jars back from mountain springs.  The kuibit or harvest pole for the Saguaro fruit was made by splicing together long ribs of the skeleton of a Saguaro or other long lightweight pieces of wood such as Phragmites communis. 
Water jars were made of coarse clay to permit the water to be cooled by evaporation. A variety of geometric designs were used to decorate the more elaborate pottery. However, the real Tohono O'odham art form was basketry. Examples of their highly functional and highly aesthetic work include the watertight basket-jars and basket-bowls of several shapes and designs. The geometric designs were made possible by using contrasting light and dark colors of willow and Devil's Claw fibers, respectively. 
There was no central government or centralized authority for the Sobaiburi and Papago. Rather, village units, each consisting of several related villages, were autonomous and were governed by a chief and council of all adult males. Leadership depended upon persuasion and concensus. Gender roles were clearly delineated, and specific tasks were associated with men and women. In carrying out their roles, these groups regarded industriousness as a highly desirable personal character trait. 
In Papago and Pima belief, certain songs had the power to ensure rain when performed in proper ritual appeals to such supernatural beings as Earthmaker and Elder Brother or I'ItoIi Individuals who had just killed an enemy or had just given birth were in spiritual danger and had to be purified by the performance of specific rituals. The religious specialists among the Papago and Pima were shamans who were well versed in the various rituals of purification, of influence over the weather, of promoting success in warfare, and of healing and curing. A shaman was though to possess personalized supernatural power from particular spirits through visions, trances, and dreams. 
The first major change the indigenous groups encountered was the presence of European epidemic diseases that physically threatened the population. The diseases probably reached them through fleeing Indian refugees before actual contact with the Spanish. "The Spaniards met in 1694 a society reeling under the onslaughts of repeated epidemics over a period of approximately 170 years." 
Not only did the Europeans introduce new diseases; they brought new forms of religion, dress, speech, and sources of food and economy, contributing to many changes in the indigenous cultures. Spanish attempts to pacify the Apache through a combination of force and material enticements resulted in increasing numbers of Apache settling near the Tucson presidio, adding to the pressure for cultural change on the Tohono O'odham. Diminished rainfall in the eighteenth century contributed to movement of the Tohono closer to the mission stations. Domesticated animals and a wide variety of cultivated products began to replace items formerly hunted or gathered by the Tohono. For example, new items introduced to the O'odham included
New agricultural tools and technology supplanted traditional items and methods. The Spanish introduced the plow and, possibly, in some areas ditch irrigation. Inroads were made into traditional religious practices and social organization; and there was an increasing awareness among the Tohono O'odham "that one could sell one's labor for money ... [and] use money to buy ... new necessities." 
By this time the Jesuits in southern Arizona had been replaced by the Franciscans who continued to work among the native groups until about 1840 when their roles were increasingly assumed by the secular clergy. Roman Catholicism did not replace the native religions but was instead melded into the aboriginal belief system.  The Tohono O'odham were located far enough from the major centers of Mexican government to escape much of the political and religious machinations of the era. However, the period was marked by an increase in Mexican migration, "farmers, ranchers, and miners moved in growing numbers into Papago country ... taking up Papago lands and water holes with utter disregard for Papago rights."  The river systems contained the best of the Indian lands, but they were also the "best lands for farmers and cattlemen, they were the highways through the desert," funneling newcomers into the area.  Well over a century would pass before Tohono O'odham land claims were recognized and compensation paid.
It was in this period that the earliest recorded Native American use of Saguaro National Monument occurred by Papago (Tohono O'odham) Indians from San Xavier del Bac. In the mid-nineteenth century they gathered cactus fruit from the western slope of the Tucson mountains, and they may also have used the Santa Catalina and Rincon areas for gathering.  In 1857 the first Indian Agent for this area began an active food distribution program, finding it inconceivable that the "Papagos could survive on a diet of mescal [agaves] tunies [prickly pear cactus fruit] and acorns." 
In 1874 an area was finally set aside for the Tohono O'odham; and executive order provided for a reservation at San Xavier del Bac, near Tucson, about 6 miles from the west unit of Saguaro National Monument. The Roman Catholic Church continued to work with both the religious and educational needs of the Indian community, and, for a short period; Presbyterian missionaries were also involved in programs at Tucson.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, construction of day schools, industrial training schools and boarding schools contributed to the continuing changes in the Papago culture. Tohono children were removed from familiar cultural settings and sent away from their families to school where they often became involved in a variety of training programs. For many of the children, it was the first time in their lives they had come "into prolonged and close contact with non-Indians. . ." 
Increasingly Tohono O'odham men had left their subsistence activities for employment in the silver, copper, and gold mines, on non-Indian ranches, for various Government agencies, and in local construction projects. During the late 1870s, a small group of Papago moved into the area that is now part of the Rincon Unit of Saguaro National monument, and some of the group's members were employed on nearby ranches. By the mid-1880s these squatters had been evicted and sent to an Indian Reservation some distance away.  Around 1910, a half dozen or so Tohono O'odham families again, for a short time, became residents of the Rincon unit area. The men were employed as cowboys on nearby cattle ranches, and these families continued to exploit some of the wild resources of the area, including the use of the Saguaro cactus.  Over the years the Tohono have continued to utilize local natural resources. An early resident noted the "Papago Indians carrying rock material, possibly hematite, out of this area in the 1920s."  Another long-time local resident, James Converse, reported that the Papago once used some of the area now within the monument for firewood cutting and for collection of clay from a deposit along Cottonwood Wash. 
By the third quarter of the twentieth century, the Tohono O'odham had "become irreversibly tied to non-Indian cash economy for their livelihood."  Cattle raising provided an important part of the income, along with earnings from government jobs, copper leases, wood, farm produce and cotton, and crafts such as pottery and baskets.
Tohono O'odham groups still use the monument on a limited basis for subsistence activities. Today Saguaro harvesting is carried on in the Tucson Mountain unit by present-day Tohono O'odham Indians under a special use permit. In the past, the Saguaro cactus has contributed heavily to the subsistence base of indigenous groups, providing at least twelve kinds of foodstuffs, housing materials and many other items. Its lasting significance to the O'odham culture is represented in various ways. As an example, modern basketry designs depict the annual Saguaro harvest.  The annual Tohono O'odham calendar began with ripening of the Saguaro fruit, and the plant itself was revered and protected. Ceremonially, the Tohono O'odham "called upon the supernatural, through intermediacy of Saguaro wine communion, to ask for rain for their agricultural fields."  Speeches related to the wine rituals "seem to comprise an epic cycle dealing with natural history of the Saguaro and history of the Papago."  Mesquite and the Saguaro cactus provided a critical food source during the summer months when cultigens had been planted but were not yet ready for the fall harvest.
Over the centuries, humankind's adaptation to this harsh and fragile land has common roots in fluid settlement patterns, specialized water-harvest, and shrewd exploitation of the area's scattered and diverse resources. Utilization of the Saguaro cactus provides a common thread uniting twentieth century Tohono O'odham groups with earlier peoples who also relied upon this humble desert plant for a variety of subsistence needs.
Last Updated: 23-Jun-2005