Part of a series of articles titled Native Peoples of the Sonoran Desert.
An artist's rendering of a mission-era O'odham village community
Rhonda Ray, one of Tumacácori's O'odham basketry demonstrators
A Brief History of the O'odham
The O’odham people have lived in the Sonoran Desert since time immemorial. They are descendants of the ancient Hohokom people and have thrived despite the harsh desert climate. Using the Santa Cruz River and the yearly downpours from the monsoons, the Akimel (River) O’odham carved out elaborate acequias, or canals, and basins to water crops. The Tohono (Desert) O’odham that lived farther from the rivers would migrate between two village locations in order to follow water sources.
The Landscape and Diet
Before European contact, the O’odham practiced a combination of hunting and gathering and non-intensive agricultural cultivation. Using their intimate knowledge of the landscape, the O’odham people cultivated a variety of crops, including squash, beans, cotton, corn, and more. To supplement their diet, the O’odham gathered various foods, including cactus, agave, cactus fruit, and mesquite. The traditional saguaro harvest occurs yearly during June and July, accompanied by social and religious festivities in which men and women alike participated in. The O’odham also hunted game like birds, deer, sheep, among other animals.
Spiritual and Cultural Beliefs
The O’odham’s relationship to the landscape is paramount in their cultural and spiritual beliefs. Their mythology tells that the land was given to the O’odham by Elder Brother to live on when the earth was created. Therefore, the O’odham have become experts at living not only on, but with the desert and all of its plants and animal life.
Traditionally, O’odham women were responsible for preparing foods like flat, corn meal cakes and drinks like saguaro wine. Young women were also responsible for gathering foods and water for their families. Women and girls were also given the responsibility of making pottery and of, most importantly, weaving basketry. Young men might shadow older men during hunting, spinning string for weaving, or making rope. Men also took more responsibility for butchering animal products and making leather hides.There are many parts of traditional O’odham culture that continue today.
The O'odham Today
Today, the various bands of O’odham people are broken up into four federally recognized tribes: The Tohono O’odham Nation, the Gila River Indian Community, the Ak-Chin Indian Community, and the Salt River (Pima Maricopa) Indian Community. Though they have a shared heritage, each band is now recognized as politically and geographically distinct and separate.
The biggest O’odham community today is the Tohono O’odham Nation. The tribe has approximately 28,000 registered members. The Nation extends across Southwestern Arizona, with an area of about 2.8 million acres—almost the size of the State of Connecticut. The Tohono O’odham Nation is the second largest reservation in the state of Arizona.
Modern O'odham Culture
Contemporary O’odham culture is diverse and varied. Language dialects, customs, traditions, and values have grown and expanded in their expression. Many facets of traditional O’odham culture transformed due to forces like colonization.
Today, O’odham culture has taken on influences from Mexican, Spanish, and American traditions. However, many cultural expressions can be traced back hundreds of years. For example, many oral histories told today among the O’odham are centuries old. Some traditional dishes and ingredients continue to be widely eaten, like mesquite, saguaro fruit, and corn tortillas.
Some traditions have changed. The annual saguaro harvest, once an activity strictly for women, now is practiced by some men. Basketry making, too, is a traditionally women’s activity that is now being adopted by some O’odham men.
Celebratory social dances are accompanied by waila music, which mixes elements of O'odham fiddle, German polka, Spanish mariachi, Mexican norteño music, and American rock.
Daniel Joaquin - in O'odham
An interview with an O'odham elder.
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Daniel Joaquin - in English
An interview with an O'odham elder.
My name is Daniel Gabriel Joaquin. I am from the Tohono O'odham Nation. "O'odham" means people. "Tohono" means a desert - desert, uh, people. They used to call us the Papago Indians. I usually speak English at home, but I think O'odham. I was born 85 miles west of Tucson at the little villages called Covered Wells and also called Jua, which means "rotted place."
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Way back when I was a small boy, I used to hear a name of a place called Tumacácori and I said, "That has to be our language." And so I ask one of my uncles, "Why did they change it into Tumacácori? And he said, the way we say it's a [go mah du ka cote] People that came from, from the Akimel O'odham, they live there. "Akimel" means it's a wash or a river.
We used to have a lot of traditions like rain dancing. When I was small, they would have meetings at this place and then the last two days they will have a big round dance right in the middle of the dancing they have Eagle feathers. I thought that was jerky and hanging on there. My mother said, no, those are Eagle feathers. The last night the medicine men would get together and they predict when it's gonna rain.
Traditional O'odham food is from the desert, like the spinach or the cholla buds. Oh, those little, a cholla bud they pick with the little clamps. They make those out of a wood or two together and tie a little string at the end and then you use your hand to move those sticks together. And when you clamp one of the cholla buds, and you just pull it out.
Importance? The culture. I think it's the language. The food. I think waila music, respect for elders. We should carry on and tell our grandchildren to pass it on. We don't want it to die -- our culture.
Daniel Joaquin - en español
Entrevista con un mayor O'odham.
Mi nombre es Daniel Gabriel Joaquín. Yo soy de la nación Tohono O’odham. O’odham quiere decir gente y Tohono quiere decir desierto – gente del desierto. Ante nos llamaban Indios Papagos. En mi casa yo hablo inglés pero pienso en O’odham.
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Yo nací 85 millas al oeste de Tucson, el pueblito se llama “Covered Wells” y también se le dice Gi Wak, cual quiere decir lugar podrido.
Hace mucho cuando yo era pequeño yo escuchaba de un lugar llamado Tumacácori. Y luego pensé, ese es en nuestro lenguaje. Y le pregunte a uno de mis tíos, ¿Por qué cambiaron a Tumacácori? Y él me dijo, como lo llamamos nosotros es [co-mot ca-cot]. Gente que vino de los Akimel O’odham, ellos viven allí. “Akimel” quiere decir un arroyo o un rio.
Teníamos muchos tradiciones como el baile de las lluvias. Cuando era pequeño tenían juntas en algún lugar y los últimos dos días tienen un baile de un circulo grande y en la mitad del baile tienen plumas de águila. Yo pensé que fuese carne seca colgada allí. Y mi madre dijo no, son plumas de águila. La última noche los hechiceros se juntan y predican cuando va a llover.
Comida tradicional O’odham es del desierto, como espinacas o el botón de la cholla. El botón de la cholla la agarran con tenazas. Las hacen de madera, pon dos pedazos juntos y los amarras al fondo con un mecate, luego utiliza la mano para mover esos palos juntos cuando la prende del botón de la cholla.
La importancia de la cultura, creo yo que es el idioma, la comida, la música Waila, respeto a los ancianos. Nosotros debemos de seguir y decirles a nuestros nietos para que la sigan pasando. No queremos que se muera nuestra cultura.
Last updated: January 23, 2021