The O'odham

Tohono O'odham (a.k.a. Pápago)

The Tohono O'odham (sometimes known as Pápago) trace their ancestry to the Hohokam or "those who came before." The name Pápago comes from the Piman work Papahvi-o-otam which may mean "bean people." The Tohono O'odham had two locations for their villages which they referred to as the Fields and the Well. The Fields were located along the river and were inhabited during the growing season. The Well sites were located in the mountains where they hunted deer and gathered wild foods. Sometimes when crops were poor, the Tohono O'odham had to range over great distances to feed their families.

The dwellings of the Tohono O'odham were made of saplings bent over and covered with brush and earth forming sturdy, dome-shaped structures which resemble upside down bird nests. These structures were used for sleeping and food storage. Cooking and other activities took place outside.

The traditional saguaro harvest takes place each year sometime in June. The Tohono O'odham use a cross-shaped picking stick made from ribs of dead saguaro to pluck the ripe fruit from the cactus. The fruit usually splits when it hits the ground, revealing its scarlet pulp mixed with black seeds. If the fruit doesn't split the pickers use the stem as a knife to cut around the fruit and split it open. The fruit is cooked immediately over an open fire in ollas. The strained cherry red juice is used for syrup and wine used in ceremonies to encourage the summer rains. The cooked pulp is made into jam and some is dried on racks to make a concoction similar to fruit leather. The black seeds are roasted and then ground for flour.

Each village had a headman called "The Keeper of the Smoke," but the business of the village was discussed by a council of elders who only took action after they reached unanimous agreement. War and hunting expeditions were under the direction of leaders selected for their personal abilities and knowledge of rituals. The Tohono O'odham had little time for war so they would take only a small band of warriors, usually ten or twelve to enemy country. They would attack at dawn so the enemy would not know they were coming.

When the food gathering for the winter was over, the Tohono O'odham would relax by playing kickball and running races. Basketmakers utilized materials from the desert. The white designs were created using sotol and yucca. The black designs were from the inner bark of yucca roots. The inner coil of the basket was bear grass. The same materials are used by today's Tohono O'odham basketmakers who produce more baskets than any other tribe.


Akimel O'odham (a.k.a. Pima)

The Sobaipuri, a branch of the Akimel O'odham (Pima or River People) lived along the Santa Cruz River. The name Pima was given to the Indians by the Spanish. It may come from a phrase Pi-nyi-match which means "I don't know," the answer given by the Indians to all the questions asked by the Spanish. Possibly, the Spanish thought the Indians were telling them their tribal name and wrote it on the maps of that period.

The O'odham were well adapted to their environment but experienced major resource limitations. They farmed by utilizing floodplains near the river and collection of monsoon rains to water their crops of corn, beans, squash and cotton. Although still debated, they may have brought water from the river to their fields via acequias or canals. Besides enduring drought periods, which caused crop failures, they suffered when summer rains were too heavy, washing out their floodplain crops. In addition, the O'odham lacked a winter crop and were forced to gather foods such as mesquite, devils claw and cactus, or hunt rodents, birds, deer, pronghorn and mountain sheep for survival. Because they could utilize wild foods so efficiently, the O'odham people survived such times.

When Father Kino met with the Sobaipuri, he gave them gifts such as colorful beads, horses, cattle, and a plant called "wheat" that grew in the winter. He also brought lots of other good things to eat. These foods may have included sugar, sheep, oats, olives, grapes, pork, cabbage, barley and beets.

Goods brought by Father Kino, other priests, and the early settlers changed the way the O'odham lived. The introduction of wheat and cattle meant that the people no longer needed to move around as much in search of wild foods or go on long hunts since these new crops and animals provided reliable food. Their diet and lives became better because of the new exotic foods such as beets, grapes, and sugar. The cattle, sheep and pigs gave them lots of meat. European inventions such as metal knives and digging tools made their work easier.

The dwellings of the Akimel O'odham were made of saplings bent over and covered with brush and earth, forming sturdy, dome shaped structures which resemble upside down bird nests. All were within hearing distance of the communal "rain house," from atop which a crier broadcast information.

Each village had a leader, but government was by consensus, and he depended upon his powers of persuasion. During armed conflict, a war chief took absolute command of the village. The rancherias were politically self-contained, but during war neighboring settlements might from loose alliances against a common enemy. The Piman method of waging war after they had gathered a large army was to march to the place where they would fight and wait. The war leaders of the two sides would call each other names and sometimes the whole army would shot at each other.

Neighboring settlements would also jointly participate in games and religious observances, such as the rain ceremony. These rituals of celebratory songs, masked dancers, tobacco smoking recreated the harmony of nature at the core of their spiritual life.

Basketmaking was necessary skill for each village. Baskets were used to store food, hold water, roast corn, serve food and turned upside down they were used as a drum. The Pima baskets were always black and white. The white was willow shoot which were plentiful along the river banks and the black was devils claw. As the rivers of the area dried up, so did the plants needed to make baskets. When this happened the number of baskets were dropped dramatically until today there are few woven by the Pimas.

Last updated: February 24, 2015

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