Akimel O'odham and Tohono O'odham

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AKIMEL O'ODHAM AND TOHONO O'ODHAM. The Akimel O'odham (River People, formerly known as Pima) and Tohono O'odham (Desert People, previously known as Papago) are the quintessential inhabitants of the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Sonora. They speak closely related dialects of the Tepiman branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family. When Jesuit missionaries established missions among them beginning in 1687, the so-called Upper Pima inhabited autonomous villages along the river valleys of northern Sonora and south-central Arizona. The Papago moved from winter villages near springs to summer field camps along arroyos in the vast basin-and-range desert west of the Santa Cruz River. The Akimel and Tohono O'odham were the northernmost Tepiman speakers in a long, broken linguistic chain that included the Lower Pima (O'odham) of central and southern Sonora, the northern and southern Tepehuane

(Odami) of Chihuahua and Durango, and the Tepecano of northern Jalisco.

Many archaeologists believe the O'odham are descendants of the Hohokam, who occupied central and southern Arizona from a.d. 200 to 1450 and constructed the largest pre-Columbian irrigation canal systems north of coastal Peru. The Akimel O'odham cultivated irrigated plots of corn, beans, squash, and cotton. Jesuit missionaries introduced Old World animals—sheep, goats, cattle, and horses—and Old World plants, especially winter wheat. Because it was frost tolerant, wheat filled an empty niche in their agricultural cycle and allowed the Akimel O'odham to plant their fields year-round. Agricultural intensification also enabled the Akimel O'odham to live in larger settlements, an important adaptation as Apache livestock raiding grew more frequent during the 1700s and 1800s. By The mid-nineteenth century, O'odham along the Gila River became the greatest agricultural entrepreneurs in Arizona. They fed thousands of forty-niners during the California Gold Rush, supplied the Butterfield Stage, and sold produce to both Confederate and Union troops during the Civil War. By The 1870s, however, non-Indian settlers upstream were diverting most of the Gila's flow, withering Akimel O'odham fields. Akimel O'odham and their Yuman-speaking neighbors—the Maricopa, who share the Gila River Indian Community (1859), Salt River Indian Reservation (1879), and Ak-Chin Reservation (1912)—were still trying to recover Gila waters in the early twenty-first century.

The Tohono O'odham have fought their own water wars. Prior to the drilling of deep wells in the early twentieth century, they harvested desert plants like mesquite, agaves, and cactus fruit and planted summer crops of corn, squash, devil's claw, and pinto and tepary beans in fields along arroyos that filled with runoff after summer rains. Mission San Xavier del Bac, south of Tucson, where Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries resettled Tohono O'odham along the Santa Cruz River, was the only community on the reservation where irrigation agriculture was possible. Once surface flow along the Santa Cruz disappeared because of down cutting and groundwater pumping, however, O'odham agriculture at San Xavier died as well. In 1975 the Tohono O'odham pressured the federal government to file suit against agribusinessmen, copper mines, and the city of Tucson, who were sucking water from the aquifer beneath the San Xavier District, a part of the much larger Tohono O'odham Reservation (1911) to the west. To avert a legal Armageddon over water in the Tucson Basin, Congress passed the Southern Arizona Water Rights Settlement Act in 1982, granting the O'odham 76,000 acre-feet of water a year. In 2001, that settlement was only beginning to be implemented.

Approximately 24,000 Tohono O'odham and more than 16,000 Akimel O'odham live on and off four Arizona reservations. They largely make their living in the service and manufacturing sectors, although the four tribes operate farms as well. Casinos provide an important source

of income, funding social services, education, and health care, which is particularly important since the O'odham suffer the highest incidence of Type 2 diabetes in the world. The legal recognition of their water rights has made the O'odham major players in the Arizona economy, giving them the clout they need to pursue tribal economic and political sovereignty in the twenty-first century.


Bahr, Donald et al. The Short Swift Time of Gods on Earth: The Hohokam Chronicles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Haury, Emil W. The Hohokam: Desert Farmers and Craftsmen: Excavations at Snaketown, 1964–1965. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1976.

Rea, Amadeo M. At the Desert's Green Edge: An Ethnobotany of the Gila River Pima. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997.

Russell, Frank. The Pima Indians. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1975. Originally published in 1904 and 1905.

Shaul, David Leedom, and Jane H. Hill. "Tepimans, Yumans, and Other Hohokam." American Antiquity 63 (1998): 375–396.

Sheridan, Thomas E. "The O'odham (Pimas and Papagos): The World Would Burn without Rain." In Paths of Life: American Indians of the Southwest and Northern Mexico. Edited by Thomas E. Sheridan and Nancy Parezo. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996.

Spicer, Edward H. Cycles of Conquest: The Impact of Spain, Mexico, and the United States on the Indians of the Southwest, 1533–1960. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1962.

Underhill, Ruth M. Papago Indian Religion. New York: Columbia University Press, 1946.

Thomas E.Sheridan

See alsoTribes: Southwestern .