Tohono O’odham

views updated

Tohono O’odham


The name Tohono O’odham (pronounced to-HO-no oh-O-tahm) means “desert people.” The tribe was formerly known as the Papago, a name the Spanish called them that came from a mispronunciation of a Pima word meaning “bean people” or “bean-eaters.”


The Tohono O’odham describe their territory as stretching south from the Gila River in Arizona to the Sonora River in the northwestern part of the Mexican province of Sonora, and from the Colorado River in the west to the San Pedro River in the east. They lived in hilly areas away from the rivers occupied by the Pima. In modern times most tribal members live in the United States and are members of the Tohono O’odham Nation, which is made up of four reservations located in Arizona. Others share the Ak-Chin Reservation with the Pima. There are a few scattered communities in Sonora, Mexico.


In 1680 there were an estimated six thousand Tohono O’odham. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 16,876 people identified themselves as Tohono O’odham, making them the fifteenth-largest tribe in the United States. At that time about two hundred Tohono O’odham lived in Caborca, Sonora, Mexico. By 2000 the census counted 17,466 Tohono O’odham in the United States, and a total of 20,087 people who had some Tohono O’odham heritage. Of that number 10,787 lived on the reservation. In 2004, Tohono O’odham Nation enrollment showed 25,940 tribal members in the United States and 1,800 in Mexico.

Language family


Origins and group affiliations

Some historians believe the Tohono O’odham are descendants of the oldest known Native American culture of the area: the Hohokam, whose culture faded about 1450. The Spanish grouped the Tohono O’odham with the Pima, but they were very different people. The Tohono O’odham were bitter enemies of the Apache. In fact the Tohono O’odham word for “enemy” (ob) is also their ancient name for Apache.

The Tohono O’odham were a sociable, desert-dwelling people. Because of the unusual climate and geography of their Arizona-Mexico homeland, they were both farmers and hunter-gatherers. Although they cooperated with the Spanish who overran their territory beginning in the late 1600s, they refused to be dominated by them or by the Americans who came later. In the early twenty-first century they maintain a vibrant cultural life, incorporating old and new elements, and their numbers have increased dramatically since the days when the Spanish arrived in their territory.


Minimal early contact with Spanish

For hundreds of years before the Spanish came, the Tohono O’odham divided their time between their winter villages and their summer villages, either growing or searching for food. From time to time they endured severe water shortages, which required them to move in and work with their neighbors, but they adapted to and lived successfully in their desert homeland.

The first Europeans to see the Tohono O’odham were Spanish explorers, who entered tribal territory as early as 1539. The Spanish called the people “Papabotus,” which means “bean people”, because their diet relied heavily on beans. This name was mispronounced “Papago” by outsiders, and that is the name by which the tribe was called for the next four hundred years.

For a time the Spanish ignored the Tohono O’odham, believing the land to be barren, and the people to be savages. Spanish attitudes toward the land changed when they discovered silver on the San Miguel River in the 1640s. The Spanish began building permanent settlements among the Tohono O’odham, whom they now viewed as perfect candidates to work in their silver mines.

Important Dates

1687: Father Eusebio Kino begins missionary work among the Tohono O’odham.

1853: The Gadsden Purchase brings Tohono O’odham lands under the control of the United States.

1874: The San Xavier Reservation is established.

1876: The Tohono O’odham make a lasting peace with their traditional enemy, the Apache.

1882: The Gila Bend Reservation is established.

1916: The Sells Reservation (later Papago; now Tohono O’odham), the second-largest Native American reservation in the United States, is established.

1976: The U.S. government awards the Tohono O’odham $26 million for lost lands and restores mineral rights.

1986: The people, until now called Papago, vote to legally adopt their own name for themselves—Tohono O’odham, or “desert people”—to distinguish them from the Pima, or “river people.”

Father Kino’s innovations

In 1687 the Catholic missionary priest Eusebio Francisco Kino (1644–1711) arrived to work among the Tohono O’odham. Father Kino hoped to win the people as converts to his religion. To do that, he had to gain their confidence and their love, which he did by protecting them from the Spanish miners who wanted to make them slaves. Father Kino took great pains to make sure his future converts were not bothered by the miners. He succeeded so well that by 1689 he had performed more than 800 baptisms.

Father Kino introduced the Tohono O’odham to European livestock (horses and cattle) and to crops such as wheat and barley. The Tohono O’odham believed the Spanish missionaries were good men, but their relations with Spanish soldiers and settlers were troubled. Still, the Spanish came to respect the bravery of Tohono O’odham warriors, especially when they cooperated in punishing the Apache (see entry) who raided Spanish settlements. The Tohono O’odham were not displaced by Spanish settlers because the king of Spain placed them under his protection and granted them legal title to their lands.

In 1768 missionary priests launched an ambitious construction program. Father Juan Bautista Velderrain (died 1790) led the Tohono O’odham in building San Xavier de Bac, a church that still stands and is considered an architectural and artistic gem. Although the church’s architect, painters, and sculptors were Spaniards, the paid laborers who laid the stone foundations, molded and fired the bricks, raised the walls, and constructed the arches and vaulted and domed roof were Tohono O’odham.

Mexico takes over their land

Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821. Without the protection of the king of Spain, the Tohono O’odham found their lands taken over by Mexican settlers. These invasions led to open violence and occasional warfare. The conflicts often involved disputes over water holes. Native Americans and, occasionally, Mexicans were killed. Fighting of this sort—especially intense in the early 1830s—continued off and on throughout the century. Meanwhile Apache raiding increased, especially from the 1830s through the 1850s.

During this time the Natives’ relationship with Mexican settlers changed. Some Tohono O’odham traveled to Mexico to help settlers with the harvests. They returned with goods and money and continued to maintain homes in their traditional villages, far away from their employers. At the same time, however, Mexican settlers and ranchers moved farther and farther into Tohono O’odham lands, and hostilities increased.

The Gadsden Purchase (1853) lessened the tension between the Tohono O’odham and the Mexicans. This Mexican-U.S. agreement transferred portions of Arizona, California, and New Mexico to the United States and fixed the present borders between the United States and Mexico. Some Tohono O’odham territory came under the authority of the United States, but part was left in Mexican hands. Tohono O’odham warriors quickly found employment with the U.S. Army as scouts against Apache raiders. By 1865 the Tohono O’odham had formed a standing army of their own to retaliate against Apache attackers.

In 1871 Tohono O’odham warriors helped Arizona settlers carry out the Camp Grant Massacre against long-time enemies, the Aravaipa band of Apaches on the San Pedro River. About five hundred members of the Aravaipa band had gone to Camp Grant for protection and to make peace. But on April 30, 1871, a “Public Safety Committee” made up of 140 Anglo-Americans, Mexicans, and Tohono O’odham went into the camp and murdered 125 Aravaipa Apache, mostly women and children, and kidnapped 27 children and sold them into slavery.

Land disputes begin

The legal title to Tohono O’odham lands granted by the king of Spain had been guaranteed by the U.S. government. This did not stop settlers from trespassing. Finally, the U.S. government stepped in and resolved the land disputes by establishing two reservations for the Tohono O’odham. San Xavier Reservation was established in 1874, and Gila Bend Reservation in 1882. The greater part of the Tohono O’odham homeland, however, was left unprotected from white settlers.

The Tohono O’odham still living in Mexico at the end of the nineteenth century were not in much better condition than their relatives in the United States. The Mexican government proved as unable or unwilling as its northern counterpart to protect Tohono O’odham lands from trespassers. In 1898 the hostility between Tohono O’odham and Mexicans erupted in violence. The Native Americans raided the mining town of El Ploma in northern Sonora, and several of the attackers were killed. After this incident many Mexican Tohono O’odham left their lands and moved to Arizona. The Mexican Army destroyed the homes of many in 1908 and 1927. By 1980 there were fewer than two hundred Tohono O’odham living in Sonora.

Another small reservation, Ak-Chin, was established in 1912 for Pima and Tohono O’odham people. A large reservation was established in 1916 as the Papago Reservation, but by then many settlers and business interests had already claimed land in the area. Tohono O’odham territory was not fully restored until 1926. The agreement reached at that time, however, did not grant them rights to any minerals on their land. It took another fifty years to resolve that issue.

Tohono O’odham Words

  • cheoj … “man”
  • chuk …“black”
  • umpe … “water”
  • gogs … “dog”
  • judumi … “bear”
  • kawiyu … “a horse”
  • mashath … “moon”
  • oks … “woman”
  • shuhthagi … “water”
  • tash … “sun”
  • toha … “white”


The religion practiced by the Tohono O’odham before the Spanish came has been almost entirely lost. Most members of the tribe are Catholics, remaining in the religion brought to them by Father Kino more than three hundred years ago. Their Catholicism is so deeply rooted that it has become a major part of their present-day culture. The first of their four reservations centered around the church of San Xavier de Bac, in part thanks to the efforts of the U.S. government Indian agent R. A. Wilbur. Wilbur declared that it would be a terrible thing “to take them away from the church which their ancestors built … and which owes its present state of remarkable preservation to their care and interest alone.… They built, and have protected the old mission church, which is now one of the wonders of past ages.” Since 1993 Tohono O’odham workers have been restoring the building, learning preservation techniques from masters around the world.


Most speakers of the Tohono O’odham language are over the age of 25, and some children do not speak it at all. In reservation schools, however, students now learn the language from the elementary grades through high school.

The language of the Tohono O’odham has been thoroughly studied because—unlike some other Native American languages—many people still speak it regularly. It is a very complex language. For example, the Tohono O’odham have no tense system—their language cannot indicate the future, present, or past in the same way that English can. Things are not in the future or the past; they are close (in time), or far away (in time) to the speaker. This reveals several things about the way the ancient Tohono O’odham thought about their world. Based on their language, the ancestors of the Tohono O’odham had a non-Western concept of time; they saw time as less important than the great distances they covered in their land.


The Tohono O’odham lived in small, independent communities where decisions were made by the group as a whole. Each village had a headman or chief who was the center of public life. He was responsible for making public announcements, keeping the cycle of ceremonies intact, and running public functions.

In 1934 the Tohono O’odham voted to form a tribal government. In 1986 a major reorganization occurred when the tribe approved a new constitution and changed its name from Papago to Tohono O’odham Nation. The new constitution set up a three-branch system of government somewhat like that of the United States, made up of executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Eligible adult members of the community elect the chairperson and council that govern the tribe. Elections are structured so that small communities can be as well-represented as large ones. Although they call themselves a nation, many Tohono O’odham people continue to think of themselves as members of separate communities.


Early economy

The Tohono O’odham had a close relationship with the Pima. The two tribes exchanged food from their different environments—wild desert produce in exchange for cultivated crops. In times of drought, when they had little to trade, the Tohono O’odham worked for the Pima and other tribes as farm laborers, earning a share of the crop in exchange for their work. After the Spanish arrived the Tohono O’odham changed their economy from one based on hunting and gathering to one based on farming.

They still collected food from the desert, but by the late twentieth century the Tohono O’odham economy was mainly based on the cattle business introduced by Father Kino in 1696. Ranching became successful after the U.S. government dug deep wells on the Tohono O’odham reservations and water was more easily available. Father Kino had also introduced European-style crops, but this produce was sensitive to the lack of rain and sometimes refused to grow in the dry climate.

Members of the tribe who still follow a traditional way of life live in widely scattered villages in southern Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico. Their major source of income is through cattle ranching, although they occasionally hire out as agricultural laborers. By the 1990s, however, most Tohono O’odham lived or worked in larger Arizona towns or cities.

More recent economy

In the twentieth century the Tohono O’odham adopted a money-based economy. They derived income from the mineral rights to their lands (mineral rights were granted in 1976) and from working as laborers in mines or on cattle ranches. The Tohono O’odham have also established themselves as one of the primary producers of extra long staple cotton in Arizona.

In 1995 the Ak-Chin Reservation, home to a small number of Tohono O’odham and Pima, became America’s first Native American community to open a gaming facility in partnership with the well-known Harrah’s casino operations. In modern times most of the Tohono O’odham Nation’s income comes from its three Desert Diamond casinos. Money from gaming funds the tribe’s fire department and supports many social service programs. The income, however, is not sufficient to meet the many pressing needs on the reservations—housing, health care, and education. Every few years the casinos distribute their excess profits to the adults in the tribe. In the past people have each received $2,000.

This amount is not enough to offset the poverty level of the tribe. With almost 25 percent of its population unemployed, the Tohono O’odham are working to develop more sources of income. In 1996 they started Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), an organization to revitalize the culture, improve community health, and support business development. One difficulty the tribe faces as they work to improve their economy is their isolated location.

Daily life


At the beginning of the twentieth century government agents sent Tohono O’odham children away to boarding schools far from home, but the Tohono O’odham did not tolerate this policy for long. In 1911 they set aside land for day schools. Today most children are educated at reservation schools whose foundations were laid by Catholic missionaries in 1912. Other educational options for K–12 children include a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school and a day or boarding school for disabled students.

The Tohono O’odham Community College began as a two-year school, but now provides all levels of college education in partnership with the Career Center. Pima Community College and the University of Arizona are nearby. The Nation consults with the University of Arizona to support higher education efforts of tribe members.


The buildings used by the Tohono O’odham have changed greatly over time. The Hohokam, believed to be their ancestors, dug pit houses in the desert soil and built walls and roofs of mud. The Tohono O’odham did not have access to the same water resources as the Hohokam, so they did not use mud as a building material. Instead they made simple shelters from desert materials such as brush. These dwellings, with or without roofs, consisted of a round area enclosed by brush walls. Other buildings in the community included enclosed kitchens, an open-walled sunshade, special buildings for storing food, a corral for livestock, and a brush hut in which menstruating women were isolated.

Every community centered around the meeting house, or “smoking house,” so called because “smoking” really meant “to have a meeting.” The meetings were actually held outside the building, in an open area covered by a sunshade and containing a fireplace for night meetings. The meeting house was in a central location, so that the announcements of the headman in charge of it could be heard in the most distant house of the village. The headman was also responsible for the material stored in the meeting house, which could include ceremonial wine and other ritual items. Present-day meeting houses are also called o-las kis (round house), because they are the only buildings still constructed in the old round style.


The Tohono O’odham were originally a wandering desert people. They got about 75 percent of their food from wild sources, mostly desert plants and animals such as deer, rabbit, elk, and birds. They based their thirteen-month lunar calendar on desert cycles; the year begins in June, with the ripening and harvest of saguaro cactus fruits. Other months designate the time the rains begin (July), the coldest months (the “Inner backbone moon” of December), the “time the animals mate” (January to February), and the time the flowers bloom (April).

The remaining 25 percent of the traditional Tohono O’odham diet came from agricultural produce: corn, squash, and several kinds of beans. Some of this they raised themselves, but for the rest they traded with other tribes.

The fruit of the saguaro (pronounced suh-WHAR-oh), a very large cactus, was and remains a tribal favorite. Children are taught from an early age to respect the saguaro fruit, because it stores water and provides delicious food even during times of drought. From the saguaro fruit the Tohono O’odham make syrup, jam, and wine for use in ceremonies and prayers for rain. In the early twenty-first century the Tohono O’odham people have harvesting rights in Saguaro National Park.

Corn and desert foods, such as acorns and cactus fruits and flowers, were dried, ground into meal, and stored. They were later made into tortillas (pronounced tor-TEE-yas) or atole (uh-TOW-lay), a drink made from dried corn and water.

The Spanish introduced pigs, cattle, and the technique of frying food instead of the healthier way of baking or roasting formerly used by the tribe. Living on reservations during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the people ate more store-bought products and government handouts of foods high in fat. American teachers in government-run schools taught the people that their traditional diet was primitive and uncivilized. The Tohono O’odham attribute current problems with obesity to these unhealthy changes in their diet.

Clothing and adornment

The Tohono O’odham wore clothing appropriate for the desert. Men usually wore nothing more than a simple hide loincloth, a garment with front and back flaps that hung from the waist. Women wore skirts or aprons made of a single hide or two hides joined together. After the Catholic missionaries arrived, the tribe adopted European-style dress. Some modern Tohono O’odham women continue to wear the skirts and blouses typical of Mexican peasants of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Healing practices

Healers called shamans (pronounced SHAH-munz or SHAY-munz) could both cause and cure sickness, and they could put spells on enemies or predict rainfall. In the old days the Tohono O’odham regarded shamans with some suspicion, and from time to time they killed those they blamed for epidemics (terrible outbreaks of sicknesses). The shaman was often a lonely person, shunned because of his powers. Christianity discouraged belief in the power of shamans, but the Tohono O’odham continued to treat them with a combination of respect and fear.

Tohono O’odham shamans divided disease into two different types: “wandering” sickness and “staying” sickness. The “wandering” sicknesses were infectious diseases like the ones Europeans brought with them into the New World. They were called “wandering” sicknesses because others brought them, they were infectious and passed from person to person, and they came and went. “Wandering” sicknesses had to be cured by Western medicine.

Only the Tohono O’odham came down with “staying” sicknesses. They never spread to other races, and they were never completely eliminated. “Staying” sicknesses resulted from not respecting animals, plants, lightning, wind, or the ocean. If such a sickness went untreated for too long, the patient could die. The shaman’s diagnosed the sickness by blowing smoke over the victim and calling on the spirits to make sure of his diagnosis. The actual process of curing the victim was turned over to specialists in ritual, who knew the songs that were needed to remove the sick-making spirit and make peace with it. The songs acted like prayers and sometimes brought almost immediate relief to the sufferers.

By the 1970s the rituals and cures of the shamans were falling into disuse, and the only role left for them was that of naming the illness. Curing was left to experts at modern hospitals and clinics. Many Tohono O’odham today value the abilities of shamans because they provide a connection to the past; they also encourage people to reconsider the way they have been living.


Basket making

An important Tohono O’odham custom that is still successful in modern times is making traditional baskets. Except for the storage of food, the Tohono O’odham did not use clay pottery like other southwestern tribes because it was too heavy to be carried from winter villages to summer villages. Instead they made baskets from desert plants, including green yucca, beargrass, devil’s claw, and white willow. Burden baskets were designed to be carried by women, but in the 1880s the Tohono O’odham began manufacturing them for the tourist trade.

During the Great Depression (1929–41; the period, following the stock market crash in 1929, of depressed world economies and high unemployment) the federal government set up the Papago Arts and Crafts Board to market (advertise and sell) these baskets. Many were “novelty” items—baskets in the shape of cacti, dogs, or humans—but others were beautiful works of art, and they helped support the tribe during a long period of drought and poverty.

Popular music

Waila, or chicken scratch music, is popular dance music among the Tohono O’odham people. Wailacomes from the Spanish word baile, meaning “dance,” and is a version of country-western dance and music. It probably came across the Mexican border in the mid-1800s, and the Tohono O’odham musicians were also influenced by the polka music brought to Texas by German settlers. Chicken Scratch music makes use of guitars, saxophones, and the accordion-like instrument called a concertina.

Singing Up the Corn

Stories and songs play an important part in the lives and rituals of the Tohono O’odham. Some stories pass down important and practical information from generation to generation, such as the location and management of water and how, when, and where to plant seeds. One of the most important Tohono O’odham rituals is “Singing Up the Corn,” in which farmers sing to encourage their fields to produce. These songs ensure a bountiful harvest and the survival of the tribe.

Evening is falling Pleasantly sounding Will reverberate Our songs.

The corn comes up; It comes up green; Here upon our fields Green leaves blow in the breeze.

Blue evening falls, Blue evening falls; Near by, in every direction, It sets the corn tassels trembling.

The wind smooths well the ground. Yonder the wind runs Upon our fields. The corn leaves tremble.

On Tecolote fields The corn is growing green, I came there, saw the tassels waving in the breeze, And I whistled softly for joy.

Ruodd, A. Lavonne Brown. Literatures of the American Indian. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1991.


Festivals and ceremonies

Traditional rituals

Tohono O’odham life was rich with ceremonies, and many of them are still practiced. Among the major ceremonies and celebrations are Chelkona, the cleansing ceremony, the Prayerstick Festival, Saguaro Festival, and salt pilgrimages.

The Chelkona ceremony is a dance performed by boys and girls. They ask for rain and fertile fields and carry symbols representing rainbows, lightning, birds, and clouds. The winter hunting season opens with a cleansing ceremony, in which they killed and cooked a deer along with items from the recent harvest. Participants sing, dance, and give speeches. This cleansing ceremony is still performed in Mexico, ten days before the August Prayerstick Festival.

The Prayerstick Festival is a joyous occasion in which the people ask the spirits to bring rain and keep the world orderly for another year. As part of the festivities people sprinkle cornmeal around, corn dancers perform, and clowns, singers, and musicians entertain. Prayersticks—carved and painted sticks adorned with feathers and shells—are made and passed out to all the participants.

The July Saguaro festival opens the rainy season. All the women of a village gather to make cactus wine, and there is much singing, dancing, and reciting of poems.

Salt pilgrimages were annual trips young men made to the Gulf of California. Pilgrims made the trip four years in a row with little food, water, or sleep on the way. Upon reaching their destination the young men made offerings of prayersticks and cornmeal, then ran into the gulf. Sometimes they experienced visions while performing this ritual, and the visions gave them guidance on how to lead their lives.

Catholic celebrations

The Tohono O’odham observe many Catholic feast days. Their celebration honoring the memory of Patron Saint Francis Xavier at San Xavier Mission dates back to the mission’s founding in 1692. Such festivities are a way of maintaining contact with other members of the tribe. Other major festivals are San Juan’s Day (June 24); a pilgrimage to Magdalena, Sonora (Mexico) on the Feast of St Francis (October 4), and the annual rodeo and craft festival.

Village People

The groups of Pima people who shared a common language called themselves o’odham, meaning “the people.” They distinguished themselves and each other by their three different lifestyles. The Tohono O’odham were “Two Villagers”; they spent half the year in one village, then during the second half they moved to another to exploit the new food resources. In times of extreme drought or famine, they joined the Akimel O’odham (Pima), the “River People,” and helped them harvest their crops in return for food and water.

The Akimel O’odham lived in river valleys where there was a relatively constant supply of water, and had no need to move to find fresh food supplies. Because they stayed in one place year round, they were called “One Villagers.” The third group was the Hiac’ed O’odham, sometimes called the Sand Papagos. They practiced an entirely nomadic lifestyle, moving from place to place in search of whatever food the desert had to offer. As more and more people moved into southern Arizona at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Hiac’ed O’odham found that they could no longer follow their traditional way of life. They settled down and were absorbed into other Native American populations.

Current tribal issues

Health problems

Many Tohono O’odham suffer from health problems such as obesity and alcoholism. Like the Pima, they have a high rate of diabetes, a serious disorder in which the body does not make enough insulin. Many tribe members participate in medical studies to help doctors determine the causes and possible cures for this disease. The Tohono O’odham are ideal candidates for medical studies because researchers can study several generations of a family at one time to find hereditary causes. The people themselves have been changing their diets and lifestyles to help lower their risk of diabetes.

U.S-Mexico border

Because the reservation shares a border with Mexico and approximately 1,800 tribal members live south of that border, the Tohono O’odham Nation opposed the Secure Fence Act, passed in 2006. The government planned to close the border off with triple fences to prevent illegal immigrants from crossing into the United States. However, that also eliminates Tohono O’odham access. As of the mid-2000s the Tohono O’odham north of the border attend festivals in Mexico, while Mexican Tohono O’odham often come north for health care and other services.

Illegal border crossings pose additional problems for the Tohono O’odham; tribal police detain as many as six thousand immigrants per year. The police also have to deal with dead bodies on tribal land; many of those attempting the border crossing are in poor health, and the deprivations of the trip are too much for them. More than three hundred have been found dead since 2002. The Tohono O’odham estimate that dealing with the immigration problem costs the tribe as much as $7 million a year, an expense the Nation funds through casino profits.

One additional problem for some of the Tohono O’odham is the fact that they do not have U.S. papers. Because the reservation is a sovereign (independent) nation rather than a part of the United States, the people do not get U.S. birth certificates. Often guards at border crossings stop them, believing they are illegal immigrants. People living near the border also face dangers from smugglers, who may be heavily armed, and from desperate and starving immigrants who steal food or money to survive. Crime rates in the border area have increased rapidly, especially car thefts.

Preserving sacred sites

Since 1950 the Tohono O’odham have leased their sacred mountain, Iolkam, to Kitt Peak National Observatory. The observatory has twenty-three telescopes and is the largest in the world. In 2005 the Tohono O’odham Nation sued the National Science Foundation to prevent them from building VERITAS, or the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System in the Gardens of the Sacred Spirit I’itoi. The Tohono O’odham felt their rights were violated because the project was initiated without consulting them, and as owners they should approve any additional installations on the land.

Notable people

Ofelia Zepeda (1954–) is a language scholar who has done much to preserve O’odham culture. She was one of seven children and the first member of her family to graduate from high school and enter college. Zepeda vividly recalled her two reasons for seeking higher education in an interview for Notable Native Americans: “It is sort of a philosophy that we have in O’odham culture … a lot of responsibility made sense. My second reason for attending college was to avoid working as a farm laborer. It was hard work, work that children were required to do. More than any of my other siblings, I was disinclined [unwilling] to do farm labor work.” Zepeda’s highly regarded O’odham language dictionary, A Papago Grammar was published in 1983. She also wrote other books including Ocean Power: Poems from the Desert and Home Places: Contemporary Native American Writing from Sun Tracks.

Thomas Segundo (1921–1971) was born on the Papago Reservation in southern Arizona, but left as a young man to settle in California. He returned to his homeland in 1946 and found so many in need among his people that he stayed to help. He was elected tribal chairperson in 1951, becoming the youngest Native American chief in the United States. Segundo worked to revive the tribal government and increase tribal income. After seven terms as tribal chairman, Segundo went to the University of Chicago for courses in law and social science and then returned to his home with high hopes of improving conditions there. Segundo introduced the conservation measures to increase range land for cattle ranchers and improve irrigation programs for farmers. He knew, though, that even after reservation land was productive, one-third of the Tohono O’odham people would have to find work off the reservation. He tried to provide the training and education they needed for these careers on the “outside.” Segundo also proposed the construction of boarding schools for children and expanded public health facilities.

Another notable Tohono O’odham is dancer and painter Michael Chicago (1946–). He danced at the World’s Fair in 1964 and also received national recognition for his art. In 1997 he illustrated the picture book, Singing Down the Rain.

Erickson, Winston P. Sharing the Desert: The Tohono O’Odham in History. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2003.

Marshall, Ann. Rain: Native Expressions from the American Southwest. Phoenix, AZ: Heard Museum, 2000.

Rosenberg, Ruth. “Ofelia Zepeda,” in Notable Native Americans. Edited by Sharon Malinowski. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1995.

Underhill, Ruth. The Papago and Pima Indians of Arizona. Palmer Lake, CO: Filter Press, 2000.

Carroll, Susan. “Tribe Fights Kitt Peak Project.” The Arizona Republic. March 24, 2005. Also available online at

Gross, Greg. “Triple Fence along Border Would Split Indian Nation.”, October 22, 2006. Also vailable online at

“Ha:sañ Bak: The Saguaro Harvest.” (accessed on August 12, 2007).

“Native People: Tohono O’odham/Papago.” National Park Service. (accessed on August 12, 2007).

Tohono O’odham Community Action. (accessed August 12, 2007).

“Tohono O’Odham Pottery.” ClayHound Web. (accessed on August 12, 2007).

Ned Blackhawk, Associate Professor, Department of History, American Indian Studies Program, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Laurie Edwards

Laurie Edwards