The Tohono O’odham
It’s easy to forget that Native America persists, despite our best efforts to wipe it out over the last few centuries.
Here in the Southwest, where many native peoples and traditions are celebrated and studied, it’s easier still to forget that those people are not quaint objects of purely academic interest, but real people who are everyday trying to survive in the post-modern world while holding on to some sense of their indigenous identity. The Tohono O’odham, who were already living in the Tucson valley when Capt. Hugh O’Conner rode north from Tubac in 1775 to establish El Presidio de San Agustín del Tucson, are one such native people.
According to TOCA: Tohono O’odham Community Action (520/383-4966, www.tocaonline.org), an O’odham-led nonprofit community development group, the “Desert People” have had mixed success in adapting to the modern world; it is a firm belief of such groups that going backward is the best way for the O’odham to move forward. For this, according to TOCA, they must return to the principals of O’odham Himdag (“The Desert People’s Way”).
They used to be called the Papago, a name given to them by the Spanish; there are about 28,000 members of the Tohono O’odham Nation, about 20,000 of which live on the sprawling desert reservation southwest of Tucson, a seemingly forbidding patch of Sonoran Desert the size of Connecticut that has been providing the Desert People with sustenance — though a hard-won sustenance to be sure — for eons.
These days, however, despite the fact that the O’odham operate two successful casinos near Tucson and are poised to build a huge casino-resort in the west of Phoenix, small-scale economic life on the reservation isn’t exactly overflowing with plenty. TOCA says that the per-capita average income on the reservation is about $6,998 per year, far below the national average of about $22,000. Moreover, 50 percent or more of O’odham adults have Type II diabetes (the numbers for the U.S. as a whole are between 4 and 6 percent).
TOCA goes on to say that fewer than half of reservation adults have even a high school education, putting them at the bottom of all Native American tribes in the United States in terms of education. And worse still, the group is worried that the Tohono O’odham language and their unique cultural traditions, ceremonies, and knowledge about the desert are in danger of dying out within a few generations.
In order to solve these seemingly insurmountable social realties, TOCA says it’s committed to developing “indigenous solutions, rather than focus[ing] on the problems while importing the ‘solutions’ from the outside.” But what does that mean in practice? Well, take for instance the diabetes problem, a health crisis of staggering proportions on the reservation today. In 1960 diabetes was completely absent from the reservation, TOCA says, adding that the cause of the epidemic over the last 50 years or so has been the “destruction of the traditional food systems and diet.”
Indeed, studies have shown that traditional O’odham foods like tepary beans, cholla cactus buds, wild spinach, corn, and squash served to regulate the O’odham’s blood sugar, and that the sudden switch to a completely different diet over the last several decades has sent this age-old system out of whack. As a result of such studies, TOCA has begun to develop a food program that puts some of the old ways back into the O’odham diet. They’ve also instituted programs to revive the tribe’s basket-weaving traditions, and to bring together youths and tribal elders in hopes that the Desert People’s collective cultural memory survives for centuries to come.
If you’re interested in learning more about the O’odham, their lifeways, their history, and their present, head west from Tucson on Highway 86 across the reservation toward Sells and the Tohono O’odham Nation Cultural Center and Museum (520/383-0211, www.tonation-nsn.gov), in Topawa (seven miles south of Sells on Federal Route 19). It’s about a 70-mile drive that’ll probably take about two hours.
© Tim Hull from Moon Tucson, 1st Edition