People have lived along the Santa Cruz River near Tucson for at least 3,000 years. Putting that in perspective with the the rest of world history that means Tucson is older than the Roman Empire, and much older that the Sphinx of Egypt. Many archeologists believe this makes Tucson the longest inhabited city in the United States.

The ancient Tohono O'odham tribal history stretches back thousands of years more. These expert desert dwellers have lived in the Sonoran Desert nearly 6,000 years, or 4,000 years before Jesus Christ lived. The Tohono O'odham, pronounced toe-hone-o ahtum believe that I’itoi (E-E-toy) created the universe in four days. I’itoi resides in a cave at the summit of Baboquivari Peak the large granite dome found in the Baboquivari Mountains located forty miles southwest of Tucson. Baboquivari is regarded by the O’odham as to be the navel of the world, the opening in the Earth from which they emerged after the world flood.


    One day the Creator was resting, sitting, watching some children at play in a village. The children laughed and sang, yet as he watched them, the Creator's heart was sad. He was thinking:
    "These children will grow old. Their skin will become wrinkled. Their hair will turn gray. Their teeth will fall out. The young hunter's arm will fail. These lovely young girls will grow ugly and fat. The playful puppies will become blind, mangy dogs. And those wonderful flowers - yellow and blue, red and purple - will fade. The leaves from the trees will fall and dry up. Already they are turning yellow."

    Thus the Creator grew sadder and sadder. It was in the fall, and the thought of the coming winter, with its cold and lack of game and green things, made his heart heavy.

    Yet it was still warm, and the sun was shining. The Creator watched the play of sunlight and shadow on the ground, the yellow leaves being carried here and there by the wind. He saw the blueness of the sky, the whiteness of some cornmeal ground by the women. Suddenly he smiled.
    "All those colors, they ought to be preserved. I'll make something to gladden my heart, something for these children to look at and enjoy."

    The Creator took out his bag and started gathering things: a spot of sunlight, a handful of blue from the sky, the whiteness of the cornmeal, the shadow of playing children, the blackness of a beautiful girl's hair, the yellow of the falling leaves, the green of the pine needles, the red, purple, and orange of the flowers around him. All these he put into his bag. As an afterthought, he put the songs of the birds in, too.

    Then he walked over to the grassy spot where the children were playing. "Children, little children, this is for you," and he gave them his bag. "Open it; there's something nice inside," he told them.

    The children opened the bag, and at once hundreds and hundreds of colored butterflies flew out, dancing around the children's heads, settling on their hair, fluttering up again to sip from this or that flower. And the children, enchanted, said that they had never seen anything so beautiful.

    The butterflies began to sing, and the children listened smiling.

    But then a songbird came flying, settling on the Creator's shoulder, scolding him, saying:
    "It's not right to give our songs to these new, pretty things. You told us when you made us that every bird would have his own song. And now you've passed them all around. Isn't it enough that you gave your new playthings the colors of the rainbow?" "You're right," said the Creator. "I made one song for each bird, and I shouldn't have taken what belongs to you."

    So the Creator took the songs away from the butterflies, and that's why they are silent.
    "They're beautiful even so!" he said.

    -Tohono O’odham, Retold from various sources.

O’odham history explains that Elder Brother, I’itoi, led these people of the desert into this land from the underworld. They spread out in the land stretching from the San Pedro River to the Colorado River and from the Gila River down past the Rios Altar and San Ignacio in Mexico. Until the 1980s these Native Americans were known as the Papago Indians and trace their ancestry to the Hohokam or "those who came before." The actual name Papago comes from the Piman word Papahvi-o-otam meaning "bean people." Most likely because their diet consisits to a large degree of the great variety of legumes that thrive in the desert; mesquite would be a prime example. Out of a desire to retain tradition they decided to abandon that name and return to the name they have always called themselves; Tohono O’odham, meaning Desert People. More than one forth of Arizona is covered by Indian reservations. Traditionally, land of the Tohono O’odham ranges form Phoenix to south of Hermosillo, Sonora, and westward to the Gulf of California. In the United States this second to largest reservation is known as the Tohono O’odham Nation since the American Indian tribes have their own independent governments. The largest community, Sells, functions as the Nation's capital. With a population of about 24,000 the Tohono O’odham nation is a little larger than the state of Delaware with lands that stretch across 2.7 million acres of desert and mountains, including the Kitt Peak Observatory and the historic San Xavier del Bac Mission built in 1797 by the O’odham farmers who were both wonderful craftsmen and skilled builders.

For hundreds of years the O’odham traveled and lived off their lands. Since the Sonoran Desert offers two rainy seasons, is it said that the Tohono O'odham had a "Two Village" way of life. In the summer they lived and gathered foods for the winter in the valleys. When winter arrived they moved into the mountains where water was more plentiful.

    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. (W)hen crops were poor, the (Tohono O’odham) had to range over great distances to feed their families.
They hunted mainly rabbits and deer and farmed. By building ditches they watered their crops directing water into the ditches from washes and rivers. The crops they harvested included pinto beans, squash, wheat, corn, watermelon and sugar cane.
    Historically, The Tohono O'odham farmed non-irrigation crops and relied extensively on wild crops such as saguaro fruit, mesquite bean pods and cholla cactus flower buds. They also hunted America's only native swine, the peccary or javelina (Desert Peoples). To farm, they took advantage of heavy flooding that followed the summer thunderstorms in the desert. They erected brush weirs (embankments) to redirect the floodwaters to channels designed to irrigate their crops. They set up temporary encampments and villages around the wash channels and the petroglyphs and pictographs etched into rock are still visible today. They also learned to hunt the dry washes for beans from the mesquite and ironwood bushes, palo verde and acacia. They harvested the fruit of the saguaro and organ-pipe cactus, stems of the agave, and sand food (Lifelines).

A few still run ranches today raising cattle and participate in rodeos. Farms are still visible; lush and fragrant after summer rains is that of the ongoi. Unfortunately, with the influx of people to this area much of the traditional ways of farming have been lost. As water pumps were introduced in the 1930’s water tables lowered and construction diverted many of the washes that the Tohono O’odham used as irrigation. In spite of all these obstacles the O’odham still strive to maintain their identity and many traditional ways of life in the desert. Native desert plants are used in all kinds of cooking. Prickly pear is picked and made into gisoki. The bahithaj, or fruit of the sagurao is harvested in June just before the summer monsoons begin and made into wine, syrup and jams. While other desert plants; yucca and devil's claw are picked and used to make baskets and traditional arts.

Another tradition that keeps O’odham in harmony with nature is toka, a game tha uses the branches from a common desert tree, the mesquite. In the spring while the wood was still green two sticks would be stripped of bark, baked over a fire and the tip curved, then both bound together with rope or leather forming an usaga. Similar to field hockey a puck is hit with long sticks. Songs and stories that have reached down through the generations tell that women most often played this game during long treks across the desert as they went about gathering food or traveled between communities. A team is composed of eleven players each having a long usaga used to hit the ola into the other teams goal. The players typically play for the best out of seven games.

Tohono 'O'odham is a Native American language spoken in southern Arizona. The O’odham had no written language until the 1970’s and up to then all of the history was passed on orally. Currently, Tohono O'odham is taught at the University of Arizona. There are seven different dialects spoken among them, which are hundreds of years old.

Father Kino is the first recorded white man to visit the Tohono O'odham in 1694. He discovered a very large population that numbered in the thousands. Census figures in 1937 listed 6,305 members of the nation. For centuries the “desert people" lived without borders but in 1854, the US Congress ratified the Gadsden Purchase bringing the southern part of Arizona and New Mexico into the United States. Today the majority of the O'odham who lived in Mexico have moved north across the U.S.-Mexican border into the United States, but a small remnant population still lives in Sonora, Mexico. Laws created in 1986 made it more difficult for tribal members to freely cross the borders to work, go to school, take part in religious ceremonies, seek medical treatment, or visit relatives. Last year an Arizona congressman introduced a bill that will hopefully, if passed, allow the affected 84,000 Tohono O’odham members to freely cross the border again.

Today the everyday life and extraordinary perseverance of these desert people are faced with many challenges. With an unemployment rate exceeding 50%, most O'odham live in poverty. Funding for environmental regulations and enforcement are desperately needed, and the nation is over run with a numerous environmental and natural resource problems, including water quality and pollution issues, increased traffic through the nation as a result of North American Free Trade Agreement, border enforcement problems, and destructive land uses on the reservation and adjacent to it.

Selected Sources:

Native American lore:

Native People: Tohono O'odham / Papago:

Tohono O'odham Indians:

The Tohono O'odham Today:

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