Extrordinary figural motifs of birds and iguana adorn this lidded basket.
The Tohono O’odham are a group of Native American people who reside primarily in the Sonoran Desert of the southeastern Arizona and northwest Mexico. “Tohono O’odham” means “Desert People.” Although they were previously known as the Papago, they have largely rejected this name (meaning literally “tepary-bean eater”), which was applied to them by conquistadores, who had heard them called this by other Piman bands who are very competitive with the Tohono O’odham. The term Papago derives from Ba:bawĭkoʼa, meaning “eating tepary beans”, which was pronounced Papago by the Spanish.
The Tohono O’odham share linguistic and cultural roots with the closely related Akimel O’odham (People of the River), whose lands lie just south of Phoenix, along the lower Gila River. The Sobaipuri are ancestors to both the Tohono O’odham and the Akimel O’odham who resided along the major rivers of southern Arizona. Recent research on the Sobaipuri, now extinct relatives of the O’odham, shows that they were present in sizable numbers in the southern Arizona river valleys in the 15th century.
Historically, the O’odham-speaking peoples were at odds with Apaches from the late 17th until the beginning of the 20th centuries when conflict with European settlers caused both the O’odham and the Apaches to reconsider their common interests. It is noteworthy that the O’odham word for the Apache ‘enemy’ is ob. Still there is considerable evidence that suggests that the O’odham and Apache were friendly and engaged in exchange of goods and marriage partners before the late 17th century. O’odham history however suggest the constant raids between the two tribes caused intermarrying, resulting in a mixed tribe of two enemies. Many women and children were taken as slaves between the two tribes, one way a woman could survive in the tribe she was taken into would be to intermarry and learn the ways and customs of her captors, thus resulting in intermarriage and children of mixed tribal descent.
O’odham musical and dance activities lack “grand ritual paraphernalia that call for attention”, wearing muted white clay instead, and grand ceremonies such as Pow-wows. O’odham songs are accompanied by hard wood rasps and drumming on overturned baskets, both of which lack resonance and are “swallowed by the desert floor”, while dancing features skipping and shuffling quietly in bare feet on dry dirt, the dust raised being believed to rise to atmosphere and assist in forming rain clouds.
Traditional basketmaking, 1916
The beauty of the San Xavier de Bac mission often leads tourists to assume that the desert people embraced the Catholicism of the Spanish conquistadors. In fact, Tohono O’odham villages had resisted change for hundreds of years. Two major rebellions, in the 1660s and in 1750s, rivaled in scale the 1680 Pueblo Rebellion. The armed resistance prevented increased Spanish incursions on the lands of Pimería Alta. The Spanish retreated to what they called “Pimería Baja.” As a result, much of the desert people’s traditions remained largely intact for generations.
It was not until Americans of Anglo-European ancestry began moving into the Arizona territory that traditional ways were consistently oppressed. Indian boarding schools, the cotton industry, and U.S. Federal Indian policy worked hand-in-glove to promote assimilation into the American mainstream. The structure of the current tribal government, established in the 1930s, is a direct result of commercial, missionary, and federal collaboration. The goal was to make the Indians into “real” Americans, yet the boarding schools offered only so much training as was considered necessary to work as migrant workers or housekeepers. “Assimilation” was the official policy, but full participation was not the goal. Boarding school students were supposed to function within the United States’ segregated society as economic laborers, not leaders.
Despite a hundred years of being told to and made to change, the Tohono O’odham have retained their traditions into the 21st century, and their language is still spoken. However, recent decades have increasingly eroded O’odham traditions in the face of the surrounding environment of American mass culture.
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