Tohono O’odham: 1916 – Present

by Shaun Brower

The Tohono O’odham, people of the desert, is a Native American tribe that has historically inhabited the Sonoran Desert, ranging from Central Arizona to Sonora, Mexico.  This desert region has been home to the Tohono O’odham for thousands of years and has commonly been referred to as the Papagueria.[1]  While their ancestral homelands once bridged the international border between Mexico and the United States, by 1916 the United States relocated them to a four-part, non-contiguous reservation in southern Arizona, which encompassed a total area of 2.8 million acres.[2]  Today, many of the Tohono O’odham tribal members continue to live in southern Arizona on the reservation.   Recent estimates approximate the total tribal population on the reservation to be near 12,000, with about 2,000 members living in Sells, the largest community and the Tohono nation’s capital.[3]  For the Tohono O’odham, the period of time from 1916 to the present is one that was largely defined by the conflict between the United States’ efforts to assimilate the Tohono O’odham into American society and the competing efforts of the Tohono’s to remain culturally independent and traditionally bound.

This picture taken on the San Xavier Reservation in April 1973 features a Tohono O’odham man irrigating fields for the local Tribal Farm Co-op.

The Tohono O’odham have a long history of controlling the lands that comprise the Sonoran desert.  However from the 18th century to the present day, the O’odham lands have predominantly been occupied and controlled by foreign governments.[4]   In the early 18th century, the Tohono O’odham fell under the rule of the Mexican government.   Subsequently, in 1853, the Gadsden Purchase and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo established the location of the U.S. – Mexico border and divided pre-existing tribal lands evenly between Mexico and the United States.[5]  While the incorporation of native lands into the United States initially had little impact on the O’odham people, the formation of the reservation in 1919 ushered in a period of exponentially increased government intervention in O’odham matters, including various forms of coercive assimilation.[6]  The creation of the reservation system was originally intended to encourage Native Americans to join the United States work force and thereby supplement and replace previous tribal economic activities.  It was believed that this action would in turn promote the assimilation of Native American people into the American mainstream.  In the years that followed the establishment of the Tohono O’odham reservation, increasing numbers of nation members worked for wages and often engaged in seasonal work or moved to towns such as Tucson, Arizona to pursue job opportunities outside of the reservation. [7]   However, this system of rotational, temporary work did not promote the assimilation of the Tohono O’odham as intended by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and instead became a means of adaptive resistance. By engaging in only seasonal work, the O’odham people were able to limit their participation in the wage economy, which afforded them the time to continue practicing certain ceremonies that preserved a distinct sense of collective identity, despite the U.S. government’s attempts to destroy such practices.[8]  Tohono O’odham families had little choice but to adapt to the ways of wage labor in order to survive.  While this practice eroded the traditional O’odham dependence on a subsistence-based economy as well as their cultural division of labor, they were still able to incorporate a wage based system into their lives as a strategy to maintain close connections to their village communities and traditional ways of life.[9]

The Tohono O’odham’s resistance against the external pressures to completely assimilate into American culture was further threatened when large numbers of Anglo-Americans began moving into the Arizona territory.   As the world around them drastically changed, many of the O’odham people tried to preserve their way of life, or Himdag, by defending the integrity of the individual village communities.  In defense of village autonomy, various O’odham political groups were formed such as the Good Government League, the Committee of Seven, and the League of Papago Chiefs.[10] These groups only enjoyed a limited amount of success, but over time they were able exert enough influence to facilitate the establishment of a political structure that that ultimately shaped the Indian Reorganization Act to accommodate the tribe.[11]  The resulting outcome of this political influence was the creation in 1937 of the Papago Tribe (later to the Tohono O’odham Nation) and the ratification of a tribal constitution and by-laws that gave power to an elected tribal council that consisted of members from the Papago, San Xavier, and Gila Bend Reservations. This council was designed to promote the interest of the Tohono communities, protect the autonomy of the individual O’odham village complexes, and ultimately preserve the unique Tohono O’odham culture and traditions. [12]

Traditional Tohono O’odham baskets, 1916.

Further, Tohono efforts to preserve their culture and reject complete assimilation in American society, during the 20th century, can be evidenced by the fact that many Tohono O’odham members were increasingly taking up wage work in mining and businesses in nearby cities and towns. A large number of Tohono O’odham members, mainly women, continued to engage in the traditional creation and sale of arts and crafts, including baskets, pottery, wooden bowls, horsehair miniatures, and lariats. [13]  In addition, over three-quarters of the tribe members now affiliate themselves with the Catholic religion, they still maintain many of their ancient beliefs and rituals. [14] The most important of these ancient religious ceremonies is the Vi-kita, in which members of the Tohono O’odham drink wine fermented from the saguaro cactus fruit in order to give thanks for the yearly summer rains.  Despite the government’s attempts in the early 20th century to ban this ceremony and arrest members who participated in it for violation of the prohibition laws, it remained an important aspect of Tohono culture and is still practiced today.[15]

In order to understand the significant cultural shifts and societal developments in recent Tohono O’odham history, one has to first understand the assimilation policies of the American government which sought to eradicate Tohono O’odham culture and to integrate the native people into traditional American society.   These policies served to drastically alter the Tohono O’odham identity and contributed to a hybrid persona comprised of the prevalent American ideas merged with traditional Tohono culture. Despite the constant government, economic and social pressures to abandon their heritage and to assimilate into American society, the Tohono O’odham continually found unique ways of preserving their cultural heritage while adapting to the forced changes.   As a result, they were able protect their language and continue many of their traditions that allowed them to maintain their identity.  While the Tohono culture and Himdag have been greatly threatened, the Tohono O’odham nation has undergone recent cultural revitalization efforts that seek to permanently preserve the practices and history of the O’odham people.


[1] “Tohono O’odham Nation – History & Culture.” Tohono O’odham Nation. http://www.tonation-nsn.gov/history_culture.aspx (accessed April 3, 2012).

[2] Brittain, Richard G., and Matts A. Myhrman. “ALN No. 28: Toward A Responsive Tohono O’Odham Dwelling.” College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. http://ag.arizona.edu/oals/ALN/aln28/tohono.html (accessed April 3, 2012).

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Tohono O’odham Nation – History & Culture.” Tohono O’odham Nation.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Hendricks, J.D.. “O’odham Responds to U.S. Invasion.” O’odham Solidarity Project. http://www.tiamatpublications.com/docs/Collaboration_and_Resistance.pdf (accessed April 3, 2012).

[7] Meeks, Eric. “The Tohono O’odham, Wage Labor, and Resistant Adaptation, 1900-1930.” The Western History Association. faculty.utep.edu/LinkClick.aspx?link=Meeks.pdf&tabid=11451&mid=92572 (accessed April 3, 2012).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Peter MacMillan Booth. Creation of a Nation: The Development of the Tohono O’Odham Political Culture, 1900-1937. (West Lafayette: Purdue University, 2000)

[11] Ibid.

[12] Pritzker, Barry. A Native American encyclopedia: history, culture, and peoples. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 100.

[13] Ibid., 101.

[14] Stacy, Lee. Mexico and the United States. (New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2003),  821.

[15] Ibid.