Tohono O’odham

by Seth Vandenberg

The Tohono O’odham tribe occupies a reservation in Arizona just west of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. This tribe, along with the Akimel O’odham and Hia Ced O’odham, is believed to be descended from the Hohokam. The Tohono O’odham occupied an area stretching from Sonora to Central Arizona and from the Gulf of California to the San Pedro River (termed the Papagueria).[1] It is believed that the Tohono O’odham people have lived in the region for thousands of years.[2] The name Tohono O’odham itself translates to “Desert People,” an appropriate name given their adaptations to life in the region’s harsh, arid climate. The term formerly used to refer to this tribe was “Papago,” a name that today has been rejected because it was assigned to the tribe by the conquistadores. Up through the fifteenth century, the Tohono O’odham people survived on a combination of agriculture and gathering. Gathering was extremely necessary as agricultural output in the desert depends on mercurial rains. Crop yield can range from miniscule to abundant.[3] The important O’odham cultural norm of sharing rose from this reality. In Tohono O’odham society abundant harvests or significant hauls while hunting were typically shared with the rest of the village in order to survive.[4]

Prior to American migration into Arizona in the 1930s, the Tohono O’odham were a semi-nomadic people, having summer and winter homes. This practice was necessary to collect enough water for the village to survive. The Tohono O’odham developed a very detailed knowledge of the land. Apache tribes from as far north as Canada raided Tohono O’odham lands in the fifteenth century. Then the sixteenth century brought the arrival of Europeans who explored the region. However, because the lands appeared to lack resources the tribe was left alone for nearly a century.[5] In 1686 the Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino came to the O’odham lands to attempt to convert the natives. Though Kino was well received, the tribe resisted challenges to its way of life. Permanent settlement, fixed property rights, and heavy clothing were simply not suitable to the area, and hence the O’odham had a hard time adopting Spanish ways.[6]

Photograph of a Tohono O'odham woman by Edward Curtis (1905)

Mexico gained its independence in 1821 and looked to settle and mine its northern regions causing conflict with the O’odham. The Mexican-American war then split the Tohono O’odham tribe between Mexico and the United States. The Tohono O’odham people disregarded the border after Mexican independence but due to conflicts over Mexican settlements on O’odham lands in the mid nineteenth century most of the tribe migrated to the United States.[7] The 1849 California gold rush brought many travelers onto Tohono O’odham lands causing more problems. Finally in July 14, 1916, the Tohono O’odham were formally given a reservation, though the government has still looked to westernize the tribe. Today the Tohono O’odham tribe still retains much of its cultural heritage despite American cultural influences. The tribe has run into problems with immigrants crossing O’odham territory and has had to deal with incursions from the border patrol as well.

Further Reading

McIntyre, Allan J. The Tohono O’odham and Pimeria Alta. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2008.

Robinett, Dan. Tohono O’odham Range History. Vol. 12, No. 6 of Rangelands (Allen Press and Society for Range Management, 1990) (accessed February 14, 2012)

[1] Tohono O’odham Nation, “History and Culture,” (accessed February 14, 2012).

[2] Tohono O’odham Nation, “History and Culture,”

[3] Donald M. Bahr, Pima and Papago Social Organization, ed. Alphonso Ortiz (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1983) 187.

[4] Winston P. Erickson, Sharing the Desert: The Tohono O’odham in History (Tuscon: The University of Arizona Press, 1994) 12.

[5] Erickson, Sharing the Desert, 21.

[6] Erickson, Sharing the Desert, 24.

[7] Bernard L. Fontana, History of the Papago, ed. Alphonso Ortiz (Washington: Smithsonian institution, 1993), 142.