Desert People

Desert People


 What comes to your mind when you picture the desert? Those of us unfamiliar with the desert might visualize it as an unforgiving place with no trace of life. If you were Tohono O’odham (Desert People), however, you were placed specifically in the desert by the Elder Brother I’itoi, with everything you would need as a human being. Before the birth of First Born, the earth was not yet finished. Darkness lay rubbing against water. First Born made all plant and animal life after finishing the earth. He made the sun, followed by the moon and stars and the paths they follow you Now the living things could see each other and live contentedly together. The sky then came down four times to meet the earth. The first time, Elder Brother I’itoi came forth. The second time, Buzzard came forth. Coyote came forth the third time. All this took place before the Elder Brother created your people out of clay. He gave you the beautiful crimson evening and told you to remain where you were on the land, the center of all things.

All of your homeland is sacred, north to what is now Phoenix, east to the San Pedro River, south to Hermasillo and west to the Gulf of California. Within this great area breathes everything necessary to keep life going for you and to receive you, body and soul, in death. The story of the land is your story. There is cholla, for instance, to nourish you before planting can begin with the rain in mid-summer. There is the sahuaro which always told the people when the rain would come through the timing of its fruits. If you were O’odham, you might look fondly upon the saguaro as a fat child — so big it has trouble getting started in life. (The paloverde, on the other hand, might look like a mother to you, growing quickly over the sahuaro, bending its leaves downwards to keep the wind away.) So, too, on the land there are pack rats, jack rabbits, deer and other animals who give of themselves to the hunters. There are the jagged little cliffs, the rain-catchers. There are crystals for the medicine men to heal and bring rain with, who find them by magic mostly with the help of  dreams.  There is a hill where sahuaro grows only on the south side. This is because Coyote, who does not enjoy work, dropped a bag of sahuaro there instead of planting it all over like I’toi had told him to, intending for everyone to be able gather its fruit without too much walking. Coyote, who helped to put the world in order, came to life under a greasewood bush. Within rock caves all over the land lie O’odham who have come before.

Each animal, bird, insect, natural phenomena and humans belongs to a type and category of spirit and each with its own him’dag (way). If you were a traditional O’odham, you might have been taught never to step over even the tail of a snake lest you contract the vomiting sickness, or on horned toads because they would make your foot sore. You might have been taught in your childhood to differentiate between the big ants who are the medicine men who sting and the smaller, kind ones who will not hurt you. One of the three O’odham categories of sickness, known as ka:cim mumkidag (staying sicknesses) are traceable to the Jewed Ma:kai (Earth doctor) and I’itoi. These sicknesses are caused when we intentionally or unintentionally violate the cihañig(integrity) of these ways through disrespect or mistreatment. O’odham on salt pilgrimages are reminded never to step off the trail for that “might ruin somebody’s [some animal’s] house.” While spirits can cause sicknesses, they also possess knowledge of their distinct cures, which they give to select humans during their dreams.

If you were Tohono O’odham, your homeland is sacred also because it remembers generation after generation of your people’s presence, living in ways that have allowed life to go on and to go well. O’odham have been on the land gathering materials for all purposes, including food, basketry materials, sticks for scraping together in accompaniment to songs, and the round cactus stems with which houses were traditionally built. Children have been making dolls out of leaves and playing at grinding corn with sand and small, flat stones. The people have filled the land with innumerous songs written for every occasion and passed down through the ages, inspired by interactions on the land, full of images of the land, to be sung in offering or response to events and phenomenon tied to the land. As well, the nocturnal dreams that are such a key part of traditional O’odham life usually contain symbols from the land, and many of the dreams come in order to tell people how to proceed in relation to the land. Whenever necessary, your people have travelled over the land to attend ceremonies, or to obtain necessary items where they are abundant. For instance, when the summer is over and the ponds have dried up since the rains, O’odham living to the north might move over the hills to work for O’odham in the place many call Mexico, where they have water ditches in their fields. If you were Tohono O’odham, the land also holds routes taken by your people in pilgrimage. Neophytes making their first salt pilgrimage at sixteen or seventeen would enter the ranks of adulthood, as well as have fathers of eligible girls approaching their parents to offer their daughters for marriage. Two accessible salt deposits were reachable by different routes. One route leads straight south, through Quijotoa and Sharp mountain. The other leads west to Ajo Mountain and then south, past the present Pinacate. The salt deposits lie along the northern beaches of the Gulf of California, left in the low sandy stretches by the high tides. Whether gathering, singing, travelling or making a pilgrimage, each of these activities, inseparable from the land, renews the cycle of life by bringing the people back to how the ancestors have kept life going from the very beginning.

Picking and processing saguaro fruit

This is your homeland if you are Tohono O’odham, living in the desert surrounded by sacred mountains you consider Elders. The mountains are a living part of Mother Earth and locations of important events in your people’s creation. Each one maintains the ancient history and stories of your people. Each is vital to the well-being of all the people has a special offering song. Baboquivari, also known as Waw kiwalik, for example, is the navel of the world, the opening in the Earth from which the O’odham emerged after the world flood. Muhadag Do’ag, a male mountain, is the keeper of the stories of the sacred bear and a healing mountain. And then there are devil mountains, each standing in a cattle-ranching range found in probably every human village, that are the destinations of O’odham who were cowboys during their lifetimes. Other particularly sacred locations, both natural and human made, include the Gulf of California, the Colorado River, the Children’s Shrine, Nawicu Hiaspañ (Where –the-Ceremonial-Runner-is-Buried), and the Witches Cave  near the ejido of Poso Verde, Mexico. Together with everything else on the land, these locations remind and teach you about your people’s identity and place in the world, on the staying earth where all humans, animals, and the natural world exist, between si’alig weco (beyond-the-eastern-horizon) – an idyllic location lush with rain, crops and wildlife where all deceased O’odham will go- and huduñig (the sunset place in the west) where certain spirits dwell.

O’odham Basket Dance


A “Knife In Your Mother”

 Lessa-vation! That how Vasindone say. But did Vasindone make our land? No! That was Earthmaker. In the Beginning. He make it for us – Papagos, Desert People! Bean people!

Those who do not understand the land as sacred -and have no intention to try-experience   it as a homogenous and relative space, an amorphous mass definable according to the desires of the day. This experience of land must have been how the United States federal government could have claimed ownership of the land following the U.S.-Mexican war, and thereupon artificially broken up the O’odham lands and society into different reservations. The same understanding must have been how the National Science Foundation could have been able to scrape away at the sacred Kitt Peak to construct a national observatory there, and how there could be an ongoing insistence that a freeway extension be carved through Muhadag Do’ag. Similarly, this must have been the paradigm under which the Mexican government is planning a chemical waste dump on the O’odham lands. These, however, represent but a few of the consequences that conflicting perceptions of the land have incurred. In the 1660s and 1750s, the O’odham staged two major rebellions against Spanish incursions. Following Mexican independence, the Mexican government viewed O’odham lands as part of its rule. Then, in 1852, the Gadsden Purchase, or Treaty of La Mesilla, divided the land almost in half between Mexico and the United States. Between then and today, mining and railroad development continued to desecrate and decrease O’odham access to their homeland. However, the politically imposed international border was not as much of a barrier to O’odham life and religion even then as it has been in the recent years.

I have heard a number of Americans discuss the Berlin Wall. The brutality of the Israeli West Bank Barrier as well as the heavily fortified DMZ “demilitarized zone” separating North Korea and South Korea at the 38th parallel has also come across as crises that people at the country appear, at minimum, to be aware of. Barely anyone I have spoken with outside the indigenous rights movement, however, realize that a Berlin Wall, West Bank Barrier and 38th parallel exists as part of the United States itself. For the Tohono O’odham, the U.S.-Mexico border has become all three. And although I write today focusing on the Tohono O’odham, other indigenous peoples along the border , including Pascua Yaquis, Lipan Apaches, Kickapoos and Cocopahs, experience the same violent reality.

The Secure Fence Act passed through the U.S. House of Representatives with a vote of 283-138 on September 13, 2006. Then president of the United States, George W. Bush, put his signature to it on October 26 of the same year. On April 1st 2008, the Department of Homeland Security announced its suspension of 36 federal laws to finish the wall. With this went the right of the O’odham to travel freely and safely via  traditional routes in their territory previously been guaranteed under United States, Mexican, and International Law. The Department of Homeland Security waived the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, the Declaration of Human Rights for Indigenous Peoples and the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. The president also claimed the power to waive any and all environmental and Federal Indian laws in order to build the Wall in the name of national security. The construction of a 1951-mile-long, double-layered, 18-feet-high wall along the border resulted in the complete displacement of entire communities, including 45 O’odham villages. Ancestral graves, too, were destroyed. At present, O’odham lands are an occupied area, militarized by over 1,500 troops. Many citizens of the United States and government officials continue pushing for more. Also in collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security is the Tohono O’odham Nation Legislative Council, which had publicly condemned the existence of the people’s language and elders on radio. Systemic governmental genocide, through forced assimilation by the boarding school system and wars to exterminate the people, has also produced many O’odham who are no longer able to understand the O’odham him’dag, the O’odham way taught by the Elder Brother I’itoi. Ofelia Rivas, who organizes the project “O’odham Voice against the Wall,” described the wall as such: “It’s like somebody put a knife in your mother…and you can’t pull it out.”

The border wall has turned the life-giving desert into a place of death. According to No More Deaths, more than 338 immigrant deaths occurred on O’odham lands from October 2009 to April 2011 alone. Many of the immigrants are also indigenous people, including Mayans from Chiapas and Oaxaca, who have not been able to make a living in Mexico since the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994. A detention center on the O’odham homeland houses Border Patrol Officers inside air-conditioned and heated buildings while, in a region that has temperatures as high as 120 degrees F and as low as 20 degrees F, immigrant children, men and women are held in a caged area outside.  Such violations of human rights conflict directly with the O’odham him’dag, and yet the tribe is expected to pay a large portion of the bills for law reinforcement related to the border.

The wall’s imposition has also denied the lives of animals and plants on the land. Wherever it stands are places were desert plants have been uprooted. Bush clearing, fence construction and the installation of bright lights, motion sensors and cameras have frightened and endangered the animals. The wall restricts movement for all animal species. As the O’odham watch our plant and animal relatives struggling on a land where wall construction has also destroyed ancestral graves, they find themselves unable to collect traditional food and medicine in the desert without being watched by the Border Patrol. Under immigration laws such as the Arizona Senate Bill 1070, the Border Patrol agents have demanded proof of residence from O’odham for moving about their own ancestral homeland, holding people literally at gunpoint. Crossing the international border to attend traditional ceremonies, baptisms, weddings or funerals with relatives has become impossible without passports and identification cards, a great challenge for many O’odham who did not register their birth. In the world of the Tohono O’odham, land is consecrated and central. A grassroots community organization once acknowledged the importance of the material roots of O’odham culture in these words: “…it is not enough to simply preserve cultural activities. A ground blessing dance looses much of its power when only ever performed for an audience in an auditorium rather than in the fields the O’odham have planted for generations.” By denying the O’odham sovereignty with the land as they understand it, federal agencies deny the people culture and religion, life and renewal.

Keeping Strong

Throughout the process of writing this paper, a Tohono O’odham song – sung in wait for rain – kept returning to me.

On the edge of the mountain
A cloud hangs
There my heart, my heart, my heart
Hangs with it

Perhaps the song remains in my mind to remind me that natural phenomenon, dreams, songs, the land, creation itself- everything the Desert People have known as sacred – transcends all arbitrary borders. Even people who go about experiencing the land in a profane way would not be alive, wherever they come from, if any these did not exist. Further, Elder Brother I’itoi, who placed the Desert People on the land, is also the spirit of goodness. He must dwell in all things. Surely these very truths must eventually lead to the dissolving of all imposed borders. Grassroots organizations including the O’odham Solidarity Project, Alianza Indigena Sin Fronteras, and TOCA (Tohono O’odham Community Action) are working to reform debilitating policies and to strengthen the people through their shared heritage. I pray that the rest of the world will join in solidarity with them for the sake of all.

Traditional O’odham dance

~Guojun Lee

Works Cited

Ahni. “Intercontinental Cry”. Tohono O’odham Demand Halt To Construction Of Border Wall. 18 July. 2008. 3 Nov. 2011.    border-wall/

Kozak, David, Lopez, David. Devil Sickness And Devil Songs. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999.

Matus, Jose. “Resist.” Indigenous Suffer Border Incursions: Southwest Immigration Leglislations and “Security” Damage Lands, Cultures. 2010. 5 Nov. 2011.

McNamee, Gregory. “The Tohono O’odham Creation Story”. 1993. 6 Nov. 2011.

Norrell, Brenda. “Americas Project”. Border Apartheid Documented in United Nations Report On Indigenous Peoples. 21 Jan. 2008. 5 Nov. 2011.

Norrell, Brenda. “The Narcosphere”. O’odham Ophelia Rivas: Halt freeway destruction   of sacred mountain. 08 Jun. 2011. 4 Nov. 2011.

Rivas, Ofelia. “Our way of Life”. Tiamat Publications. Date unknown.

Click to access Our_Way_of_Life.pdf

Root Force. “Root Force: demolishing colonialism at its foundations”. Arizona Indigenous Peoples And Allies Occupy Border Patrol Office. 21 May. 2010. 3 Nov. 2011.

The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy. “Kitt Peak National Observatory”. 1999. 5 Nov. 2011.

Tohono O’odham Nation. “Official Website of the Tohono O’odham Nation”. History & Culture.. Date unknown. 6 Nov. 2011.

Underhill, Ruth. Papago Indian Religion. New York: AMS Press, 1969.

Underhill, Ruth. Papago Woman. Illinois: Waveland Press, 1979.

Wikipedia. “Tohono O’odham”. 28 Oct. 2011. 3 Nov. 2011.’odham

Wikipedia. “Mexico-United States Barrier.” 2 Nov. 2011. 3 Nov. 2011.

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