Traditionally, the Pimas lived in rancherias in present-day southern Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico (the Sonoran Desert). The Spanish categorized them as the Pima Alto (upper Pimas, who lived near the Gila and Salt Rivers) and the Pima Bajo (or Nevones, lower Pimas, who lived along the Yaqui and Sonora Rivers). Today's (upper) Pima reservations are located in southern Arizona. There were roughly 50,000 Pimas in 1500 and perhaps 3,000 in 1700.
The Pimas are probably descended from ancient Hohokam Indians. They lived and farmed in permanent settlements (rancherias) near rivers on the northern edge of the Spanish frontier, which at the time was at present-day Tucson. The first non-Indian to visit the Pimas was Marcos de Niza (1589). In 1684, Father Eusebio Francisco Kino organized several missions and introduced livestock, wheat, and metal tools into the region.
An accommodation between the Pimas and Spanish masked resentments over religious, political, and cultural imperialism, not to mention forced labor. In 1695 the lower Pimas, under Luis Oacpicagigua and others, revolted against the Spanish, and in 1751 the upper Pima rebelled. The latter had little support from other tribes or even a majority of Pimas, however, and peace was soon established.
Around 1800 the Pee-Posh (Maricopa) Indians came to live near the upper Pimas. At the same time the area came under more frequent attacks by Apache raiders. The twin factors of winter wheat production plus increased conflict with the Apaches led to a thorough transformation of Pima society. Pima bands engaged in closer cooperation and began to produce agricultural surpluses. This led in turn to an increased integration of their society. By the midnineteenth century the position of governor had become hereditary, and the Pimas had become a true tribe. They were also the only effective force in the area against the Apaches as well as an important economic power.
Despite Pima food assistance to the forty-niners and the U.S. Army, Anglo settlers along the Gila River took the best farmland and diverted water for their own use. After the Gadsden Purchase (1853) split O'odham country in two, Anglos began using the term "Pima" for residents on the Gila River and "Papago" for Piman speakers south of the Gila. The United States established a Pima–Maricopa reservation on the Gila River in 1859. However, as a result of failing water supplies, many Indians moved north, where another reservation was established in 1879 on the Salt River. From the 1850s on, three generations of the Azul family led the Pima–Maricopa confederation.
By 1870, Pima annual wheat production had reached 3 million pounds. Non-Natives reacted to this achievement with fear, envy, and retaliation. Major Anglo water diversions soon left the Pimas with little water for their crops. Combined with a drought and population increases, this led to Pima impoverishment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many Pimas were forced into the wage economy at the lowest levels. The U.S. government ignored the key problem of Pima water rights.
The loss of the river and the growing influence of Presbyterians brought about a severe decline in Pima culture and traditional religion. The Presbyterians replaced the Pima religious structure with one of their own creation. The Presbyterian Church and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) opened day and boarding schools, respectively. Allotment hit the reservation in 1914, breaking up tribal land patterns and further disrupting community life.
In 1926, the BIA created a Pima Advisory Council to meet the bureau's need for a body that spoke for the tribe. Eight years later the Pimas adopted a constitution and tribal council, which remained quite powerless, because the Pima "tribe" had virtually disappeared. The Pima and Maricopa community revised the constitution and bylaws in 1936. In the 1930s the San Carlos Project began returning irrigation water to the Pimas, but several factors worked to cancel its benefits, including the dependency of Indians on wage work (at that point they were reluctant to return to subsistence farming), a complex water management bureaucracy that mandated required crops, chronic ongoing water shortages, and the fact that allotments (heirship) had destroyed their effective land base. The post–World War II period has been a time for Pimas once again to assume a degree of control over their own resources and lives.
A civil leader and one or more shamans presided over economically and politically independent Pima villages. Village ceremonial leaders were known as "keepers of the smoke." Village chiefs elected a tribal chief, who ran council meetings. His other responsibilities included overseeing farm projects and defending against Apache raiders. In the midnineteenth century, the chieftainship went from a position of power and no wealth to one of wealth and no power. In 1936 the adoption of a new constitution under the Indian Reorganization Act marked the beginning of the Pima battle for legal rights.
Each village was divided into two groups, Red Ant and White Ant, who opposed each other in games and other ceremonial functions. The groups were further divided into patrilineal clans. In general, men farmed, fished, hunted, built the houses, and wove cotton; women gathered food and made baskets, pottery, and clothing. They also carried fire-wood and food on their backs in burden baskets. The Pimas used a lunar calendar. Their year began with the rainy season and the appearance of flowers on certain plants, such as the saguaro cactus. Viikita was a celebration held every fourth harvest to celebrate and ensure the favor of the gods.
Pimas lived in small, round, flat-topped, pole-framed structures, covered with grass and mud. In warm weather they moved into simple open-sided brush arbors. They also built cylindrical bins in which they stored mesquite beans. Ramadas, used for clubhouses, also dotted each village.
Farm products such as corn, squash (cut into strips and dried), and tepary beans accounted for up to 60 percent of the Pima diet. The people also grew tobacco and cotton and, after the Spanish arrived, wheat (winter wheat ensured protection against starvation and made farms very productive) and alfalfa. Wild foods included cactus fruit, mesquite beans, greens, chilies, and seeds, which, with corn, were ground into meal on a cottonwood mortar and used in gruel and cakes. Pimas also ate fish and hunted deer, rabbit, mountain sheep, antelope, and reptiles. They drank saguaro wine for ceremonial purposes.
To irrigate their crops, Pimas diverted water from rivers with dams of logs and brush. They also built canals and feeder ditches. Farm tools consisted of digging sticks and a flat board used for hoeing and harvesting. Hunting bows were made of Osage orange or willow. After a great meteor shower in 1833, the people used calendar sticks—saguaro ribs with cuts—to mark certain events. The Spanish brought horse- and oxen-drawn wagons, plows, and metal picks and shovels into the region.