The Tohono O'odhams lived originally in the Sonoran Desert near the Gulf of California. (The Sand Papagos lived in the western and most arid parts of the Sonoran Desert.) Today they live in four reservations in southern Arizona.
As many as 50,000 Tohono O'odhams probably lived in the region in 1500, although their numbers had shrunk to about 3,000 by 1700. The Native language of the Tohono O'odhams is Piman, a Uto-Aztecan language.
The O'odhams are probably descended from the ancient Hohokam Indians. Unlike the Hohokams or the Pimas, the Tohono O'odhams were seminomadic. They generally spent summers in their "field villages" in the desert, usually at the mouth of an arroyo, where flash floods provided needed water. Winters were spent in "well villages," by mountain springs. The Tohono O'odhams worshiped Earth Maker (Tcuwut Makai) and Elder Brother (I'itoi, or Se'ehe), the heroes of their creation story, whose sacred home is Baboquivari Peak in southern Arizona. Ceremonies encouraged these spirits to bring the rain that made food possible. The people also made annual pilgrimages to salt flats near the Gulf of California, home of the rain spirits, to pray to them.
Their most sacred ceremony was Nawait, or the new year's rain ceremony, which they celebrated with saguaro wine. Other important ceremonial occasions included puberty (especially for girls), funerals, the summer cactus wine feast, the "naming" (to honor and entertain other groups), purification following childbirth, sickness, the corn harvest, the deer hunt, the early winter harvest, purification for an eagle killing, warfare, and the annual salt expeditions.
Shamans, both men and older women, derived curing power from dreams. Although many Papagos became Catholic in the eighteenth century, having clustered around Spanish presidios and missions to escape the Apaches, theirs was a Catholicism heavily mixed with traditional beliefs.
The Tohono O'odhams were organized into autonomous villages. Although each village had a chief (there was no tribal chief), decisions were made by consensus. Each village also had shamans, a headman who set the agenda for meetings and mediated conflict, and an all-male council. They also recognized a ceremonial leader, akin to the head-man, called Keeper of the Smoke. Other officials included a village crier, war leader, hunt leader, game leader, and song leader.
A universal O'odham concept of the way of life (Himdag) centers on family, community, generosity, and modesty. The Papagos made annual visits to relatives on the Gila River or in the Sonora River Valley. In times of famine, families often moved to Pima villages along the Gila River. Every four years the Papagos and Pimas together celebrated Viikita, a holiday dedicated to ensuring their continued fortune, with dancers and clowns dressed in masks and costumes.
Each Tohono O'odham village was divided into two clans: Buzzard and Coyote. Their year began when the cactus fruit ripened. Gifts and wagering were major forms of exchange. Games and races also held cultural importance. With the exception of warriors, who were cremated, the dead were dressed in their best clothing and buried with their personal property in caves, crevices, or stone houses.
Like those of the Pimas, everyday Papago houses were circular and constructed of saguaro and ocotillo ribs and mesquite covered with mud and brush. Ceremonial houses were similar, but larger. Wall-less ramadas provided shelter for most outdoor activities in good weather. Sand Papagos used small rings of stone as temporary windbreaks.
The key to survival in the desert was diversification. The goal of the Papagos was security rather than surpluses. Men grew corn, beans, and squash. Later the Spanish introduced cowpeas, melons, and wheat. Winter wheat especially provided an edge against starvation. The people also hunted, primarily in the winter. Wild foods such as mescal, mesquite beans, ironwood and paloverde seeds, cactus fruits, amaranth and other greens, wild chilies, acorns, and sand root provided about three-quarters of their diet. Saguaro wine was used on ceremonial occasions. During hard times the Papagos "hired out" to Pima Indians, exchanging labor for food. The Sand Papagos ate shellfish from the Gulf of California, reptiles, insects, and small mammals. A staple was the parasitic plant sand root.
The Desert People baked in pit ovens. They used long poles called kuibits to knock down saguaro fruit. The use of calendar sticks, with carved dots and circles to record important ceremonies, began in the early 1830s. Notches referred to secular events, such as earthquakes or Apache attacks. Other equipment included carrying nets, frame backpacks, and cradle boards. In characteristic Ak-Chin farming, men built dams to channel water runoff into a major arroyo. When the flash floods arrived, they would water the fields by erecting brush spreader dams across the arroyo. After contact with the Spanish, the Desert People adopted picks, shovels, and horse-and oxen-drawn plows and wagons.
Trade occurred mostly in the fall and winter. The Tohono O'odhams traded meat, baskets, pottery, salt, shells, mineral pigments, and macaws for corn and, later, wheat from Pimas and Quechans. The Sand Papagos also traded with Yuman peoples on the Colorado River.
The Tohono O'odhams may have first met non-Natives in the 1500s. They experienced extensive contact with the Spanish in late 1600s when Father Eusebio Francisco Kino established numerous Catholic missions and introduced cattle, horses, and wheat (1684). The Spanish also established a series of presidios against the growing Apache threat. Although too isolated to have had to endure harsh forced labor and agricultural taxes as did the Pimas, some Tohono O'odhams, such as Luis Oacpicagigua and others, participated in the Pima Revolt of 1751.
Apaches constituted the major threat from the eighteenth century through the midnineteenth century. During this time, the Sand Papagos died off or became assimilated with the Spanish or surrounding tribes. From 1840 to 1843, the Papagos fought and lost a war against Mexico in an attempt to stop the usurpation of their lands. With the Gadsden Purchase (1853), the Tohono O'odhams lost the part of their territory that remained in Mexico, although they tended to ignore the international border for many years. Despite tighter border restrictions today, Tohono O'odham Indians living in Sonora and the United States remain in contact.
In the 1860s, the Papagos fought alongside the Pimas, the Pee-Posh, and U.S. troops against the Apaches. Still, Anglos appropriated their water holes and grazing land, resulting in conflict and some violence. San Xavier Reservation was founded in 1874, with Gila Bend Reservation following in 1882. The Papago Reservation was established in 1916 and 1917, albeit without most of the Tohono O'odhams' best lands.
The railroad came to Tucson in the 1880s, bringing an increase of cattle ranchers and miners into O'odham territory. The cattle lost by these people began important O'odham herds. By the end of the century, countless Papago (and other Indian) girls were working as domestics for whites through Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) programs at the Phoenix Indian School. About this time, and concurrent with the rise of many Christian schools, the O'odham culture declined markedly.
A field camp at Vecol Wash became the permanent settlement of the Ak-Chin O'odhams in the 1870s; Pimas and Maricopas lived there too. In the early wage economy, O'odham potters sold and traded watercooling ollas; men cut firewood; basket-makers sold baskets. Cotton picking became the most important economic activity through the 1950s. In the 1970s, a severe drought killed many cattle, reducing the Papagos to near starvation.