Tohono O’odham Tribe

“…Question: What is that he is beating on? It’s a gourd drum. The drum represents the heartbeat of the deer. Listen. When the drum beats, it brings the deer to life. We believe the water the drum sits in is holy. It is life. Go ahead, touch it. Bless yourself with it. It is holy. You are safe now…” Ofelia Zepeda,~Deer Dance Exhibition (excerpt from the Poetry Foundation)

Carlos Rios Tohono O’odham Chief(c.1907) Credit Edward S. Curtis

Tohono O’odham Nation


The O’odham  are descendants of the Hohokam who lived thousands of years ago along the Salt, Gila, and Santa Cruz Rivers. Today, the majority of the tribe lives in the Sonoran Desert  in Arizona,  and  the rest ( several thousand)  live in  northwestern Mexico.

In 1687 Father Eusebio Kino, a Jesuit missionary, arrived in Sonora and built missions and introduced Christianity, to the Tohono O’odham and Pima people.  he and his people also introduced wheat, livestock, fruit, and metal tools. In 1700, he established the San Xavier mission.

In 1848 The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended  the Mexican-American War with Mexico ceding most of what is now the modern-day southwest of the United States.

With the independence of Republic of Mexico, O’odham fell under Mexican rule.  In 1854, through the Gadsden Purchase or Treaty of La Mesilla,  the O’odham land was divided almost in half, between the United States and Mexico.

In 1917 the  main Tohono O’odham reservation was established.  Following the Plan de Iguala, O’odham lands in Mexico continued to  rapidly decrease.  In 1927, reserves of lands for indigenous peoples, were established by Mexico.

On the U.S. side of the border, the Gadsden Purchase had little effect on the O’odham because they were not informed that a purchase of their land had been made. Initially  tribal members were free to travel back and forth between borders to  work, visit relatives, and participate in religious ceremonies.

Today: Border Issues

Unfortunately,  stricter border  enforcement mainly due to drug trafficking between the United States and Mexico  have been enforced.  Because of this,  the border has  become an issue that affects the O’odham in many ways.  For one, the immigration laws present a barrier  that  prevents the O’odham from traveling back and forth.  This prevents them from visiting relatives and sacred sites, and from conducting business related to their jobs and culture. O’odham members must produce passports and border identification cards to enter into the United States.

On countless occasions, the U.S. Border Patrol has detained and deported members of the Tohono O’odham Nation who were simply traveling through their own traditional lands…  Border officials are also reported to have confiscated cultural and religious items, such as feathers of common birds, pine leaves or sweet grass.

U.S. Federal Recognition Today

Tohono O’odham bands are now broken up into 4 federally recognized tribes: the Tohono O’odham Nation, the Gila River Indian Community, the Ak-Chin Indian Community and the Salt River (Pima Maricopa) Indian community.

Each band is politically and geographically distinct and separate. The remaining band, the Hia-C’ed O’odham, are not federally recognized, but reside throughout southwestern Arizona. All of the groups still speak the O’odham language, which derives from the Uto-Aztecan language group, although each group has varying dialects.

The Tohono O’odham  members  reside on reservation land live on one of the four separate pieces of land that make up the Tohono O’odham Nation. These pieces of land are the “main” reservation, Florence Village, San Xavier and San Lucy. There are also O’odham who live in Mexico. The Tohono O’odham Nation houses branches of government and their programs, five recreation centers, one health center, six Head Start preschools and much more.

Although the tribe has several casinos  that help with some of the costs, they still cannot cover the outstanding costs for basic needs such as medical, housing, education and emergency services. The physical isolation of the tribe  has always been a handicap to its economic development.

Ofelia Zepeda.

One of the tribe’s outstanding members is Dr. Ofelia Zepeda, who teaches at the University of Arizona. Dr.  Zepeda  is the director of the American Indian Studies program,  and was one of the co-founders, and now director of the nationally recognized American Indian Language Development Institute (AILDI).  She is the author of the first book on the grammar of the Tohono O’odham language, A Tohono O’odham Grammar. In addition, she has written several books of poetry.

Tribalpedia: Questions for Comprehension and  Discussion

1. The Tohono  O’odham  are descendants of what group of people?

2. Who was Father Eusebio Kino?

3. What event occurred in 1854 that caused the tribe to be divided between the U.S. and Mexico?

4. Due to the stricter border  enforcement laws, what are some of the problems the  Tohono  O’odham are having today?

5. Although the tribal members have several casinos, they are till having financial problems in many areas in the community.  What are the areas?

Tohono  O’odham Creation Story

In the Tonoho O’odham creation story, the reproductive powers of the universe give birth to the Papagueria and the world thanks to I’itoi, the god who lives in Waw kiwalik, or Baboquivari Peak. This version is a close adaptation of one Bernard L. Fontana recorded in his book Of Earth and Little Rain.

Long ago, they say, when the earth was not yet finished, darkness lay upon the water and they rubbed each other. The sound they made was like the sound at the edge of a pond.

There, on the water, in the darkness, in the noise, and in a very strong wind, a child was born. One day he got up and found something stuck to him. It was algae. So he took some of the algae and from it made the termites. The termites gathered a lot of algae and First Born tried to decide how to make a seat so the wind could not blow it anywhere. This is the song he sang:

Earth Medicine Man finished the earth.

Come near and see it and do something to it.

He made it round.

Come near and see it and do something to it.

In this way, First Born finished the earth. Then he made all animal life and plant life.

There was neither sun nor moon then, and it was always dark. The living things didn’t like the darkness, so they got together and told First Born to make something so that the earth would have light. Then the people would be able to see each other and live contentedly with each other.

So First Born said, “All right. You name what will come up in the sky to give you light.”

They discussed it thoroughly and finally agreed that it would be named “sun”.

Next First Born made the moon and stars, and the paths that they always follow. He said, “There will be plenty of prickly pears and the people will always be happy.”

That’s the way First Born prepared the earth for us. Then he went away.

Then the sky came down and met the earth, and the first one to come forth was I’itoi, our Elder Brother.

The sky met the earth again, and Coyote came forth.

The sky met the earth again, and Buzzard came forth.

Elder Brother, Earth Magician, and Coyote began their work of creation, each creating things different from the other. Elder Brother created people out of clay and gave then the “crimson evening,” which is regarded by the Tohono O’odham as one of the most beautiful sights in the region. The sunset light is reflected on the mountains with a peculiar radiance.

Elder Brother told the Tohono O’odham to remain where they were in that land which is the center of all things.

And there the desert people have always lived. They are living there this very day. And from his home among the towering cliffs and crags of Baboquivari, the lonely, cloud-veiled peak, their Elder Brother, I’itoi, spirit of goodness, who must dwell in the center of all things, watches over them.


Tohono  O’odham Creation Story:  Named in Stone and Sky, An Arizona Anthology edited by Gregory McNamee, University of Arizona Press.

Tohono  O’odham home page:  Nation Seal

Tohono O’odham History

Tohono  O’odham Historical Timeline


Photo: Edward Curtis The North American Indian