I left the parking lot at the Coyote Trading Post early and headed for the Tohono O’odham Museum. Armed with a hand-drawn map, I drove south on Rte. 19 to Topawa, a tiny village that meanders through the desert seemingly without a plan.
The museum is attractive and well-planned. I learned about the history, food, language, and governance of the O’odham people, among other tidbits. I also met the tribe’s librarian, Jeannette Garcia, who makes up in enthusiasm for what she lacks in ancestry. (She isn’t O’odham.)
Then I figured out how to get to the San Solano mission in Topawa. First I barged into what was apparently a meeting hall, interrupting a luncheon of some sort. An awkward moment followed in which I gathered my few remaining wits, and the attendees wondered how this white woman had stumbled into their midst. Then, someone got up and steered me toward the parish office, where Shirley, the secretary, was informative and helpful.
The church is a simple, white adobe structure decorated with the traditional circular images I’d seen on the woven baskets in the museum. The stations of the cross are original and hand-painted. The artist had adapted the familiar image of Our Lady of Guadelupe to the O’odham culture.
Shirley met me in the church and shared with me how the tribe celebrates the Day of the Dead, adapting that celebration to their culture as well.
“We prepare food—all the foods our relatives liked. And we buy them presents; I got a flowered housedress like my mother-in-law used to wear and a flannel shirt for my father-in-law. I slipped in a beer for my brother-in-law.”
The family lays out the food and gifts, lights candles, and says the rosary, leaving and locking the doors just as the sun is setting. Earlier in the day, the family also cleans and decorates the graves of their loved ones with colorful wreaths made especially for the dead.
“The families take this task very seriously,” says Jeannette Garcia, the librarian. “Some will travel a long way to take care of the graves.”
Early in the morning, the women prepare more food. At sunrise, the family unlocks the doors and says a rosary. Then they distribute the gifts to guests or to the needy, and they eat the new food they prepared.
“This is the only night the spirits of the dead can come out,” says Shirley.
We chatted for a while about the value of ritual and the importance of honoring loved ones who have died. I drove back to the highway feeling as though I’d learned a thing or two about remembering the dead. (Click on any picture to start a slide show.)