The only road through the Tohono O’odham reservation is a lonely two-lane highway where the desert stretches out on either side and sometimes encroaches on the road.
This is the land of the desert people, and it’s both harsh and beautiful. The Tohono O’odham have occupied this land for millenia, and they may be one of the few native tribes in the U.S. that have never been moved from their own land, so they’re well-equipped to survive here. For example, the iconic image of the O’odham is the harvest of the saguaro fruit in spring.
At 4,500 square miles, this is the third largest reservation in the country, although it is now a fraction of the territory the O’odham used to occupy on both sides of the border. The aggressive Apache carved out a hunk in the east; the Mexican government encroached on tribal land in the south, when the border cut across tribal land in 1854, leaving a chunk of O’odham stranded south of the border. (They are allowed to cross the border now with their tribal passes.) And the U.S. has nibbled at it from every which way.
In 1954, the O’odham agreed to let the U.S. build a major observatory on the top of Kitt Peak (Baboquivari Mountain), which is a sacred O’odham site.
Yet, despite centuries of disturbance, the O’odham people seem remarkably intact. According to tribal numbers, 20,000 of its 25,000 members live on the reservation; many still speak the O’odham language; the reservation, while vast and hardscrabble, seems well-managed. The tribe recently built a lovely museum and cultural center with gaming money in Topawa, about 12 miles south of Sells, Arizona, the main town and administrative center.
The O’odham are a quiet people—not showy, not warlike. Don’t look for feathery headdresses, fancy beaded clothes, or pow-wows among the O’odham. Their rituals are low-key—shuffling circular dances and muffled drumming. They have a cleansing ceremony for taking life, and enemy possessions are to be left undisturbed.
Still, the O’odham suffer from the common afflictions of the conquered: poverty, loss of identity, lack of educational resources, and illness, in this case diabetes. (Interestingly, substance abuse doesn’t appear to be a top-tier item.) Average annual income on the reservation is $7000; most adults haven’t graduated from high school, and over half have type-two diabetes—the highest rate in the world, probably a result of replacing traditional food with the processed, fat-laden American diet.
Recently, I drove into the reservation from the east on state road 86. When I saw the broad expanse of dirt parking lot at the Coyote Trading Post, (I don’t know how to pronounce the native name), I gathered my courage and asked a clerk at the gas station/gift shop if I could camp there for the night. The manager graciously let me stay, and I spent a delightful afternoon catching up on trailer chores and hiking around the desert mountain, in which I found plenty of evidence that both humans and animals had passed that way.