Tohono O’odham-People of the Desert

pockets of Tohono O'odham also live in Mexico

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.

the desert of the O'odham

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.

The saguaro harvest

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.

Kitt Peak Observatory at the top of sacred Baboquivari Mountain

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.

the trading post

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.

behind the trading post

people have passed through here








and animals


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8 Responses to Tohono O’odham-People of the Desert

  1. Button 16 March, 2011 at 1:30 pm #

    Kitt Peak is not Baboquivari Mountain, though it is in the Baboquivari mountain range. Kitt Peak is sacred, but not as sacred as the actual Baboquivari Mountain.

    The most-sacred Baboquivari Peak is actually on public (United States, not reservation) land, and you can visit it without having to pay a fee – though it’s recommended you bring an offering for I’itoi.

    • Kate 19 March, 2011 at 7:21 pm #

      Thanks for the clarification, Button. There’s a lot I don’t understand about the Oodham. Where is Baboquivari Peak and how does one visit?

  2. Jim 22 January, 2011 at 4:43 pm #

    This is very cool to see you out where you’re both at your best and your worst. That’s always what travel should provide for you. I know how much you love that area and hope that it provides a time for contemplation and discovery. Love to you

    • Kate 26 January, 2011 at 5:52 pm #

      I felt like I had to be a little careful on the reservation–it doesn’t really embrace visitors. BUT, now I’m in the Anza Borrego desert in S. California, and it’s an awesome place for hiking, meditating, and hanging out.

      I’ve been out of cell phone touch, but I’ll call you guys next week. log

  3. Marcia Davis 21 January, 2011 at 9:54 pm #

    Very informative, Kate. I wasn’t aware of that reservation. Thanks for the info and great photos!

    • Kate 26 January, 2011 at 5:53 pm #

      It’s a really interesting place, but not really a destination. Open, desolate, and someone else’s land. Great restaurant, though. (Read the next post.)


  1. TOCA-Healing the people | Adventure Blog | Travel Journal Blog | WanderingNotLost - 28 January, 2011

    […] had heard about the Desert Rain Café years ago. So, on my way through the Tohono O’odham reservation, I was determined to find the place. What I discovered was a lot more than a restaurant that […]

  2. San Solano Misison, Topawa, AZ | Adventure Blog | Travel Journal Blog | WanderingNotLost - 26 January, 2011

    […] 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 […]