O'odham Himdag (Culture)

Akimel Oʼodham

The Akimel O’odham are a group of O’odham who have lived along the Gila River for over 300 years always supporting themselves through agriculture. The words Akimel O’odham translate to “river people”. They are also known as the Pima Indians for that is the name that the Spanish had given them upon contact. It is believed that when the Spanish were trying to communicate to the Akimel O’odham they could not understand the Spanish language and just responded to their questions with the O’odham words for “I don’t know” which are “pi matc” in their language.

Prior to American contact the Akimel O’odham were living prosperous lives in many villages along the Gila River Valley. Their land went as far east as Florence, Arizona and as far west as the base of the Estrella Mountain Range (Komatke to the Akimel O’odham). The Akimel were astonishing farmers with the aid of self- built irrigation systems practiced by them from prehistoric times. Each community had an irrigation canal, and they could be several miles in length and up to 10 feet deep. With the aid of these canals the waters of the river was diverted into their fields. They grew Pima cotton, corn, squash, pinto beans, pumpkins, wheat (probably introduced by Father Kino), and in some articles it states peas.

As the Americans took hold of the land to the west of the United States they started expeditions through Pima lands. In 1846 they Americans acquired the west piece of the country, and in 1848 gold was found in California. It was between 1849-1851 that tens of thousands of people headed across the country to claim their riches. One such path was the Gila Trail that leads the travelers along the Gila River area and straight through the Akimel O’odham lands. One estimate stated that approximately 60,000 people came through their lands (Gilariver.org). Many of these travelers were ill prepared for crossing the harsh lands of the west and came to these lands starving, ill, and injured from the Apache to the east. The Pima Indians were very accepting of these strangers that were coming through and provided food, rest, and help to the ailing. Soon the Pima villages became a resting point and a place to restock for many travelers heading west. The Pima Indians were, in general, very giving people. They incorporated into their tribe another tribe that was pushed out of their traditional land by the Yuma tribes. This new addition to the Pima was the Maricopa (Pee Posh) Tribe.

Soon after the forty-niners the freight wagons, American military expeditions, stagecoaches, and settlers started coming in. Some of the settlers did not want to continue on to California once they arrived at the Gila River communities and just headed north of there to settle. This was a prosperous time for the Akimel O’odham; they were providing food for so many people. With their hard work and knowledge of farming the desert in 1862 it is said that the Pima people cultivated approximately one-million pounds of wheat, most of which was sold to the new people coming in to the area (Gilariver.org).

The United States recognized the Pima Indian Tribe of Arizona for their part in westward expansion by establishes the first Arizona reservation for them; it was located along their traditional lands (not all U.S. tribes were lucky enough to get to stay on their traditional lands). In 1859 the Akimel O’odham’s reservation consisted of approximately 372,000 acres along the Gila River (Today that reservation still consists of about the same amount of acreage).

Beginning in the 1870’s thru the 1880’s the non-native settlers north of the reservation began diverted and damming the river water for their own farming. This cut off all water supplies to the Akilmel O’odham and their fields dried up and could no longer provide for them even the basic needs for life. They became a poor people stripped of their traditional ways of life and had to turn to the government for foreign foods in cans. This created a dependence on the government and created poor health among the members of this tribe. To this day the Akimel O’odham are trying to undo the damage that was done to them.

In 1940 the Akimel O’odham that took in the Pee Posh were given a reservation as well. It is called the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, and it has a land mass of 52,600 acres.

Today the Akimel O’odham have reestablished some of their farming, have a casino, a business park, golf courses, and many other community businesses. Despite the struggles they have had since non-native contact, their himdag (way of life) has stayed strong.