O'odham Himdag (Culture)

Tohono Oʼodham

The Tohono O’odham are a people that have lived in the Sonoran Desert from time immemorial. The name Tohono O’odham even translates to “Desert People.” The Tohono O’odham live in the southern part of Arizona as well as still having approximately 9 villages south of the Mexican Border in Northern Mexico.

The Tohono O’odham Nation is the second largest reservation in the country (Navajo is the largest). The land mass is comparable in size to the state of Connecticut or the country of Northern Ireland. Its five non-contiguous segments of land total more than 2.8 million acres. Since the large area of land that once encompassed traditional lands was called the Papagueria, the Tohono O’odham were referred to as Papagos until they revised their own constitution, in 1986, and changed their name to their traditional name of Tohono O’odham.

One of the first O'odham reservation lands to be established was Gila Bend, now known as the San Lucy District. Gila Bend was a small parcel of reservation land located separately and to the northwest of the main area of O'odham land and west of Casa Grande. Initially, it consisted of some 20,000 acres established in1882 by U.S. President Chester A. Arthur. A canal was built on the reservation to ensure a plentiful water supply to local ranchers and farmers. After the canal was built, it brought more non-O'odham settlers wanting water and the land that surrounded it for their cattle which caused competition for land and more importantly, water resources.

After years of arguing with the O'odham over grazing practices (O'odham let their cattle roam free and the settlers did not like this) and water rights, the American settlers proposed a bill, in 1890, that would relocate all of the O'odham from the Gila Bend area to the San Xavier area. This bill, although favored by the majority, was not passed. In 1909, President Taft took more than half of the Gila Bend reservation and put it into the public domain. Within the land taken was the main village of the Gila Bend O'odham,.Si:l Mek. With Si:l Mek gone and the water supply diminishing from settlers channeling water upstream, many of the remaining O'odham left this area. In 1950, another portion of Gila Bend was taken away for a reservoir easement. Then, in 1967, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers purchased 20 acres in order to relocate the O'odham village known as San Lucy. Today, there are 437.12 acres in this area which make up the San Lucy District of the Tohono O'odham Nation - a tiny fraction of the original 20,000 acres of reservation land in Gila Bend.

ust after Gila Bend was established, the United States Congress passed the Dawes Act (General Allotment Act) in 1887. Under the Dawes Act, the land size of all reservations was reduced through a process of allotting Indian land to tribal members and selling the rest to the public. The United States Congress had several reasons for wanting the reduction of Indian land (for more information, please see The General Allotment Act of 1887). After allotted land was given out to designated family members and individuals of the O’odham community, whatever land was "left over", after the agents were finished allotting lands, was then to be opened to settlers for purchase.

Allotment of O'odham land began in 1890. The allotment process started in what is now the San Xavier District, the area surrounding the San Xavier del Bac Mission. The allotment of this land was not done very effectively. Each family was to receive 160 acres of land, while each single male or female received either 40 or 80 acres of land. The agent in charge counted 363 allottees, and considered them all O'odham. However, some of the people counted were not O'odham tribal members, but were instead just visitors, yet they received land. On the other hand, there were O'odham from San Xavier who were away at the time of the counting, and they received no land at all. In 1890, the San Xavier reservation land consisted of 71,090 acres. The United States government allotted almost 42,000 acres to the O'odham, this left almost 30,000 acres unallotted in the San Xavier District. The 30,000 acres were never removed from the San Xavier District, and were still utilized as "community property" by the O'odham in this district. At the time, the United States planned to open up sale of this land to the public domain, but were unable to do so because of time constraints.

In 1914, there was a proposal to divide O'odham land to the west of San Xavier into 3,000 allotments. This proposal was rejected, and a single large reservation was chosen instead. Although both the main reservation and Gila Bend area were plotted out for allotments, neither area was ever actually allotted out to the non Indian public. The allotment of Indian land was ceased when the Dawes Act was replaced with the Wheeler-Howard Act (Indian Recognition Act) on June 18, 1934 and saved the O’odham from the chopping block which was just a matter of time up to that point.

On January 14, 1906 President Woodrow Wilson established a third reservation, known as the main or Sells reservation. Totaling approximately 2.75 million acres, stretching from the Baboquivari Mountain Range west to Why, Arizona, and from the Mexico border to Casa Grande, it was the second largest land mass set aside for a tribe. Within this large parcel of land only one section was excluded, that was the land that the Santa Rosa Cattle Company was utilizing. The tract of land that extends out from the main bulk of land at the request of José X. Pablo (Eventually became the first Papago Chairman). He was one of the O'odham involved in choosing the land to be included in the reservation, and some of his family lived out on that strip. So, at Mr. Pablo's request, Garcia Strip was added.

In February of 1917, 475,000 acres of the main reservation were taken back by the United States by a Congressional order. A strip was taken out of the center of the reservation which had originally been included in the 1916 Executive Order by President Wilson, that split the reservation in half. This was done in response to an overwhelming disapproval from settlers, miners and cattle ranchers in the surrounding areas of the amount of land dedicated to the O'odham.

Between 1926 and 1939, the Department of the Interior began purchasing back O'odham land, and putting it back into trust by way of a series of Congressional Acts. In 1926, a tract of land was purchased back from Mr. B.J. McKinney. In 1931, the government purchased back much of the original reservation land. One of the major purchases was that of all the land previously occupied by the Santa Rosa Cattle Company, which existed as a "hole" in O'odham land. Besides the ranches that belonged to the Santa Rosa Cattle Company, four more ranches were bought in 1931. Then in 1937, Menager’s Dam and surrounding land was purchased and included back into the O'odham land. Then in 1939, two more ranches were bought out and the land was returned. After the purchasing back of this land, the dividing line within the reservation no longer existed.

Since 1937, the O'odham reservation has not changed much. Recently, the Tohono O'odham Nation has tried to regain some land that it had lost when new boundaries were redefined for the reservation in 1917. Specifically, the Tohono O'odham have been trying to regain 2,065 acres that make up the eastern portion of the Baboquivari range. Baboquivari is a sacred mountain to the O'odham and is believed to be the center of the Universe. It is the hopes of the Tohono O’odham that this land will be returned to the O’odham so they may better serve as stewards of the land.