Arizona's Desert People

Join Tohono O'odham Indian gatherings near Tucson
Tim Vanderpool

Skinny Coyote is warming up with "Louie Louie" as the morning sun rises over distant mountains. "Let's hear that one again," says lead singer Sonny Antone. Bass man Darrell Antone thumbs a few chords, breaking into a sly grin. "Oh yeah," he says. "L.A., here we come."

They share a knowing laugh--these middle-aged Native American rockers aren't going anywhere. Despite the big city's allure, they are like most Tohono O'odham: Their true journey is mostly internal, spiritual--and firmly anchored to their people's dramatic nation, which stretches west from Tucson and south to the Mexican border.

Those Sonoran Desert roots are pervasive here in the town of Sells at the 62nd Tohono O'odham Nation Rodeo and Fair. Today's stage will host big names such as Rick Trevino and Freddy Fender, along with local groups like Skinny Coyote. The music will feature a homegrown hybrid of Tex-Mex and polka called waila, or chicken scratch. It's accompanied by a scuffling, heat-accommodating two-step--hence, the nickname. But for now, everyone's waiting out the morning chill, as carnies check their rides, cowboys eye pens filled with bulls and broncs, and families wander about, talking quietly.

 

Despite modern technology--the rural communities on the Tohono O'odham Nation are connected by cell phones and satellite dishes--the Tohono O'odham remain largely an isolated people and relish these opportunities to sell their crafts, listen to music, and swap gossip. Still, the reservation isn't an island. The world first came knocking in the 17th century, with Spanish explorers who labeled them the Papago, roughly translated as "bean eaters." (They reclaimed their ancient name of Tohono O'odham, or Desert People, in 1986.) Outside contact continued, from Jesuit missionaries right up to contemporary scientists, who in 1958 established a huge observatory atop the Tohono O'odham's sacred mountain, home to their deity I'itoi.

As a result, the Tohono O'odham have long negotiated a tricky path between internal folkways and outside forces. The tension between the two is most obvious in their art, particularly in the man-in-the-maze symbol. Endlessly replicated on lovely yucca baskets and jewelry, it features a small, lonely figure standing at the entrance to a large circle, pondering the many spiritual paths leading to the center.

By contrast, only one road leads west from Tucson to the Tohono O'odham Nation. Driving on State 86 as it meanders among cactus and canyon, first you are struck by the dramatic desert landscape. Then, as the mileposts tick by, gleaming Kitt Peak National Observatory comes into view atop the 6,875-foot summit for which it is named.

Kitt Peak's observation program offers a high-tech window to the heavens, while the visitor center shows videos about the area and displays and sells local art. Outside, you can gaze upon sweeping vistas of a land nearly untouched by time.

Wiwpul Du'ag Native Arts, east of Kitt Peak on State 86, stands in a desert forest of palo verde. The charming gallery is owned by John and James Fendenheim, city-reared siblings of mixed German-Tohono O'odham descent who felt their homeland's pull. Displaying James's acclaimed silverwork as well as precisely crafted O'odham friendship baskets, the gallery "is a wonderful, spiritual place to be," John says. "I don't miss the city a bit. Instead of fighting traffic, now I wake up each morning in the quiet of the desert and walk a quarter mile to work."

 

Thirty minutes west, the tribal government center of Sells accommodates both rumbling pick-up trucks and wandering cattle along its unassuming main street. Inside the Papago Cafe, waitresses hustle steaming breakfasts to hungry patrons. At the nearby Desert Diner, dishes clatter as busboys set tables for the lunch crowd and crank the fireplace to a high blaze. Soon folks will arrive en masse for artery-busting specialties like red chile fry bread--delectably crisp slabs of bread topped by red chile and cheese.

Look for Sacred Heart Church, perched on a hillside in the little village of Covered Wells on State 86, 22 miles northwest of Sells. Quaint and serene, the stone church is a humbler version of Mission San Xavier del Bac, the stunningly restored 18th-century gem near Tucson that was established by Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino. While the Tohono O'odham's Catholic roots center around San Xavier, at Sacred Heart traditional Catholicism is mixed with Native American beliefs. Inside the church's aged walls, two brown-faced statues and a star quilt accent a Virgen de Guadalupe hanging from the west wall. The church is silent this afternoon--only a friendly hound greets visitors.

Backtrack 1/4 mile east on State 86 to Gu-Achi Trading Post, where manager Nancy Ramon straightens shelves of art from several tribes--there are Tohono O'odham baskets, Navajo jewelry, and Hopi kachina dolls. But today's pickings are slim: Most of Ramon's inventory is on display at the fair.

Later in the afternoon at the Sells Fairground, Skinny Coyote finally takes the stage, playing its set and hitting its final note to polite applause. Drums sound from nearby powwow dancing, while craftsmen cut deals at a string of booths selling everything from T-shirts to jewelry and waila tapes. Cowboys gather near the rodeo arena to talk shop, grumbling over rough rides that landed them in the dust.

They'll get another shot at stardom at the upcoming O'odham Tash Casa Grande Indian Days fair later this month in Casa Grande, north of Tucson. Members of some 30 tribes will meet for more rodeo, barbecue, ceremonial dances, and socializing.

Until then, the quiet beauty of the landscape suits southern Arizona's Desert People just fine.