Arizona's Desert People

Join Tohono O'odham Indian gatherings near Tucson

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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."

 

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