Arizona's Desert People

Join Tohono O'odham Indian gatherings near Tucson

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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.

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