More than just getting acclimated to the climate, I realized today that the traditional lifestyle and religious belief of the Tohono O’odham is very uncomfortable in practice for someone brought up in modern society. According to Mr. Angelo Joaquin of the Tohono O’odham tribe, “We don’t survive [the desert]; we live with it,” saying that living in the desert is not something they just cope with but is integral to their very way of life. As popular it is nowadays to go “reconvene with nature” by going on hikes and sitting outside, this activities really do not compare to actually delving into an ecosystem.
Today, at the Desert Museum outside of Tucson, we had to opportunity to explore the desert and its natural inhabitants in a somewhat controlled setting. I really enjoyed strolling along the Desert Pathway and through the Cacti Garden. Who doesn’t love looking at pretty, and sometimes funny looking, plants? However, the second that a coyote started trotting over to me I immediately felt terrified and quickly walked away, despite knowing that they were kept within a netted cage. While I like to think as someone who enjoys nature, the reality is that when confronted with nature in its wildness and as it really is, I immediately have the instinct to flee. The nature I like is the carefully constructed nature of the Colonnade on W&L’s campus or a white water rafting trip down the Nantahala in North Carolina. These dalliances with nature, however, do not reflect nature as it really is or as the Tohono O’odham approach it.
Mr. Joaquin mentioned that coming home to Arizona evokes a “sense of place” and that he enjoys “being in a land that is the same color as me.” However, identifying and truly loving a land means celebrating all that it offers you, which relates to the Tohono O’odham notion of kinship between all plants, animals, places, and people. Objectively, I do not practice this type of belief at all. I even was wary of the lizards that kept running across the pathways. While I may be jumpier than some people, the majority of most city dwellers interactions with nature comes from killing bugs and visiting zoos. Ruthlessly killing stink bugs in my freshman dorm by sucking them up with a hand vacuum does not exemplify the all-encompassing kinship of the Tohono O’odham, nor does looking at animals through a thick pane of glass. As I continue to get more familiar with the flora and fauna of southern Arizona, I hopefully will become more comfortable and relaxed while exploring the landscape. If I am successful at accepting and enjoying nature in its true, wild form here, I would then be able to more fully enjoy the Virginia environment and become more acquainted with its other native inhabitants.
As promised, day 2 in Arizona offered more cacti, animals, and Mexican food. The day started on the Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation at San Xavier. This mission site displayed the influences of Catholicism in O’odham religion, as well as emphasized the interconnectedness of nature and sacred entities. These aspects strongly exemplified the cosmological principle of place-centeredness, both in the church itself and on top the neighboring peak. Most notable about this mission site is the Papago and traditional native beliefs that remained prominent after the missionary work done by the Spanish. The first example of this that comes to mind is the shrine nestled in the side of the neighboring peak – the use of a natural structure to feel closer to the supernatural. Other examples could be found inside the church, like the exclusion of the four stations of the cross – leaving out parts of traditional western religion to maintain room for their own cultural beliefs. My question posed for San Xavier, then, is where in their religious assimilation did the O’odham draw a line to determine what they accepted from the new western influence and determine what would undermine their ancestral beliefs.
Before even making it to the Desert Museum (what I call a dry zoo), I met a strangely friendly roadrunner on the peak next to San Xavier. Then, at the museum itself I met a “teenage” mountain lion named Cruz who was enjoying an afternoon siesta in the shade. I must admit, zoos are a weak spot, and I try my hardest to visit a zoo wherever I visit. Admittedly, I probably talk to the animals too much and think way too many of them are cute.
Growing up Catholic, I was always taught that all Catholic churches across the world were the exact same. But after stepping into the Mission San Xavier Church today, that statement just did not hold true. The striking differences that I notices were the lack of the stations of the cross and paintings/figurines of Native Americans who appeared to be worshiped or treated equal to other saints. This truly showed the blend of Tohono O’odham culture with the Catholic faith. This church, like most Catholic Cathedrals, has exquisitely detailed carvings and decorations throughout the church that draws the attention of a viewer frontward and narrows their looking toward the crucifixion or a saint. The extravagant nature of the Catholic church still held true.
Saint Francis, an important saint for the Tohono O’odham people, had his own shrine on the left side of the church. They had a carving of his body laying at rest in all white. Typically, Catholics would go pray in front of these shrines and ask for the assistance of the Saint in their life. This just shows the importance of Saint Francis to their culture because he is the chosen Saint that is asked to help the Tohono O’odham people. While there, I saw several people going to light a candle at the foot of the shrines of Saint Francis and Mary or already lit candles. In the Catholic faith, a lit candle indicates that someone is praying. This just shows the amount of prayers that had been offered to these Saints, typically asking them for help.
On a less analytical note, the animals at the Desert Museum were awesome.
As I sat in a scratched pew at San Xavier, my mind began drifting back to last spring term, to a place thousands of miles away and much larger in the scale. El Catedral de Sevilla in Spain bears few similarities to this small mission in southern Arizona, but one that stuck out in particular was the veneration of saints. At El Catedral, representations of various saints in the form of statues line several of the cathedral’s outer walls, and several saints have shrines inside the colossal structure. Similarly, at San Xavier, much of the iconography inside the church centered around a small group of saints, such as Francis Xavier and Jude. A notable difference in this regard, however, was the absence of the stations of the cross at San Xavier. In Sevilla, a series of golden tablets, beautifully painted and several stories tall, spells out the events of the stations of the cross in glory to all in the cathedral. So why in San Xavier, the most significant church in its area for hundreds of years, are the stations omitted?
I’ll preface this by saying that I’m no theologian, nor have I done any extensive studies on either Sonoran Catholicism or the opinions on saints of various populations. However, I have theory as to why these stations were excluded. As we’ve discussed in class, much of the Sonoran Catholicism focuses on the combined form of Francis of Assisi and Francis Xavier, two saints whose followers spread Catholicism to the region. From the beginning, the efforts to spread Christianity in the region are based off the teachings of two saints, not of centralized Vatican doctrine or theology. Much of the veneration event today focuses on these two saints, and this likely reflects a trend among the people of the region at the time of Christianization to focus more on the saints whose teachings they were learning as opposed to the sacred mysteries or even Christ himself. San Xavier likely reflects this trend by focusing on the saints the people would’ve venerated, making them more likely to continue to worship at San Xavier. Also, in general, saints are much easier for people unfamiliar with Catholicism to relate to. Many saints were converts, and with the exception of the archangels all were human, making them more accessible for the average man than the infallible Christ. Whatever the reason, the San Xavier mission was extremely successful in introducing Catholicism into the region, and likely this had to do with careful consideration of what was and was not venerated in the actual church.
For many centuries, the Hohokam lived and flourished around the area that is now Phoenix. With complicated irrigation canals, ball courts, and in general maximizing the elements given to them by their environment, they made the best of their hot but dry environment with its prickly pear cacti and all. However, growing in in New Orleans and going to a college in Virginia, I have never experienced the arid, cloudless landscape that defines southern Arizona.
As I walked around the ruins of Casa Grande and Pueblo Grande, I tried to picture myself cooking and socializing under a ramada and collecting saguaro fruit in the blazing sun. However, the whole environment felt so unfamiliar that I struggled to connect with the landscape at all. Let alone trying to imagine sharing only one room with my whole family, I was astonished to hear from our tour guide, Lary, that the Hohokam would have slept outside unless they were experiencing severe weather. They did not try to separate themselves from their surroundings at all. In line with their belief in the close kinship of all animals and all of nature, they seemed to exhibit this even in their sleeping habits, differing greatly from most modern peoples’ relationships with their environment.
As I get more used to the heat and the muted colors of this desert, I hopefully will be able to empathize with the way of life of the Hohokam as we spend more time exploring southern Arizona and learning about the Hohokam and Tohono O’odham.
Today provided a new aspect to the way I viewed the lives of the Hohokam people. It is easy to imagine these people living a very basic life, barely surviving of the land (Not to mention I only imagined Arizona as having tumbleweed and an abundance of cacti). But staring up at the complexity of Casa Grande and hearing about the effort that was put into the construction of Pueblo Grande, my mind was completely changed. I now saw these people as incredibly intelligent in the way they were able to use such little material to make elaborate villages. They were able to thrive in a desert as an agricultural community. In both villages, they had a mechanism set up that perfectly shined light through holes on the Summer and Winter Solstices. Every detail of their lives was thought out in ways that today’s society does not have to account for because our technology.
But my favorite part of today was seeing the exotic wildlife and plants of Arizona. The saguaro cactus was honestly breathtaking. It’s like Arizona’s version of a really pretty oak tree. I saw my first ever javelina. And I even got to see my first ever owl. Whooo (pun intended) would’ve thought that sighting would occur in a desert. Looking out of the window while driving down the highway made me realize how the indigenous communities had such a strong bond with the landscape.
My first full day in Arizona has left me wishing I knew more Spanish…Joking aside, today introduced centuries-old artifacts and a taste of southern Arizona culture. Outside of Phoenix, we visited the remains of the Pueblo Grande, the central village of the Hohokam people. The largest remaining structures at this archeological site today are a ballcourt and walls of a platform mound. Based on their building techniques, the Hohokam seem to be fond of walls; yet, interestingly enough, these walls were not meant for defense. However, communities with walls remain a mysteriously popular topic in the current day…
After traveling to Coolidge and devouring the first tacos of the day at Robelto’s Taco Shop, we headed to Casa Grande – another Hohokam ruins site. The immensity of this structure was best taken in lying on the paved walkway and staring up at the adobe walls (which provided much-welcomed shade). An owl was standing guard at the ruins, perched in what looked like an ancient window, protecting the remains from giant pigeons.
The most surprising fact of the day actually came in the Tucson Best Western parking lot when we came face to face with an animal called a “javelina,” which, despite looking exactly like a wild boar, is more closely related to a mouse than a pig (says Eric).
Lots of cacti and strange animals today, and more to come.
While walking the ruins of Casa Grande, Professor Guse at one point mentioned how this site is one of the most significant pre-European Native American structures in the United States. This statement struck me, not because I didn’t agree with it or didn’t expect it, but because I remembered I’d never heard of Casa Grande, Pueblo Grande, the Hohokam, or even the O’odham people before enrolling in this course. The site represents not only significant architecture among the ancient peoples of the Southwest, but it also demonstrates a complex alignment of architecture, everyday life, and astronomy.
As noted on one of the displays around Casa Grande, several of holes in the structure aligned with astrological events such as the summer solstice, winter solstice, and an event (which name escapes me) that occurred only once every eighteen years. The connection of architecture and astronomy is clear in the design of the building, which shows the Hohokam had a thorough understand of complex astrological patterns. The purpose of this connection, however, brings the importance of agriculture (and by extension, everyday life) into the same realm as both architecture and astronomy. Once again on one of the displays, it was noted that the theorized purpose of these astronomical measurement was in part to mark seasons as they passed, that the Hohokam might know when it was best to begin planting. Agricultural activity was a fundamental obligation of the average Hohokam citizen, thus the function and existence of Casa Grande blends complex architecture, agriculture, everyday life, and astronomy together to give a picture of an advanced culture existing in the ruthless desert.
As noted earlier, teaching about Casa Grande as an example of Native American culture in the Southwest hasn’t extended at least to the East Coast. By increasing awareness of Casa Grande’s existence, people nationwide could begin to shed misguided notions about the societies in what became the US prior to colonization.
The part of being at Pueblo Grande that spoke to me was trying to extrapolate the images I saw in front of me of stone structures into dreams of hundreds of people living there. The foundation, paintings, and artifacts helped to inform those images dancing around in my head, but it is something that I know I will never have the full picture of. The Hokoham people lived lives that are completely different from any that we, as 21st-century U.S citizens, can truly grasp, as because they moved so often, they frequently had to turn something into nothing and create new structures and lives for themselves. I personally cannot imagine starting completely from square one in the middle of the desert, as these people so often did, which is in itself a reflection of how much we rely on the work our ancestors did. The conditions that we live in are the best in world history, even given the new challenges that have emerged, as our basic survival is rarely a question that comes to our minds. The fact that Hohokam adults spent most of their time building canals so that they would have access to water and structures for basic survival is something that I cannot conceive of for my life in the 21st-century. We are allowed and empowered to have hopes and greater aspirations for our lives that earlier people could not even conceive of, which is something that I am both amazed by and thankful for, even though we usually take it for granted in our day to day lives.