Blog 2: Joe Joaquin’s nephew on the O’odham language and geography

On May 4th, we went to the San Xavier Mission on the Tohono O’odham land. There, we met Joe Joaquin’s nephew, Angleo, who was kind enough to speak with our class about the O’odham. I was impressed by his knowledge of every subject that people in our class were curious about. In particular, I found his discussions on the O’odham language and geography to be quite intriguing.

Joe’s nephew talked to our class about the ways in which the O’odham language has been preserved by its people, which began with an official transcription of the language into writing. From there, the O’odham people were able to teach the language in their school systems, which meant that the percentage of O’odham that can speak the language rose greatly. However, once the casinos started paying dividends to the O’odham people, more members that didn’t grow up on the reservation began to officially join the tribe, and the percentage numbers dropped once again. Even though the percentage numbers may have declined, it still seems to me that the nominal amount of O’odham speakers has increased, which is fantastic.

Additionally, Angleo talked to us for a while about the landscape of the reservation. Although we couldn’t see Baboquivari from the place we were standing, we still got an incredible look at the mountains around the reservation. Joe’s son told us about mountains named after animals such as Horned Frog Mountain. It was clear that all of the mountains were named a very long time ago, and that those traditional names are never going to leave the O’odham.

Both of these topics, along with most of the others we discussed have a common theme of preserving the old ways of the Tohono O’odham. Those traditions are the identity of the tribe, and to lose those cherished traditions would be a tragedy.

Blog 1: Hohokam Architecture

On our first full day in Arizona, we visited two historic Hohokam sites: Pueblo Grande and Casa Grande. Both sites were built over 1000 years ago, and what really stood out to me was the ability of this ancient civilization to create buildings and canals on such a large scale.

Both Pueblo Grande and Casa Grande have been preserved by archaeologists in the modern day, and it was amazing to be able to get so close to the structures. When we were in the museum at Pueblo Grande, we got a look at some of the tools that the Hohokam used to create their canals and buildings. I was stunned by the simplicity of their tools, especially the “digging sticks” used to dig the canals. I can barely imagine digging a 10 x 30 foot canal with proper shovels, let alone sticks.

I think that the lack of proper construction tools really speaks volumes about the Hohokam people’s refusal to migrate away from their sacred lands. It took extraordinary efforts from every adult in the community to build these structures and canal systems when they could have migrated to somewhere with greater rainfall. Admittedly they did do this eventually (we think); however, this still illustrates the idea of place centeredness in Native American cosmology.


Just short of an hour drive from Tucson, deep in the Sonoran Desert one might not expect to find much more than some assorted cacti and annoying gnats. However, after following that exact path, we made it to what is known simply as the “Desert Museum,” and although the name may sound overly academic, I was pleasantly surprised to find it to be essentially an expansive zoo.

In it, the curators of the area had encapsulated many of the wonders of the surrounding desert into one, easily accessible location. With a focus on preservation and education, the zoo provided us with an intriguing look into ecology of the area in which we would be staying for the next week. Not only were there plenty of local animals to be observed, but the Museum also had a plethora of flora and minerals on display. Overall, the stop was not only overwhelmingly enjoyable, but informational providing us with important information about the surrounding environment.

Post 1: Overall reflection

Hey guys,

I’m late to the party as I’m just starting my blog posts now. But, I think I have enough in this brain of mine to fuel 8 blog posts.

I wanted to start first with an overall reflection of everything, since we’re coming now to the end of the course and the end of our experiences for the time being with the Tohono O’Odham. I feel like it would be too easy to brush this off simply as a class instead of an experience that we may all get just once in a lifetime.

The world is a crazy place now. Climate change is real and normal social and political conventions that have been in place for decades are starting to become uprooted. In order to keep thriving and surviving, we will need to change our ways of life so that we stop consuming in so much excess and destroying our environment throughout the process. The reason why I bring this up is because I think we could all learn something, both spiritually and objectively, from the Tohono O’Odham that we can make part of our lives.

The Tohono O’Odham way of life has changed since its traditional forms, but historically the Tohono O’Odham demonstrated how you can live with what you need while using very few resources and always giving back to the world in reciprocal fashion. They were able to farm in their dry and arid environment by only using a very limited amount of water, and not even accessing the groundwater reserves they had until they had wells built in later decades. They were able to produce their own food entirely from their traditional lands, not having to outsource any agricultural work or truly compromise any environment. As a people, we can learn from the example set by the Tohono O’Odham and stop using as much water by pricing it closer to its genuine price and using less of it in our daily lives. Also, we can each personally make the switch to more plants in our diet instead of corn products or animal products.

Spiritually, there is a lot we can learn from the Tohono O’Odham about how to be grateful for the resources we have been given. We all have more than we think we do, if we just take a second to thank the earth and the rocks and the plants and the clouds each time we think about them or take from them. In this way, we become more connected with the world. Hopefully this will result in us taking less from it because we see the circular, reciprocal manner in which connected ecosystems operate.

I’m not necessarily saying that we should all become Tohono O’Odham. Not really possible anyways. But this experience taught me a lot about the state of the world and some of the things we can do about it, especially being in our position.

In the Past, In the Future (8)

A lot of us said that the reason we took this class is because we did not know almost anything about the Tohono O’odham or the history of Native Americans in general. Throughout the course, we have studied how the US, and Mexico, mistreated the Tohono O’odham by slowly stripping away their sovereignty by leaving them out of treaty negotiations, trying to assimilate them to the dominant culture, and often offering well-intentioned, but misguided help that ended up hurting the Tohono O’odham in the long run. We placed a lot of the blame, rightfully, on the US for not allowing the Tohono O’odham to have enough control over themselves, which resulted in a weakening of the culture.

However, we talked about this issue only with respect to the tribes in the US and did not have the opportunity to compare it to similar situations in other countries. For example, in Australia, where I will be spending part of the summer, there have been similar issues between indigenous peoples and encroaching settlers. Indigenous Australians were also forced to move due to settlers and in general have much higher rates of poverty, alcoholism, and drug abuse than the average Australian. Sounds familiar.

While I am staying on a Warlpiri compound outside of Alice Springs, Australia, I will have the opportunity to hear personal perspectives of Warlpiri tribe members and work with them as well. I wonder if their sentiments will echo the ones that we heard from a variety of Tohono O’odham people at the cultural center. Given this widespread issue of struggling indigenous peoples, it seems that if one community could be helped that a similar solution could be applied to other communities around the world. Clearly, helping indigenous communities that have been negatively affected by new settlers is a common enough issue that we should develop a method to help. Not that there will be one, end-all-be-all answer, but when people are suffering in similar conditions for similar reasons it seems like it is time to find a solution.

Or, maybe that is unrealistic because people have been trying for many decades to help their indigenous peoples and who am I to say that we need a solution when I do not have one to offer myself. It makes me wonder what it is that I can do to help. I don’t have money that I can donate to help them or launch a huge campaign to make sure people even know of about the issues so many people in our nation and other nations are facing. Not everyone can take a class trip to Arizona and spend time intimately getting to the Tohono O’odham people and their culture. I suppose I’ll start the traditional, millennial way with social media and hopefully I will come up with more ideas of how to disseminate the knowledge that I have only recently attained myself.

Thanks to Professor Guse and Markowitz as well as everyone who imparted their knowledge on us in Arizona!

Harvey: us
Owl: the Tohono O’odham culture


A Surprise Romance (7)

When I first arrived in Arizona, as I said in previous blog posts, the desert was an unwelcome and very uncomfortable surprise that I had no idea how to deal with. I liked greenery, trees, and running water. Arizona, I guess unsurprisingly, is not known for these physical characteristics. More like, arid weather, lots of brown things, many cacti, and foreign animals.

I will honestly say that I did not take the transition well. It started with a jolt of fear when first seeing the javelina outside of the Best Western in Tucson. Then on the mission on the reservation, I stayed up until 2 am with my light on with adrenaline pumping because I was worried if I turned it off scorpions and rattlesnakes would just start emerging from the walls. Naturally, the javelina did not pose a threat, in fact they make for very cute stuffed animals, and we luckily didn’t see any scorpions and rattlesnakes.

Yet, by the time we arrived in Ajo, something had changed. When we were driving to Organ Pipe National Monument for a hike, I realized I was looking fondly at all of the cacti. Instead of unnerving me, the cacti had started to intrigue me, especially the teddy bear cactus that we saw on the hike. Not to say that I was completely at ease in the environment, especially all the plants we had to wade through while hiking, but I certainly was heartbroken to leave.

I texted my family on the day we were leaving Ajo with lots of photos and links to places we had gone in Ajo. I told that that we are going to have our next family vacation to Ajo so that I can share with them the city and southern Ariona area that I have fallen in love with.

Everyone’s an Artist in Ajo (6)

If you thought you were not an artist, simply go to Ajo, Arizona and you will soon find out that you are wrong.

A Methodist and a Catholic church side-by-side

For example, I was inspired to sketch the two main churches framing the Curley School and the A mountain behind it while sitting on the grass in the central plaza. Since I had no paper, I sketched them on the back of a Mexican Chiapas Curley Coffee sample I bought for my brother and white tepary beans I am bringing back to cook with my mom.

The artists of Ajo, especially at the Curley School, also clearly draw inspiration from the dramatic surroundings of the desert. One artist makes stuffed javelinas that decorate the beds of the conference center and are also for sale at the Curley School store and online. Others compose poetry about area surrounding Ajo and its history, often with references to the Tohono O’odham.

I’m not sure why Ajo made me want to put pen to paper and relish the surrounding beauty, but from the art shops and the Curley school I clearly am not alone. Perhaps, it is the residents’ attitude that the town has a special history and will have an exciting future that evokes the need to capture the essence of the town on paper. Yet, that seems too concrete because to me Ajo felt magical. Maybe, Ajo was my oasis in the desert. A place of rejuvenation and relaxation to recover from the stress of worrying about rattlesnakes and scorpions on the reservation and from the previous school year.

Conclusion-Post Eight

As we move into the final days of the course, it can become challenging to reflect on all that we found over these last four weeks. Spring Term course by nature are meant to be intense and immersive, and these very qualities that make them so unique can also allow some of the smaller, day-to-day details we’ve seen and discussed to be lost in the shuffle. But despite the wealth of information we were exposed to in both the classroom and the field, several key moments did stick out in this course.

One of the most clear memories I have of the trip, though not necessarily the first chronological event, is seeing Baboquivari for the first time while on the road. Immediately, I understood why much of the Tohono O’odham religion centered around this site. The small mountain range containing Baboquivari is impressive in itself, slashing a stark barrier across the desert flatland that gives it a baseline mystical quality. But rising above even that impressive site is the almost monolithic peak of Baboquivari. It stands sentry over the desert surrounding it, which includes the Tohono O’odham reservation at its feet. This view typifies the natural beauty of the Sonoran Desert, present during almost every facet of the trip and truly one of the most memorable aspects of it. Though we never got the opportunity to climb or stand a the foot of Baboquivari peak, it’s impact wasn’t lost on me.

Several trends I noticed among the people we met also stuck out to me. The first was how they spoke. I believe it was Peter the Anthropologist (Eric’s inspiration) who told us after the meetings that the older O’odham people (the group that most of our speakers came from) would say their peace, regardless of whatever “time constraints” or “prior appointments” those listening might have. Admittedly, this didn’t end up a negative for us, at least from my perspective.  With every speaker, we got the complete picture of their specific topic (even if it took a little extra work to keep it all in line). Something else that stuck out was the prevalence of obesity among the people. Of course, we’d read about diabetes and the litany of health problems stemming from diverging from traditional foods. But it was still shock to find out that nearly every Tohono O’odham person we met over the age of 30 appeared to be obese. That put the problem we’d studied academically into a much more human context.

Well, that looks like everything. Here’s to hoping this wasn’t the last time I make it out to the Southwest.

Post #8: Final Thoughts

I had plenty of time to reflect on the trip while almost everyone else in the class was having a great flying experience courtesy of American Airlines. I used this time to lounge by the pool and do a couple blog posts, and think about the trip as a whole. I enjoyed the trip greatly, and I do honestly plan on returning at some point in my life. In a recent blog post, I mentioned that I feel a sort of requirement or duty to do something to attempt to help, and I think this will drive me to return. It’s difficult to learn so much about a culture and a group of people without feeling inherently connected, especially when this group of people is in an underprivileged situation. Poverty is an attack on human rights, and Native Americans are disproportionally facing this attack as a result of failed government intervention and in many times no fault of their own. The last few generations of Tohono O’odham and Native Americans around the United States have been born into reduced opportunity, born into reduced capabilities, and born into a situation of manipulation and oppression. This trip cemented my desire to contribute to social justice on reservations near my home and around the United States, and informed me greatly on a Native American group that I was unaware of.

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