Tohono O’odham

The Tohono O’odham (pronounced TOH-na OH-tahm) have lived in the Sonoran Desert for millennia. Their name literally means, “desert people”. The beautiful yet sometimes harsh environment they lived in left them with periods of inadequate water or food. They adapted by being semisedentary; shifting individuals, family, extended family, and villages to different locations as food, farming, water, health or seasons demanded.

Luzi, a Tohono O'odham woman

The Tohono O’odham learned to utilize a majority of the desert plant and animal species available, such as the jojoba.

Saguaro Cactus, Tucson, Arizona, USA
Saguaro Cactus, Tucson, Arizona, USA

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Baboquivari Peak is one of the most sacred places to the desert people. It’s the traditional home of I’itoi (pronounced e-e-toy), often called Elder Brother. The environment is comprised of saguaro and other cacti, trees such as palo verdes and mesquites, and varieties of shrubs and grasses. Oak, pinyon, and walnut trees are found at higher elevations.

Harvesting of the sweet strawberry-like fruit from the saguaro cactus usually begins in June and ends with the onset of the summer rainy season in early to mid-July. A multi-segmented gathering pole, called a kuipad, is used to pluck the fruit from the cactus. The fruit is processed into syrup or wine. Any remaining pulp can be turned into jam or the fruit may be dried for later use. If necessary, the small black seeds may be ground into meal.

The production of wine was an important part of the saguaro harvest. Clay jars were filled with syrup and sealed, then placed in a round brush structure called a rain house, or vahki. Under supervision, the syrup was allowed to ferment. The consumption of wine or nawait, with associated dances and songs, was a necessary forerunner to bringing summer rains to farm fields.

Saguaros and Ocotillo, Tucson, Arizona
Saguaros and Ocotillo, Tucson, Arizona

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The most important ritual of the year for the Tohono O'odham was the cactus wine ceremony. It was believed to have the power to bring rain. In June, they traveled to cactus camps, temporary sites set up among the giant saguaro. There they spent a few weeks gathering and cooking the sweet fruit that grew at the tops of the 50-foot-high plants. Each family contributed a few jars of syrup for the rain ceremony.

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