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Heritage Education

Both the Tohono O’Odham Nation and the San Xavier District officially endorsed the proposed National Heritage Area because they recognize the importance of raising the public’s awareness and appreciation of Tohono O’Odham culture. The National Heritage Area designation will increase opportunities for public education about Tohono O’Odham culture and history, and provide a way for the San Xavier District and the Tohono O’Odham Nation to participate in voluntary preservation of the unique cultural traditions and heritage resources of the region.

For more information about cultural programs of the Tohono O'odham Nation, visit TOCA.

The Tohono O'odham (People of the Desert)
During the late 1600s, the Jesuit missionary Eusebio Francisco Kino explored the borderland region that now includes northern Sonora and southern Arizona. He and other early Spanish missionaries, explorers, soldiers, and colonists found the region inhabited by the O'odham people, who they called the Pima Altas ("Upper Pimas") to distinguish them from the Pima Bajos ("Lower Pimas") living in southern Sonora. Among the O'odham they distinguished several subgroups, including the Sobaipuri of the Santa Cruz and San Pedro river valleys, the Papago of the desert region between the Santa Cruz and Colorado rivers, and the Gileños living along the Gila River to the north. Over the next three hundred years several O'odham groups disappeared as a result of diseases introduced by the Spanish and displacements by colonizing Spanish and raiding Apaches. The Sobaipuri of the San Pedro Valley fled from the Apaches and resettled in the Santa Cruz Valley, where they became integrated with the Papagos, now known as the Tohono O'odham (People of the Desert).



Some modern scholars believe that the Tohono O'odham are one of the most ancient peoples of southwestern North America, occupying this region for many thousands of years. The Tohono O'odham themselves, and some scholars, trace their origins to the Hohokam culture that flourished in this region between about A.D. 450 and 1450. A third view supported by a few scholars, and also by an oral history version of the origin of the Gila River Pimas recorded in the early 1900s, is that the O'odham migrated from southern Sonora to this region in the 1400s, and then warred against the Hohokam culture, contributing to its collapse. Regardless of which version is accepted, it is clear that the Tohono O'odham are a very ancient culture of the Sonoran Desert and are part of a chain of related, Piman-speaking cultures that extends from Jalisco in western Mexico to Phoenix, Arizona. Some scholars argue that the Hohokam culture developed as a result of Mesoamerican influences that spread along this corridor of related cultures speaking Piman languages.

From ancient times until the late 19th century, the Tohono O'odham lived in dispersed villages (rancherías) along low-elevation drainages during the summer to grow crops of corn, squashes, melons, and beans in areas flooded by summer rains, and then moved to villages at higher elevations during the winter to use springs and wells that have water year-round. The saguaro wine festival marks the beginning of the Tohono O'odham year, and is an important part of the agricultural cycle. The native Devil's Claw plant is cultivated to provide a source of fiber for weaving distinctive coiled baskets.
Today, about 18,000 members of the Tohono O'dham Nation live in three reservations in southern Arizona, including the San Xavier District in the Santa Cruz Valley, established in 1874. Located on the San Xavier District is a Spanish colonial church completed in 1797, and representing a mixture of baroque and native styles. This church still serves the residents of the district, and the adjacent plaza is used for powwows and craft fairs. Traditional coiled baskets are made by elders, and also by young people learning the craft. Near the church is a farmers' cooperative that produces and sells native crops. A casino is an important employer and a source of funding for housing, education, and other services.