February 17, 2020
Author: Chilton Williamson
“The whole place would be abandoned if it weren’t an Indian reservation,” Bernard Fontana was saying, “like so much of rural America these days. There are a lot of people on the reservation who wake up in the morning knowing that what they’re going to do today isn’t worth shit. That may be true of the rest of us, too, but we can still kid ourselves about it. The Papagos can’t kid themselves any longer.”
Professor Fontana, an ethologist and field historian at the University of Arizona, has studied the history and culture of the Papago Indians for 39 years. In his large and comfortable office in the University Library, tightly sealed behind plate glass and steel, we talked without interruption by the regular flights of military jets lowering above the campus to the David Monthan Air Force Base southeast of Tucson. Fontana’s book Of Earth and Little Rain: The Papago Indians describes the people of Pimería Alta (the name given by the Spaniards to the aborigines they discovered living north of the upper Rio San Miguel in the present-clay state of Sonora, Mexico) as “bearers of an ancient and eminently successful desert culture,” wholly self sufficient, which developed its own religious, linguistic, social, political, and economic systems, as well as a technological and material culture consonant with the harsh environment in which it had evolved.
“I can’t imagine anything worse than being a young person on the reservation today,” Professor Fontana went on. “The Navajos and Hopis are selling jewelry to the tourists at the San Xavier Mission, but the Papagos refuse to stoop to tourism. They have the best part of the Sonoran Desert–have you been out there yet? It’s beautiful country which they could use if they wanted to for tourist development, dude ranching and so forth, as the Apaches on the Fort Apache Reservation have done; but the Papago ranchers, who are the wealthiest and most powerful members of the tribe, hate tourists and don’t want anything to do with them, and they have managed to prevent this kind of development. It isn’t a white-versus-Indian situation, it’s a tourist-versus-rancher one. Also, there are no Papagos qualified to manage dude ranches, motels, and recreational facilities, unlike the Apaches who have sent their children to school to learn law, biology, and hotel management. All of their income–other than from cattle ranching–comes from public monies. A major blow was the end of the cotton fields along the Gila River and at its mouth. So was mechanization. Papagos were the agricultural stoop labor force here. The work force petered out in the late 50’s and early 60’s, then hit bottom in the mid-60’s, coinciding with the Great Society programs. Until then, the Bureau of Indian Affairs held the purse strings on the reservation; after that, money was pumped directly into tribal politics. There is very little communication between Papagos and whites, although one-on-one relationships seem to work where groups versus individuals do not. It’s strange that people living on so large an area of land can be so isolated, but some of the worst of the white exploiters have done remarkably well out here–lawyers driving up in pink Cadillacs to take the Indians out to wine and dine them in fancy restaurants on their own money. And a huge retainer went to a Chicano lawyer, who probably couldn’t get any other work, to do something or other for the Papago Indians in Mexico, of whom there are 250 or 300. The point is, there isn’t anything for him to do. The Mexican government regards the Papagos on its side of the border as Mexican citizens, pure and simple–not as Indians or some kind of minority group. Right now it’s like World War III down here, with all the drug smuggling and the illegals coming across. The reservation south of Highway 86 to the border has been closed for about ten years now to anybody who isn’t a tribal member. The Papagos want to know exactly who’s running around down there and what they’re up to.” Fontana paused. “It’s pretty hard to get any field research done in Mexico these days.”
San Francisco Xavier, in effigy, lay extended beneath a covering of satin drawn up almost as far as his brown carved features. Two plastic hospital bracelets were pinned to the robe, also a plastic holder containing a note written with a bleary ballpoint pen. The note said, “Honey, may this Saint take care of you like it did me, Love Frank.” Flowers, real and artificial, lay strewn on the catafalque. The Papagos once called the San Xavier Indians Wakon O’odham, the Baptized People, a fact suggesting that they were the earliest converts to Christianity among the Piman Indians, first missionized by Fr. Eusebio Kino, a Jesuit priest born near the city of Trent in the Tyrolean Alps in 1635 who crossed the “rim of Christendom” in 1687, six years after his arrival in New Spain. (Fr. Luis Velarde, Kino’s successor, was the first man to refer to the Papabotas or “bean-eaters,” whose principal staple in those times was javapi.) Although the Pimans are proved not to be descended from the Anasazi, they and the Papagos were cultivating corn at least as early as A.D. 700. Bernard Fontana believes that the people who called themselves O’odham actually represented a variety of Indian peoples, all of whom spoke recognizable variations of a single language. For 18th-century Europeans, “Papagos” were the desert-dwelling Indians of south-central modern Arizona. These “two-village Papagos,” by summering in the valleys where they raised crops and threw up brush dams to catch the water from summer storms and wintering in the foothills by the springs, combined agricultural life with nomadism. Initially uninterested in the livestock as well as in the religion to which Father Kina introduced them, in time they accepted not only these but the winter wheat the missionaries had brought and that grew remarkably well in the desert valleys. Also they adopted, in addition to the Catholic liturgy, the new architectural forms, metal tools, floodplain agriculture–even the Spanish language and Western dress.
The Papagos were militarily allied at the beginning of the 19th century with the Spaniards against the Apaches. In 1775, the government of New Spain transferred its presidio north 50 miles from Tubac to the O’odham village of Tucson, which thereby lost immediately and forever its character as an Indian community. The Gadsden Purchase Treaty between the United States and Mexico catastrophically divided the Pimería Alta in 1853. The Americans left their Papagos in legal limbo until 1924, when the federal government extended citizenship to all Indians; the Mexicans simply added theirs to the rest of the people of Mexico. In 1874, President Grant gave the Mission San Xavier del Bac and 71,000 acres surrounding it to the Papagos for their sole use and benefit. To this were added in 1882 the Gila Bend Reservation, a tract of 48,600 acres-on the Gila River, and in 1916 the Papago Indian Reservation, created by executive order. The three reservations together comprise about 2.8 million acres, second only in size to the Navajo Reservation. “For three centuries,” Professor Fontana has written, “Papagos have been encouraged … to become Spaniards, Mexicans, and Anglo-Americans. The results to date have been very uneven; the process continues and perhaps always will. What is remarkable is that there remains a people, the ‘Papagos,’ whose constituents go right on thinking and behaving in ways that are uniquely their own.”
Today, San Xavier del Bac on the San Xavier reservation immediately south of Tucson is the only mission founded by Father Kino that is still in the possession of the Indians. Though the church is a Papago parish, the Indian women across the road tending their cook fires and selling fry bread to the tourists in a sweet haze of mesquite smoke are Navajos; so are those displaying jewelry laid out in glass cases plastered with Visa, Mastercard, and American Express labels. Beside the church, which was completed in 1798, the simple homes of the Papagos themselves stand on bare dirt lots by the San Xavier School. At the top of the lava hill beside the mission the Grotto of the Blessed Virgin, made a shrine by the bishop of Tucson in 1908, 50 years after Our Lady’s appearance there, yawns. The hill, covered by pancake pear, barrel cactus, and trash, is surmounted by a simple whitepainted cross. Beyond the flat brown fields divided by irrigation ditches, the commercial jets lift off from the runways of Tucson International Airport while the Indians, oblivious to the thunder of the engines, pray on their knees before the holy shrine.
Mike Rios was a handsome strong-looking man in his 50’s, like most Papagos stocky and of relatively short stature. From his desk at tribal council headquarters in a doublewide trailer between the school and the mission he spoke bitterly of the water-rights case he was busy with, involving the Tohono O’odham (as the Papago tribe is officially known), the city of Tucson, and the state of Arizona, but when I asked him what the chief problem today on the reservation is, he folded his arms on his stomach and gave me a look.
“I’m trying to think what you’re going to do with it,” he said after a long pause.
“I didn’t come here to put anybody on the spot,” I told him.
So we went out to eat a late lunch together.
We drank iced tea and ate chimichanga while Mike talked of the reservation and its troubles.
“I remember the water situation being bad in 1974-75, so the problem we’re having today is not a matter of Tucson’s development. Water has to be trucked out to the cattle; many die every summer. We need to develop a range management plan, but it’s all talk so far. The cattle people understand that it is a question of livestock reduction, but for them that is the equivalent of bank-account reduction and status reduction. Alcoholism and teen pregnancy are the greatest problems on the reservation. Pregnancy among unwedded girls used to be a stigma as recently as when I was a boy; today it’s an acceptable thing. Also the tribe is gradually losing its language. Community bonds are breaking down. Neighbors no longer take potluck dinners, beans and so forth, to bereaved families, who receive little mental and spiritual support. In fact, somebody might be holding a dance that afternoon. In religion, I see clashes. I myself have my own way of believing. At the same time, you try to accommodate to being a Catholic or to other religions that have surfaced. I’m one of them. Nobody asked me to be baptized, to be a Catholic. People are always asking me why I don’t go to church. When they ask me I say, ‘No religion.’ I even tell them that when I go to St. Mary’s Hospital in Tucson. They look at me as if to say, ‘Then what are you doing here?’
“I spent 20 years Iiving off the reservation, in Cleveland. If I could survive in Cleveland, I could survive anywhere. When I was in Cleveland, out of curiosity and for self-education I went to 16 different churches. When I got back home I found Protestantism and other religions that weren’t there before, including the Native American Church–you know, sweat lodges. Papagos didn’t use to do any of that. Even those rites aren’t being performed correctly by the standards of the Native American Church. But anyway: I’m one of the few fortunate Papagos. I’ve really seen the good and the bad. People that have never been away will condemn things that they see going on that are not traditional with us. People here who never leave, go to church, it’s hard for them. Put them in Cleveland, I think they’d go crazy.”
When I asked if the tribe were not trapped between the two sides in the drug-smuggling situation, Mike countered gruffly, “Are we? Drugs may be a problem to Customs, Immigration, and Washington–not necessarily to the Papagos. So what if you make a few bucks hauling pot across the border and hauling it out, and handling illegal aliens? So be it. There are no industries on the reservation, government benefits only. People have to do it. The money’s not taxable, or reportable to social services. Great! Anyway, the trouble is over here, the American addicts. We need the money on the Indian reservation, not for the president of Nicaragua.”
I wanted to know what he thought ought to be done with the aid money, and Mike replied, “Find something that’s manufacturable and put people to work; find a market for what they manufacture. But all this SBA paperwork is impossible.”
We had taken my Land Cruiser to the restaurant because Mike Rios’ pickup truck was inoperable, awaiting major repair work. I drove Mike back to headquarters and spent the rest of the afternoon inspecting the old mission church. I stayed until evening, when an elderly Mexican couple rehearsed their wedding ceremony while, outside, the Navajo women packed up their wares and extinguished the cook fires. In the small chapel beside the church, votive candles fluttering in green, red, and yellow glasses repeated the colors of the western sky and gave them movement. On the shadowed summit of the lava hill, the ghostly cross glowed palely.
(This article was published first in Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.)
Photos below, top to bottom:
1.) View from Kitt Peak Observatory of the reservation, showing Baboquivari Peak in the Baboquivari Mountains southwest of Tucson, looking toward Mexico. Tohono O’odham
tradition holds that the god I’itoi inhabits the peak.
2.) View to the northeast from the same spot. The 12-mile road from Route 86 to the observatory is visible at the foot of the mountain.
3.) Sells, the reservation capital, with a view of Baboquivari Peak in the distance, to the southeast.