February 22, 2020
Author: Chilton Williamson
Past Robles Junction, where the road coming north from Sasabe meets Highway 86, we crossed onto the Papago reservation heading west toward the Indian capital of Sells, no lights ahead save the constellation of the Kitt Peak Observatory lifted high against the night sky by the bulk of the Baboquivari Mountains, and almost no traffic. Saguaros stood like ghostly warriors behind the creosote bushes, the mesquite and palo verde trees, and shrines appeared at intervals interiorly illuminated by the glimmering lights of votive candles.
These shrines house small wooden statues of St. Francis Xavier, brought by Papagos from the Mexican town of Magdalena de Kino south of Nogales where the body of Father Kino, discovered near Magdalena in 1966 by archeologists, reposes under glass. Each year, many thousands of people–Mexicans, Yaquis, Mayos, Papagos, and Lower Pimans–converge on the town to celebrate the Feast of San Francisco de Asís. The practice is one among many known collectively as “Sonoran Catholicism,” the folk Catholicism of the Tohono O’odham which probably developed during the second half of the 19th century in northern Sonora and includes the collection of sacred images, the recitation by laymen of sacred texts, and community feasts with dancing held in front of the Indian chapels under a ramada before a cruz mayor.
“Do you believe in flying saucers?” Mike Rios asked, as we passed beneath the black massif of Kitt Peak. Years before, he had been driving west at night on 86 when his son cried out that something was flying overhead. Mike pulled off the road, cut the engine, and switched off the lights. As the family watched, the luminous blue shape passed above them and discharged five smaller shapes which quickly dispersed, making no sound at all. “I wonder about them a lot,” he said; “where they came from, what’s inside them. I guess my dream in life is to see one of them land.” An oncoming car with one headlight out passed at dangerous speed, leaning precariously into the curve. “All these crosses you see along the road,” Mike remarked; “ninety percent of those accidents are alcohol-related.”
Speaking above the noise of the engine he explained how, as a former vice-chairman of the tribe, he knows a thousand percent more than the people he has to work with, most of them 20 years younger and unappreciative of his experience and special knowledge. “Malcolm Forbes wrote a story about me. I was invited to the Forbes Dining Room on Wall Street when I was on a trip to New York City.” He had also served on several pan-Indian councils and spent two years near Ganado on the Navajo Reservation with his wife, a Navajo woman who lives now in Phoenix.
Mike confided that his next project after the water-litigation battle was going to be the Kitt Observatory, which he said was guilty of underpaying its labor and failing to promote the Indians it employs. Just this evening he had filed papers relevant to the water business by Federal Express. Recently a California company with ties to the Rothschilds had wanted to build a development for 100,000 people, including office towers and $400,000 homes (which, they promised, “anybody” could move into), on a 14,000-acre tract on the San Xavier Reservation under a 100-year lease. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, Mike said disgustedly, had thought this a fine idea. The people in top positions at the BIA, he explained, are Anglos whose main concern is for their jobs and pensions.
At Sells, where cattle and horses roamed the night streets of the capital, we stopped to buy gas before continuing on to Pisinemo. Mike described how he had been already halfway to Cleveland on the bus when the Bureau of Indian Affairs, deciding that the young man would make a better accountant than a lawyer, arranged to have him enrolled in the accounting rather than in the law school, where eventually he became a CPA instead of the lawyer he had always wanted to be. One of his chief ambitions, Mike said, was still to earn the LLD.
At Pisinemo, the air was rank with smoke from mesquite fires. The houses were all the uniform government-built ones, set into dirt yards and surrounded by the brush fences of the Papagos. There was the usual trash around, and the familiar cattle chewing the cud under dry bushes. Mike’s adoptive son Albert, whom we had driven 100 miles from Tucson to bring back to San Xavier for the weekend, came from the house leaving the door open behind him as we drove up. Albert wore his hair long and an Army fatigue jacket over blue jeans. He had a speech impairment owing to fetal alcohol syndrome, dyslexia, and he was 17 years old. Mike had explained on the way out that Albert had quit living with his mother, who played around all the time besides getting drunk. He and his friends had spent the evening watching video movies, Albert said. The previous weekend Mike had left a petition relating to the water fight with Albert, who knew a girl who had access to a photocopying machine. Albert thought she hadn’t had the petition copied yet, but Mike wanted to be certain of this so he had Albert climb into the Land Cruiser with us and we drove to the next house on the street. “Stop here,” Mike instructed me at the edge of the lot. Albert got out and walked up to the door to speak to the girl, while we kept the polite distance required by Papago etiquette. As we waited, a white van with official plates moved up behind to observe us. Pisinemo is located on that portion of the reservation restricted to tribal members and their attended guests.
When Albert returned from the house, he confirmed that the photo-copies had not been made.
“Do you like to drink beer?” he asked me.
“Of course I like to drink beer.”
“Let’s go buy some.”
“On the reservation?”
“The bootlegger in Sells is my girlfriend’s dad.”
We drove back to Sells where Albert directed me along the dirt streets, past the shacks and small brick houses to the bootlegger’s place. He disappeared into the night and at once a tribal patrol car slipped from behind us and proceeded to the end of the street, made a U-turn, and drove by the house again. Albert returned empty-handed and got back in the Land Cruiser.
“Drive away now,” he whispered. “Hurry-hurry!” When we had gone a couple of hundred yards, he said, still whispering, “Now go back!” I cut the lights, and Albert cautiously extended one leg over the running-board. “You can take your foot off the brake peddle now!” he hissed through the open window. “We’ll teach you how to drive on the reservation.”
When we saw him next, he was carrying a black plastic bag containing three quart bottles of Budweiser. While Mike twisted the caps from the bottles, Albert instructed me in a roundabout departure through the streets of the town back to Highway 86, where he said to drive as fast as I could. In sight of the Tucson Mountains we stopped to relieve ourselves among saguaros on a hill overlooking the hazy midnight glare of the city, and Albert placed the empty bottles carefully upright behind a bush out of sight of the highway. We stopped again to visit the San Xavier bootlegger in the vicinity of tribal headquarters and slipped away with the lights off toward Mike Rios’ place, where the three of us sat silently parked in a field, drinking beer and watching the moon, red with smoke, float higher in the sky between the climbing lights of the big jets out of Tucson International Airport.
Thirty-six hours later, Albert looked much neater and cleaner after Mike’s daughter, a beautician, had made him take a shower and then lowered his ears on Saturday. Mike Rios explained that it was because his own father had been a drunk that he felt a special empathy for Albert, whom he’d befriended five years before and who he said was a very good kid, though if you yelled at him he tended to withdraw. The morning was warm, a hot still cloudless desert day in late March. Mike directed me onto a dirt road cutting south across an Indian housing development toward Black Mountain, which was a steep lava hill bare of saguaros on its north aspect but covered thickly with them on the opposite slope.
“We have a story about that,” Mike said. “I’itoi was climbing on the mountain with a pail of cactus seeds when he slipped and scattered the seeds, which all fell on the south side. You remember when we were talking, I said we have our own religion. We have I’itoi, you have that other god you people are always talking about. When I was in Cleveland, I went to 16 different churches. There, they–the Episcopalians, the Anglicans, the Presbyterians, whatever–were all talking about the one and only God. It makes me sort of want to laugh, you know?”
Past Black Mountain he pointed to the 14,000-acre tract where in 1983-84 the California developers had wanted to put a small city. The area was a flat sandy plain covered with mesquite and creosote bush, valued by the tribe as a place where they could hunt rabbits and deer. The developers’ plan had been to lease the land for $300,000, the lease itself being revertible to the Tohono O’odham after 100 years.
“Providing, of course,” Mike added sarcastically, “the community didn’t secede–take itself out of the reservation. I got wind of the proposal from my aunt, who was on the tribal council in those days and gave it to me to read. I was so pissed off–so confused. Finally I told the developers to take the same proposal to the rich professional Anglo community under Mt. Lemmon. I told them: ‘If they say, “That’s a great idea!” then bring it right back here and we’ll make a deal.”‘
Although the American Smelter Company’s mine is just beyond the reservation limits its tailings rest on Indian land, for which the company pays the tribe six dollars per acre a year. The leaching pond, a wide circlet of thin discolored turquoise, is suspected of poisoning the groundwater beneath the reservation. At a bridge across a clay access road, Mike got out to search under the abutments where satanic rituals are rumored to have been held recently. “Now I want to show you where I was raised,” he said.
The Rios homestead was on the southern border of the San Xavier reservation at the end of a barely defined trail leading from a padlocked gate with a big NO TRESPASSING sign on it. To the left of the gate a section of fence had been thrown down. The standing part was plastered with trash.
Mike explained that people visit the site pretty regularly and that the tribe has been having trouble with trespassers cutting the fence and coming onto the reservation. We stepped over the wire and walked the few hundred yards among the mesquite, cholla, barrel cactus, and prickly pear where skinks recently emerged from hibernation darted underfoot. Nothing remained of the house Mike Rios had grown up in but a pile of gray sand with gray wood splinters sticking from it. He was raised by his great-grandparents; the old woman, who died in 1966 at the age of 99, had remembered the people of San Xavier running from the Apaches when they raided the village. She had impressed on Mike his duty to get a good education, attend law school, and return to the reservation to help his people. As a boy and later as a young man he’d been caught between his desire to earn a law degree and his loyalty to his circle of friends, who spent most of their time drinking.
“I guess if I’d stayed here I’d have died of exposure. I used to chase the girls too; my grandmother never gave me any advice on the matter. Indians are reticent about discussing sex vvith adolescents. I believe there’s money hidden someplace here. My grandmother used to put it away in a baking soda can, but I never saw what she did with it after she’d put some more in or taken more out.”
Mike showed me the dry wash among the palo verde where he used to play and hide from his grandfather, the two cement cisterns, and the old water tower from which the pump and wheel were missing. These, he said, had been stolen. “Maybe if I ever move back out here I can talk the BIA into repairing the well. Normally they do as little as they can possibly get away with, but if you learn their rules you can play their game, and sometimes even win at it.”
We sat on a slab of concrete under a mesquite tree while Albert balanced on the edge of one of the cisterns, laughing to himself as he played with a handful of chicken bones he’d found in the dust.
“My father,” Mike said, “sold off all his cattle in order to get money to satisfy his craving for liquor. They never learn. My father never learned. He would drink wine until he passed out. Finally he was hit by a car and had to go around with a walker, but he still went on drinking. We used to have fights about it. He’d say, ‘You drink,’ and I’d say, ‘Yes, but not like you do.”‘
From this vantage, the city of Tucson was visible in the distance, its towers looking greatly diminished between the points of the dark volcanic hills. Mike asked me to glass the western ridge and tell him if anyone was up there watching us. A decade ago, the Rios family had held a reunion–ten clans amounting to 40 people–on the opposite side of the hill, and afterward climbed to the ridgeline for a view of the old homestead below.
(This story was first published in Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.)