It’s as close to cold weather as we might get in Tucson this year, so it’s time for me to share with you some of traditional stories of the Tohono O’odham. According to their owners, these stories should be told only during the cold weather, when the snakes are asleep, and I prefer to respect that stricture. After all, they aren’t my stories.
Southwest of Tucson, on the west wall of the Altar Valley, stands Baboquivari Mountain. Its name comes from waw kwiulk, which is O’odham for “Constricted Rock.” It is the center of the Tohono O’odham universe, and contains the home of I’itoi, the Creator of the O’odham. I’itoi was among the first three beings to be created, along with Buzzard and Coyote.
I’itoi then created people, and, many years later, got into a fight with a powerful personage named Siwani, who lived north of the desert, in what is now Pima country. Siwani killed I’itoi, but the latter returned the next morning. After being killed for four nights in a row, I’itoi remained dead, but eventually returned as a little old man. This time he sent for help in all directions, including the Underworld. Those who responded from that place were the ancestors of the Tohono O’odham.
After his defeat of Siwani, I’itoi went to live in a cave on the west side of Baboquivari. There he still lives, according to some, only emerging in times of great need for the people. In later blogs I will tell about a couple of these occasions, and the ways in which I’itoi responded. According to some, his most recent emergence was in the late 19th century, when he led wild animals out of the way of a railroad that was being constructed across O’odham country.
One recent time I’itoi was in the news was in January 1983, when then-Secretary of the Interior James Watt opened the west side of the mountain to mineral exploration, and potentially to mining. The Tohono O’odham formally objected, mentioning the sacred nature of the mountain, and took petitions to Washington. In April of the same year the secretary designated the whole area as a Wilderness Study area. The next October, Secretary Watt resigned from his office over a totally different matter. (Even though the T.O.s were called “Papagos” in the 1980s, I have kept their current name to avoid confusion.)
Next blog, you can read about a time when I’itoi left his cave to help the People.