Big Jim: I'itoi kills the nehbig

2014-01-31T00:00:00Z 2014-09-12T09:22:22Z Big Jim: I'itoi kills the nehbigJim Griffith Special to the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

For the next three installments, we enter a period of time that is accessible only through oral tradition.

The setting is far to the west of Tucson, near present-day Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. At some point in the far-distant past, a huge animal called a nehbig came out of the ground and started sucking people into its maw. An O’odham friend described it as something like a whale, except that it lived on the land.

When the situation reached crisis proportions, the people sent a runner to I’itoi’s home in Baboquivari Mountain, far to the east, asking for help. When the messenger arrived, I’itoi appeared to be a little, bent-over old man with white hair. The runner explained the situation, and I’itoi agreed to help.

The next morning, I’ioi appeared as a strong, young man, and told the messenger that he would arrive in four days. In the meantime, the people were to collect a special kind of black rock (quite probably obsidian) that they would find in a specific place. On his arrival, I’itoi instructed his hosts to cut four long, straight branches from a creosote bush, and went out to face the monster.

I’itoi allowed himself to sucked down into the nehbig’s throat, propping it open with the creosote branches as he went. When he arrived at the creature’s heart, he cut it out with the knife he had made from the black rocks, and escaped by the way he had come. The creosote branches kept the monster’s throat from collapsing while he ran out. I’itoi then returned to his home in Baboquivari.

Another version of the same story has the nehbig living in a shallow lake. When it died, it thrashed all the water out of the lake, which remains dry to this day.

The nehbig’s heart was in two parts, male and female, and each part was kept in a special basket and hidden in a cave. The male portion is said to have been stolen sometime around 1900, but the female heart is believed to remain hidden, cared for by villagers.

Other traces of the nehbig may be seen. A series of natural blow holes between Sasabe and Sonoita is said to show where the nehbig came up for air. A find of the fossil bones of large extinct mammals near the Sonoran Oodham village of Quito Wa;k is interpreted by many as the remains of the nehbig.

The story of the nehbig may be found in English and O’odham on pages 305 –315 of O’othham Hoho’ok A’agitha. Legends and Lore of the Papago and Pime Indians, by Dean and Lucille Saxon. Tucson: The Uiversity of Arizona Press, 1973.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

About this blog

Jim Griffith is the former director of the Southwest Folklore Center at the University of Arizona, and co-founder of Tucson Meet Yourself. He’s also the author of seven books on the folklore and folklife of our region, most recently “A Border Runs Through It.” His books can be purchased at tucson.com/wildcatgear.

If you have questions or suggestions for Jim Griffith or this blog, e-mail bigjimgriffith@gmail.com

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