Big Jim: Tohono O'odham

2013-09-06T00:00:00Z Big Jim: Tohono O'odhamJim Griffith Special to the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

The name means “Desert People,” which is what they have always called themselves. Until 1986, they went by the name of “Papagos,” an outsider’s label meaning “bean eaters.” By whatever name one calls them, they are the people who have been on this desert land the longest.

In a few months, I’ll share some of the stories that give them title to their land — stories that reach back into those times when things came to be as they are today. Those are traditionally wintertime stories, and we’ll keep them that way.

The main Tohono O’odham Reservation covers over four million square miles and stretches from near Three Points (Robles Junction) west almost to Ajo. The separate San Xavier District lies to the south and west of Tucson, and includes Mission San Xavier. There are other separate districts in Pinal and Maricopa Counties, and some T. O. (a shortened version of the name I’ll use from now on) live in Sonora, Mexico.

Among other things, the T. O. are the most prolific basket makers in Native North America. Formed from a bundle of beargrass which has been coiled and then stitched in place with yucca, O’odham baskets are one of the signature art forms of our region. They may be seen at the Arizona State Museum on the University campus and the at Tribal Museum in Topawa, at local Indian arts stores, and in Sells in the tribal arts store.

Another O’odham contribution to our local cultural scene is waila music. The name derives from the Spanish baile or “social dance.” Today’s waila is played on button accordion, saxophone, electric guitar, electric bass, and drum set. The music — hold on to your hats — consists of polkas, two-steps, and cumbias. Waila is almost always purely instrumental. (Waila is sometimes called “Chicken Scratch,” but the T.O. prefer “waila.”)

The T.O. still grow and gather some of their traditional foods, and one can find some of these crops for sale at the San Xavier Co-op, just southeast of the Mission. However, one of their great contributions to local flavors can only be found at village feasts, religious celebrations, and private parties. The combination of spicy chile colorado and cool potato salad is a specialty that must be tasted at least once, and is a true T.O. innovation.

There will be a strong T.O. presence at Tucson Meet Yourself, with music, dance, arts demonstrations and sales, and food booths. And by the way, the local version of fry bread is called a “popover,” and is irresistible with honey and/or powdered sugar.

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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

If you have questions or suggestions for Jim Griffith or this blog, e-mail

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