When Maria Chona was born in Mesquite Root sometime around 1845, her birthplace on the Tohono O’odham reservation was not yet part of the United States.
With ratification of the Gadsden Purchase in 1854, the reservation was divided between Mexico and the United States. The little village of Mesquite Root ended up in New Mexico Territory until 1863 when it became part of Arizona Territory.
Chona’s father, José María, a powerful man among his people, was appointed governor of Mesquite Root by the U.S. government. He taught his daughter to sing ritualistic songs and often took her with him when he conducted tribal affairs, giving her knowledge of activities unusual for a Tohono O’dham woman.
She was told she might be a medicine woman but her father decided that since her brother was a healer, one in the household was enough.
Mesquite Root sat high in the hills along a trickling wash that allowed for bountiful corn crops.
Chona’s mother taught her how to grind corn and other seeds as well as how to gather cactus fruits from abundant prickly pears as well as giant saguaros. In the summer, the entire village went into the hills to harvest saguaro fruit. They believed that only after the fruit was picked would it rain. And it usually did.
Chona’s home consisted of a round house made from grass and cactus spines with the only opening a small door to crawl through.
She slept on a cactus fiber mat shoved against the wall to prevent centipedes and scorpions from getting inside.
Around age 10, Chona took over the household chores: fetching water, grinding corn, and cooking, while her mother made baskets and pottery.
Chona also became an expert basket weaver. Long flexible branches or shoots from the willow tree made strong baskets that when tightly woven were resilient enough to hold liquids.
She was barely in her teens when her father arranged her marriage to a medicine man’s son. Before moving into her in-laws’ home, her father advised her to behave herself. “Don’t wait for your mother-in-law to tell you what to do,” he said. “Get up early, find wheat, grind flour ... don’t run around ... carry the wood, cook something ... any work you see, you do it.”
Because her mother-in-law only had sons, she welcomed Chona into the family to help with the cooking and chores.
Chona and her husband had six children, five boys and a girl. Only daughter Crescenza survived infancy. According to Chona, “I always knew when my children were to die.”
She taught her daughter the ways of her people. “Never step over a snake, not even the trail of a snake, for you will have the vomiting sickness. Don’t step on a horned toad, it will make your foot sore. And you must learn the difference between the big ants who are the medicine men and who sting and the little kind ants that will not hurt you.”
During the months when the little stream in Mesquite Root dried up, many went to Mexico to work in the bean fields of the Tohono O’odham still living there. Men roamed the hills searching for century plants to roast in pits and then sell. Women dug clay for their pots.
On one trip, Chona and her husband traveled alone to Mexico.
As they headed home, she saw an Apache warrior on a hilltop. “Two more came out and there were three of them,” Chona said. “They started coming toward us. We galloped fast and when we looked back they were following. I do not know when they turned back. We galloped all that day. When we came to the hidden water holes, we just stopped to drink, and when we were in the open land with the bare mountain looking down on it, where the Apaches hide, then we galloped, galloped, galloped. We did not go alone to Mexico any more.”
Her husband became a medicine man and was often called upon to sing the songs that alleviated illnesses. He taught Chona how to treat sick infants by putting her finger inside their mouths and pushing up on the soft spot. “It always succeeds,” she said.
Unhappy when her husband decided to take another wife, Chona left him and returned to her parents’ home. By this time, her father had died but an uncle found another man to marry her, old but rich. Although not pleased with this union, Chona and her husband remained married for 30 years. They lived in an adobe house near Tucson.
She had two sons with this husband, both survived to adulthood. One of them became a medicine man.
When she suffered a rattlesnake bite, Chona relied on her son to cure her. “I was picking beans among the weeds in our garden,” she said, “and, along with a handful of beans, I grabbed the snake. Then he (her son) chewed some greasewood leaves and put them on the little hole where it had bit me. He made a mark with a buzzard’s feather all around my wrist and told the poison not to go beyond that mark. Then he split the feather and tied the two pieces into a string. He bound that string around my wrist, tight, and the poison never went beyond it. Two nights it hurt me and my hand swelled, but not beyond where my son had made the mark.”
In the early 1930s, Chona was interviewed by anthropologist Ruth Murray Underhill. She talked about her childhood on the reservation, her marriages and her children.
Underhill studied the ways of the Tohono O’odham people, slept beside the old woman, ate her food, and got to know her extended family.
When Chona finished her story she warned Underhill, “When you come again, I will not be here.”
Chona died in 1936, well over 90 years old.