Community Context

The Tohono O’odham Nation (formerly known as the Papago tribe) sits in the heart of the Sonoran Desert. This is the land of the Saguaro cactus, and the “People of the Desert” (which is how “Tohono O’odham” translates into English) have survived by living in this arid region for 10,000 years. The tribal government capital is Sells, established in 1909 and located sixty-three miles west of Tucson, Arizona.  Approximately 22,000 of the tribe’s 28,000 members live on the Tohono O’odham Reservation in southern Arizona. Smaller, detached areas, in Tucson (San Xavier district) and near Casa Grande (Gila Bend and San Lucy districts) are part of the eleven districts of the federally-recognized native sovereign nation.



Culture and Language — Endangered but Intact


• The Land of Ancestors:  Unlike many federally-recognized tribes, the Tohono O’odham live on a portion of their ancestral lands. The Tohono O’odham lived in, off, and from the Sonoran desert for thousands of years. The land mass of today’s main reservation is huge, 4,600 square miles and approximately 70 miles across. Historically, the “Papagueria” lived as far north as Phoenix, alongside their relations the Pima, and far south into Mexico. The Spanish, including Padre Kino, established San Xavier mission in the 17th century. Many indigenous traditions remained, adapted into a uniquely syncretistic form of worship known as Sonoran Catholicism. Tohono O’odham language and culture adapted and continued. In 1853, the Gadsden Purchase basically split in half the Tohono O’odham homelands. It could be said that the Sonoran Desert itself has served as a buffer for the “People of the Desert,” protecting some villages from encroachment. The 20th-century federal policies brought mobility, both voluntary and forced, involving boarding schools, migrant labor, and World War II. The Federal Indian Termination and Relocation programs moved numerous O’odham families to cities like Oakland, California, and Chicago, Illinois. The vast majority of Tohono O’odham continue to live where they have always lived, in the Sonoran desert region of southern Arizona and northern Mexico.


• Culture and Traditions:  The Tohono O’odham Himdag --and himdag can be roughly translated as “lifeway,” “way of life,” or “traditional cultural skills and knowledge”-- serves as the guiding approach and organizing principle for TOCA’s work. As with many tribes, the 20th Century was a time of great loss, and those losses are felt. But much is in resurgence. For decades there have been great Tohono O’odham elders who worked tirelessly on behalf of their people to sustain the Desert People’s ways. TOCA’s formation and its first 15 years, were shaped by elders who were champions and advocates of O’odham culture. Today young people, nurtured in the tradition, work with TOCA to create a healthy O’odham community.


• Language: The Tohono O’odham language has suffered, but it is doing better than many indigenous languages across the planet. As a generalization, a higher proportion of family members speak O’odham in households on the western and southern sides of the main reservation. While each generation is losing some fluency, many families continue to speak Tohono O’odham at home while speaking English at school or work. For those families who do not speak O’odham, participation in cultural activities provides a meaningful introduction to O’odham language and vocabulary. Traditional activities, such as basket-weaving, desert planting and harvesting, traditional dancing, and even Tohono O’odham games like toka and soniwul, each have with their own Tohono O’odham songs and stories. O’odham foods as meals can reinforce vocabulary, and this occurs at TOCA’s Desert Rain Cafe and in local schools through the O’odham Hai’cu Hu:g (O’odham Foods Initiative.)


Economic Snapshot

Today the Tohono O'odham Nation is economically – if not culturally – poor.

• Tohono O’odham Nation per capital income is $6998 (compared with $21,994 nationally), the lowest of all U.S. reservations.  Median family income is $21,223 (compared with $50,046 nationally), more than $3,500 below the official poverty line for a family of four.

• 46.4% of individuals were reported below the poverty level more than three times the State rate of 13.6%.

• 50.6% of children (under 18) below poverty level compared to16.6% nationally.

• 77.6% of children (under 18) below 200% of poverty level compared to 37.8% nationally.

• 96.7% of children live in a high poverty neighborhood compared to 20.4% nationally.

• Employment & Unemployment: According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in 2005

• Total Workforce: 17,357.

• Number Employed: 4,285 of whom only 358 are employed by the private sector.

• Unemployment: 75.4%.

• Private sector employment vs. public sector employment: 8.35% vs. 91.65%

• Between 1991 and 2005, the unemployment rate increased from 61% to 75.4%.  During this same time, the workforce has nearly tripled, making the need for job creation and economic development even more acute.


Education and Unemployment

Fewer than half of the Tohono O’odham community’s adults have completed high school, the lowest rate of all U.S. Native American tribes.  A dropout rate in excess of 50% continues to be the norm. Lack of education has an enormous impact on the future because the population is statistically young: 52.2% of the population is under 25 years-old (compared with 35.3% of the United States).


Health Statistics

• The Diabetes Epidemic: Until the 1960’s, no tribal member had ever suffered from type-2 (adult onset) diabetes.  Today, more than 50% of all Tohono O’odham adults have the disease,  the highest rate in the world.  A crisis began in the 1990’s with a rise in the onset type-2 diabetes in Tohono O’odham children as young as seven years old.  Childhood-age onset increases the devastating effects of the disease on families, health centers, and schools. The percentage of diabetics is expected to exceed 75% for O'odham children born after 2002. It is closely correlated with childhood obesity: currently 76% of Tohono O'odham 6th-8th graders are overweight or obese (±85 %ile). In 50 years, the Tohono O’odham have gone from 0% to 75% of their children dealing with a chronic disease. According to the 2007 Arizona Bureau of Public Health Services, the death rate due to type-2 diabetes among Arizona's native population is 3 times that of the state average. Why is this happening? Studies seems to indicate that the primary cause of diabetes and obesity is the rapid the change from traditionally-farmed and desert-harvested Tohono O’odham foods to a more “mainstream” diet including highly-processed federal commodity foods.


• Mortality: The facts are sobering. Tohono O’odham life expectancy is more than six years shorter than the U.S. average. A 2010 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine analyzed the longitudinal health data of 4,857 Pima and Tohono O'odham children born between 1945 and 1984. (The Indian Health Service had records of 40 years of children's vital signs.) The average age of the children was 11 years old when they were first examined for glucose levels, BMI, blood pressure, and cholesterol information. Decades later, researchers traced health records of the 4,857 individuals to see how long they actually lived. The researchers documented high rates of premature death, with life expectancies cut to only 55 years of age. The adults who, as children, had been measured at the highest body mass indices (BMI) were 2.3 times more likely to die prematurely. Those with the highest glucose levels were 73 percent more likely. (link.) The study underscores the need to work on culturally-relevant, community-wide, solutions that will create and sustain stronger, healthier Tohono O’odham.


The Border

Legacy of the 1853 Gadsden Purchase: The U.S.-Mexico border straddles the Tohono O’odham homelands. The annual Saint Francis pilgrimage to Magdalena, Mexico, exemplifies the continuity of Sonoran Catholicism across its desert namesake. Over the past decade, the international boundary has become an increasing source of problems, exacerbating economic, crime, and quality-of-life issues in our community. That said, we do not see ourselves as living in the borderlands. That is the view of people who look on a map but not at our lives. The border does not define us.


TOCA’s work centers on the Tohono O’odham community, not on debates about border issues. That fact does not prevent TOCA staff members from often being asked to comment upon it. We try to respond helpfully, saying that a key aspect often lost. In debates about border issues, it is often forgotten that people live here. We admit that the border is a source of tension in our community, but people who live here get tired of being treated as we are irrelevant. Tohono O’odham community members do not want gang violence in their towns or to be interrogated by the Border Patrol as if we do not belong here. No one would. Our community is as diverse as others when it comes to how individuals approach the border and the hassles -- or opportunities -- it creates. As this brief introduction to our community demonstrates, however, wer are involved in many local struggles that are not border-related. We would hope to be asked about our lives, and our communities, rather than what we live alongside.

Terrol Johnson, Tristan Reader, Co-founders of Tohono O'odham Community Action