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Hiding in the Shadows of History: Revitalizing Hia-Ced O’odham Peoplehood
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Hiding in the Shadows of History:
Revitalizing Hia-Ced O’odham Peoplehood


As of 1983, when Volume 10 of the Handbook of North American Indians appeared in print, Bernard L. Fontana (1983) and Robert A. Hackenberg (1983) made scant references to the “Sand Papago” in their contributions on the Pima and Papago. Nonetheless, the Hia-Ced O’odham were memorialized as “No Villagers,” a phrase that Fontana uses to distinguish this group from their easterly Tohono O’odham and northerly Akimel O’odham cousins. The Akimel O’odham, in particular, were well known for being an agricultural society, which was based on the practices founded by the Hohokam, their prehistoric forebears of the Gila and Salt River Valleys. The Tohono O’odham, who occupied the central Sonoran Desert between the Ajo Mountains and San Xavier del Bac, maintained a “Two Village” culture, in which bands dwelt between agricultural and hunter-gatherer homes. Between the Colorado River and Baboquivari Mountain, the Hia-Ced O’odham pursued a No Village lifestyle of ongoing hunting and gathering, with emphasis on the latter. Indeed, they were commonly regarded for having depended on an indigenous root for sustenance, “which they called bia-tatk meaning sand (or sand hill) root,” otherwise known by its botanical name of Ammobroma sonorae (Thackery 1953:22).1 Because they endured the driest and hottest region of the Sonoran Desert, as recounted in the many stories and legends about El Camino del Diablo, the Hia-Ced O’odham, according to Fontana, “led what was essentially a camping, nomadic existence, marked by seasonal intervals when they bartered salt, seashells, and ceremonies in return for pottery and the [End Page 131] agricultural products of Yuman Indians of the Lower Colorado River” (Fontana 1983:127–128). However, in and around the modern-day villages of Quitovac and Quitobaquito, where the Hia-Ced O’odham once found modest but life-sustaining sources of water, there are now “scattered potsherds, stone flakes, and other archeological evidences of man’s former campsites, all giving testimony to … man’s dependence on these sources of water. Prehistoric trails as well as modern jeep tracks run from water source to water source” (Fontana 1983:129, 131). The Hia-Ced O’odham eventually fade into the background of Fontana and Hackenberg’s discourse, repeating an implicit fatalism that marks the chronicles of previous Spanish and American explorers and settlers, who did not believe anyone could survive in such an unforgiving landscape. What generations of explorers and settlers overlooked—not to mention, failed to appreciate—was the fact that the Hia-Ced O’odham have called the area between Yuma, Ajo, and Sonoita their home. They still call it home. And I am one of their many descendants.

What follows is an analysis of the historical literature regarding the Hia-Ced O’odham.2 In one respect, the ensuing discourse demonstrates how from the earliest contact with Spanish explorers and missionaries the Hia-Ced O’odham were portrayed as a marginal people on the verge of extinction, which was due to their land’s apparent lack of resources, namely, water. These impressions were perpetuated by American explorers and settlers, who were equally amazed that any group, however loosely organized, could sustain an existence in such a barren region, whose only redeeming feature was a southern, albeit dangerous, route to California. In turn, Carl Lumholtz’s anecdotes about the “Sand Papago” are the first clear reference to the Hia-Ced O’odham as a distinct people, complete with their lands, dialect, and cultural traditions. The subsequent anthropological treatises, though not primarily focused on the Hia-Ced O’odham, nonetheless appreciate the fact that they are a significant part of a spectrum of diversity within the larger O’odham community, which is divided along linguistic, geographical, and kinship boundaries. Ultimately, when Thomas Childs Jr, who married a Hia-Ced O’odham woman and learned the language and a great deal about their history and culture, enters the dialog on southern Arizona, he initiates a perspective that is truer to the indigenous understanding of their peoplehood (Holm et al. 2003: 7–24).3 That peoplehood is made all the more...