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  • 'O'odham Place Names Based on Rocks and Minerals
  • Harry J. Winters Jr. (bio)

In centuries past the 'O'odham had names for thousands of topographical features: mountains of all shapes and sizes, watering places of many kinds, villages, and cultural or geological curiosities. At least hundreds of these names are still known either because they are still in use or because they are found in historical records. I include in the term 'O'odham all those Pimans known as (1) the Tohono 'O'odham in Arizona and Sonora, (2) the 'Akimeli 'O'odham living along the Middle Gila River and in the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community, (3) the Sobaipuris who formerly occupied the San Pedro River Valley and part of the Upper Santa Cruz River Valley, (4) the 'O'odham, probably relatives of the Tohono 'O'odham of the Hickiwan District, who lived among the Piipaash or Maricopas along the Lower Gila River, (5) the Pimas of northern and western Sonora, and (6) the Hiach'eḍ 'O'odham called Sand Papagos in English and Areneños (Sand People) in Spanish.

This article is an introduction to the variety of 'O'odham place names based on bedrock outcrops and the products of physical and chemical weathering and erosion of those outcrops. The 'O'odham classify the products of weathering and erosion mainly by particle size rather than by the type of rock, or source rock, from which the erosion products are derived. The 'O'odham classification system is not a rigorous, quantitative one. There can be overlaps. We have hodi, 'o'oḍ, 'o'ohia, hia, and bid in descending order of particle size. [End Page 691]


An outcrop of bedrock is called vav, with the plural vaupa. Vaupa are subject to physical and chemical weathering, mainly by rainwater, freezing and thawing, gravity, and wind. Water and wind can mold a vav into many forms. For example, a vav can be:

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'Oam Vaupa in the left foreground. On the south side of Fresnal Canyon, near Chi'ul Sha'ik. 'Uus Ba'ioka sits above it and Vav Giwulik stands in the background. (Photo copyright Peter L. Kresan.)

  1. 1. A large peak such as the towering Vav Giwulik on the crest of the Baboquivari Range east of Topawa, Arizona

  2. 2. A long, thin, vertically standing dike such as Vav Komalik on the old trail from Toa Bidk to Wegi Vavhia in the northern Hickiwan District of the Tohono 'O'odham Nation in Arizona

  3. 3. A prominent flat-lying bed of sedimentary or volcanic rock in the face of a cliff or ridge such as the massive limestone bed called Vav Komalik in the Mustang Mountains, formerly called the Sierra del Babocomari, in Cochise County, Arizona

  4. 4. A large or small mountain that may be called Vav Keek or Vav Dak depending on whether the outcrop sticks up vertically high enough to appear to be in a standing position or appears to be just sitting there

  5. 5. A humble outcrop that barely protrudes above the sand in a wash, such as in the wash at Siv Vavhia just downstream from the old well but which is an ideal spot to make vavch'eḍ chechpa, bedrock mortars, for grinding mesquite beans; Siv Vavhia is in the Sif Oidak District of the Tohono 'O'odham Nation [End Page 692]

  6. 6. A massive, high-rising volcanic outcrop with columns or pinnacles of rock rising from it such as Vav Sisivodag, in English Courthouse Rock in the Eagletail Mountains, Arizona, and Vav S-Mu'umk near Cheepo in the Sif Oidak District

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Examples to clarify the meaning of vav and vaupa followed by words describing their shapes.

There are countless place names based on the words vav and vaupa. Many of them incorporate words that describe the shapes into which erosion has formed the bedrock. For example, we have Vav Giwulik, Vav Kavoḍk, Vav Komalik, Vav Gakoḍk, Vav 'Olas, and Vaupa S-Mu'umk. [End Page 693]


Hodi means rock. The plural is hohodi. The rocks can vary in size from boulders down to coarse...


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