Finding Native American Cultural Sites in Tucson, Arizona

Learning About the Tohono O'odham, People of the Desert

Tohono O'odham Basket Display
••• Tohono O'odham Basket Display. ©Elizabeth R. Rose
Tucson as a Cultural Tourism Destination

Most people don’t think of Tucson as a center of Native American culture. We tend to think of the Navajo and Hopi when we consider Native American tradition and art. But the people to the south have much to offer the visitor. Whether its “man in the maze” baskets, saguaro syrup or unusual polka music, the traditions of the desert people to the south will fascinate you.

Tucson’s rich tri-cultural identity, stemming from ancient Native American, Hispanic and pioneer traditions, has helped shape the Old Pueblo into a vibrant, thriving Southwest community. But the deepest-running roots of Tucson’s heritage, those of the ancient, desert-dwelling Tohono O’odham tribe, were the first to influence the land that would become Tucson.

Finding the People of the Desert

Thousands of years ago, the O’odham people’s ancestors, the Hohokam, settled along the Santa Cruz River in Southern Arizona and expertly planted river floodplains to nourish crops like beans, squash and corn. Today’s Tohono O’odham, meaning “People of the Desert,” are still expert desert inhabitants, farming native foods and gathering natural desert ingredients like cholla cactus buds, saguaro flowers and mesquite beans.

While Tucson’s culinary culture celebrates the foods of the desert first used by the Tohono O’odham, it is the tribe’s remarkable craft artistry that best preserves its ancient heritage.
Best known for their intricate and beautiful hand-woven basketry, the Tohono O’odham harvest bear grass, yucca and devil’s claw to weave the complex, colorful creations.

Polka Music in the Desert?

When we were at the Southwest Indian Art Fair, we were perplexed when local Indian musicians began to play.
It sounded like the polka! It was then that we were introduced to the sound of Waila music (pronounced why-la). This music is the traditional social dance music of the Tohono O’odham. It is a hybrid of popular European polka and waltzes with a variety of Mexican influences mixed it. We then found out that there is a Waila Festival each May in Tucson where you can hear this unusual music. Just a day trip away, are museums, shops and festivals where you can learn more about these desert-dwelling people.

Must-see Museums and Cultural Centers

Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona
1013 E. University Blvd
Phone: 520.621.6302

Arizona State Museum is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution and is the oldest, largest anthropology museum in the region. It holds the world’s largest whole-vessel collection of Southwest Indian pottery. There are special exhibits and classes.

Tohono O’odham Nation Cultural Center and Museum
Fresnal Canyon Road, Topawa, Arizona
Phone: 520.383.0201

The new Tohono O’odham Nation Cultural Center and Museum opened in June of 2007. The 38,000 square foot, $15.2 million facility is located just 70 miles from Tucson (10 miles south of Sells) in a desert landscape with the sacred Baboquivari Peak as a backdrop.

The museum features an extensive collection of basketry, pottery, and historic and photos. An eight-foot glass window engraved with the man in the maze design is a feature of the Elder Center located on the property. This is the only facility of its kind open to the public on the Tohono O’odham Nation offering an intimate glimpse into Tohono O’odham life.

Regular museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Admission is free, but donations are accepted.

A retail store on-site offers a wide variety of exclusive items including one of a kind works by Tohono O’odham artists, clothing imprinted with images by celebrated painter Mike Chiago, hand made baskets, traditional foods, including rare saguaro syrup, jewelry, traditional music and Waila Band CDs, books by and about the Tohono O’odham, and limited edition Pendleton blankets with Tohono O’odham basketry designs.

Saguaro Fruit Harvest Festival – July
Organizer: Colossal Cave Mountain Park
Location: La Posta Quemada Ranch, 15721 E. Old Spanish Trail, Vail, AZ 85641
Phone: 520.647.7121
Article: Colossal Cave

The Ha:san Bak Festival takes place between mid-June and the end of July, depending on the weather, when the ruby-red fruit of the saguaro cactus ripens. At an early-morning workshop in the desert, pre-registered participants harvest saguaro fruit; prepare and taste saguaro products; and learn about the cactus, its natural history, and uses by the Tohono O’odham people. Afterward, the park opens to the public for a festival that normally includes an exhibition by rain dancers, basket-making demonstrations, and samples of freshly made saguaro syrup and other native foods.

Southwest Indian Art Fair – February
Organizer: Arizona State Museum, The University of Arizona
Location: Arizona State Museum, 1013 E. University Blvd., Tucson, AZ 85721
Phone: 520.621.4523

The Southwest Indian Art Fair is a juried two day fair taking place under tents on the museum’s grassy grounds. It is geared toward serious shoppers and collectors of high-quality artworks. Shoppers can meet and buy directly from 200 of the finest Native American artists in the region. The merchandise includes pottery, Hopi kachina dolls, paintings, baskets and much more. There are artist demonstrations such as Navajo weaving and basket weaving. Traditional Native American foods are sold and there are music and dance performances.

The Tohono Village in Tubac

Located in the heart of historic Tubac, the Trading Post, which opened in October 2007, incorporates a courtyard with two shops. Visitors enter through a large gate. On the right you will see the beautiful gallery. On the left is the gift shop, also filled with Native American products.

Toward the rear of the courtyard you will find traditional O'odham brush shelters. Artisans are often invited to demonstrate their crafts there and Indian dancers demonstrate authentic social dances.

On my visit to the Tohono Village art gallery I found large stone carvings... huge bear fetish style carving with colorful macaw feathers decorating the wraps. These carvings were by Lance Yazzie, Navajo artist. There were large paintings and many glass cases showcasing jewelry. I was drawn to the colorful Michael M. Chiago paintings depicting Tohono O'odham life.

And, of course, on a back wall, we saw a marvelous collection of Tohono O’odham baskets.

The complex is owned by the Tohono O’odham and benefits the local people as well as the hand-picked artists from other Arizona tribes.

Address: 10 Camino Otero, Tubac, AZ 85646
Phone: 520.349.3709

More about the O'odham People

O'odham, means "the people," or “the desert people,” and you pronounce the name similar to "aw-thum." Two groups of O'odham live in Arizona. The Salt and Gila River communities near Phoenix are made up of Akimal O'odham (formerly Pima) and in southern Arizona the people are called Tohono O'odham (formerly Papago). It’s worth a journey to Southern Arizona to learn and experience more of the culture of these people.