Mission Churches of the Sonoran Desert

The Tohono O'Odham

A chapel at the village of San Simon, in the western part of Tohono O'odham Natio

A chapel at the village of San Simon, in the western part of Tohono O'odham Nation. Like all traditional O'odham Catholic chapels, the door faces east. The two structures in the foreground are a cross and a niche containing a saint's image. They serve as the focal point for the procession that takes place on feast days. This sort of cross is often called the "field cross."

The Tohono O'odham or Desert People were until the 1980s known as the Papago Indians. However, they decided to abandon this name - it means "Bean Eaters" - and return to the name they have always called themselves. The Tohono O'odham live on the second largest reservation in the United States, which stretches for over a hundred miles along the Mexico/Arizona border and extends far into Southern Arizona. Traditionally, they followed a unique agricultural system designed to take advantage of heavy flooding that follows summer thundershowers in this desert country. Few contemporary O'odham grow their traditional crops any more, however, and most live in permanent villages watered by deep wells or in the cities surrounding their reservation.

The O'odham language is still very much alive, as are many of the traditional beliefs and attitudes that the early missionaries encountered. Most O'odham have moved north across the border into the United States, although a small remnant population still lives in Sonora. Most O'odham are Catholics, having been exposed to missionary activities in the late 17th Century.

For more information, visit the Tohono O'odham Community Action (TOCA) website. TOCA is "a community-based organization dedicated to creating cultural revitalization, community health and sustainable development on the Tohono O'odham Nation."

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