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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
Updated November 19, 2010
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.

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