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Tohono O'odham Peoplehood Reduced to Water Politics in Arizona State Museum Exhibit

Lili is a Ph.D. student in ecology at the University of Michigan. She spent her undergraduate years studying sociology and literature.

Peoplehood: A Way to Evaluate Depictions of Group Identity

American Indian Studies has suffered from the stigma of being "considered at most a tributary of several different mainstream academic disciplines," meaning that it is not structured by a central paradigm (Holm et al. 10). In 2003, Tom Holm and co-authors proposed that "peoplehood" should be used as "the core assumption of American Indian studies" (Holm et al. 12). Peoplehood is intended to provide a "perceptive and encompassing view of group identity" that "transcend[s] the notions of statehood, nationalism, gender, ethnicity, and sectarian membership" (Holm et al. 11). Peoplehood is defined by four equally important factors—language, ceremonial cycle, place territory, and sacred history—that are "interwoven and dependent on one another," and thus are represented by a matrix, with each factor linked to each other factor (Holm et al. 12). Throughout their article, Holm et al. continuously reinforce the idea that from the interaction of the peoplehood factors can emerge a "complete system that accounts for particular social, cultural, political, economic, and ecological behaviors exhibited by groups of people indigenous to particular territories" (Holm et al. 12). Peoplehood is a paradigm that also "adequately reminds us…that human societies are complex" and thus the topics of American Indian societies cannot be presented or analyzed with "reductionist thought" (Holm et al. 15).

American Indian societies cannot be presented or analyzed with "reductionist thought"

Representation of Native American Peoplehood at the Arizona State Museum

The Arizona State Museum's Paths of Life: American Indians of the Southwest Exhibit was opened in the early 1990s, with significant consultation from the featured tribes (according to the docent at the front desk). Though the exhibit has been repainted, there have been no updates of the text in the exhibit since its opening. Unfortunately, the Arizona State Museum's Paths of Life exhibit is a reductionist approach to the Tohono O'odham, providing little context on their language and sacred history, instead focusing only on place territory through the lens of water politics.

Arizona State Museum on the University of Arizona Campus

Arizona State Museum's north building on the University of Arizona campus. Photo by Jeff Smith.

Arizona State Museum's north building on the University of Arizona campus. Photo by Jeff Smith.

Sacred History of the Tohono O'odham

The Tohono O'odham have a complex and rich sacred history, which was simplified by the Paths of Life exhibit to a brief description of two ceremonies. According to Holm et al., sacred histories "give each member of the group an understanding of where they come from…details kinship structures, the meaning of ceremonies, as well as when they should be performed, and how the group fits within a particular environment" (Holm et al. 14). It is clear from the class that the Tohono O'odham have many stories tying them to creation, the physical features of their land (like the cave home of Ho'ok), and a full cast of characters including Elder Brother (I'itoi), First Born, Earth Magician, Coyote, Buzzard, and Ho'ok (Fontana 19-23). Unfortunately, the exhibit does not explore these stories, their transmission, or even how the Tohono O'odham's sacred history has informed their use of water. The exhibit does give brief descriptions of the Nawait ceremony that "ensured the arrival of summer rains," by gathering people for speeches, singing, dancing, and drinking saguaro fruit wine, and the Wi:gida ceremony that was a "ritual reenactment of planting, rainfall, and harvest" that occurred every four years. However, these ceremonies' purpose, performance, and connection to the Tohono O'odham's cosmology was left vague. A figure, depicting "the clown Nawiju, a key player in the Wi:gida ceremony….represent[ing] a saguaro cactus" was included, but since no other context was provided, it served to emphasize the lack of information being provided by the exhibit. The sacred history factor of the Tohono O'odham's peoplehood was presented simplistically by the Paths of Life exhibit.

Place/Territory Focusing on Water Politics

The Paths of Life exhibit adequately represents the place territory of the Tohono O'odham, strongly focusing on the water politics of the area. The Tohono O'odham are portrayed by the exhibit as being strongly in sync with their Sonoran Desert home, "a place of beauty and life," defined by its limited water (some places average "less than an inch of annual rainfall") (Fontana 12). The O'odham are introduced to visitors of the exhibit as follows: "To the O'odham…water is more than a necessity—it saturates their culture and way of life. In the words of an O'odham song, "the world would burn without rain."" The exhibit describes the Tohono O'odham living in seasonal villages, moving their homes and fields "as rainfall or runoff patterns shifted," and managing water and irrigation to maintain highly productive agriculture. The exhibit also tells how, beginning in the 1860s, Anglo settlers diverted water for their own agriculture, leading to a deficit for the Tohono O'odham. Protests at the United States Capitol led only to the recommendation that they move to Oklahoma. The Tohono O'odham rejected the option of leaving their land. They were eventually given water rations, but could no longer maintain their "abundant agriculture system," leading the farmers to become wage laborers. Successful lawsuits for water rights were filed in the 1970s and 80s. Though clearly water is a critical part of the place territory of the Tohono O'odham, even a detailed discussion of water politics may still be a limited perspective to take, especially since Holm et al.'s peoplehood model emphasizes the interconnectedness of each of the peoplehood factors. The exhibit successfully communicates the importance of place to the Tohono O'odham, and how the challenges of water use have shaped their history. However, their sacred history exists in the physical place, like I'itoi's footprint at Ho'ok's cave "by a hill east of San Miguel…called locally Ho'ok Muerta" (Fontana 23-25), and in the naming (the language) of the physical place. The Paths of Life exhibit gives an acceptable sense of the place territory factor of peoplehood, but would be better if it explored the interconnectedness of place territory with the other factors of peoplehood instead of being limited only to water politics.

Depiction of Tohono O'odham Place/Territory at the Arizona State Museum

Sorry for the poor quality pictures--the lighting in the museum was dim.

Sorry for the poor quality pictures--the lighting in the museum was dim.

Conclusion? The Exhibit Takes a Reductionist Approach to a Rich Culture

Overall, the Paths of Life exhibit was a more effective presentation of the Tohono O'odham's conflicts with Anglos and water politics than of their peoplehood. Though the Tohono O'odham were connected to O'odham group via a common language, and though two ceremonies were described (with little detail), most of the exhibit focused on the Tohono O'odham's relationship to their place territory of the Sonoran Desert, and particularly to the desert as a place needing water management to successfully support agriculture. The peoplehood matrix emphasizes the interconnectedness of the four factors, rejecting a reductionist treatment, but this exhibit reduced the history and culture of the Tohono O'odham to water politics. A comprehensive presentation of the language and sacred history of the Tohono O'odham as well as a focus on the interactions of language, place territory, ceremonial cycle, and sacred history would provide a more complete picture of a people, not only defined by their struggles for and usage of water

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Depiction of Tohono O'odham Sacred History at the Arizona State Museum


Sparse Information on Tohono O'odham Language

In the exhibit, the Tohono O'odham are tied to the larger group of O'odham people by their common language, but no further context on language was provided. The exhibit introduces the O'odham as "speakers of a Uto-Aztecan language known as Piman," divided into "two similar but distinct groups," the Tohono O'odham and the Akimel O'odham, differing "mainly in their water resources and how they used them." The exhibit successfully ties the Tohono O'odham to a larger people via the shared language, but then neglects to provide further information on how "its nuances, references, and grammar gives a sacred history a meaning of its own," or how the "language defines place and vice versa" (Holm et al. 13). In other words, the exhibit fails to connect language to the other three equally important factors of peoplehood, and even fails to explore the use and development of language in light of the exhibit's primary focus, water politics. From the class readings, it is clear that the Tohono O'odham exist in a language space of Papago, English, and Spanish (Fontana 23). It would be interesting for the exhibit to touch on issues of being multi-lingual and the logistics of communication across cultures (American settlers, Mexican farmers, the Tohono O'odham) living in close quarters and negotiating water rights. The Paths of Life exhibit takes a reductionist approach to the language and the critical role it plays in the peoplehood of the Tohono O'odham.

A Footnote

From a personal point of view, I think the Arizona State Museum does a wonderful job showcasing Native American art. The Paths of Life exhibit is quite small, which may explain its sparse information content, but still I can't help but think its reprehensible that a research museum at the University of Arizona takes such a single-note approach to local cultures. That said, I saw the only dedicated museum exhibit to the Navajo Code Talkers (who helped an integral role in helping the U.S. win World War II!) and it was inside a Burger King and obviously tiny, which is so tragic and disrespectful (see link below). Maybe I'm full of it, but I think that Native American cultures deserve more honor than us White Americans have shown them. What do you think?


Fontana, Bernand L, and John P. Schaefer. Of Earth and Little Rain: The Papago Indians. Tucson: U of Arizona, 2015. Print.

Holm, Tom, J. Diane Pearson, and Ben Chavis. "Peoplehood: A Model for the Extension of Sovereignty in American Indian Studies." Wicazo Sa Review 18.1 (2003): 7-24.

Don't have access to a library from a research institute?

Check out the main source book on Amazon below. Or, for the Holm et al. paper, leave a comment--and I'll send you it and any supplemental reading material you are interested in!

© 2018 Lili Adams

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