The name “Papago,” or “tepary bean eaters” in English, was used by the Spanish conquistadors to refer to a Native American tribe dwelling in southern Arizona and northern Sonora. In 1986, when the Papago tribe formed their own nation, they reclaimed their name — “Tohono O’odham” — which translates as “Desert People.” The Tohono O’odham are ancestors of the Hohokam who lived in southern Arizona between approximately A.D. 200 and 1400. Through this lineage, the Tohono O’odham are closely related to the Pima (Akimel O'odham) tribe, also from southern Arizona. The Tohono O’odham and Pima dialects stem from the O'odham language. The two tribes also share some central beliefs, such as the Elder Brother I'itoi, the Creator.
The Elder Brother
The Akimel (Pima) and Tohono O’odham consider I’itoi the creator of the human race. The creation story explains that a child called "First Born" arrived on Earth on the edge of a windy pond while it was not yet completed. First Born finished Earth by making a seat of algae. To ensure that it did not blow away, he created termites from the algae that, in turn, strengthened the algae seat. First Born sang a song about the Earth Medicine Man as he worked, a kind of invocation to assist in completing the Earth. First Born asked the Earth’s creatures to name the light that would allow them to see each other. They agreed on "sun." After he had made all the preparations, First Born left.
From this point, I’itoi arrived, then Coyote, Buzzard, and others. Working together, but devising their own creations, they finished Earth. I’itoi created people out of clay, gave the desert people the “crimson evening,” and instructed them to live there always, at the center of creation. The people see Elder Brother as the spirit who resides at the center of all things.
Man in the Maze
The Tohono O'odham believe in the maze as a symbol of life, a journey that every individual must navigate. The people are known for their basket weaving, specifically for the labyrinth design with a little man figure at the mouth of the maze. Interpretations differ among families, but many see the little man as representing the O'odham people. The people must navigate the difficult twists of the maze, which symbolize life’s challenges and mysteries. As they near the center, the path becomes more difficult, with tighter turns and fewer options. Even as the people grow wiser along the path, the destination remains the same: death. But for the Tohono O'odham, the maze’s center symbolizes more than that. Death is also eternal life. When an individual reaches the center, he joins with the Elder Brother, I'itoi.
The Tohono O'odham’s “butterflies” legend exemplifies a central belief in the power and authority of nature. Out of sadness for how beautiful creatures like children and flowers must grow old and die, I'itoi decided to capture a multitude of fresh colors and preserve them. Into a bag he gathered the black of a young girl’s hair, the white of ground cornmeal, the green of pine needles, blue from the sky, and other colors from flowers. To make his collection more special, he put the songs of birds in the bag, too.
He gave the bag to a group of children playing, encouraging them to open it. They did, and hundreds of colorful butterflies flew out. The children were delighted with the gift; however, a songbird flew over to I’itio to tell him that what he did was wrong. He reminded I’itio of his promise that each songbird would have its own song. Seeing that the bird was right, I’itio gave the songs back to the birds, making the butterflies silent.
Montezuma and the Great Flood
The legend "Montezuma and the Great Flood" speaks to the Tohono O'adham's view of First Man as the fallible creator of animals and humans. It depicts the consequences that occur when desire for power overshadows the intrinsic value of all creatures. The story also demonstrates the people's awe for the Great Mystery Power, as well their belief in the interconnectedness of all beings.
The Aztec "Montezuma" came to the Tohono O’odham from the Spanish, but they assimilated the character into their beliefs. The Southwestern hero came to the people to teach the Tohono O’odham on four different occasions, returning every time he died. He taught them, for example, how to make baskets, cook with fire, and how to plant corn. When he was done teaching, the story goes, Montezuma retired to the underworld, presumably on the white man’s orders.
Coyote had warned Montezuma that a great flood would come, advising him to build a canoe. Montezuma did so, and was ready when the flood arrived. Coyote had built his own vessel from a tree trunk. The two friends met at Monte Rosa’s peak when the water began to subside. Montezuma instructed Coyote to search for dry land. After several attempts, Coyote found dry land in the north. The Great Mystery Power repopulated the land with animals and men, and then put Montezuma in charge.
Montezuma grew greedy with his power; he believed himself equal to the Great Mystery Power. Coyote warned him, but Montezuma didn’t listen. He didn’t even heed the Great Mystery Power when it intervened. Under Montezuma’s wrath, the people grew evil and the animals wild. In an attempt to save creation, the Great Mystery Power sent the locust flying east to summon a foreign people covered in hair and wielding weapons. They responded, arriving at Montezuma’s land and destroying him.
- Visage/Stockbyte/Getty Images