Arizona: Tohono O’odham


History: Descendants of the ancient Hohokam (Hu Hu Kam) people, the Tohono O’odham Nation is composed of Pima and Papago Indians. Traditionally, both tribes were farmers, but settlers in the 1820s began taking over the tribe’s water sources and decreased their income considerably. The sovereign nation was also heavily impacted by the 1853 Gadsden Purchase, which divided their lands between the U.S. and Mexico. 

In the early 20th century, the tribe’s children were forced to attend distant boarding schools. This caused much grief among the close-knit Indigenous families, until 1916 when the U.S. government finally built four-day schools on the reservation that allowed children to stay at home and attend school in their tribal communities.  

Today: Known as the “People of the Desert,” the Tohono O’odham still maintain their culture with public rituals, traditional music and language classes. Organized into 11 districts, the reservation spans over 2.8 million acres west of Tucson between Casa Grande and the U.S./Mexico border. The Tohono O’odham Nation has about 10,200 people living on the reservation but roughly 28,000 enrolled members. 

Tohono O’odham Nation Health Care (a subsidiary of Indian Health Services) operates a 14-bed hospital in the Nation’s capital of Sells and three more health centers in various districts. There are multiple preschools, elementary schools and high schools for children throughout the reservation, and even a 2-year accredited community college in Sells. 

They still rely on agriculture like cotton and cattle, but tourism is their main economic generator – through an all-Native fair and rodeo, camping and recreational activities, the San Xavier Mission, a handful of casinos, a national observatory and a cultural center and museum. 

With a tribal unemployment rate of 63% and per capita income of $3,113, nearly 66% of Tohono O’odham residents live below the poverty line.  Mostly dependent on food produced off-reservation, over half of Tohono O’odham residents suffer from diabetes. 


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