Tohono O’odham, the People of the Desert

In the Sonora Desert of south central Arizona, a people reside whose ancestry goes back 100s of years. These are the Tohono O’odham, formerly know as the Pagago Indian tribe, a name translating to “bean eaters” that was rejected by the tribal members who felt it was derogatory.

The reservation, constituting more than 2.8 million acres lies in four disconnected districts, framed by borders south of Casa Grande, including portions of Pinal and Pima Counties and extending south to the Mexican border.

As of December, 2000, the population of Tohono O’odham was estimated at 24,000.

Tohono O’odham people are known principally in the Native American craft world for their baskets. Most Tohono O’odham baskets are monochromatic green or tan, the natural color of the river grass used to weave them.

This Tohono O’odham basket in our collection is a dramatic example of polychromatic weaving in an extraordinary plaque basket.

In the visual arts, Michael Chiago and the late Leonard Chana achieved recognition for paintings and drawings of traditional O'odham activities and scenes. Chiago has exhibited at the Heard Museum and has contributed cover art to Arizona Highways magazine and University of Arizona Press books; Chana illustrated books by Tucson writer Byrd Baylor and created murals for Tohono O'odham Nation buildings.

At the National Museum for the American Indian (NMAI), the Tohono O'odham were represented in the founding exhibition. Mr. Lopez blessed the exhibit. In 2004, the Heard Museum awarded Danny Lopez its first heritage award, recognizing his lifelong work sustaining the desert people's way of life.

Among the more visible aspects of Tohono O’odham are the Desert Diamond Casino, which funds a portion of the tribes activities (but not all) and a major tourist attraction near Tucson, Mission San Xavier del Bac, the "White Dove of the Desert." The mission, founded in 1700 by the Jesuit missionary and explorer Eusebio Kino, is in the San Xavier District. The current church building was constructed by the Tohono O'odham and Franciscan priests from 1783 to 1797. It is one of many missions built in the southwest by the Spanish on their then-northern frontier.


Tribal Artery is a periodic blog by William Ernest Waites and Susanne Waites, proprietors of Aboriginals:Art of the First Person, an online gallery with links at,, and