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Tohono O'odham Indian Fact Sheet

Native American Facts For Kids was written for young people learning about the Tohono O'odham or Papago Indian tribe for school or home-schooling reports. We encourage students and teachers to visit our Tohono O'odham language and culture pages for in-depth information about the tribe, but here are our answers to the questions we are most often asked by children, with Tohono O'odham pictures and links we believe are suitable for all ages.

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   Tohono O'odham Tribe

How do you pronounce "Tohono O'odham"? What does it mean?
Tohono O'odham is pronounced taw-haw-naw aw-aw-dham or taw-haw-naw aw-aw-tham, depending on dialect. This means "desert people" in their own language. The Tohono O'odham are also often known as the Papago (pronounced pah-puh-goh), a name that was given to them by their Pima neighbors. Papago O'odham means "bean people."

Where do the Tohono O'odham live?
The Tohono O'odham are natives of the Sonoran desert, in southern Arizona and northern Mexico. Most Tohono O'odham people still live in these areas today.

How is the Tohono O'odham Indian nation organized?
Most Tohono O'odham people live on four reservations in Arizona. An Indian reservation is land that belongs to a tribe and is under their control. The Tohono O'odham Nation has its own government, laws, police, and services, just like a small country. However, the Tohono O'odham are also US citizens and must obey American law. In Mexico, Tohono O'odham people do not have a tribal organization or government. They just live in Sonoran villages.

In the past, each Tohono O'odham village had its own chief. Tohono O'odham chiefs were looked to for leadership, but they did not make decisions for the tribe. When there was a political decision to make, every member of the tribal council had to agree before the tribe could act (this is called consensus.) Sometimes this could take a long time, but the Tohono O'odham people really value harmony, so this was an important system for them. Today, the Tohono O'odham tribe is led by a tribal council elected by the citizens, and the council members still work by consensus much of the time.

What language do the Tohono O'odham Indians speak?
Almost all Tohono O'odham people speak English today, but many of them also speak their native Tohono O'odham language. Tohono O'odham is a complex language with long words. If you'd like to know some easy Tohono O'odham words, "Shap kaij" (sounds a little like shop kite-ch) is a friendly greeting in Tohono O'odham. You can also read a Tohono O'odham picture glossary here.

What was Tohono O'odham culture like in the past? What is it like now?
Here is the homepage of the Tohono O'odham Nation. On their site you can find information about the Tohono O'odham people in the past and today.

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How do Tohono O'odham Indian children live, and what did they do in the past?
They do the same things all children do--play with each other, go to school and help around the house. Many Tohono O'odham children like to go hunting with their fathers. In the past, Indian kids had more chores and less time to play in their daily lives, just like colonial children. But they did have dolls, toys, and games to play. A Tohono O'odham mother traditionally carried a young child in a cradleboard on her back. Here is a website with pictures and information about cradle-boards.

What were men and women's roles in the Tohono O'odham tribe?
Tohono O'odham women did most of the cooking, child care, and basket-weaving. Men did most of the farming and hunting, and sometimes went to war to protect their families. Tohono O'odham political leaders and warriors were traditionally always men, although today women also serve on the tribal council. Both genders took part in storytelling, music and artwork, and traditional medicine.

What were Tohono O'odham homes like in the past?
Most Tohono O'odham Indians lived in wickiups. Wickiups are small round or cone-shaped houses made of a wooden frame covered with brush and dirt. These are very simple houses and Tohono O'odham people really only used them to sleep in. When they were resting, socializing, or working on crafts, Tohono O'odham people sat outside-- it was rarely cold or rainy in the desert climate where they lived. Here are some pictures of wickiup houses.

Tohono O'odham people do not live in these old-fashioned dwellings today, any more than other Americans live in log cabins. Tohono O'odham families live in modern houses and apartment buildings, just like you.

What were Tohono O'odham clothes like? Did the Tohono O'odham wear feather headdresses and face paint?
Originally, Tohono O'odham people didn't wear much clothing-- men wore only native breechcloths and sometimes deerskin leggings, and women wore knee-length skirts. Shirts were not necessary in Papago culture, but the Papagos sometimes wore rabbit-skin robes at night when the weather became cooler. Papago people did not usually wear shoes, either, but when they did, they wore sandals made of rawhide or yucca fiber rather than moccasins. Native turquoise jewelry, especially pendant earrings, was worn by both men and women. Here are some photos and links about the clothing of Native Americans in general.

The Tohono O'odham did not originally wear feathered headdresses, although in the 19th century different tribes began to borrow this style from the Plains Indian cultures. Traditionally Tohono O'odham men twisted their long hair into hair rolls, which looked a little like dreadlocks. Sometimes they would wind them up around their heads, or wrap a turban around them. Tohono O'odham women wore their hair long and straight with bangs in front. The Papagos painted their faces and bodies for special occasions, and also wore facial tattoo designs on their chins.

Today, many Tohono O'odham people still wear moccasins or mantas, but they wear modern clothes like jeans instead of a breechcloth... and they only wear regalia for special occasions like a dance.

What was Tohono O'odham transportation like in the days before cars? Did they paddle canoes?
No--the Tohono O'odham Indians weren't coastal people, and rarely traveled by river. Most often they just walked. There were no horses in North America until colonists brought them over from Europe. Once Europeans brought horses to America, the Papagos could travel more quickly than before.

What was Tohono O'odham food like in the days before supermarkets?
The Tohono O'odham planted crops of corn, beans, and squash. Tohono O'odham men also hunted deer, javelinas, and small game like rabbits, while women gathered nuts, fruits, and herbs. Favorite Papago recipes included cornbread and stews, which they baked in pit ovens. Here is a website with more information about traditional Indian crops.

What were Tohono O'odham weapons and tools like in the past?
Tohono O'odham hunters used bows and arrows. The Tohono O'odham did not go to war often, but when they did, Tohono O'odham warriors usually fired their bows or fought with spears and clubs. Here are pictures of a Native American bow and other traditional weapons.

What other Native Americans did the Tohono O'odham tribe interact with?
The Tohono O'odham traded regularly with other tribes of the Southwest. They have a particularly close relationship with the Pima tribe, who are kinfolk of theirs and speak a related language. The Pimas and Papagos would often help each other in times of drought and famine, and they celebrated annual festivals together. The Papago tribe also fought wars with some of their neighbors. The Apaches were frequent enemies, who sometimes raided Tohono O'odham villages.

What are Tohono O'odham arts and crafts like?
Tohono O'odham artists are famous for their beautiful Indian baskets. Here is a museum website with more information about O'odham basketry. Tohono O'odham artists also made Native American blankets, red pottery, and beaded necklaces.

What kinds of stories do the Tohono O'odham tell?
There are lots of traditional Tohono O'odham legends and fairy tales. Storytelling is very important to the Tohono O'odham Indian culture. Here is a Tohono O'odham story about the origin of butterflies. Here's a website where you can read more about Papago stories.

What about Tohono O'odham religion?
Spirituality and religion were important parts of Tohono O'odham life, and some people continue to practice traditional beliefs today. It is respectful to avoid imitating religious rituals for school projects since some Tohono O'odham people care about them deeply. You can read and learn about them, however. You can visit this site to learn more about Pima and Papago beliefs, or this site about Indian religions and beliefs in general.

Can you recommend a good book for me to read?
You may enjoy And It Is Still That Way, a book of legends from various Arizona Indian tribes including the Tohono O'odham tribe. Younger children may like Soft Child, a picture book of a traditional Tohono O'odham legend, or Sing Down The Rain, a beautiful depiction of a Tohono O'odham ceremony. Meet Mindy is an illustrated biography of a Native Arizona girl which makes a great introduction to Southwest Indian life today. If you want to know more about Tohono O'odham culture and history, a good book for younger readers is Tohono O'odham Native Americans and a good book for older readers is Sharing the Desert: the Tohono O'odham in History. You can also browse through our recommendations of books on Native American history in general. Disclaimer: we are an Amazon affiliate and our website earns a commission if you buy a book through one of these links. Most of them can also be found in a public library, though!

How do I cite your website in my bibliography?
You will need to ask your teacher for the format he or she wants you to use. The authors' names are Laura Redish and Orrin Lewis and the title of our site is Native Languages of the Americas. We are a nonprofit educational organization working to preserve and protect Native American languages and culture. You can learn more about our organization here. Our website was first created in 1998 and last updated in 2020.

Thanks for your interest in the Tohono O'odham Indian people and their language!

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Learn More About The Tohono O'odhams

Tohono O'odham Indian Tribe
An overview of the Tohono O'odham people, their language and history.

Tohono O'odham Language Resources
Tohono O'odham language samples, articles, and indexed links.

Tohono O'odham Culture and History Directory
Related links about the Tohono O'odham tribe past and present.

Tohono O'odham Words
Tohono O'odham Indian vocabulary lists.

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