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History and Culture

Red Mountain

The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community is comprised of two distinct Native American tribes: the Onk Akimel O’odham (Pima) and the Xalychidom Piipaash (Maricopa). The center of our aboriginal territory is located in what is now called the Phoenix Valley, but our villages and farms previously occupied vast stretches of land along the Gila and Salt Rivers.

Although we derive from two distinct cultures and languages, our two tribes have been allies for many generations and share many of the same values. Although each tribe formerly recognized its own leaders and independently managed its own day-to-day affairs, we interacted regularly. Intertribal commerce, decision-making, military action and social interaction were common.

Our friendly alliance ultimately developed into a more formalized confederation that benefited both groups. Since that time, we have regularly acted as a single political power. Such was the case when establishing relations with the United States. Hence we are now federally recognized as one tribe by the U.S. Federal Government.

The territory of O’odham and Piipaash residing along the Salt River was originally recognized by the U.S. government via executive order, signed by President Rutherford B. Hayes on January 10, 1879. Unfortunately, a subsequent executive order on June, 14, 1879 reduced the Salt River portion of the reserve from approximately 680,000 acres to just 46,627 acres. The second order also created two disconnected land bases, separating the Salt River O’odham-Piipaash from their relatives living along the Gila River.

In 1940, the Salt River Community adopted a constitution and bylaws under the provisions of the federal Indian Reorganization Act and is now governed by an elected President, Vice-President and Tribal Council.

Early History

The interaction between our two tribes began long before the first Europeans arrived in our territory. Along the lower Gila River there are ancient sites that indicate frequent interaction and co-habitation among those who archeologists refer to as Hohokam and Patayan.

Patayan is a term used by archaeologists to describe a prehistoric archaeological culture that inhabited parts of modern-day western Arizona, southeastern California, northern Baja California and Sonora Mexico. They are ancestral to the contemporary Yuman tribes, including the Xalychidom Piipaash.

Hohokam is a term used by archaeologists to define a prehistoric archaeological culture that inhabited a large part of central and southern Arizona. The core Hohokam culture, however, was located in what is today the Phoenix Valley. They are ancestral to the contemporary O’odham tribes, including the Onk Akimel O’odham.

The use of archaeological terms for prehistoric time periods sometimes creates confusion for the layperson, leading many to erroneously believe these terms were the actual names of tribes who resided here for a limited time then somehow vanished (see: Huhugam vs. Hohokam). When Eusebio Kino, one of the first Spaniards to visit our homeland, traversed the Gila River in the 1690s, it isn’t surprising that he found the O’odham and Piipaash living and interacting in the same areas as our ancient ancestors.

By the time the first Spanish explorers arrived in our territory, we had abandoned some of the more elaborate aspects of the material culture our ancestors had previously maintained. We had vacated the large adobe structures, such as those found at Pueblo Grande, Casa Grande and Mesa Grande. The reasons for this are complex and not completely agreed upon.

There are a number of scientific theories as to why the culture and population density changed dramatically around 1450. Our own oral histories regarding this time frame are equally complex. Perhaps the fundamental reason is that a modest lifestyle is simply more sustainable in this harsh Sonoran Desert environment.

Our ancestors developed the most advanced canal system in North America. Hundreds of miles of canals were engineered and dug by hand to provide irrigation water to villages that were located great distances from the river channels. Historic O’odham and Piipaash maintained this tradition of canal farming, and our ability to produce an abundance of food was an important contributing factor in shaping relations with other tribes and non-natives early on. Some of these prehistoric canal courses are still utilized in the Phoenix Valley today.

Post Contact

Early Spanish, Mexican and American contact was generally cordial. Therefore, written history has largely recorded us as being docile farmers who never warred with anyone. In reality, the O’odham and Piipaash confederation had one of the most formidable military forces in the area. Such a force was necessary to protect our fertile and bountiful riparian farmland.

Despite the ability to muster a strong military force, the cultures of the O’odham and Piipaash were friendly, welcoming and generous by nature, as corroborated by many early American civilians who passed through our territory. Early Americans relied on our military confederation for protection as they travelled through. Two hundred O’odham and Piipaash warriors were also among the first to enlist for federal service with the first Arizona Volunteer Infantry.

By the 1870s, however, the population of Americans in our territory dramatically increased, as did the competition for natural resources. When the rivers were diverted and dammed, our traditional lifeways changed dramatically. Without the life sustaining rivers, the fields dried up, the forests of cottonwood and willow died off and the grasslands disappeared.

Today, we, the Onk Akimel O’odham and Xalychidom Piipaash, of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community strive to maintain the most important aspects of our traditional cultures as we simultaneously endeavor to survive and thrive in the culture of the majority population that surrounds us. The delicate and sometimes challenging balance of living in both worlds is imperative to the success of future generations.

Important Terms