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A Pima Past
by Anne Moore Shaw

Archaeology reveals that around the year 300 B.C. a group of Indian people migrated to the Gila River Valley of Arizona. They settled near the ever-flowing Gila, which shimmered and meandered through the dry desert land. They were fanners and found ways and means to irrigate their crops by diverting water from the river with an elaborate irrigation system that featured hundreds of miles of canals. Most of these canals were about ten feet deep and thirty feet wide. They were dug with wood and stone implements, and the dirt and debris were carried away in large baskets by the women.

A thriving civilization farmed the desert along the canals until around A.D. 1200, when they vanished with no trace or explanation of their disappearance. Old Pima legends say they were driven away by enemy tribes from the east.

As you glance at many areas along the Salt and Gila valleys near the junction of the two rivers, some parts of the canals are still visible. Potsherds can be found lying on top of mounds where once a proud race had its dwellings. Excavations have brought to light basketry, stone axes, seashells, grinding stones, pit houses, and ramadas that attest to open-air living. From these findings, the theory has developed that the Pima and Papago tribes are descendants of these people, whom the Pimas call Huhugam (Those Who Are Gone). That the two tribes have common ancestors may be correct: it is true that they speak the same language with only a slight difference in the Papago dialect.

The famous Casa Grande ruins, still shrouded in mystery, were built sometime in the thirteenth century by a small ancient band sometime called the Salado, who drifted into the region and mixed with the Huhugam. They stayed only until about 1400, then they too moved away.

According to Pima legends, Siwani Wa!akih, an ancient wise man, lived in the Big House. Its walls were four stories high and built from caliche that hardened like cement. Once it was surrounded by a city of considerable size. Ruins of houses are still visible around the famous Casa Grande, now a national monument. Modem generations call this amazing structure the first skyscraper.

When the first Christian missionary to the Pimas and Papagos came to the Southwest, the native Pima guides told him about the Casa Grande ruins near the Gila River. In 1694 Father Eusebio Francisco Kino rode a dusty trail to visit the Big House. What a great surprise awaited Padre Kino! The Indians were nearly naked, wearing only breech cloths, and they had long hair and tattooed faces. The gentle padre asked them, "Who built the Case Grande?"

"Huhugam," the Pimas must have answered.

Padre Kino held mass inside the old Casa Grande walls. Hisjoywas complete when he noticed the Pimas imitating the sign of the cross. The docile Pimas of the Gila Valley readily accepted Father Kino and his Christian teachings. They came to love him and his gentle ways.

When Father Kino came again, he brought seeds of vegetables and fruit. These took their places among the favorite foods of the Papago, Pima and Maricopa tribes. But the main little seed was wheat. As soon as the padre introduced it, wheat became an important part of the Indian economy. During the time of the pioneer, it saved the life of many a white tenderfoot and soldier.

Father Kino also introduced horses and cattle and helped the Indians to become better farmers. But as in the days of the Huhugam, the Gila River continued to play an important part in the lives of the natives, who were so dependent on water. Like the Nile, the Gila and Salt rivers used to overflow their banks, depositing rich loam. Men and women cooperated and went to the farms to plant seeds. A wooden gihk, or shovel, with a sharp end, was used to dig holes. When the tiny seed was thrown in the hole, bare heels were ready to shove the dirt over the seed.

This method of planting also was used by the Egyptians in the Nile Valley. And once a maize basket similar to those used by the Pimas was found on the island of Crete. Could it have belonged to the beautiful goddess of Pima legend, the White Clay-Eater, who left the Gila Valley to mourn for her departed twin sons and lived on an island in a distant land? The Pimas have cause to wonder if their ancestors might have wandered from Southeast Asia. Could the Pimas be the lost tribe of Israel?

After Padre Kino set his feet on the Pima desert soil, a wide door was opened for the Mexicans and Europeans. "Now the peaceful Pimas will protect us from the Apaches," they thought. Some came on foot, others on horseback and in ox carts, through southern Arizona, then a part of Mexico. This first group of settlers had little effect on the primitive Pima way of life. It is true that many Indians now had a Spanish name as well as an Indian name, but the Pimas clung to their ancient values and legends. They continued to live in their brush round houses, called olas kih. People helped each other and worked together in harmony. The land belonged to everyone: a man could farm as much as he could clear and work. To keep things going smoothly, each village had a chief, who allied himself under a head chief when enemies were threatening.

In 1854 the Gadsden Purchase made southern Arizona an American territory. Now a new group of strangers came to the desert country of the Pimas: white soldiers and traders and Indian agents. The rich Pima farms provided these newcomers with food, and soon the growing Pima villages formed themselves into a pattern similar to that of today.

Here a word should be said about the Pimas' friends, the Maricopas. Sometime in the 1700's the Maricopas fought with the other Colorado River tribes. They kept moving eastward until the middle of the nineteenth century, when they settled with the peaceful Pimas along the Gila. But the Yumas of the Colorado River region still bore a grudge against the Maricopas. They came to Pima land to attack their old enemies in 1857. Unfortunately for them, they had not counted on the valor of the Maricopas'new allies. The Pimas and Maricopas thoroughly vanquished the Yumas, leaving almost no survivors.

After the battle, a group of Maricopas came to Pima Chief Antonio Azul and requested a small piece of land on which to build their homes. The chief went into consultation with his counselors and sub-chiefs. It was agreed that the Maricopas could live two miles west on the Sacaton Agency. But they had to promise to help the Pimas in the wars with the Apaches and other enemy tribes. Since then the Pimas and the Maricopas have been loyal allies, friends and neighbors. They still live side by side.

After all that roaming, one would expect the Maricopas to settle down for good. However, in 1877 a murder within the tribe caused adivision. One group of dissenters moved to a spot near the junction of the Salt and Gila rivers, while another contingent joined the Mormons at their new colony Lehi, near Mesa. The Mormons were delighted with their Indian neighbors, for they knew that they would help protect them from the marauding Apaches. Thus it was that the Pimas, Maricopa, and Papagos helped the while man to settle the Southwest. Besides providing the newcomers with food and water, they acted as guides, soldiers, and allies to help break the threat of Apache terrorism.

Once the Apaches were conquered, the settlers were free to arrive in great numbers. Over the prairies they came, and it was not long before the old Pima way of life was deeply affected by the white man's ideas and material culture. Some of the new ways were good and the Pimas were glad for them. Blankets, calico, and new foods, tools, and medicines made the hard lives our ancestors had lived a bit easier for us. And of course there was the Christian religion, which became so dear to the Pimas and lightened their sorrows.

But the white man brought bad things too. Liquor has broken up families, and Indian morality has conspicuously declined. Indian values have been abandoned by some of the younger generation, and they are no longer satisfied to stay at home. Many of our arts and traditions have been lost because the white man insisted that we indiscriminately abandon all our Indian ways.

Thus as our old ones have died off the arts of cloth weaving and pottery-making have gone with them. Our children are no longer interested in the ancient legends and ceremonies and songs, so many of these treasures have been lost forever. Diseases which the Pima had never known before came with the white man; tuberculosis struck down many of us because the Indian agents insisted that we live in poorly ventilated adobe houses instead of our airy olas kih. Many of our rich farms along the Gila and Salt Rivers, which supported our ancestors for centuries, have become dry and deserted as the white man has taken the water for his own purpose.

But now we old ones are seeing the completing of the circle. Instead of insisting that we abandon our Indian ways, the white man now asks us to try to recapture our rich culture before it has completely passed away. I am telling the children on the reservation about the Huhugam; I teach them the Pima language and legends.

We women get together to weave baskets in the old designs, and we have started a museum where everyone can see the beautiful artifacts of our proud Pima-Maricopa heritage. But we can never go back to the old way of life. The white man and his cities surround us – we must embrace those of his ways which are good while keeping our pride in being Indians.