O’otham New Year Celebrated with Emphasis on Staying Safe during Pandemic
Gila River Indian News
Even the COVID-19 pandemic could not prevent the Community from celebrating an age-old Akimel O’otham tradition. A special video presentation of the O’otham New Year was aired by the Gila River Broadcast Corporation Community on June 21.
In the past, the O’otham New Year has been celebrated as a social gathering lasting from sunset to sunrise and involving singing, dancing and traditional games. It is a representation of the changing seasons to welcome monsoon storms and to usher in the Baithaj harvest from the Ha’ha:shan (saguaro cactus).
According to Communications & Public Affairs Office Special Events Coordinator Alie Walking Badger, the video served to supplement the normal gathering held at the Sacaton Fairgrounds.
“We wanted to put a video together for the Community as a reminder about O’otham New Year,” said Walking Badger. “Although we cannot celebrate in person, we can celebrate at home.”
The Managed Aquifer Recharge Site 5 in District 2 was chosen as a focus of the video presentation to mark the significance of water, animals and vegetation in the Community’s culture. Walking Badger said the remains on her list of sites to host a future in-person O’otham New Year event when it is safe to do so.
Barnaby Lewis, District 4 member and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, played a prominent role in the video celebration. “I am glad to be here with you,” said Lewis. “This year we are not able to have [that] gathering. Today, we still continue those cultural practices and beliefs here in this modern world in 2021.”
Lewis emphasized the need to reinforce O’otham cultural traditions throughout the year and, once it’s safe, for Community members to again gather in person to celebrate the summer solstice together.
“We want you to come out when the time comes to celebrate this season, the summer solstice for O’otham New Year, when we come together sing, dance, share food, share friendships and dance from sunset to sunrise,” said Lewis.
Anthony Gray, the Community’s Tribal Education Department Cultural Coordinator, also appeared in the video.
“As we celebrate the O’otham New Year from our homes, from our Community, from our work or wherever we are in the world, I encourage you to do those things that we would have done together,” said Gray, a District 4 member.
Gray encouraged people familiar with O’otham traditions like dancing, singing and cooking a meal for loved ones to continue to mark those cultural touchstones at home. “Although the pandemic is here and is slowly going away,” said Gray, “we still need to celebrate [those] things and let Mother Nature know we remember the animals, the plants, the songs and everything the Creator has given us.”
Ana Joaquin, a District 5 member from the Vah-Ki dance group, shared her thoughts on the purpose of the dances and what they mean to the people. She encouraged Community members to be safe and look forward to the next time everyone can gather for cultural traditions.
Gabrielle Garcia, a District 3 and member of the Gila River Basket Dancers group spoke about the importance of maintaining social distancing while sharing O’otham traditions.
“I know we can’t all be together because of COVID, but it is good to share some songs and dances with you. I hope all of you stay safe out there and ‘mask up,’” said Garcia.
Said Yolanda Elias, a member of the “We Children” dance group: “We may not be able to do what we have done in the past, but this is close enough to know that we are still carrying on our traditions and our culture.”
Walking Badger said the Community is working to ensure that other important events will be celebrated even amid pandemic restrictions. She said plans to present the Baithaj harvest are underway, but cautioned that this year’s event may follow the same format as the O’otham New Year video presentation.
“We want to let Community members know about the Baithaj harvest and also serve as a reminder about how integral it is to the people,” said Walking Badger. “If they see the video, then it can spark their interest and come out next year to participate in a Bahitaj harvest.”