A’AGA: Something to be told

June 3, 2016


By Billy Allen


On June 20, our desert moon, or masad, will signal another cycle of life. In the not-so-distant past, our hearts “sat up right” or sap ‘e dadhiwua anticipating the akimel running high again and farms being revitalized. It was like an O’otham new year. In parts of the O’otham world this month is known as Saguaro Ripening Month or Ha:san Baidag Masad. But as we’re aware that Native Americans walk in many worlds and adapt all the time, June has another O’otham name. In Antonio Azul’s time, it was known as Wheat Ripening Month or Pilkan Baidag Masad. That name shows how a new “traditional” food became part of our culture or himdag; our taste buds won out.


In 1901, Frank Russell spent a winter on our reservation and later published “The Pima Indians.” Mr. Russell wrote that wheat quickly became a key crop for GRIC dwellers - millions of pounds were grown. Early “stores” on our land were truly trading posts where wheat was the exchange or currency.


Mr. Russell goes on to describe how wheat seeds were parched or lightly browned with hot coals of mesquite and gently tossed. The parched seeds were ground and mixed with water to make a hearty drink, today called chu’i or pinole, a word borrowed from the Mexicans. Thankfully (for my taste buds) most wheat was used to make Mexican style tortillas. I remember my uncle’s wife’s tortilla routine: Start the fire, go inside to make dough; put on a scarf to go back outside; sit next to the fire and pat the tortillas out onto the ko:mal or comal (another Spanish word)— in the middle of the afternoon, in the summer! When uncle came home at 5:30, supper had to be ready.


George Webb devotes a chapter of his book “A Pima Remembers,” to harvesting wheat.   Since we had a river and had plenty, all visitors were greeted with water and something to eat. At this time of the year, many of our southern cousins came to help in the wheat fields. When they arrived an exchange took place; they gave us si:tol, or cactus syrup, and salt. (Back then, Tohono O’odham males ran to the Gulf of California to get salt. Salt gathering was and still is a ceremonial event for our southern cousins.) In turn we offered melons and corn, crops which needed lots of water. The Tohono O’odham camped near the wheat fields to prepare for the harvest work. A hand-held sickle or a long curved knife was used to cut stalks of wheat. The stalks were tied and placed on the ground as the men continued cutting down more stalks of wheat to be piled high in wagons pulled by teams of horses. The work was hard, but it was part of O’odham life back then. Sometimes separating the wheat kernels from the stalks was done on a moon lit, breezy night. At the end of the harvest, our southern cousins went back to their desert homes. Mr. Webb adds this may be why many of us have Tohono O’odham relatives from the time spent working side by side during the wheat harvest.


Mr. Webb also wrote of an incident concerning our neok. While he was having dinner at a friend’s house, the lady of the house asked him to pass the butter and churrmith. He did so, but tells readers that the word is “che-mait.” (Webb, 73)  


Two words, two worlds, overlapping. Can you imagine the dinner table without che’mith? May we start the O’otham New Year with either a tortilla or by drinking pinole? New Year can come twice a year for two world walkers.