A'AGA: Something to be told or talked about

June 1, 2018


Billy Allen


When gold was discovered in California or Mondali, over 9,000 travelers followed the Gila as it snaked through our land or jeved. Many were ill prepared; they felt they could “live off the land.”  They did not realize the harshness of our desert and the road from Tucson to O’otham and Piipaash jeved was littered with bones of people and animals. O’otham, O’odham and Piipaash had always shared and helped each other, why not with visitors? Our way of life or himdag may partially explain our willingness to help or supply these Americans. (Our word Milga:n may come from saying American with an O’otham accent.)  In the old days we combined sharing and helping each other and made it into a fall festival with running, dancing and singing. O’otham informants described it to Frank Russell and called it the name song tradition. The book Papago Women by Ruth Underhill has a good description of the festival. Using both sources, it began when a group of villages asked another group of villages to come race, dance and sing. Walking in from the south, the Tohono O’odham arrived on our jeved and when Sacaton was in sight they halted. A blackface painted rider was sent to the festival grounds in Sacaton to formally announce the impending entry of the Tohono O’odham. When he was finished, our Akimel O’otham women would throw dried squash stems, forcing the rider to bend over guarding his face as he galloped out. At the same time some visitors entered Sacaton to learn the names of the male singers. The names of these singers would be inserted into the songs that the Tohono O’odham had practiced on the trail.  When all was prepared, the Tohono O’odham marched to the festival grounds and speeches from both sides were given. Then singers began beating on baskets turned upside down; dancers marched in, two by two, boy and girl, holding ears of white corn.  When an Akimel O’otham man’s name was heard in the song, the wife or daughter of that male singer would run off, signaling the singer’s wife or daughter to give chase. Other women could join in chasing the first two women. This “race” ended when the lead woman stopped at a pile of food which she offered to the Tohono O’odham woman who chased her. It was seen as a reward for the singing, a gift, not as a hand-out. This went on until all the gifts were exchanged-then more singing and dancing far into the night. The following morning was the time for footraces which the people bet upon. It was understood for the next festival the host tribe would march to their cousins’ villages. 


A Va’aki elder, who grew up during the Depression, recalled when food became scarce for certain families, an older relative would ride throughout the community asking for food. With a bag hanging from his saddle, he would ask, not beg, for food to feed the women and children in his family. Later in life, this Va’aki elder was in a position to hire men, mostly old cowboys, to work the fields, work cattle and help at tribal rodeos. I often wondered why; these old cowboys didn’t work very fast and preferred O’otham over English. I know that Va’aki elder paid those old men a decent wage. Those men were paid for work -it was not a hand-out.  At that stage of their lives, they had proven to be reliable and trustworthy. This third Sunday of June or Ha:sañ Baidag Masad, I think I’ll visit that Va’aki elder and leave an offering, a thanks for being raised in his shadow.  


Some information was taken from an article, The Pima and Maricopa Villages; Oasis at a Cultural Crossroads, 1846-1873 by James E. Turner.