A'AGA something to be told or talked about

September 7, 2018


By Billy Allen


Labor Day!  How did you celebrate the unofficial end of summer?  This holiday is always on the first Monday, Lu:nas, of Vasai Gagidak (Dry Grass) Masad. The rains are ending and a drying period begins.  


Nowadays, to a lot of people, Labor Day is shopping sprees, vacations, picnics, and back to school.  There’s a complicated history of struggle and sacrifice behind this holiday, though. It was made a federal holiday in 1894, six days after the end of the Pullman railroad strike.  Some elder GRICsters might remember the old country song “Sixteen Tons.”  That Tennessee Ernie Ford song was about coal mines and how workers were trapped by the economic system, but the same owner/worker system applied to the Pullman workers.  


At one point, this three months strike basically paralyzed transcontinental train service.  Federal troops were called in to several states. In protests centered around Chicago, 34 people were killed. At the end of the strike, the idea of a nation-wide “Labor Day” was seen as a way to try and heal the hurt of the late 1800’s organized labor strikes, such as the Pullman Strike. 


Now, you might be asking how this relates to O’otham and Piipaash culture.  Labor – toil – struggle.  Life in this desert was built on hard work.  Canals and fields do not occur naturally. Our agricultural background had pion, borrowing the Spanish word peon, out to maintain canals and in the fields to make sure water was not wasted.  But working hard took on a different aspect with the arrival of the Spaniards and their culture of conquest and forced labor. 


Spanish civil authorities wanted Natives to adopt Spanish culture to become a labor force.  They also took over Native farm/range land and redeveloped it to center around the Catholic missions. The missions became the focal point of the community and attempts to eliminate “Native” culture were made. 


 When silver was discovered in the midst of Tarahumara country in 1631, there weren’t enough Spanish immigrants to meet the demand for labor.  So, the Spanish government decided that it was “OK” to enslave non-Christianized Natives.  Their choice: Be saved or be a shoiga.  (We used the word shoiga for slave but it is also for any living thing that helps us.)  Hundreds were forced to work with little or no pay in the mines.  Many Tarahumara retreated to the mountains and many remain there to this day. 


Huge Spanish ranches or haciendas required a lot of labor to maintain the household, fields, and livestock. Some Natives began to prey upon other Natives to sell or barter. (“Take them, not us.”)  In Mexico, it was common for Native children to be taken to grow up as house servants/shoiga.  


In the 1680’s Spanish explorations entered our area, then called Upper Pimeria, searching for new mines and grasslands. Before Pa:l Kino’s arrival the Spanish arrested Canito, also known as Joseph Romero – an O’odham leader – on the grounds that he was planning a revolt in northern Sonora. Canito was tortured, after being warned he was responsible for any injury as a result of the torture, to obtain “the truth.”  He was to be hanged, but after the torture, he accepted Christianity, so instead of being hanged, he was banished. 


In 1688, the O’odham village of Mototicachi which was relatively close to the modern day Arizona/Mexico border was attacked because there was suspicion that they were also planning an uprising. All the men were killed, and the women and children taken away.  This massacre enraged even the Spanish population.  The officer in charge was sentenced to death, but he escaped.


This violent situation was what awaited Pa:l Kino when he arrived to Pimeria Alta in 1687 and began his twenty-five year sojourn among the O’odham.  Aware of such attitudes and misconceptions on both sides, Pa:l Kino obtained special backing from the King of Spain to avoid any mistreatment of Christian converts.  The King’s cédula, or certificate, stated that Christian O’odham would not be forced into labor. When Kino arrived onto the land of the Upper Pimeria, he showed the cédula to the governor of Sonora.  This helped with our quick conversion to the missions and cooperation with officials and even settlers. The comforts of today came from the labor, toil and struggle of those who walked on before us. Our desert demands a strong will. Keep working and you will be strong. I hope you enjoyed the past holiday and look forward to the ones coming up.  


Information was taken from the Journal of the Southwest, Volume 56, Number 2, Summer of 2014 and Cycles of Conquest by Edward Spicer.