First ever Vecij O’odham Hemapa brings together O’otham for cultural event

Christopher Lomahquahu

Gila River Indian News


Youth from O’otham communities took part in the first Vecij O’odham Hemapa event at the Mul-Chu-Tha Fairgrounds in Sacaton on Oct. 26.

Many traveled from the Tohono O’odham Nation, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and Ak-Chin Indian Community to take part in the event, which was organized by GRIC member Joseph Davis from District 5 Vah-Ki.


The day consisted of guest speakers and traditional games and artistry with workshops on basket and pottery making, creating rag dolls, wire baskets, shell etchings, gourd and chuchumuth making. 

Traditional games like gins, ko’omai, songiv’ul and toka, including covering topics on men and woman’s role in O’otham society.


Gins, played by males an ko’omai, played by women, are games using small saguaro sticks (in a way similar to dice) to gain points. In the game, players place items up for bet, that range from food, jewelry and other objects of value. 


“O’otham himdag (way of life) is something that everyone, especially young people, should be utilizing and living with every day,” said Davis. He said in today’s society, learning about the O’otham culture, is difficult, due to outside influence of Western culture and with the passing of elders fluent in the language. 


He said it is important for the youth to take it upon themselves to learn and teach among their peers, to inspire and encourage one another to take on the teachings of their elders. Davis said, “the youth owes it to those who paved the way and for the generations to come after them.”


“I was fortunate to grow-up in a traditional home, I would learn a lot from my grandparents, I would always be their tail and sidekick, if they needed help,” said Tierra Domingo a youth from the Pisinemo District of the TON.


Domingo said growing-up with two fluent O’otham speakers helped her understand the language, even though English is the primary language spoken in all tribes today. “It made me realize how close we are to losing our language, but it was through culture classes at school, that O’odham neok (language) and culture is being taught.”

She said that singing in the O’otham gives her strength to be culturally, spiritually and emotionally resilient during challenging times. Domingo sang a song about a sunflower, that opens its petals to capture the morning rays.


Domingo said “In the song, the flower represents the people, to open up to the teachings and people that come into their lives and when the petals close, you close yourself to all the negativity that’s around you.”

“What is it about O’otham that we have, when a person looks at you and sees you and recognizes that you are O’otham. It’s a behavior, O’otham had a long time ago, in the way you talk, carry yourselves and what you do for others,” Camillus Lopez, TON elder.


Like every group of people, their beliefs follow a world view that is relative to their surroundings, mannerisms and practices. Lopez said the O’otham world is coming to an end, because many of the things O’otham do are going away. He said no one really speaks the language, follows the traditions or do the things O’otham used to do,


“What is O’otham?” said Lopez, “Gila River and Salt River are not separate tribes, we are all O’otham, if you look back at the traditions, [we] have the same customs and language, the dialects may be different.”

Lopez said today, many O’otham identify themselves as being “Half Gila River and half Tohono, then it means you’re full O’otham. We have the same family system and clanship, to identify yourself, the language binds us.”