A’AGA: Something to Be Told

Submitted by 

Billy Allen


Wishing 2022 sees our community, state, nation on the upswing, Covid in the rearview mirror.   Hoping we all took community health considerations into our minds while we celebrated the New Year. New Year traditions and even dates vary among different cultures.  Chinese celebrate Chunjie known as the “Lunar New Year’ in February. Thai people observe Songkran in April.  Jewish people have Rosh Hashanah in September. O’odham prefer an abundance of food, and for our ancestors it came during  mid-summer.  The Saguaro harvest represents a new cycle or year.   


In 1909-1910, Norwegian explorer Carl Lumholtz traveled within Sonora and Southwestern Arizona to write about different cultures of our region. His book, New Trails in Mexico, notes a spring equinox— a time of renewal and rebirth – event he observed among Tohono O’odham.  O’odham sat around a basket containing seeds and four saguaro/ha:san ribs. All night the O’odham sang, and at dawn the seeds were given to eat. The four ribs were given to individuals whose duty was to place the rib at the foot of a ha:san when the fruit harvest began later in summer. Lumholtz also heard a this ha:san story. Elder Brother flung his sweat on the ground then walked around it four times. Four days later, ha:san grew from the circle. Elder Brother gathered the fruit, squeezed the juice  into a jar, mixing in water. Soon the brew turned into wine, and it began to rain. 


It’s good that Toka has been revived in O’otham communities. This rough, running, competitive game –similar to field hockey— has a tie to ha:san. A toka player was so wrapped up into playing that she just kept neglecting her baby to go out to play. Disapproving neighbors forced her to travel further and further away from home to find a game that other players would let her join.  In time, the boy went searching for his mother, but when he found her, she just kept on playing. She told him to wait until the game was over. Frustrated, the boy sank into the ground. When the toka obsessed mother finally came to her son, it was too late. Even animal helpers couldn’t help rescue the boy.  Later, a ha:san appeared where the boy had disappeared. The people realized this was the neglected boy in a different form, but still part of the O’odham family. Ethnobiologist Amadeo Rea heard this story in 1998 from a West End/Kuiva elder. Rea’s book, At the Desert’s Green Edge, details O’otham, Pima Bajo, and Mountain Pima O’odham ethnobotany.



Previously the scientific name for saguaros was cereus giganteus, but it got renamed in honor of the ultra-rich steel baron Andrew Carnegie. Why? Carnegie wasn’t just a steel baron; he was also a philanthropist who gave $10 million to study how plants adapt to thrive in deserts. In 1902, Tumamoc Mountain, Cemamagi Du’ag/Horned Lizard Mountain of Tucson was selected for the location of the Desert Botanical Laboratory, a branch of the Carnegie Institution. When Carnegie visited, he was informed ha:san had a new scientific name, “Carnegiea Gigantea”. He was both flattered and upset. Maybe he felt the name change was playing up to him. Funding continued though. Tumamoc also has Huhugam petroglyphs and is considered a sacred site. Much has been learned about ha:san due to the Desert Laboratory, now operated by the University of Arizona. Wildcats are desert defenders. (I don’t think so for football.)


I just learned about acanthochronology, a way to study cactus stickers in a way similar to tree rings. Ha:san can survive varying degrees of heat and cold, but in this time of climate change, warming oceans change air currents causing unusual weather such as very powerful hurricanes, tornadoes, and “atmospheric rivers.” Extreme temperatures are harmful to ha:san, just as they are to we humans.  Decades from now, I hope cactus spine studies show our earth started a cooling trend in the rest of the 2020s, ‘30s, 40’s.


2022—what can we do to help the tall ones who do not speak?  Six months away is the O’otham New Year.  During that time, maybe we can be more “green”— like ha:san—and try to conserve energy and water as much as we can. Help put the brakes on climate change.  Stand up for our communities and families, for the young ones who inherit our actions and our inactions.  


The book, The Saguaro Cactus, A Natural History by D. Yetman, A. Búrquez, K. Hultine, M. Sanderson, is also an excellent read.