Comments From The Chemo Couch – The (Other) Nation Next Door

I am always amazed at how little most of us know about the First Peoples to populate the Americas.  Perhaps it’s that we have a hard time with the slaughter, the diseases, the herding into reservations – the genocide.  But here in Southern Arizona we live right next door to the third-largest Indian reservation, some 4500 square miles over three counties, with several small adjuncts plus nine communities in Sonora, Mexico.

The Tohono O’odham Nation, the Desert People, believe themselves – with plenty of evidence – to be descendants of the ancient Huhugam (which archaeologists rewrote into Hohokam) whose presence here goes back some 10,000 years.  The Huhugam built hundreds of miles of canals along with hillside terraces for farming throughout Southern Arizona.  Villages along the Santa Cruz River were spaced 1-1/2 – 2 miles apart on alternating sides of the channel.  That tells us there was administration and politics, that their society was much more complex than is commonly believed.  Prolonged drought changed their society; huhugam means “all used up.”

It is probable, and their oral histories tell us, that the Huhugam came from the South, from what is now the southern part of Mexico and Central America known as Mesoamerica.  They brought Mesoamerican ball courts and platform mounds and macaws with them. That fits with Hopi oral histories which talk about the melting of the glaciers after the ice age and getting into boats to cross the Pacific.  The oldest known Americas habitation site is in Monte Verde, Chile, and mainstream archaeologists are finally acknowledging that there was boat travel.  Although some may still believe that the Aborigines swam to Australia.

With funds raised from their successful casino operations, which some call the Indians’ Revenge, the Tohono O’odham built the Himdag Ki: Cultural Center and Museum, open to the public with sacred Baboquivari Peak overlooking it.  Open Monday – Saturday from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. with free admission, the Himdag Ki features examples of O’odam basketry, painting, photographs, and other art.  There is a history of the Desert People, a Youth Council display, a library, and a tribute to O’odham veterans of America’s wars.  There is also a gift shop with baskets, jewelry, books, tee shirts and desert food goodies for sale.

Built with native rock and wood, the mission of the museum is to promote knowledge and understanding of the O’odham and to keep their culture alive for younger generations.  That culture includes sharing, helping neighbors and family, community participation, hard work, humility, self-respect, respect for others, respect for elders, and respect for the land – values which our larger world could well learn from.

To visit the Himdag Ki take highway 86, Ajo Road, west to Sells.  At the sign for the Police Department and Business District turn south, curving west and intersecting with BIA Route 19.  Turn south on 19 about nine miles to Topowa.  At Fresnal Canyon Road turn east to the Himdag Ki.  If traveling on a holiday, call ahead for possible closures, 520-383-0201.  And if you are hungry and thirsty after your visit, try the café in Sells.  If you’re lucky, they’ll have fresh fry bread.

The Man in the Maze is a common theme in O’odham basketry. I’itoi, Elder Brother, lives in a sacred cave on Baboquivari from where he led the Huhugam out of the Underworld.  The maze now represents life, with all its twists and turns and dead ends and surprises, though which we all must pass.

For current information on Tohono O’odham governance, history, community affairs and more, visit online  And if you are interested in learning more about the people who first populated the Americas and the Southwest, and about Indian life on the Rez, there are some really good books available through the Pima County Library system.

BIG PICTURE – THE AMERICAS:  1491, by Charles C. Mann (Vintage Books, 2005):  This eminently readable book makes a strong case that the “New World,” before Columbus, had tens of millions of people and was “a thriving, stunningly diverse place. A tumult of languages, trade and culture, a region where tens of millions of people loved and hated and worshipped as people do everywhere.”  Recent discoveries in Guatemala confirm Mann’s findings that population density was far higher than acknowledged, perhaps over 100 million.  That would mean that “more people lived in the Americas than in Europe” with European diseases and armed conquest killing over 90 percent after colonization.

BIG PICTURE – FROM THE INDIAN’S POINT-OF-VIEW:  An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Beacon Press, 2014):  “In the founding myth of the United States, the colonists acquired a vast expanse of land from a scattering of benighted peoples who were hardly using it…The historical record is clear, however, that European colonists shoved aside a large network of small and large nations whose governments, commerce, arts and sciences, agriculture, technologies, theologies, philosophies, and institutions were intricately developed, nations that maintained sophisticated relations with one another and with the environments that supported them…Native peoples had created town sites, farms, monumental earthworks, and networks of roads, and they had devised a wide variety of governments, some as complex as any in the world.”  “The history of the United States,” Dunbar-Ortiz argues in her American Book Award-winning book, “is a history of settler colonialism – the founding of a state based on the ideology of white supremacy, the widespread practice of African slavery, and a policy of genocide and land theft.”

 BIG PICTURE — SOUTHWEST:  A History of the Ancient Southwest, by Stephen H. Lekson (School for Advanced Research Press, 2008):  This book tells the story of Southwest archaeology and makes a strong case that the Southwest was populated first from the south, creating complex, state-level societies that mainstream archaeology has tried to deny.  Lekson urges us to move past colonial biases and accept that “Native histories of what later became the United States and Mexico were intertwined.”  To understand these far-flung and complex societies, he offers three rules:  “1) Everyone knew everything; assume interconnection…  2) No coincidences; interregional coincidences were (mostly) not coincidental.  3) Distances can be dealt with; distance did not intimidate the ancients; distances should not intimidate us.”

LIFE AND DEATH ON A RICH REZ:  Killers of the Flower Moon: the Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann (Doubleday, 2017):  U.S. policy forced Osage Indian tribes off reservations in Kansas in the 1870s, consigning them to rocky, worthless land in Oklahoma.   It was not yet known that the land sat on the largest oil reserves in the nation.  Over 25 years in the early 20th Century some 600 Osage Indians were murdered for the oil rights that enriched them and their community.  Federally-appointed “guardians” ripped off their charges and greedy men and women sought marriage with the Osage, some murdering their spouses and children to gain control over the oil.  “This so-called Indian business…was an elaborate criminal operation, in which various sectors of society were complicit.  The crooked guardians and administrators of Osage estates were typically among the most prominent white citizens; businessmen and ranchers and lawyers and politicians.  So were the lawmen and prosecutors and judges who facilitated and concealed the swindling….”

LIFE ON A POOR REZ:  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie (Little. Brown, 2007).  Written as a novel for young people, the Spokane Indian writer’s words resonate with all ages as he describes the life of a reservation teenager living “approximately one million miles north of Important and two billion miles west of Happy.”  Alexie writes with joy and love and humor and sadness, not glossing over problems like alcoholism and unemployment and poverty, but seeing them through a kid’s eyes, sometimes with hope, and sometimes not.  Indians, as we see, grapple with the same challenges as the rest of us.

LIFE IN THE NATION NEXT DOOR:  Desert Indian Woman: stories and dreams, by Frances Manuel and Deborah Neff (University of Arizona Press, 2001):  The Tohono O’odham storyteller and weaver’s words were spoken, captured on tape, and written down with little editing.  She tells of her life on the Rez, on the border with Mexico and in town, and the changes she has seen.  “There are a lot of things we Indians don’t know about.  We were just desert people, we didn’t know anything about money.  We worked together, built houses together, planted together, talked together.  If there was a problem we’d sit down and talk about it.  When the Spaniards came and taught us about the days of the month and the days of the week, and the dollar sign – time, that’s when everything changed….

“Maybe things have changed because people have been bothering the moon….things happen now…the summer doesn’t come when it’s supposed to, the spring doesn’t come when it’s supposed to, winter doesn’t come when it’s supposed to.  We don’t have that much rain…it rains here and it rains over there because the world and the sky and everything up there has been bothered.  It’s the old thing – if you bother them too much the world’s gonna end.”

Isn’t it time to meet your neighbors?  We can learn a lot from them because they’ve been here far longer than we have.  Skehg tash! (Greeting, pronounced “skuk tarsh.”)

POSTSCRIPT:  This will be my final Comments from the Chemo Couch column.  While the multiple myeloma is stable with a chemo-for-life regimen, the cancer sucks the calcium out of my bones and ribs are cracking.  I’m staying off pain killers and doing less.  I want to thank Loretta and John Hunnicutt for the opportunity to write for ADI; I was never censored and am grateful for their support.  For those who supported my sometimes contentious points-of-view in the Comments, thank you.  For those who at least considered what I had to say, whether agreeing or not, thank you.  That’s what dialogue and the exchange of ideas is all about.  For that handful of cowards using their anonymity to lie, label and name-call, well, a new generation is rising and you, and I, are old news.  I’m going to shut up.  I suggest you do the same.

About Albert Vetere Lannon 106 Articles
Albert grew up in the slums of New York, and moved to San Francisco when he was 21. He became a union official and labor educator after obtaining his high school GED in 1989 and earning three degrees at San Francisco State University – BA, Labor Studies; BA, Interdisciplinary Creative Arts; MA, History. He has published two books of history, Second String Red, a scholarly biography of my communist father (Lexington, 1999), and Fight or Be Slaves, a history of the Oakland-East Bay labor movement (University Press of America, 2000). Albert has published stories, poetry, essays and reviews in a variety of “little” magazines over the years. Albert retired to Tucson in 2001. He has won awards from the Arizona State Poetry Society and Society of Southwestern Authors.