The 'Americanization' of the Pima Nation Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The 'Americanization' of the Pima Nation

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A Pima woman basket weaving.

The Pima Nation is contained within three reservations in the state of Arizona: The Gila River Reservation, the Salt River Reservation and the Ak-Chin Reservation, and currently includes some 6000 individuals. Although they have accepted the name 'Pima', which was given to them by Spanish explorers and missionaries, their name for themselves was, and remains, 'Akimel Au-Authm', alternately spelled 'Akimel O'Odham', and translated as 'River People'.

This Native American nation has gone virtually unnoticed by the chroniclers of the history of the United States, possibly due to the fact that they never engaged in warfare against the United States government and have always either occupied land that nobody else wanted or been willing to relocate a short distance to such land. In fact, rather than engage in warfare against the United States government, members of the Pima Nation actively assisted that government in its warfare against the Apache Nation, their long-standing enemies.

These reservations were originally established in 1879, as the result of an Executive Order signed by President Rutherford Hayes. That Executive Order gave the Pima Nation the land that they had subsisted on for centuries.

Those Who Are Gone

The Pima trace their roots back over 2000 years, to the people now known as the 'Hohokam', which translates as 'Those who have gone'. This connection is made through Pima oral history, and archaeologists have been unable to prove or disprove a connection.

The Hohokam were farmers in the Salt River Valley, where they used the waters of the Gila River to irrigate their crops. The canal system they built in this arid valley is still in use at the time of writing, although modernised. Some of the original canals were as much as 90 feet (about 27.4 metres) wide and ten feet (about three metres) deep at their head gates, and stretched out over a distance of up to 16 miles (about 25.7 kilometres). It's estimated that, by the year 1100, the canals could deliver water to an area in excess of 110,000 acres (about 445 square kilometres).

The Hohokam mysteriously vanished centuries ago. Current speculation is that, as the water tables became higher, salts and minerals that would have normally leached through the soil failed to do so, resulting in lower crop yields. It's known that there was a massive flood in 1358. That flood may well have destroyed much of the irrigation system, further reducing crop yields and forcing the Hohokam people to scatter over a larger area.

Other possible reasons for the disappearance of the Hohokam include attacks at the hands of other nations (three such attacks are known to have happened) and epidemics of plague or some other illness spread by Spanish explorers.

Archaeological records seem to indicate that the Hohokam civilisation was abandoned in about 1400 and, thus far, offer no information as to when the Pima Nation formed. The earliest documentation of the Pima Nation dates to 1694, when the German Jesuit missionary explorer, Father Eusebio Francisco Kühn, first reported having met and baptised over 100 natives who, based on their location, were undoubtedly Pima.


Because of their proximity to the Gila River and Salt River, and because of their expertise in irrigation techniques, The Pima had historically been fully self-sufficient, relying more on farming than hunting to meet their dietary needs. They developed strains of drought-resistant corn, and were able to harvest this in sufficient quantity to allow for stockpiling and use as a trading commodity. In addition to corn, the Pima successfully farmed squash, beans, barley, onions and cotton.

Wheat was added to the crop rotation after the Spanish provided them with seeds. The introduction of wheat, a winter crop, allowed them to double their productivity. This additional surplus allowed the Pima to engage in more trading and commerce.

Water and 'Good Indians'

As white settlers moved into the areas surrounding the Pima Nation, the United States government began diverting water from the Gila and Salt Rivers, for the use of its citizens1.

The Pima were reduced to begging the politicians in Washington, DC for money or water rights, having to convince those politicians that they were 'good Indians' and finding white Americans to vouch for them.

The following excerpts are taken from testimony given to members of the United States Congress in 1922, which is on file at the University of Arizona Library.

The Pima Indians have always been the friends of the white people. There is no record of their being engaged in any war against the Americans. When the white men first came to this country the Pimas were living in the Gila Valley and had an adequate water supply for their crops. Over-grazing the country and diversions for irrigation higher up the stream changed these conditions until year after year these good Indians have suffered from drouth.


Doctor Lay, Mr Chairman and gentlemen of the committee, I am a Presbyterian missionary on the Pima Indian Reservation. I have been there for almost 14 years. I came there 3 September, 1910, and have lived with these Indians and been in their homes and have been with them almost daily since that time. These Indians, as has been said so well, are not wild Indians, and there are no better Indians anywhere in the United States. In the Senate committee I did my best to answer questions, and the matter that rests upon me and the reason why I am here, is simply the fact that these Indians, who have never killed a white man, have always been true and faithful to the United States Government. The first Arizonian killed in action in France in the World War was a full-blood Pima Indian, a volunteer. When the telegram came on the reservation that he had been killed, 6 acres of wheat, the only means of support of his widowed mother, were drying up because this Government had permitted others of our race to take her water. Her boy died in the scrap between white men and yet she is faithful and loyal and true to the United States Government and bought some of the Victory bonds. That is why I am here. My heart is in this subject and I am here to do anything I can in behalf of these Indians.

The situation was no better two years later, when Representative Carl Hayden of California received this letter.

Phoenix, Ariz., 17 April, 1924.
The Honorable Carl Hayden, Representative State of Arizona, Washington, DC:
The Presbytery of Phoenix of the Presbyterian Church, United States of America, whose ecclesiastic jurisdiction embraces all Pima Indian Reservations in the State of Arizona, met in session in Tucson, Ariz, April 16, 1924, does hereby express the following sentiment toward an adequate provision of irrigation water for this destitute tribe. Inasmuch as the Senate of the United States of America unanimously passed a bill that the 68 Congress in first session is now considering as an act. Senate 966, this Presbytery hereby unanimously urges and prays that no stone be left unturned by the Congress in doing this elemental justice to the Pima Indian.
CH Ellis, MD, Moderator,
Victor A Rule, Minister,
First Presbyterian Church, Phoenix

In 1929, construction was completed on the Coolidge Dam, which was intended, in part, to restore water to the Pima Nation. This effort met with partial success, but the Pima nation was forced to accept that it could no longer rely solely on agriculture to meet its needs.


The Gila River Reservation now hosts three industrial parks and two casinos. As of this writing, a golf and resort development project that will feature two world-class 18-hole golf courses and a 500-room hotel resort complex is under development.

The Hoo-Hoogam Ki Museum, built of adobe and plants, offers displays and exhibits showing basketry, pottery and artefacts.

Additional tourist money flows into the reservation through the sale of handmade baskets and tickets to special tribal events.

The Pima are noted for their basket-weaving techniques. Made of willow shoots, cattails and devil's claws, their baskets are intricate, beautiful and watertight.

The symbol of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Community is the Man in Maze, symbolic of a legend taught to all Pima-Maricopa children, depicting the experiences that occur during the journey through the maze of life. The legend states that, at the centre of the maze of life, one finds one's dreams and goals. Upon reaching the centre, each person is met by the Sun God who blesses and greets that person and passes her or him on to the next world.

1 Native Americans were not granted citizenship in the United States until 1924.

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