Baboquivari Mountain Petroglyphs, AZ (Tohono O'odham) (2004)
An Introduction to the Issue
Baboquivari Peak is the most sacred place to the Tohono O’odham people. It stands fifty miles southwest of Tucson, Arizona on the Baboquivari Peak wilderness, a 2,065 acre area overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. The peak itself is 7,730 feet high, a popular site for many climbers, tourists, and other visitors to Arizona. It is also, however, the very center of the Tohono O’odham cosmology and the home of the creator, I’itoli. In 1998, the Tohono O’odham community attempted to have the entirety of the peak returned to their custody, in conjunction with Arizona legislator, Ed Pastor.
The Tohono O’odham People
Until the 1980’s the Tohono O’odham were known to most people outside their community as the Papago people. Papago, which means bean eaters was changed officially to Tohono O’odham, the name they have always called themselves, which means desert people. The Tohono O’odham live on a reservation near the border of Arizona and Mexico, part of the land they have occupied for centuries. Nearly all of the ceremonies, stories, and practices central to their cultural coherence, including what Western people call religious traditions, are fundamentally based on the desert landscape in which they live, and of which Baboquivari peak is so much a part. These people say that their culture cannot survive without the land, and most of all, Baboquivari peak.
The conflict over Baboquivari Peak’s ownership began in 1853 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Gadsden purchase, when Arizona became a state. The Treaty of Gaudalupe Hidalgo divided the Tohono O’odham’s land base and allowed American settlers homestead rights to all of it. Eventually, in 1912, a study was undertaken to identify the boundaries of the Tohono O’odham’s reservation. It stated that the peak was absolutely necessary for the Tohono O’odham to “continue as a self-supporting race,” based largely on the belief that the creator I’itoli continues to reside there. Nevertheless, the reservation was created in 1916, containing only part of Babquivari peak. In 1990 the Eastern side of the peak was included in an Arizona Desert Wilderness preserve under the Bureau of Land Management’s control. In 1998 representative Ed Pastor sponsored a bill callled the Tohono O'odham Religious Area Restoration Act
, which would have made Baboquivari Peak and its surrounding area part of the Tohono O’odham reservation. The bill was considered by a sub-committee, but was never voted on.
Opposition to the Bill, and the Tohono O'odham's Response
Some of the parties who opposed this bill expressed concern that the Tohono O’odham would severely limit access to the peak for recreational purposes and ban climbing. Others had environmental concerns, stating that the land protected by the Tohono O'odham would be in greater danger of mismanagement than if it were protected by the BLM. Still others believed that the policy set forth by the bill was too vague, claiming that although the O’odham might have been understood to be obliged to follow the same environmental protection guidelines as the BLM, no specific guidelines stating this were set forth in the bill. These parties often pointed to the poor environmental conditions of current reservation land, much of which has been overgrazed. And finally, many expressed uncertainty in the intentions of the Tohono O'odham's plans for the mountain, as least constructively phrased by a Tuscon Weekly column that asked, “How long before we're treated to the Desert Diamond Baboquivari Casino?”
In response to environmental concerns the Tohono O'odham point to the establishment of an Environmental Protection office and Environmental trust fund, which would use environmental damage fines to pay for cleanup efforts in 1997. The agency was funded from gaming money, with 1 million for operations and $800,000 for equipment. The Tohono O’odham say they have no desire to commercialize their most sacred peak and scoff at insinuations of the desire for a casino at the spot. "Unlike the BLM, the Tohono O'odham Nation has a stronger interest in and ability for managing the eastern portion of Baboquivari," elaborates Tribal Chairman, Edward Manuel, " Not only do we have comprehensive environmental plans, standards and laws, but Tohono O'odham have the only historical, traditional and cultural interest in Baboquivari's environmental preservation and protection."
And, indeed, the Tohono O'odham's desire to claim and protect land that they understand to have been taken from them has been unwavering throughout this most recent debate:"We were brought into this world for a purpose," says Joseph Joaquin, Tohono O'odham cultural resources specialist, "to be the caretakers of this land."