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March 2, 2010

Managing Cultural Resources in Sonoran Desert Biosphere Reserves

Mike; Valentine
Fernando; Nabhan
Gary Paul

The O'Odham are Piman-speaking Native Americans who have lived for thousands of years in the Sonoran Desert region now transected by the United States/Mexico boundary. They have recently become involved in cultural and natural resource management issues relating to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona, decreed a biosphere reserve in 1978, and to the Sierra El Pinacate Protected Zone, established in Sonora, Mexico, in 1979.

For nearly a decade, the Sierra El Pinacate has been nominated as a biosphere reserve, a UNESCO designation for natural areas that have management benefits to surrounding communities. (For an excellent overview of the Pinacate's cultural and natural history, see Wilson et al. 1988.) In this area, adjacent to the Sea of Cortez, endangered desert pronghorn and bighorn sheep take refuge. Some 600 square miles of lava fields, cinder cones, and craters are surrounded by a sand sea with some of the highest dunes in North America, and certain drought-hardy plants show their flowers and release their perfumes even when rain does not fall for two years.

Such landscapes have long served as home, legendary locus of emergence, sanctuary, and waystation for O'Odham gathers, hunters, farmers, fisherpeople, salt pilgrims, and sacred song seekers. (For more on historic land uses and ethnobiology of the Hia Ced O'Odham, see Nabhan, Hodgson, and Fellows 1989.) However desolate it may seem at first to the outsider, the area has supported the O'Odham people for a minimum of 5,000 years. The archaeological record of North American deserts "has been better preserved in the Pinacate then anywhere else," and one noted archaeologist has offered carefully detailed evidence of cultural remains in the Pinacate dating back more than 40,000 years (Hayden 1989).

Recently, interest in both the natural and cultural resources of these landscapes has interwoven, but what pattern will emerge from this tapestry remains to be seen. The issue at hand is how much the members of the binational O'Odham community, formerly known as the Papago tribe, will be allowed to function as full participants in the planning and implementation of protection for the Pinacate - for its cultural as well as its natural resources. If she last two years' events are any indication, conservation, eco-tourism, and resource management may take a new twist in the North American deserts as a result of the keen interest that O'Odham elders and young activists are taking in cultural preservation, aridadapted land uses, and cross-cultural education.

Setting Aside a Homeland

The Sierra El Pinacate sits immediately on the Arizona-Sonora border, less than 30 miles from the already established biosphere reserve of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and 50 miles from the 250,000-acre Tohono O'Odham Nation reservation in the United States. To the west of the present-day reservation, a related group, the Hia Ced O'Odham, or Sand Papago, formerly inhabited a large area of the United States and Mexico now managed as bombing range, recreational area, wildlife refuge, national park, and groundwater-irrigated farmland. It is amply documented that O'Odham families resided in or made seasonal pilgrimages into the S-cuk Do'ag (Pinacate) region throughout recorded history, but their populations declined and they abandoned routine use of the area earlier in this century (see Hayden 1989).

Nevertheless, it came as somewhat of a surprise to many conservationists when a dozen O'Odham representatives from both sides of the international boundary were invited to the podium at a Pinacate research symposium sponsored by the Ecology and Environment Committee of the Arizona-Sonora Commission in October 1988. There, in Hermosillo, Sonora, they presented several provisional statements prepared and revised by consensus to reflect the views of not just one of them, but of the community as a whole. The O'Odham delegation also read a position statement from the tribal government of the Tohono O'Odham Nation, submitted by Angelo Joaquin, Sr., then vice-chairman and, more recently, chairman of the nation:

The Pinacate region is recognized as the aboriginal homeland and the actual place of creation of the Hia Ced O'Odham (Sand Papago/Areneno), people who are recognized citizens of the Tohono O'Odham Nation. As such, the designation of the Pinacates as an international biosphere is of paramount interest to this Nation. Such a designation should provide [further protection] for the delicate and exquisite ecology of this area, and is therefore supported by the Tohono O'Odham Nation. However, the Hia Ced O'Odham have themselves expressed concern that their human rights have been violated and may continue to be violated, or at best, not even considered, by the framers of such an international biosphere designation. The Tohono O'Odham Nation fully supports the Hia Ced O'Odham in their pursuit of protection of their aboriginal homeland and possessionsincluding burials and other significant sites... [T]he Pinacate area is of critical importance to their culture, history and identity. They consider the Pinacate to be the location of their creation and further consider it to be the home of I'thi [I'itoi in the Tohono O'Odham dialects], the one who accomplished their creation. The maintenance of the Pinacate, in a manner acceptable to the Hia Ced O'Odham, is even more critical when you consider the fact that a homeland base has never been set aside for them.

These concerns are being further considered by two offices of the Tohono O'Odham Nation: the Mexican O'Odham Program, which serves as an advocate for the thousands of O'Odham born in Sonora who lack title to their comunidad common property in Mexico; and the Hia Ced O'Odham Program, which has identified more than 1,200 descendants of those who farmed, hunted, fished, and gathered in the area now managed as the Pinacate federal reserve in Mexico, or by the federal land agencies in the United States.

These two offices, and the Arizona-Sonora Commission, have identified ways to further protect both the Pinacate landscape and its cultural heritage. There are precedents in biosphere reserve management and interpretation which include rather than exclude indigenous people whose homelands are overlapped by such reserves. In particular some precedents have already been established by collaboration between the O'Odham and National Park Service managers and interpreters in the other Sonoran Desert biosphere reserve at Organ Pipe Cactus. Since its emergence as a formal conservation concept, the biosphere reserve designation has promoted "traditional use areas, also referred to as stable cultural areas... of subsistence activities and harmonious patterns of land use by indigenous people, [where] judicious modification or supplementation of these practices [can occur] using methods which respect and build upon their cultural traditions" (von Droste zu Hulshoff and Gregg 1985).

Tribal leader Angelo Joaquin, Sr, requested of the Arizona-Sonora Commission "that Hia Ced O'Odham be recognized as the original inhabitants of the area known as the Pinacates." When the first Europeans visited the Pinacate in February 1694, they found people living there who could communicate, despite dialect differences, with the visitors' Piman guides. During visits over the next seven years, Juan Mateo Manje described these people as hunters of bighorn sheep, antelope, iguanas, shellfish, locusts, and larvae, and gatherers of mesquite pods, cactus fruit, honey, roots, and sandfood, a sweet-potato-like plant parasite that grows in low dunes (Karns 1954). There were at least four settlements and encampments between the Rio Sonoyta and the Sea of Cortez - two in the heart of the Pinacate lava shield. Later accounts indicate that the O'Odham not only collected wild foods, but also farmed at two sites on the lava shield (Nabhan, Hodgson, and Fellows 1989). They continued these activities until at least 1912, after the area had become depopulated due to European-introduced diseases, competition with livestock at waterholes, and attempts at genocide by the Mexican government and American miners. At least 1,200 descendants of Pinacate residents still remain; they occasionally visit the area, but none have resided there for more than a half century.

The Arizona-Sonora Commission concluded that the Hia Ced O'Odham deserve to participate in the future management of the Pinacate, recognizing that it was their aboriginal homeland. However, in Mexico, the granting of actual land rights depends upon using historic documents to establish the usufruct traditions of a corporate community prior to the first written titles being given for the same area. The Mexican O'Odham and Hia Ced O'Odham programs aim to petition for such rights through the Mexican legal system, but so far the Mexican O'Odham Program's efforts to regain control of the O'Odham homelands to the east have been met with considerable resistance by the Mexican governmental bureaucracy, which continues to question whether the O'Odham were originally from Mexico or were simply recent intruders" from the United States.

This problem remains common among indigenous nations that occupy areas where larger states then decide to place their political boundaries, as recently discussed at the Border Tribes Summit (held 15-21 October 1989 at San Xavier del Bac, Arizona). As Mike Flores explained at that gathering, "We are one people. The line between the U.S. and Mexico is not our line. The fences around our grazing lands are not our fences. Together we can take back what is rightfully ours so that our children and their children will know the ways of the O'Odham" (Anonymous 1990).

Rescuing Sacred Sites

The Tohono O'Odham and Hia Ced O'Odham have specifically asked for access to and participation in protecting their culture's burial sites, artifacts, and sacred sites in the Pinacate. Having met recently with some Mexican collectors who possess certain historic artifacts and pottery, they hope to repatriate the significant material that has been yanked from its archaeological roots over the decades. Most distressing is the disappearance over the last half century of artifacts taken from I'thi Ki, the lava tube (an underground corridor formed by lava flow) that is the legendary emergence point of the O'Odham after a great flood. It has been among the most sacred sites of the O'Odham, and yet few of the O'Odham offerings left there over the centuries remain.

Well-established precedents exist for including the O'Odham in cultural resource management and interpretation of biosphere reserves, and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument programs have pioneered such efforts. Tohono O'Odham tribal members Jerry Antone has been a crew leader in National Park Service archaeological surface surveys of Organ Pipe Cactus over the last two years, and several other O'Odham youth have participated in the surveys. The preliminary results of the surveys have been presented to the Hia Ced O'Odham and Mexican O'Odham program boards by project leader Adrianne Rankin, who has assured them that artifacts will remain in place. Spiritually significant objects earlier taken into museum collections from Organ Pipe Cactus have recently been returned to their origins, repatriated in O'Odham ceremonies on the land with the full cooperation of the National Park Service superintendent. The O'Odham also have free access to burial sites in Organ Pipe Cactus, and continue to honor Day of the Dead ceremonies there.

Angelo Joaquin, Sr. also requested that the O'Odham be involved in cultural interpretation should an interpretive center or museum ever be built in the Pinacate. Such cross-cultural involvemented elsewhere, and Organ Pipe Cactus is considering additional efforts in this regard through its current General Management Planning efforts, which have included both Angelo Joaquin, Sr. and Mike Flores, as well as O'Odham neighbors.

In short, it would be difficult to properly interpret the Pinacate without O'Odham participation; the interaction between nature and culture is one of its key lessons. As one consultant, historian Mike Fraga, describes:

Through cooperation rather than competition, the O'Odham developed societies specifically adapted to aridity... The O'Odham survive in the land's heat and aridity by using two powerful tools: language and knowledge of the desert's resources. Songs for power, prayers in hunting, labor in traditional flood-water fields, and rituals to pull down the clouds perpetuate the indigenous lifestyle and assure future generations cultural viability. (Hia Ced O'Odham Policy Board 1989)

Continuing Traditional Subsistence

The 1984 Action Plan for Biosphere Reserves supported by UNESCO, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the Food and Agriculture Organization recommended that each biosphere reserve include "examples of harmonious landscapes resulting from traditional patterns of land use" and that local people "be considered as part of a biosphere reserve [and] encouraged to participate in its management" (UNESCO 1984). As noted at the Pinacate symposium, "the O'Odham's ecologically sensitive subsistence techniques enabled them to utilize a great variety of highly nutritious plants" (Hia Ced O'Odham Policy Board 1989). Through oral histories of Hia Ced O'Odham elders, ethnobotanists have identified more than 64 species of plants and 38 animals used in nine distinct natural and anthropogenic habitats within the Pinacate region (Nabhan, Hodgson, and Fellows 1989). There is little evidence that the O'Odham subsistence activities overexploited any of these food resources, with the possible (and contestable) exception of bighorn sheep. There is intriguing evidence that certain plant resources such as sandfood (Pholisma sonorae) may have actually diminished in number since O'Odham gathering has been suspended (see Nabhan 1985). It is now understood that the burning, pruning, selective weeding, and digging-stick tillage practices of Native Americans in western North America played a considerable part in increasing the abundance of "wild" food plants (see Anderson 1988 and Nabhan et al. 1982).

In its enabling legislation, Organ Pipe Cactus granted the O'Odham continued rights to harvest cactus fruit within the monument. The 1987 Federal Register publication of the Federal Code of Regulations revisions extended such rights to include the taking of certain fish, mammals, birds, or plants required in the pursuit of traditional subsistence or religious activities of Native American groups that have historic ties to specific National Park lands, when authorized by law or treaty rights (National Park Service 1987). The Federal Code of Regulations also grants park and monument superintendents the power to permit hand-gathering of other plants and animals for personal consumption by Native Americans, as long as a written determination has been made that the gathering will not adversely affect the reproductive potential of the area's plants. The current superintendent of Organ Pipe Cactus has allowed the O'Odham to collect several medicinal plants, including va:visa (Anemopsis californica), a semi-aquatic perennial that is locally restricted in the desert. The Federal Code of Regulations also encourages advisory groups to be made up of Native American consultants to parks and monuments where natural or cultural resource management decisions may affect subsistence activities, sacred sites, or other historic resources of Native Americans associated with the land under National Park Service stewardship (National Park Service 1987). Similar rights to wild food, medicinal, and ceremonial plant collecting should be formally guaranteed to the O'Odham in the Pinacate, as they have been to other indigenous people in Mexican biosphere reserves.

The Arizona-Sonora Commission concluded that despite the extreme aridity of the Pinacate region, it was important to recognize that historically a remarkable agriculture based on rainfall had developed there, compatible with and not destructive to its natural resources (Arizona-Sonora Commission 1989). this agriculture - the floodwater farming of the O'Odham and some of their neighbors - has been successfully practiced at three sites in the Pinacate that are more arid than any other nonirrigated farming areas in the world (see Nabhan 1985). It stands in marked contrast to recent groundwater-based agricultural development on the edge of the Pinacate, which is highly subsidized by the Mexican government. At the non-Indian (ejido) settlement of Ejido Nayarit - on the site of a former O'Odham village-farmers are now pumping as much as 240,000 cubic meters of water a year from a well that has already dropped in water level to 325 feet in depth. The ejido primarily grows water-consumptive alfalfa for 350-400 calves, which it sells to feedlots for fattening and later sales to the United States. Dr. Exequial Escurra of the Mexican National University (UNAM) has estimated that this system is so inefficient that is takes 40 tons of water to produce one kilogram of beef - enough water to fill a small swimming pool.

O'Odham activists Cruz and Gomez have charged that

the mining of groundwater, a natural resource that is easy to deplete and hard to replenish, has had painful effects on the O'Odham lifestyle. In Mexico, the tapping of groundwater aquifers encourages agricultural and ranching entrepreneurs to claim O'Odham ancestral land and to construct irrigation systems, thus wresting sacred religious sites, floodwater fields, and communal agricultural fields from O'Odham control.

Not far east of the Pinacate, groundwater pumping by non-Indians has already dropped aquifers so low that native vegetation such as mesquite and cottonwoods - key resources to the O'Odham - are dying around their villages. A moratorium on all groundwater pumping, and a renovation of floodwater farming, is critical to the long-term landscape integrity of the Pinacate and surrounding areas.

Who Will Control the Sierra El Pinacate?

Despite earlier proposals to nominate the Pinacate to the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Program, the governor of Sonora and the president of Mexico have not formally decreed the area a biosphere reserve. Several agencies have expressed interest in controlling the Sierra el Pinacate. The Secretaria de Desarrollo Urbano y Ecologia (SEDUE) considers it part of the National System of Protected Areas under SEDUE jurisdiction. The Secretaria de Agricultura y Recursos Hidraulicos (SARH) considers it a Protected Forestry Zone and Wildlife Refuge under its jurisdiction by a 1979 decree, and has had an administrator in residence nearby the area. The national Instituto de Ecologia - manager of other biosphere reserves in Mexico - has undertaken a series of research projects and a management plan for the region, but has not been able to continue UNESCO-funded activities there as it had planned. Sonorans feared that this Mexico City institution would wrest control of the area away from them, and they stalled earlier attempts by the institute to have the area decreed a biosphere reserve under its scientific management. The Mexican conservation group Pronatura and its North American support group, Friends of Pronatura, have provided modest funding for administrative use and have played an effective role in keeping the Pinacate situation in the minds of political decision makers and international conservationists. In addition, Friends of Pronatura has created a special binational support group of volunteers, Amigos of the Pinacate. This group has produced brochures in Spanish and English on the natural and human history of the area, which also serve to promote protection of the area's resources. It has also sponsored clean-ups of degraded recreation areas under the supervision of the SARH administrator.

More recently, the Centro Ecologico de Sonora, a state-affiliated natural history museum in Hermosillo, has proposed that the state of Sonora manage the Pinacate under a cooperative agreement with the federal government. Under this agreement the Centro Ecologico would be the lead agency in managing the natural resources of the Pinacate. The Nature Conservancy has received US Agency for International Development (AID) funding for a Parks in Peril Program in Latin America, $25,000 of which was earmarked for technical training of Centro Ecologico staff to be involved in the Pinacate. To date, however, no Nature Conservancy funds have been used to involve or train O'Odham in cultural resource management planning for the Pinacate. However, there have been recent contacts between the Centro Ecologico de Sonora and O'Odham representatives, and mutual interest in further dialogue has grown. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether the Arizona-Sonora Commission's recommendation for resource management in the Sierra el Pinacate will be heeded: "That the provision, administration, conservation and operation of the area include the local inhabitants and members of the O'Odham community."


1. Exequial Escurra's analysis of water use by conventional crops in the Pinacate appeared in 1985 in two Mexican newspapers, Uno Mas Uno (Mexico City) and El Imparcial (Hermosillo). Groundwater pumping and cultivated acreage statistics were kindly provided by Ricardo Vasquez of the SARH office in Sonoyta, Sonora, Mexico.


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Red Butte and the Havasupai

The Grand Canyon attracts thousands of visitors to Arizona every year. In recent years, the Havasupai community of Supai, nestled in a side canyon, has carved a niche for itself in this tourist economy. Nearly 25,000 tourists annually make the rugged trek by mule train into Supai to see the splendid blue-green waters of Havasupai Falls. Tourism has become a major industry for the Havasupai tribe in securing a stronger economic base. This livelihood, as well as the general welfare of the Havasupai community, now faces a precarious existence due to a recent Arizona State Court decision granting Energy Fuels Nuclear permission to mine uranium on Red Butte.

The first blow was the court's disrespect for Native American religious rights. Although the court understood that the Havasupai believe Red Butte to be the point of emergence of their ancestors, it gave precedence to the mining operation and approved the blatant violation of Havasupai sacred grounds.

The long-term effects of mining Red Butte, however, extend far beyond its religious implications. Red Butte, located near the main entrance of the Grand Canyon, is upstream from Supai in the watershed. In a region susceptible to flash floods, the tailings from the uranium mining operation may be washed downstream. Waterways such as the Colorado River, which drains through southern Colorado and Arizona, and Cataract Creek, which flows through Supai, are thus vulnerable to contamination.

The contamination of Cataract Creek will have dire consequences for the Havasupai since it not only flows over Havasupai Falls but also serves as the only source of water for the community of 500. The result will be the ruin of their entire economy and way of life. Tourists will no longer come to the falls if they are polluted with radioactive uranium residues. More importantly, however, without drinking water for themselves or their livestock, on which they depend as packers, the Havasupai may have to evacuate Supai, their home for centuries.

If you are interested in learning more about the Havasupai people and the concerns over uranium mining in the area, contact:

The Havasupai Tribal Council

Supai, AZ 86435


How You Can Help

The Hia Ced O'Odham are seeking justice and total recognition of their human rights, which can only be obtained through the awareness and support of people throughout the world. The O'Odham would appreciate your contributions and donations.

For more information on how you may help, write to:

Hia Ced O'Odham Alliance

P.O. Box 3066

Sells, AZ 85634

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