Tales From the Outskirts: Topawa/Sells

The Tohono O'odham Nation's cultural center shows off the tribe's history—and its mystical land

If you drive west on Ajo Road, you may wind up having an almost mystical natural experience—an attractive alternative to the haphazard urban clutter which defines metropolitan Tucson.

Having become Highway 86, the road goes past the idle Central Arizona Project water-treatment plant and beyond the mishmash of structures at Robles Junction. Finally, on the other side of a Border Patrol checkpoint, the pristine Sonoran Desert is finally found on display, in all its magnificent abundance.

This is the land of the Tohono O'odham, a nation of approximately 25,000 desert people. Former tribal Chairman Edward Manuel and Vice Chairman Henry Ramos wrote of their nation, "We view our desert lands as a great gift to us from our creator."

The lush green mesquites and other vegetation densely scattered along Highway 86 are a testament to the sacredness of this creed—and the nation's success in honoring it. The desert is so untouched that not even a handful of small billboards can disturb its beauty.

In his book Of Earth and Little Rain, Bernard L. Fontana writes of the Tohono O'odham and the land they inhabit: "Home is a desert. But not a sandy, treeless waste. Indeed, a visitor in early spring, provided there have been winter rains, or in August, if summer rainfall has been normal, might wonder why it is called a 'desert.'"

Topping a rise in the highway about 60 miles west of Tucson, the motorist spots the town of Sells. Not too many years ago, cattle grazed along this road, but on a warm day last month, none were seen.

Sells, the capital of the Tohono O'odham nation, is a community of about 3,000 which was originally called Indian Oasis. The town was renamed after Cato Sells, the U.S. commissioner of Indian affairs at the time the nation was established almost a century ago.

From Highway 86, A-frame signs point the traveler south onto Route 19 and toward the day's destination of Topawa. The road runs through a forest of saguaro, ocotillo and prickly pear cactus while between two rocky cliffs, a quick glimpse of majestic Baboquivari Peak is spotted far off in the distance.

Ten miles or so south of Sells is the Himdag Ki: Hekĭhu, Hemu, Im B I-Ha'ap. This is the Way of Life House: Past, Present, and Into the Future, also known as the Tohono O'odham Nation's Cultural Center and Museum.

Opened two years ago, the remote site for the project was determined by a 2003 vote of tribal members. Paid for by the nation through casino proceeds, the $15 million complex was designed by the Durrant Group of Tucson.

"I looked at traditional forms of architecture and roof forms," remembers architect Curt Ench. "I took concept designs to most every community (on the nation). The reaction has been extremely positive."

One of the two main buildings contains a museum, which traces the history of the tribe and nation using both traditional and high-tech displays. The exhibits' topics include Tohono O'odham politics, language, youth councils and agricultural occupations. The military service of tribal-member veterans is also recounted.

The nation was divided into 11 districts in 1935, and flagpoles for each now encircle the entrance to the complex. At that time, as a sign in the museum states, the men of the community councils made consensus decisions, "even if the meeting lasted all night."

Molly Garcia was the first woman on the nation's tribal council, after being elected in the 1960s. Today, several women serve on that governing body.

Other parts of the museum building include a family-history room, storage for artifacts and a study room. In the latter, with waila music playing in the background, visitors can read a display which declares: "The land is a gift from the creator. Showing respect for the world is a way to give thanks to the creator for all that has been given."

The other major structure on the site is the cultural center, a space for tribal members. The Tohono O'odham are known for being private, and this building allows them that privacy.

Last month, the second anniversary of the project's opening was celebrated and attended by a steady stream of tribal members and visitors. Tours of the buildings, exhibits by artists and a variety of contests were featured. Those contests included men's button-sewing and ladies' nail-driving.

Since the anniversary celebration was held on a Saturday, the Desert Rain Café in Sells was closed. On weekdays, it serves traditional O'odham foods for breakfast and lunch. Grilled chicken glazed in prickly pear and chili sauce is one of the items on the affordable menu.

Since the café was closed, a handful of nearby food stands served travelers looking for lunch. One had been set up on a vacant dirt lot next to a large mesquite tree and was being staffed by volunteers raising money to send the O'odham wrestling team to Pocatello, Idaho, for a tournament.

While sitting at a table and chomping on a delicious $3 bean-and-cheese burro or a $4 carne-asada burro, visitors could ponder a simple statement written by medicine woman Mary Miguel. "We must do what Mother Earth wants us to do."

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