Mission Indians, Casino Indians; Life on the Rez, Life in the City……


San Xavier del Bac on the Tohono O’odham ‘rez’ near Tucson

The term “Mission Indians” usually refers to the widely scattered groups in California, who were more or less rounded up and attached, if not outright enslaved, to the missions founded by Junipero Serra along California’s famous camino real to San Francisco, a term which includes the Luisenos, Gabrielenos, Diegenos, and Juanenos, named after the missions they were attached to. These were relatively fragmented groups ripe for the kind of ‘civilizing’ activities that Serra and his cohorts specialized in: farming and herding and other forms of forced labor.


But the term could almost just as easily be applied to the missions and their resident populations in Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico, with only a few differences: for one thing, the populations here in Arizona weren’t so fragmented, if still widely scattered, many being members of larger more cohesive groups. And for another thing they were organized by Padre Eusebio Kino, not Serra, with a somewhat better reputation for his milder treatment of his subjects, which included training in many arts and crafts, and a generally more humane treatment, that was controversial even at the time.


New mission statement on the Yaqui ‘rez’  

FWIW the California missions were Franciscan, while the Kino missions were Jesuit. The Kino missions were built in the 17th century, the Serra missions the 18th. Kino himself was something of a Renaissance man of many skills, and sought out the local populaces, rather than simply ‘reducing’ them into reducciones, as was the custom. In addition to introducing crops and herds, he also oversaw the training of natives in the arts and crafts extant at the time, thereby increasing their skills and improving their lives. Interestingly the mission at San Xavier del Bac near Tucson still functions as a church for locals. I guess that includes me.  Hi.


The Tohono O’odham (Papago) have been in their current locations for centuries, it still an open question as to their succession from the earlier Hohokam. The next-door Pascua Yaqui are recent immigrants, though, having come north to escape their wars with the Mexican government. They are to the Mexican government as the Apaches were to the USA, a constant source of bother and turmoil. Many were transferred to the Yucatan at one point in an attempt to kill two birds with one stone, but most found their way back to their Sonoran homelands.


Sunset over the Sonora slots…

Many are still in Sonora in villages near Ciudad Obregon, while others migrated north to the border and beyond, where many streets are named after those same villages down south. ‘Pascua’ is the Spanish world for ‘Easter’, so possibly refers to the famous Yaqui ‘Pascola’ dances that draw onlookers from far away during Holy Week. That original Pascua Village, though, is but a lonely neighborhood in northwest Tucson, largely forlorn and forgotten. Most of the local populations live out next to the Tohono near San Xavier.


Life in El Norte is different now, though, and the missions are long gone. Government makes up for much of the employment, but casinos are the new gold mine, offering money doing what the local white populations find unsavory, in theory at least. Hey, work’s work, and these are pretty much city Indians now, anyway, far removed from the Mexican homeland and their cousin Mayos next door in Mexico.


City mission in the Yaqui neighborhood in NW Tucson

New circumstances mean new neighbors for the Yaqui, the Tohono O’odham, albeit linguistic first cousins of the Uto-Aztecan family. Call them the original ‘snowbirds’, heh heh. Arizona has as many indigenous languages as Guatemala, you know. And if their immediate situation seems a bit desperate and disparate, I’d say they’re lucky to have maintained much of anything at all, given their circumstances. Old ways die hardest where native culture was always the strongest.


California should be so lucky. Yaquis, Pimas and Tohono O’odham have the Hopis and Dine (Navajo) as inspiration, and that ain’t bad. Thus there is a continuum of strong indigenous culture stretching from the southwest US down to central Mexico and Guatemala, including Tarahumara (Raramuri), Huichol, Cora, Seri and Nahuas (Aztec). Now you know. Don’t call them ‘wetbacks’. They were here long before any of the rest of us. But no human being is native to the Americas: camels and horses yes, but not humans.