La Otra Arizona: Natives, Transplants and Those Who Came Before

Are you a native Arizonan? Were your grandparents natives? As centennial celebrations continue in Arizona, this word keeps coming up––native––but not in the way that one would expect.

Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that in Arizona, the word native is more frequently used to describe people born here, rather than people who have indigenous roots in the area. After all, the majority of our population has arrived only in the last few decades, attracted by the sunshine and cheap land. These transplants––as they’re frequently called by natives––are simply not from here.

The word history comes to us via Latin from the Greek historia, meaning “finding out, narrative.” History is the story we tell ourselves, and in telling the story, the words we choose do matter. Though technically correct, this use of native in Arizona is laced with irony––even the oldest Anglo families in Arizona haven’t lived here more than 150 years, a mere blink of the eye in the long unfolding of the human story. Celebration of the centennial is by nature an Anglo affair, as it observes the anniversary of the enshrinement their right to this territory. Though ceremonial nods are given to the “diverse people of Arizona,” an honest discussion of race and class is avoided at all cost  by those officiating the celebrations.

And for good reason: once it is contrasted with the indigenous tradition in Arizona, 100 years is suddenly exposed as being an incredibly short amount of time.

We can begin to understand this fact by looking at any of the indigenous groups in Arizona, but the most dramatic example of the longevity of human presence here is given to us by the Hohokam.

Not that they called themselves Hohokam. As with so many other groups––Navajo and Apache among them––the name we use for the Hohokam was put upon them by a people who came later, or were outside their culture. In this case, hohokam comes from an O’odham word frequently translated as “those who came before,” alluding to their long presence here.

How long? Uninterrupted for at least 1,000 years, beginning at the latest in AD 450. The highly-developed culture thrived along the Gila River, especially where it meets the Salt in what is today known as the Phoenix Basin. They are known as desert agriculturalists and master irrigators, distributing water from the river through canals as large as ten feet wide, fifteen feet deep and twenty-two miles long, with a precise slope of eight feet per mile. In total, the Hohokam carved more than four hundred miles of canals using wooden digging sticks and without the aid of animals.

There is also evidence that the Hohokam were expert geneticists, developing plants well-suited to their needs and well-adapted to the harsh desert climate. Populations of a particular species of agave cactus, agave murpheyi, have only been found near sites of ancient indigenous occupation, and are so similar that they are suspected to be a single genetic clone. Along with agave delamateri, this domesticated plant was cultivated from modern Caborca, Sonora all the way to New River, Arizona. The Hohokam pit-roasted the agaves, using them for food, fiber and probably other uses unknown to us.

With more than 70,000 acres of land under cultivation in the Salt River Valley alone, the Hohokam rarely lacked food, and evidence suggests that they rarely hunted or even ate meat. This food security allowed them to pursue other endeavors––like building the first sky scrapers in Arizona, such as at the famous site in Casa Grande. Its ruins still visible today, the Great House was a four-story adobe structure, perhaps used for astronomy and ceremony.

The Hohokam also had close cultural and commercial ties to other mesoamerican civilizations. Like their southern neighbors, the Hohokam placed great importance on the ritual ball game, which was played throughout Las Américas; they constructed courts for the game across the lands that they occupied.

At its peak, the Hohokam population in what is now Arizona reached as high as 400,000 people. The state wouldn’t again reach that many inhabitants until 1928. There are many theories as to why the culture dissolved around AD 1400. Some point to decreased availability of water due to climate change, or perhaps salt buildup due to over-irrigation. Others believe that European diseases such as measles and smallpox may have arrived before the Europeans themselves did, transmitted ahead of the conquistadores by indigenous traders moving along millennial trading routes. The diseases decimated the population here as elsewhere in Las Américas.

The effectiveness of the Hohokam canals in irrigating the rich alluvial soil of the Basin was still obvious more than four hundred years later when Anglo first arrived and began to clean out and restore the waterways for their own farming. Their first crops were used to feed the soldiers stationed at the new Fort McDowell, founded in 1865 to help secure the the territory seized from Mexico after the Mexican-American War of 1846-48.

The modern city of Phoenix is of course named after the bird of Egyptian mythology who immolates itself at the end of its life, and whose offspring rise from the ashes. Europeans thought the name fitting, since their city was “rising from the ashes” of a failed civilization.

However, where some saw only emptiness and ashes, a legacy exists. The organization that has made modern Phoenix possible, the Salt River Project, was founded on the appropriation of indigenous technology, the Hohokam canals. And the decedents of the Hohokam continue to live in the state to this day.

And so they give us another gift––the chance to put the triumphant centennial celebrations in a context of their millennial civilization, and to rethink just exactly who deserves to call themselves a native Arizonan, and who is merely a transplant, grasping for roots.

For further reading:

Phillips, Steven J., Wentworth Comus, Patricia, eds. A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert. 2000.

Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. 1986, 1993.

Sheridan, Thomas E. Arizona: A History, Rev. ed. 2012.

Wagoner, Jay J. Early Arizona: Prehistory to Civil War. 1975.